In 1932, actress Peg Entwistle jumped off the letter H in the Hollywoodland sign and tumbled to her death. She was 24. In 1967, actress Jayne Mansfield died in a car crash. She was 34. In 2009, actress Brittany Murphy was found dead in her shower, later ruled to be caused by anemia and pneumonia. She was 32.
It’s these ladies and many more that are the subject matter of actress Amber Tamblyn’s latest book of poems, Dark Sparkler. Tamblyn, who stops by the Boulder Book Store on March 9, uses poetry to reflect upon the lives of these starlets who captivated audiences on screen then met an untimely death off screen.
Tamblyn, now 32, is no stranger to Hollywood. She got her first break on General Hospital at age 12, and she went on to star in the TV series Joan of Arcadia and films like The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. Poetry has been an important part of her life since an early age, and she attributes it to growing up in an artistic household.
“[What drew me to poetry] I think, like anybody, is being able to have a feeling that’s expressed and reciprocated — to be able to make others feel and emote,” she says. “It’s also what’s powerful about acting — that you get to affect people. Writing to me, when I was younger, had the same power that acting did.”
For Dark Sparkler, Tamblyn was initially inspired by the passing of Brittany Murphy. Even though she didn’t know Murphy personally, they would see each other at auditions, parties and award shows, as is common in the club of young Hollywood actresses. She says it was the first time a female contemporary of hers had died, and it affected her deeply.
Tamblyn wrote a poem for Murphy, never intending to write a full book. But after the poem was published in Pank magazine, edited by Roxanne Gay, Tamblyn was encouraged by Gay and other poets, such as Rachel McKibbens and Mindy Nettifee, to venture deeper into the concept.
So Tamblyn began her research. She dove into the lives of actresses over the past century, digging for anything and everything she could find and ultimately writing a poem about each actress. And each poem was different, she says. Some focus in on one fine detail while others muse on the complexities of life. Overall, Tamblyn says she never cared about the celebrity-ism of it. A seemingly unknown actress was no different than a big-name star.
“I just came at it from that this perspective that they were all women … and that their fame meant nothing,” Tamblyn says. “[I was] trying to show what they look like when you take that veneer off of them.
“Did they struggle from mental illness — is that why they killed themselves? … Was it a last minute terrible judgment call? What was the catalyst that made it happen? … A lot of them were mysteries. That’s where the poetics come in — being able to fill in those blanks.”
Spending hours studying the lives of dead actresses sounds like a morbid way to spend an afternoon. But Tamblyn calls the process exhilarating and exhausting, fascinating and obsessive. By doing so, she gained greater insight into her own personal experience as a young actress.
In Dark Sparkler’s epilogue, Tamblyn provides some insight into her process and research with email conversations, lists, facts and, most notably, a mock up of her search engine history. It chronicles what she calls her fall down the never-ending rabbit hole, and includes several pages of entries like, “Search: Iday Hawley died age 32, Search: Lillian Peacock died age 28. Search: Dorothy Stratten died age 20 + rape + crime of passion, Search: Donyale Luna died age 24.”
Though the vast majority of the book contains actresses who’ve passed, Dark Sparkler does include one “poem” about someone who’s still alive. Lindsay Lohan’s page is situated opposite of Marilyn Monroe’s page, because Tamblyn sees a lot of similarities between the two. But Monroe’s page holds lines of text, and Lohan’s page sits blank.
“While this is a book about actresses, it’s also a book about voyeurism and the business of voyeurism. So for me, it’s not an ominous message about Lindsay Lohan’s life as much as it’s me saying, ‘She’s still alive, and I’m not going to write the ending of her life in the way that other people do.’ I see it as a more positive piece.
“A lot of people were asking me about it and wanted me to say that it was a blank page saying, ‘Guess what, Lindsay? Your time’s coming soon.’ And that’s not the case at all in my mind.”
The blank space is less about Lohan and more about the reader. Tamblyn wants it to serve as a moment to think about preconceived notions and how the actress falls in the context of the rest of the book.
“It’s me reflecting back to [the reader] their feeling and what they’re projecting onto that page. …” Tamblyn says. “Considering all the other women that they just read about, all the other objectification and things of that nature, they might question what they feel when they look at that blank page.”
Even though the poems revolve around Hollywood actresses, the greater themes are relatable to all women. And it was Tamblyn’s friend and former costar America Ferrera who noticed that transcendence.
“She was interviewing me for something when the book first came out, and she was the first to point out to me that if you took the word actress out of the whole book and replaced it with woman, it would still apply. …” she says. “All those double standards apply to women in every industry. You don’t have be an actress to be told you have to look a certain way or you have to be a certain height or you have to dress a certain way at work. That’s something that women all understand. It’s a universal language understood by women.”
In the end she hopes readers take away a greater understanding of the women in her book. For women, she hopes they understand themselves better, and for men, that they gain a better understanding of the female experience. When Tamblyn set out to write the book, she says she wasn’t intending to write a feminist work. But she sees how it became one inadvertently and thinks that’s powerful in itself.
“I think that sometimes when feminism is at its most powerful is when it’s not set out to be a work or statement of feminism,” she says, “but it ends up being an action of feminism.”
On the Bill: Amber Tamblyn — Dark Sparkler. 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, March 9, Boulder Book Store, 1107 Pearl St., Boulder, 303-447-2074.