Making it 

Early Naomi Watts indie shows talent amid chaos

Celebrity is a kind of veneer that protects movie stars. Despite embarrassing flops, humiliating nude scenes and personal tragedy, the cloak of fame and riches keeps them untouchable.

Not so in Ellie Parker, which feels like the movie version of those nude photographs that came back to haunt Vanessa Williams after she became Miss America.

Ellie Parker reveals a time before Mulholland Drive and King Kong, when movie star Naomi Watts was just another struggling actress in L.A., doing cheapo indies to make a buck. The effect is disorienting and voyeuristic, like seeing a star unmasked and unprotected.

Shown in 2001 at Sundance, Ellie Parker originated as a short film by director Scott Coffey and has been expanded, unfortunately, to a feature-length to make the most of Watts' entrance into the ranks of superstardom. A strangely self-referential film, Ellie Parker features Watts as the eponymous character, an actress suffering through humiliating auditions and romantic foibles in the topsy-turvy world of L.A.'s movie industry.

The film features excruciatingly tight close-ups of Watts' face that are as revealing as hi-def TV, scenes of Watts comically flailing naked in the bathtub, and a gross-out moment where Watts throws up the vivid blue ice cream she's just eaten.

Despite its amateurishness, the film inspires respect for Watts, an actress who could have left Ellie Parker to the dustbin of cinematic history after she made it. Instead, Watts not only allowed this creation by a fellow struggling artist to see the light of day, she actually produced Coffey's amateurish opus.

Shot with a hand-held camera on digital video, Ellie Parker is a little too free-form and absurd for its own good, daring you to take anything it has to say about the neurosis-inducing world of actresses seriously.

And director Coffey clearly does want to say something meaningful about what it feels like to be a struggling actress in the dog-eat-dog world of Los Angeles. But he also can't resist a rather puppyish devotion to Watts' prettiness, captured in endless, story-halting musical montages that suggest just where Coffey padded his 16-minute short into a bloated 95 minutes.

Despite its raw, chaotic feel, Ellie Parker at times captures the skin-crawlingly believable mind-fucks and absurdities that define the actor's life with its auditions, soul-baring acting classes, professional rejection, and that universal dilemma of movie singletons, a rotten love life.

In the course of one afternoon, Ellie auditions on one side of town for a role as a Southern belle. Driving to her next audition, she does her makeup on the freeway, changes clothes while driving, and transforms into a foul-mouthed Brooklyn tramp for her next audition.

Though Coffey (who also appears in the film as a deranged cinematographer) may not have great comic timing, Watts does. She's a crackerjack, imbuing a potentially one-note, throwaway joke about bad scripts and sexist directors with some real humor.

Most degrading are the roles themselves: sluts and centerfolds and other crumbs that actresses are forced to fight tooth and nail for. Ellie shares her pain with fellow Aussie actress and girlfriend Sam (Rebecca Rigg), a deliciously deadpan cynic who endures her sorry lot as a struggling actress in L.A. with clever bon mots and shoplifting. Some of the best moments in Ellie Parker are between Sam and Ellie, the kind of contrarian, wise-ass, sharply intelligent girlfriends rarely seen in angst-girl cinema.

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