Dying for Beauty? With 'Plastic,' Novelist Frank Strausser Looks Inside 'The Capital of Good Looks'

by Robert Nesti

EDGE National Arts & Entertainment Editor

Wednesday October 16, 2019

"Plastic," playwright Frank Strausser's first novel, has a provocative cover: A bald, female model stares out, her face wrapped in plastic with the tag line, "If you're not beautiful, you're dead." The image acts as an apt metaphor for actors attempting to make it in today's Hollywood, where beauty and youth are the commodities that drive careers and, once gone, end them.

In Strausser's Hollywood noir, Dr. Harry Previn, a well-known plastic surgeon, is called on to help fix the disfigured face of a teen pop superstar Fay Wray. Add to this a troubled marriage with his artist wife Helen and a pending lawsuit for a facelift gone wrong, and you have the making of a dark tale that sounds like a classic film noir.

It is a description that Strausser agrees with - but with a difference: "If I had to describe "Plastic" in terms of film noir, it would be noir in color."

Strausser has received considerable renown as a playwright, with productions of his works being produced in Los Angeles, New York and London, but always considered him a novelist first. ("I started out as a novelist who couldn't get himself arrested until I found my voice as a dramatist," he said in an interview.) After writing an early draft, he shelved "Plastic" for a few years, only to rework it as a screenplay. This allowed him to focus on what he was trying to get across in the novel. "In effect, I was able to take my dramaturgical approach and apply it to my novel. This made all the difference."

"Plastic" is a caustic examination of a Hollywood's obsession with beauty and youth, painting a vivid landscape of an industry where an actress can be considered too old at 25. "Looks and sex appeal are real commodities in Hollywood. You either have it or you don't, and if you don't, you're dead. This means that the phone stops ringing. Your agent drops you. So does your manager. But it also means that you become invisible and, for many men and women, whether they're in Hollywood or not, that's a kind of death," Strausser said in an interview with The Good Men Project.

EDGE spoke with Strausser recently about how his experiences in Hollywood led him to write "Plastic."

Beauty-obsessed culture

EDGE: How did "Plastic" come about?

Frank Strausser: I was living in LA as a writer and took an acting class, which brought me closer to that community - a fairly, sophisticated group at the Beverly Hills Playhouse. And I began more aware of the beauty-obsessed culture and thought it was at the heart of the problem, so to say. These were the beautiful people, but yet were insecure and vulnerable. Aging out is a factor, so I began to think of Hollywood as the capital of good looks, and who would be at the heart of it but a plastic surgeon? Then it was thinking through a scenario that allowed me to meditate a bit on beauty in a fairly frightening way.

EDGE: Why did you decide to frame it as a Hollywood noir novel?

Frank Strausser: I wanted to write a compelling read with some ideas, rather than just amusing. It has a lot going on. I think the people and the situation are the world that I came to know. I am a playwright. I look for drama where I can find it. There is plenty of drama in Hollywood. People are very dramatic, and I like that.

EDGE: You have said that your novel was partly inspired by the murder of Lana Clarkson, whom you knew? (Note: Clarkson was murdered by music producer Phil Spector in 2003, who was convicted of the crime in 2009.)

Frank Strausser: I studied at the Beverly Hills Playhouse which was under the tutelage of Milton Katselas, who was a renowned theater director who studied under Elia Kazan and Lee Strasberg. He taught a very interesting scene study class on Saturdays with a 100 students in it. They were all actors but me. It was an endless group of familiar names - the late Doris Roberts, Jenna Elfman, Anne Archer, Giovanni Ribisi, and even the convicted murderer Robert Blake. What I saw is that there were a lot of women in there in their early 40s; they hit a wall in their career. Some had had important roles, but age was a factor, and so were looks. Parts were being played by younger people than the part they are playing often, and that put a lot of strain on the situation.

Lana Clarkson was in my first play, "The Powder Room," which starred Sally Kirkland. I got to know her a little bit, and the senseless crime helped inform the Fay Wray plot line in my story. Vanity Fair ran what I think is a hit piece on Lana, suggesting she was some high-class hooker at one time. It had nothing to do with the price of eggs other than a major media outlet on the encouragement of Phil Spector's lawyers was trying to destroy her image. She was obviously the victim. And her story allowed me to reflect on the nature of these things in Hollywood. If you look at Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston - in the end everyone says that they knew what was going on but they didn't know what to say. There is a culture of circling the wagons and keeping people quiet in Hollywood, which is a very interesting thing to explore. And Lana Clarkson is an example of some of that. Power against the lowly.

Shinier and flashier

EDGE: You describe Hollywood as the "capital of good looks." Has this obsession with youth and beauty gotten worse?

Frank Strausser: You want to a shinier, flashier production all the time. You want your stars to be sexier and sexier, and maybe that is younger and younger. We are influenced by Hollywood. I look at it as a virus coming through the entertainment business and spreading. There is nothing wrong with plastic surgeons or cosmetic surgeons - we all want to look great, but there's an urgency and discomfort with ourselves that is increasingly emerging. That is a sad predicament.

EDGE: So given "sad predicament" - this paradigm of "aging out," don't actors have every right to feel insecure?

Frank Strausser: Absolutely. I think it is a sad condition. Having played different roles in theater and film, I have a great deal of respect for actors. You really want the best person to play the part and it often isn't about looks. Frankly, I think what happens is that we get caught up in the idea of the leading man and leading woman. And the person is coming out of central casting. It is a sad predicament that they should be people coming off of Mt. Olympus. It puts tremendous pressure on people who are trying to do their best work, but still look like Mr. America or Mrs. America and stay young eternally, which is ridiculous. My plastic surgeon, Dr. Harry Previn, in my book is very close to a talent agency that is fed him a lot of work. But the talent agent, who is a real power player, says to Harry, you're a man who can give my people ten more years. It is a powerful motivator for a business person to think, you can actually give my roster of talent another ten years. You don't have to keep replacing them. It is an interesting idea.

EDGE: Why do you think there is such a fascination in plastic surgery?

Frank Strausser: I did a lot of research, speaking to plastic surgeons. One of the things unique about plastic surgery amongst all other medical treatments is that you can see the results. And that's very dramatic to see how a doctor can change someone. You don't see that with open-heart surgery - you can appreciate that, but if you change someone's appearance, that's very immediate and accessible to people.

A 'look at me' quality

EDGE: You mentioned doing a lot of research. What was surprised you the most about the plastic surgeons you spoke with?

Frank Strausser: I was surprised by the personalities. I think plastic surgeons tend to be a little more flamboyant. I think surgeons generally are, and plastic surgeons more so. I think they are a cross between a divorce lawyer and a fighter pilot. There's a 'look at me' quality about some of them. It is the glamorous side of the medical world, and for the reasons I described. It is about appearance. You can see the results. Certainly a lot of men and women are drawn to that. I was a bit surprised by how strong many of these surgeons were. They were a colorful lot - I enjoyed the experience as an observer.

EDGE: Did you base Dr. Harry Previn, your plastic surgeon, on the career of Jan Adams, who was the surgeon who operated on Donde West, Kanye's mother who died shortly after her surgery?

Frank Strausser: I spent a lot of time with Jan Adams. He is one of those larger than life individuals. In his case it is the sad story of Icarus. He was regularly on Oprah and a number of other shows. He had prominent clients in Hollywood. In doing that case, Donde West, Kayne's mom, and losing her, he got burned. When you go to close to the sun, you get burned. He was close to celebrities, which makes you very prominent, but if it goes wrong, that's bad... In that situation it is very debatable as to what really happened, but a lot of doctors have malpractice situations, or whispering about how something doesn't go right. But if you lose a celebrity, that, as it seems with him, is a career ending thing. I spoke with him before that incident and I followed that situation closely. The story in my book "Plastic," I needed to motivate and create a motivation for Dr. Harry Previn, my plastic surgeon, to get into this quagmire he gets into with Fay Wray, in which she is brought in to surgically erase evidence of a crime. And to have the prospect of a wrongful death suit of a very prominent client hanging over him was definitely a powerful engine for my story.

EDGE: How did you come with up Fay Wray, the teen pop star who is called 'The Face' in the novel?

Frank Strausser: I don't call her that. It is Harper's Bazaar who calls her that in the novel because she is so beautiful. In my novel she is a 15-year old runaway from the cornfields of Iowa who, at 19, is being packaged as this pop star Fay Wray. She is being heavily packaged, but she is also a force to be reckoned with and does get herself into a situation where she is being violently disfigured, and her handlers are trying to deal with what is like a Humpty Dumpty situation - fixing the crockery. I thought it would be interesting to explore the subject through this plastic surgeon, her handlers and Fay Wray. If people remember the original "King Kong," which starred the real Fay Wray, is a story of Man vrs. Nature. And that's what plastic surgery and the dynamic at play in the novel - man trying to change nature, in the novel the damage to her face. But damage all around us or aging or natural process - trying to reverse that.

EDGE: Do you see yourself influenced by the great LA crime novels, like those by Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett?

Frank Strausser: I am certainly familiar with some of those books. "In a Lonely Place" (by Dorothy B. Hughes) I certainly liked "What Makes Sammy Run?" (by Budd Schulberg).- I certainly am a real student of LA literature and it a genre onto itself. And I have seen a lot of noir films. If I had to describe "Plastic" in terms of film noir, it would be noir in color.

"Plastic" was published by Rare Bird Books. For more information, visit Frank Strausser's website.

Robert Nesti can be reached at [email protected].

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