A look at the darker side of the golden pre-World War II Hollywood era, “Stand-Ins” is a fairly engaging drama set in the less-than-glamorous world of stand-in actresses desperate to hit the big time. Appropriately enough for a story about thesps, there are several strong perfs in the latest feature from helmer Harvey Keith (“Mondo New York”), but the film ultimately fails to rise above its legit roots and is too stagy for its own good. Pic could score some fest screenings, but it will likely find a larger audience on the small screen, ideally on cable.
Tone is set from the get-go, with opening sequence showing frustrated legit actress Peg Entwistle leaping to her death off the famed Hollywood sign. Virtually all the subsequent action takes place in a quiet bar frequented by young actresses who came to Hollywood seeking bigscreen glory and ended up toiling as stand-ins for some of the most famous leading ladies of the age.
Shirley (Daphne Zuniga), Greta Garbo’s screen double, is a major drug casualty coming off a three-day booze-and-pills binge. Shirley almost immediately locks horns with the acerbic Monica (Jordan Ladd), a Bette Davis look-alike. It turns out that Shirley is even more unhinged than usual because her b.f., Raymond, has dumped her for a stunt-woman.
The stand-ins are congregating at the bar, which is run by wisecracking bartender Jack (Costas Mandylor), to celebrate the 30th birthday of Martha Anne (Sammi Davis), who pays the rent by doing her best to look like Jean Harlow. Highly competitive, the very bitchy gang is rounded out by Marlene Dietrich stand-in Rhonda (Missy Crider) and Mae West clone Peggy (Charlotte Chatton). The birthday bash goes dreadfully wrong when a new stand-in, Taffy (Katherine Heigl), a Rita Hayworth double, is introduced into the volatile mix and news comes over the radio that Harlow has just died.
Keith succeeds in creating a credible mood for behind-the-scenes Hollywood circa 1937 and shows a sure hand with his thesps. But the film, which is based on a one-act play by co-scripter Ed Kelleher, is pulled down by an overly theatrical approach and rather static direction.
Ladd is particularly good as Monica, who exhibits a curious mix of little-girl charm and ruthless maliciousness, and Davis showcases all kinds of intensity as the dysfunctional Martha Anne. The pic looks great thanks primarily to Andrzej Sekula’s inspired lensing, which gives the film a clear, colorful glow.