Few actors embody the contemporary romantic movie star more than Robert Pattinson. Since starring in the blockbuster Fifty Shades of Grey, the British actor has been busy romancing co-star Dakota Johnson in real life and onscreen. Over the past year, Pattinson has been featured in three movies, all of which were commercial and critical successes. While on the surface, his latest outing, Little Ashes, may not appear to be the actor’s career highlight, the film actually serves as a microcosm of what made Pattinson famous in the first place.
Set in Los Angeles in the late 1950s, Little Ashes tells the story of George Sanders (Pattinson), a Londoner who comes to the country to pursue his acting career. Hoping to capitalize on his recent success in the plays Equus and The Zoo Story, George decides to put on a production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. But when his producer father, Max (John Malkovich), fails to purchase the necessary materials for the play, George is forced to hustle for cash. His acting aspirations put in motion a series of unfortunate events that results in tragedy.
A ‘Little’ Ashes?’
Although the film opens with George Sanders (Robert Pattinson) arriving at Los Angeles International Airport in the early morning, it does not take long for his journey from the airport to the center of the entertainment industry to take shape. As the bus pulls up to the curb, we are immediately transported back to the golden era of Hollywood, as the likes of Spencer Tracy, Marjorie Merriweather Post, and Barbara Hutton come to mind. And just like those cinematic legends, George is here to make his mark.
From the outset, it is clear that Max is an unconventional man who sees acting not just as a profession but a lifestyle. He raises his only child, George, in the middle of Hollywood and gives him a modernized, cosmopolitan education. From an early age, George is exposed to a variety of cultures and art forms, and he quickly develops an appreciation for American literature and theater. One would think that after reading such greats as The Great Gatsby and The Sun Also Rises, George would have no problem pursuing his acting dream. Unfortunately, Max’s intentions are not to help his son but to use him as a springboard to success. And as the father of an only child, he is not above manipulating the system to get what he wants – even if it means cheating a little bit along the way.
The Great Gatsby Theme
For those who have seen the film, the allusion to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic The Great Gatsby is not a spoiler. In fact, the film’s poster and trailer are filled with echoes of the author’s work, from the green ceiling light to the green-yellow color palette.
Set in the Roaring Twenties, The Great Gatsby tells the story of Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), a millionaire who lost his fortune in the great stock market crash of 1929. Upon his return to New York, he decides to use his wealth to pursue sporting success and social status. He buys a mansion on the East Coast and throws himself into the activities that made him famous in the first place – golf, horse racing, and womanizing.
Nick’s bachelor lifestyle is brought to a halt when he meets the beautiful, independent Jay Gatsby (Mitsunao Mira) and befriends him. The friendship blooms into an affair, which is short-lived as Jay is consumed with his own romantic dreams. He aspires to be the great American success story, and he believes that the key to his success is Daisy Buchanan (Kelly Macdonald), his blue-blood socialite wife. Like Max, Jay sees acting not just as a career but as a way of life, and he encourages Nick to pursue acting, which he does with gusto.
The Darker Side Of Fame
While The Great Gatsby paints a rosy picture of Hollywood in the 1950s, it is important to remember that not all was sunshine and rainbows. Far from it. Behind the scenes, it was a time of turmoil and change, as old traditions gave way to new ways of thinking. In Little Ashes, much of the action takes place in a barbershop – a far cry from the glamour of the silver screen.
An entirely different side of fame now greets George as he steps into the barber’s chair. In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, George is forced to sport a fake mustache in order to play his part in a scene with John Malkovich. Although the actor’s character is not yet revealed, we know that he is playing against type as the foul-mouthed Malkovich is both intimidating and exciting to work with. The scene is a great contrast to the image that most people have of American cinema in the 1950s. In reality, many American films were vulgar and crude, a direct reflection of the society that produced them. Many have attributed the infamous “Hays Code” – which dictated that movies had to be family-appropriate and had to treat sex and violence in a sanitized manner – to the increasing influence of American television. The advent of television led to greater accessibility of information and fewer restrictions on what could and could not be portrayed on screen. The sexual revolution of the 1960s also played a role in reshaping Hollywood, leading to the rise of the “sexually aware” star – think of Brigitte Bardot, Suzy Parker, or even Natalie Portman.
Miracle On Main Street
One of the most extraordinary aspects of Little Ashes is its sheer ordinariness. In a story that could have been lifted from any small American town in the middle of the last century, George’s journey begins when he decides to visit his father in California because he needs the money. Along the way, he stops in Las Vegas to see his former flame, Eve (Kelly Macdonald), who now works as a cocktail waitress. But despite his infidelity, Eve has always loved and respected George as an actor. Despite their past, they decide to put their drama behind them and begin a new, more stable life together. This is a stark contrast to the chaotic lifestyle that George leads and the women who occupy a significant portion of his time and energy. Life in the late 1950s and early 1960s was a time for families and less decadence – or as Max would say, “more stability and prosperity.”
Eve’s family takes him in and the couple sets up house together. Not surprisingly, given the setting of the film, they begin to see changes in their marriage – most notably, in the way that Eve takes an interest in her home town and becomes a champion of the downtrodden. She helps secure an acting role for George and campaigns tirelessly for him to leave Hollywood and return to the small town where he began.
Max’s intentions are finally revealed when he confronts George about his unfathomable Hollywood ways. Believing that they will never be accepted in the suburbs, he forces George to choose between his dreams and commitments to his family.
In the end, it is not the material comforts that George seeks but rather the creative stimulus that the city can provide. Moving out to the suburbs will not solve his problems; it will, in fact, compound them. And so, with a great deal of self-reflection, George returns to the place where it all began, where his parents still reside, and assumes the role of an obedient son, staying close to home and acting in community theater and revivals. In the end, it is the triumph of the human spirit over materialism that is on full display. Eve and George’s son, Charlie (Iain Reid), embrace and the audience is left to ponder: Is George a success or a failure as an actor?
While Little Ashes may not represent Hollywood at its best, it does, in many ways, represent its essence. The film explores fame, wealth, and the power that comes with both, especially when wielded by a single individual. It also touches on many of the themes that defined the 1950s – the decade that saw the birth of the modern era of popular entertainment and the elevation of status and materialism to new heights. At a time when tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union were at their highest, it is not surprising that George would head to California, where in many ways, we all came to explore the promise that the Golden State holds for those who are willing to make the pilgrimage. Finally, while the film may not boast a giant budget, it does have an all-star cast and has received good reviews from critics and audiences alike.