The Lindsay Lohan Mystery
‘Do you really like movies?’ a weary Lindsay Lohan asks another woman in The Canyons (2013), Paul Schrader and Bret Easton Ellis’s languid micro-budget thriller. ‘Maybe it’s just not my thing any more.’ Widely considered uninsurable, Lohan has had a hard time getting cast in anything for years: the footage of her social life and legal troubles has been far outstripping her film career for a very long time, and she’s still only 28. The Canyons plays these games throughout – the other woman describes Lohan’s character, Tara, as ‘like one of those girls in the movies that’s being followed by somebody, you know?’ Lohan often looks like that, both onscreen and off. The house Tara lives in is an overdetermined metaphor, all vast window-walls and huge gates, a cage where everyone can see her. ‘Anything in the world for my birthday?’ Lohan said a few years ago, repeating a journalist’s question. ‘I guess for just everyone to leave everyone alone’ – a more generous take on Garbo’s line in Grand Hotel.
Lohan’s appearance has changed a lot since Mean Girls a decade ago. She still has enormous green eyes and her skin is still almost transparent under the freckles, but she’s all pronounced curves now, even her face – swells of lip, cheek, brow. She has gone prematurely late-Marilyn (Bruce Stern recreated Monroe’s ‘last sitting’ with Lohan for New York magazine a few years ago). Her performances are different too: sometimes jaded in repose, she can exude a new anguish and desperation; she wells up with feeling, her face contorts with tears. One thing that was always there, though cigarettes have exaggerated it a little, is her two-tone voice, a distinctive rasp-squeak that’s both rough and sweet. It’s a clue to what remains mysterious about her onscreen: you’re always sensing a contradiction, seeing one thing seep through another. Early on, the outer layer was the slick professionalism of the Disney girl: she was picture perfect but there was always something excessive, something big and raw and vivid about her presence – as if there was more there than could fit into the teen mould.
The cute pro is long gone, but there’s a similar dissonance now, in the few performances we get to see. Casting her in The Canyons, or in David Mamet’s Speed-the-Plow (at the Playhouse Theatre until 29 November), in the part first played by Madonna, directors want to make her notoriety into an asset, to import some ravaged glamour and let the rubberneckers in the audience enjoy the proliferating ironies. What are we meant to feel when Lohan-Karen talks about ‘a life lived in fear’, or delivers the line – the reviewers’ favourite – about knowing what it is to be bad, to be lost?
In the end, though, these ironies are cheap and limiting. They can’t produce any real surprises, whereas Lohan the actress still could. She has often been willing to make fun of herself, but to try to turn her every performance into a more or less subtle form of self-parody is both insulting and corrosively pessimistic. The movie star trapped in the body of a teen princess (no wonder they wanted her for the 2003 Freaky Friday remake) was odd and captivating, but the actress trapped in the body of a fading star is frightening to watch. You want her to get out; there is so much more she could do. Lohan’s development as a screen actor has been unnaturally thwarted, but one thing she has is the rare and purely cinematic quality, never quite visible in stills, which found its fullest expression in the Louise Brooks of Diary of a Lost Girl or Pandora’s Box: a thrill and possibility located not in the body but in the face, especially the eyes, as if someone has turned all the lights on inside.