Anna McKibbin celebrates the delicious global arrival of May December by looking back on another study of fame and relevance in The Comeback.
From 1954’s A Star is Born to Mulholland Drive to La La Land, filmmakers have long been obsessed with untangling Los Angeles’s wide streets, all filled with people yet to be confronted by the cruelty of their professional dreams. Each cold, metallic arm of Hollywood’s machinery is designed to squeeze out an actor’s humanity, flattening their potential. Dramatisations of this ruthless process are often relegated to the city’s borders. Todd Haynes’ May December, while not solely about the perils of moviemaking, navigates the weight of being watched, perceived in horrifying, glaring shades. The story is set in the sweltering immovability of Savannah, Georgia, alive on the outskirts of the industry – proof that when the spotlight catches you, you are indefinitely held in its grasp.
The film follows Elizabeth (Natalie Portman), a determined actress who is set to embody real life Gracie (Julianne Moore) in the film about her relationship with her now-husband – then 13-year-old pet shop coworker – Joe (Charles Melton). What unfolds is a strange, three-dimensional puzzle, one where actions prompt unexpected reactions, feelings beget feelings that had been folded away. All of these complicated relationships are weighed down by Elizabeth’s upcoming project, the reliability of every interpersonal relationship rendered flimsy under the weight of this approaching film. Tonally, Michael Patrick King and Lisa Kudrow’s 2004 series The Comeback is governed by a similar instability. Valerie Cherish’s (Lisa Kudrow) onscreen readmission into primetime is her reason for living, and the cause of her madness. In both cases, the art of making entertainment scrambles their sense of reality into incomprehension.
Both finished products (Elizabeth’s film and Valerie’s comeback documentary) are caught in unrecognisable glimpses. Both the film and series arrange fragments of reality into strange patterns. The real moments are disassembled and reanimated – like a monster surgically constructed from discarded parts. Gracie and Valerie’s attempts to control their image are upended by Elizabeth and the determined camera operator Jane (Laura Silverman), respectively. Both Haynes and King are interested in determining by what logic this vulgar reinterpretation of their lives is deemed permissible; at what age are these women sacrificed to public consumption? At what point did they ask for this?
May December’s Elizabeth offers a kind of de facto representative of Hollywood’s ruling class, proof that their abiding aim is to find an audience, at the risk of everyone’s humanity. Every step is a calculated distance from Gracie, a choreographed dance around her artistic subject. “We’re basically the same,” Elizabeth assures her upon first meeting. She is all practised ease and effortless poise, with chic, reflective sunglasses glistening like armour under the sun; “I want you to feel seen and known.” Her displays of performative empathy are shared by a less conniving, more hapless Valerie, who wields human impulses to carve out the long-lasting affection evading her. While Elizabeth’s crude manipulation only highlights the tragedy of May December’s protagonists, Valerie’s jostling for attention, her use of the overly familiar “baby girl” and her pained, shiny smile that sits frozen on her face for a few seconds too long, are expertly timed, forming the show’s singular comic beat.
Haynes and King have always practised special care in how they frame female stories, with the former especially beloved for his collaboration with Julianne Moore in Safe and Far from Heaven, and the latter best known for his generation-defining series Sex and the City. The women of their worlds are prickly and selfish, often tripping over other people’s needs in their haste to get what they want. It is through this rich history that they successfully feel out Valerie, Elizabeth and Gracie’s sharp, villainous edges. With May December and The Comeback, both directors creatively remould the typical heroine – charting how celebrity-hood complicates life, keeping these women committed to their audience, desperate to twist public attention into public understanding. Part of each project’s abiding tragedy is that despite their efforts, there is no way this can ever be achieved. As Gracie surmises in a moment of horrifying irony: “It really does matter how it looks.” It is the truth that weighs heavily on the three women’s lives, at times the only thing keeping them afloat.
May December derives great pleasure in charting where performance and reality meet. Despite living along this fault line for the film’s whole runtime, there is still no definitive sense of what is fact and what is fiction by the story’s end. Haynes’ ingenious use of mirrors is one of the flourishes that accomplishes such a magic trick. His camera almost always sits in the frame of a mirror, drinking in the women caught mid-look, rather than the reflection they look at. In a particularly memorable sequence, Gracie shows Elizabeth how she does her makeup, and this is where the story pulsates and contracts: in the half-seconds where the two’s eyes meet, Elizabeth retooling her posture to copy Gracie, Gracie leaning away from this mimicry. This cycle spins on and somewhere in its rotation, the mirror, the camera, and we, the audience, are unwittingly dragged in.
When The Comeback premiered in 2005, The Real Housewives had yet to arrive, redefining the way in which middle-aged women could embarrass themselves publicly. Reality TV was on the precipice of its next iteration when HBO greenlit King and Kudrow’s passion project. The veneer of reality that colours The Comeback’s confessional style of filming throws viewers into a uniquely uncomfortable position, somewhere between the crew and the subject. Valerie’s constant preoccupation with the camera means that the audience are drawn into the practice of platforming her delusion. Both King and Haynes use their respective modes of filmmaking to suggest that the villain is off-centre, forcing her to contort against the threat of oncoming public opinion.
There is no catharsis for either Elizabeth or Gracie, whose actions are measured to only wreak more chaos. But there is for Valerie. By the end of the second season, her once stable marriage has been clawed to shreds in an unbridled desire to climb to the top. As she and her husband, Mark (Damian Young) argue in the car park outside their favourite restaurant he cuts to the quick: “I’ve been there for you, Valerie, when no one believed in you!” In a fight filled with carefully aimed darts, it is a bludgeon to the temple and Valerie staggers back, dizzy from its cruelty. “No one? Really? Not no one, Mark, because I believed in me!” she chokes out, “I’m not no one. That’s not nice.” The childlike indignance reverberates off the screen, speaking to fame’s evil, arresting capability. It is the painful truth that everyone caught in this violent system has longed to express and feared succumbing to—finally free of Hollywood’s inscrutable value-making, yet horrifyingly alone in the process.
Despite their markedly different reputations, The Comeback and May December exist in similar spaces, lurching along the border between truth and performance. Both Gracie and Valerie believe the camera to be an affirming tool, an avenue to self-clarification. In the end, it is less of a mirror and more of a light: hot, bright and endlessly invasive.
May December arrives on Sky Cinema in the UK on December 8, and on Netflix in the US and Canada from December 1.