REVIEW: "Confessions of a Star Maker" By Luke Yankee; Cal State Fullerton Drama

Updated: Dec 9, 2020

"The Hyper-Facade of Hollywood's Dark Side"


The dark underbelly of Hollywood in the 1950's is revealed through the world of Nick Ralston, a closeted, gay, talent agent in an era where it was illegal to be "out." Nick will stop at nothing to promote his clients, including revealing everyone else’s dirty, little secrets ... before they can reveal his.

“Confessions of a Star Maker,” a live film noir radio play by playwright Luke Yankee, is produced by Cal State Fullerton and students from the Department of Theatre and Dance. Originally written as a TV pilot and later adapted as a radio play, it is available now on Vimeo from November 27th thru December 13th.


This "live" radio play, with the look and feel of old Hollywood’s Golden Age, depicts what someone had to do to succeed in Tinsel Town long before the #MeToo generation. As the radio announcer so aptly recounts: “it tells a story of guts, glamor and the true price of fame.”


Let’s say you’re young and full of dreams and one of your dreams is to break into the movies. So, where do you go to make your aspiring acting dreams come true? That’s right! Hollywood. The question is, how does one become a Hollywood star? It all depends. What are you willing to do? Or should I say sacrifice? Hollywood movie stars have influenced the world until this day. However, not everything was peaches and cream for a lot of budding stars, especially in the early days.


The dawning of the nineteenth century brought with it a new era for entertainment—Vaudeville, until the popularization of the silent film. Soon, the stars of the Vaudevillian stage migrated to working in movies. Audiences were instantly enthralled and captivated by the stars of the silent screen, many already recognizable with fan clubs. But those early days of Hollywood were not only full of glamour but also a newfound decadence. The real people behind the glamour and spotlight of the public eye, however, were far different than the “stars” that audiences grew to know and love, and much like Hollywood today, their lives were often full of scandal, debauchery, deceit and intrigue.


Mr. Yankee’s “Confessions of a Star Maker” is a fascinating insight into the largely unspoken (at least before Harvey Weinstein), sometimes reprehensible history of La-La-Land, exploring how its intriguing, glitzy veneer developed in tandem with “closeted” studio moguls, talent agents and directors preying on and exploiting the vulnerable novice actor, be they male or female, using power-play tactics for sexual favors, with promises of contracts, prospective starring roles and even fame. It was as if the exec was simply closing a sale, many times manipulating and sinking the gudgeon into the lowest depths of perversion as their targets squirm and acquiesce to get ahead in their career. Who, oft-times, will go to any lengths to get it.

Old Hollywood was also very apathetic toward people who identify now as LGBTQ—in fact, it was considered downright illegal at the time. Gay honchos in power, still in the closet, feared losing all their success and livelihood due to their non-hetero orientations. This, in a day when sexism, Me Too-situations and racism was the norm, and when speaking up was simply not done. In the movie industry in those days, whether gay or hetero, if you were a young rising star looking for a big break, exploitation was as common as getting a cup of coffee. And as disturbing as that sounds, it became a cold reality for many actors and actresses trying to get ahead. Indeed, it was a golden era of movie classics. But it was also a windfall time for very shady studio heads and people of influence to victimize its clientele.


Under the all-controlling studio system of the era, five movie studios known as the “Big Five” dominated: Warner Brothers, RKO, Fox, MGM and Paramount. The smaller studios, including Columbia, Universal and United Artists, quickly rose in prominence within a decade. There were plenty of powerful people in Hollywood, but one name that struck fear into Tinseltown was Hedda Hopper (here played by Solange Marcotte). A failed actress, she began writing a gossip column in 1938 and quickly found success, commanding a readership of 35 million. Hopper was not shy about throwing her weight around. Calling herself “the b—ch of the world,” she took delight in ruining careers and marriages with just a few sentences.


Hollywood has basically all been about looks, and behind the scenes it was mostly about “extra entertainment.” But if you didn’t have the right looks, you had no career. Hollywood agents could make or break you. If something was ‘off’ regarding your looks, you were instructed to dye your hair, change your teeth, maybe even plan a little visit to the plastic surgeon. Anything to make you look better. 99% of the time your real name was too boring, so the studio would think of a new name for you. So, someone named, say…Jamie Chalinska, might be asked to change it to Lance (played by Joe-Joe Kelly), or something with more of a subliminal connotation.


Although the public seems to just be waking up to the dangerous reality of our pervasive dark side of Tinsel Town, Mr. Yankee takes it a step further and provides an eye-opening narrative, ramping up the intensity with every scene. Placing focus on the years following the two world wars, the play is revelatory in its candor as it documents sex and debauchery in the watering holes and back alleys of the City of Angels. It was these real life goings-on, and the formation of taboo subcultures that helped spawn the term, film noir.


In spite of the fact that the “casting couch” has existed since the dawn of movies, it reached a scandalous climax in 2017 when The New York Times broke the story that movie studio mogul Harvey Weinstein had allegedly sexually abused actors and employees for decades. He was fired from his movie studio as dozens of victims came forward to accuse him.


One of the most remarkable things about Mr. Yankee’s play is how entertaining it is amidst all of the despair, vice and loneliness it depicts. George (Braxton McGrath) and Mr. Kelly’s Lance show a great eye and ear for the rituals and vocabulary of typical offbeat lovers who exist on the periphery of the Los Angeles film scene, and many of Nick’s interactions with them are as sizzling as they are awkward and uncomfortable, eliciting complex and contradictory emotions not just from the characters but from the virtual audience. And when Lance and George’s jealousies and frustrations escalate tragically in the final scenes, the complicated tensions that have been carefully developed by all three characters culminate where the viewer’s sympathies are skillfully jerked back and forth.


It’s hard to overstate just how good Mr. Kruvi, Mr. Kelly and Mr. McGrath are in these later scenes; they’re playing types that we’ve seen before currently, but impacts because of their meticulous presentations of distinctive gay subcultures in forbidden times. Luke Yankee’s ability to burrow profoundly into the minutiae of a carefully circumscribed world, given where the characters go, is an achievement that’s moving, chilling and, ultimately, deeply rewarding.


Although all players had exceptional roles, other notable standouts included Molly Renze as Solange, the Vegas club singer with the nose-job, German accent and a Chevalier affair; Colleen Moore as an expressive Stephanie, aspiring actress from big money; Ronan Walsh in multiple parts; and Bailey Martin as Lorraine and Olive.


Luke Yankee (MFA - Writing for the Performing Arts/UC Riverside) has written, directed, produced, taught, lectured and acted throughout the country and abroad. His published plays include “The Last Lifeboat” and “A Place at Forest Lawn,” both published by Dramatists Play Service. His other plays include “The Jesus Hickey” (which premiered in Los Angeles starring Harry Hamlin), and “The Man Who Killed the Cure,” and has also written numerous TV spec scripts and pilots.

In his bestselling and critically acclaimed memoir, “Just Outside the Spotlight: Growing Up with Eileen Heckart,” Mr. Yankee gives a no-holds-barred view of what growing up as the son of an Oscar®, Emmy®, Golden Globe®, and Tony® winning actress was like. Luke’s first play, “A Place at Forest Lawn” (recipient of the New Noises Award) has been produced at several regional theaters around the country. His second play, “The Jesus Hickey” was produced in Los Angeles, starring Harry Hamlin.


In addition, Mr. Yankee has taught and guest directed extensively at colleges, universities and conservatories throughout the U.S. and abroad. A graduate of New York University, Luke also studied at the Juilliard School of Drama, Circle in the Square, and Northwestern.


Luke Yankee's "Film Noir" Zoom radio play, “Confessions of a Star Maker,” features Yoni Kruvi as Nick Ralston; Lexie Watkins as Bernice; Joe-Joe Kelly as Lance Wellman (Jamie); Ronan Walsh as Marty Russell, Albert, Sergio Milletti and the Photographer; Colleen Moore as Stephanie Fletcher; Braxton McGrath as George; Molly Renze as Solange Von Flam; Solange Marcotte as Estelle, Hedda Hopper, Arthur’s Wife and Carhop; Mathleu A. Isanove as Vincent, Stuart, Arthur Gray and Detective; Bailey Martin as Lorraine and Olive; Felicity Bryant as Artemis and Angry Neighbor; and Jordan Mills as The Radio Announcer. Sarah Grandpre is Musical Director; Alex Corey is Foley Artist; Olivia Huntley is Stage Manager; Hailey Boyum is Assistant Stage Manager; Scott Garner is Sound Designer; Michael Hofacre is Editor; Antonio Beach is Scenic Designer.

Written & directed by Luke Yankee. Produced by California State University Fullerton, Fall 2020. Streaming Now through December 13th. Now continuing at 8pm: December 10, 11, 12 and at 2pm: December 6, 12, 13. Tickets may be purchased at: https://www.fullerton.edu/arts/theatre/events/td_productions.php


Chris Daniels

Arts & Entertainment Reviewer

The Show Report