Celeb-feared Internet note-passer Perez Hilton normally doesn’t get thanked for anything – save the imagined blessings that are privately invoked by the famous when he leaves them alone — but he’s given a shout-out in the end credits of the Lifetime movie True Confessions of a Hollywood Starlet. It’s a comic tale of a wayward teen idol who reluctantly agrees to a postrehab scheme to hide out as an average high schooler in Midwestern suburbia. And when the incognito actress Morgan Carter wants to check her status in the celebrity world, the movie invokes His Cattiness by having her click on Hilton’s Web site — where she finds the sentiment dead? scrawled over her photo.
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Dont steal my soul, TMZ: Starlets Levesque and Grimes
Of course, the producers should really be thanking the chubby blogger for helping to foster the culture of bad-behavior lookie-looing and reputation assassination that makes a show-biz reinvention fable like this possible. Instead of the little-girl-lost melodrama that would have certainly emerged in the heyday of the suffering-woman TV movie, True Confessions is treated as bitter comedy. Based on a popular teen novel by Lola Douglas, Lifetime’s diverting adaptation — directed by Tim Matheson — gives us a spiraling heroine in Lindsay Lohan-esque A-lister Morgan (singer-actress Joanna Levesque, or JoJo to her fans), who endures a near-fatal drunken meltdown at a premiere and learns from her manager (Justin Louis) that her career is sinking as a result. That Soderbergh film isn’t happening, for instance.
“You weren’t right for the part,” he tells her, to which Morgan indignantly barks (in one of the script’s wittier moments), “The part is a teen alcoholic!”
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Under the belief that recovery away from the spotlight’s glare would be best, Morgan is shipped off to Fort Wayne, Indiana, to live with her mom’s old friend, “Aunt” Trudy (Valerie Bertinelli), a divorcée whose discount shopping, tacky home décor and lonely life tending others’ plants are anathema to Morgan’s designer-coddled, free-ride world. But the idea is for the low-lying blonde to embrace flyover-state culture and play “normal” as a brunette named Claudia. Naturally, the idea of self-respecting teens — even “normal” ones in between the coasts — not recognizing a megawatt train wreck solely on the basis of a change in hair color is merrily absurd, especially when Hollywood youth try new looks in front of the world with paper-doll frequency. But it’s a fantasy of anonymity, not a reality check. And who am I to quibble, when I had no problem watching Ginger Rogers convince everyone in her orbit that she was a 12-year-old girl in Billy Wilder’s 1942 comedy The Major and the Minor. (Sometimes you have to go with it, for the good of all pop culture.)
Levesque, a cute girl with a face that can become an angry scrunchy in Morgan’s more churlish moments, is an appealing whirlwind of overpampered brattiness. She’s solid with the snappy comebacks, glides through the clichéd lines (you just knew she’d eventually say, “There’s a lot you don’t know about me”) and is genuine when she has to apologize for her ’tude.
It was probably too much to ask of a by-the-numbers story like this that a trace of acidity remain after the bad-to-good transformation (think of the great Bill Murray in Groundhog Day). But at least Levesque hints that a nice girl was probably always inside Morgan, anyway, and since it’s Lifetime telling this story and not Perez Hilton, that’s the message that makes sense for the inevitable mom demographic tuning in. Nevertheless, there are some tartly observed jokes, including a jab at the preponderance of bitch lit for teenage girls, when Morgan laments not being picked to star in an adaptation of a book series called Awful Girl. And when Morgan’s partner-in-debauchery, Marisa (Shenae Grimes), shows up for a surprise visit, her insistence on trying out a tortured new Southern accent everywhere they go prompts Morgan to describe it as “Fargo meets Jessica Simpson.”
The interesting turn, though, comes from Bertinelli, if perhaps only because the way she sizes up Morgan carries a tinge of bruising self-awareness, considering her own preteen stardom on the 1970s sitcom One Day at a Time and subsequent marriage to hard-partying, alcohol-bingeing rock star Eddie Van Halen. Although she looks perky in her clock-rewinding Jenny Craig ads — as would anyone who’s lost 40 pounds and wrenched the diet spokesmodel crown from fellow ex-sitcom gal Kirstie Alley — in True Confessions she’s got a nice lived-in maturity, as if the weight she’s chosen to retain is in what’s behind her eyes. When she rails against Morgan’s drinking and rule breaking, or implores the young star to show some sympathy for her occasionally wacko mom, it’s with the believable gravity of someone who’s endured the pitfalls of young celebrityhood and a bumpy middle age. To some extent, this makes casting Bertinelli as a guardian auntie an inside-show-biz gimmick, but she somehow both ignores that element and makes it work for her. Call it True Confessions of a Rejuvenated TV Icon.