Amber Tamblyn Writes Poetry About Actresses Who Died Too Young

Amber Tamblyn on Brittany Murphy: "Her death really affected me."
Amber Tamblyn on Brittany Murphy: "Her death really affected me."
Photo by Katie Jacobs

It's no secret that a Hollywood actress's career can be brutal and short. The brief shelf life of anyone not named Meryl Streep or Helen Mirren has been documented in books and films from Sunset Boulevard to the more recent Searching for Debra Winger.

That's why Amber Tamblyn's third book of poetry, Dark Sparkler, is so powerful: It tackles this well-worn subject in a wholly new way. The raw, riveting elegy for the ruined lives of young actresses vibrates with verisimilitude because it's written by an insider, the 31-year-old Joan of Arcadia actress, who has been in and around Hollywood all her life: Her father is actor Russ Tamblyn, a star of Peyton Place (1957) and West Side Story (1962).

Tamblyn will do a few readings in L.A. this month, including one at Hollywood Forever Cemetery. It's a strange venue for a poetry reading, but an appropriate one: Many of the book's subjects are buried there.

Tamblyn writes about confirmed suicides such as Lucy Gordon, the British actress who hanged herself at age 28 in 2009, and Lupe Velez, the Mexican actress who hit it big in the 1930s and killed herself with an overdose of Seconal in 1944. There are suspected suicides, such as Marilyn Monroe, who died of a drug overdose in 1962. And there are those who, like Frances Farmer, were driven mad and callously discarded by the Hollywood system, their artistic idealism sucked out of them.

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Dark Sparkler is complemented by avant-garde art by folks like David Lynch and Marilyn Manson, which perfectly illustrates the noirish material. And you can forget about traditional poetic techniques such as rhyming and the use of metaphors and iambic pentameter. This is free-verse poetry lacking any pretense of lyricism.

Consider Tamblyn's opening lines about Brittany Murphy, who died in December 2009 at age 32 with at least four different drugs in her system:

Her body dies like a spider's.

In the shower,

The blooming flower

Seeds a cemetery.

A pill lodges in the inner pocket of her flesh coat.

Her breasts were the gifts of ghosts.

Dark tarps of success...

And the closing lines, dripping with cynicism:

The autopsy finds an easy answer.

They say good things about the body.

How bold her eyes were, bigger than Hepburn's.

The way she could turn in to her camera close up

Like life depended on her.

Murphy's death inspired the book.

"She was my age, my contemporary, someone I saw at auditions," Tamblyn tells L.A. Weekly. "Her death really affected me."

That started her off on the six-year project of writing the book, which took a very personal toll.

"It created an existential crisis for me," she says. "I found myself drinking heavily and fucking around with certain drugs just to have a better understanding of them."

The book includes Peg Entwhistle, who jumped to her death from the Hollywoodland sign in 1932; Jayne Mansfield, whose skull was crushed in a 1967 car crash; and Rebecca Schaeffer, shot and killed by an obsessed fan in 1989. But none is more ominous than the blank page left for Lindsay Lohan.

"It was my way of saying I'm not going to write your bad ending for you," Tamblyn says. "Her ending hasn't been written yet."

Tamblyn focused on the dark underbelly of Hollywood celebrity for a simple reason: to tell the truth about her industry.

"When people ask me how to get into this business, I don't want to give them that bullshit about following your dreams," she says. "I'd rather be honest about the situation."

Amber Tamblyn will be reading her poetry at the L.A. Times Festival of Books on April 18 at 12:30 p.m.; Hollywood Forever Cemetery with Yo La Tengo on April 24 at 7 p.m.; and at the Best Poetry Hour at Art Share L.A. on April 30 at 7:30 p.m.

Contact the writer at paulteetor@verizon.net or follow him on Twitter at @paulteetor.

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