Revisiting Starry Eyes in the wake of Hollywood’s sexual abuse scandal

This 2014 horror is a dark and honest reflection of the film industry.

Words

Vanessa Crispin

Recently a friend recommended I watch Starry Eyes, a film originally released in late 2014. I was warned that the nature of it was extreme and that the subject matter was heavy. Intrigued, especially by my friend’s lack of explanation, I decided to give it go. The plot is straightforward enough for the first 20 minutes or so – we meet Sarah (Alex Essoe), a budding young actress living in Hollywood. She works as a waitress and has anxiety over going to auditions. It quickly becomes clear that she does not have a lot of self-confidence or self-worth. She checks her appearance in her bedroom mirror with a look of worry and disaffection.

Then one day, she goes to audition at a prestigious film company. It doesn’t go well and she breaks down in a bathroom stall afterwards, tearing her hair out and screaming – not knowing that the casting directors can hear her. They ask her to come back and “perform” it for them, to put herself through the same physical and mental pain all over again. At first she says no, but when they threaten to dismiss her as a candidate for the role entirely, she reluctantly agrees. She leaves the building in a daze, shocked by what just happened. This is not the only time she is forced into an extremely uncomfortable situation by people within the industry.

The second time it happens is during a photoshoot. After taking a few pictures, the photographers and the casting director ask Sarah to undress. We do not see their faces this time. When she interjects, asking if it is necessary for the role, she is rebuffed and again the unspoken threat of not getting the job hangs in the air, leaving Sarah with not much of a choice as she is once again exploited.

As the film goes on, the abuse that Sarah is exposed to gets more and more vicious. When she is called in for a meeting with the producer for the film she auditioned for, he promises her that she will become a big star – while touching her in a highly inappropriate manner. Horrified, Sarah runs out of the meeting in tears. Sarah’s friends are not there to support her or help her come to terms with what she has been through, even though they know about it. They do not comment on the gruesome transformation that stems from her traumatic experiences –basically turning a blind eye to her mental and physical pain – her progressively monstrous appearance a reflection of this.

What’s interesting about the way Starry Eyes was received upon its initial release is how a number of critics saw Sarah as being in some way responsible for what happens to her. Many reviewers accused the film of reinforcing a stereotypical view of Hollywood. Very few considered the wider implications of Sarah’s story, and the abuse that she suffers is merely shrugged off as an extreme aspect of the film, something that does not actually happen in real life.

But it does, and it has, several times over, as the recent #MeToo campaign continues to remind us. Starry Eyes may seem like typical horror movie fare on the surface, but the events it portrays should not be taken lightly – especially in the wake of Hollywood’s ongoing sexual abuse scandal. In an interview with Nerdist, directors Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer stated that the film was about “the pressure that female actors face all the time”, although to what extent they intended to raise awareness of this issue remains unclear.

That did not stop one critic at rogerebert.com from describing it as ”corrosively cynical”, while Variety dismissively described it as “a difficult theatrical proposition”. While Starry Eyes is not the first horror film to tackle the issue of physical and emotional abuse against women, it is arguably the first to expose the institutional abuse which has been a dark secret in Hollywood for many years.

Published 25 Nov 2017

Tags: Dennis Widmyer Hollywood sexual abuse scandal Kevin Kolsch

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