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What Really Happened To Lindsay Lohan, Part 1: American Princess

What Really Happened To Lindsay Lohan, Part 1: American Princess

This is the first section of a multi-part series looking back over Lindsay Lohan's life and performances.

In "Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen," someone says to Lindsay Lohan, "It's a good thing you're gonna be an actress, because you haven't got any talent for reality."

We can't go a day without hearing about Lindsay Lohan. By all accounts, Lohan remains a minor actress. She has no major awards or nominations to her credit and only a few roles with longevity in popular consciousness. But we click on her name when we see it. We are still curious and we still care.

At this point, we think about Lindsay as the star of a story of failure spurred by bad behavior and a vicious tabloid culture. Her beauty has been worn by stress and self-abuse. Her reputation – not to mention her career – is tarnished beyond repair. She comes into the news every single day for something or other, and it's hardly ever good news. Blame it on her parents, blame it on drugs, or blame it on Lindsay: Years into adulthood, Lindsay still hasn't got anything together.

However, for the first time in years, Lindsay Lohan has movies in the can; not just one film, but several. She has the starring role in next year's "The Canyons," written by Bret Easton Ellis and directed by the great "American Gigolo" director Paul Schrader. She has a cameo in the next entry in the popular "Scary Movie" franchise. She will appear in "Love, Marilyn," a psuedo-documentary about Marilyn Monroe, in which Lohan will perform excerpts from her hero's diaries. And she is featured in a company of highly esteemed actors: Viola Davis, Glenn Close, Ellen Burstyn, and Paul Giamatti, among many others. 

This month, we will see her on cable, in a leading role. It couldn't be a bigger challenge. She's playing one of the most famous and beloved women in history: Dame Elizabeth Taylor, the eternal epitome of Hollywood stardom. Movie star biopics are no longer exclusively TV-movie territory and audiences, trained by recent exemplary impersonations in films like "The Aviator" and "My Week With Marilyn," expect a lot from actors who imitate the seemingly inimitable. Upon the announcement that the out-of-practice Lohan, whose only performances in years had been in court before judges, there was widespread derision. Early reviews are poor. Whether or not this will translate into viewers is anyone's guess. Even more unclear is whether she has actually pulled it off.

Of course, Lindsay has a lot riding on these films. She hasn't had a break like this in years. It all comes down to us: The audience that has watched her crash and burn is expected to give Lindsay Lohan – a new, serious, grown-up version – a chance. Basically, she's hoping that I am not her last remaining fan, and I doubt I am.

Let's look back at Lindsay's life, her films and her headlines. Let's assemble her narrative, put some facts together, and try to figure out what Lindsay's chances are from here on out. It's hard to look past the tabloid brouhaha, but there's a case to be made that she wasn't just a movie star who messed up. She may not have any talent for reality, but there must be some reason you and I can't stop watching her.

In 1986, Lindsay Lohan was born into what was, on its surface, the Long Island American Dream. A blonde bombshell with an NYU education and a dance resumé met the ambitious Golden Boy of the New York Stock Exchange who had become a very wealthy man by his early 20's. It was the Reagan 80's, and Michael Lohan's savvy brought him to power, influence, and cocaine, and according to Dina, he brought home abuse. The facts (and rumors) are complicated, but they add up to a portrait of a terribly dysfunctional upbringing: Lindsay was followed by three other children, the marriage went on and off, and by the time she was three, Michael was in prison for insider trading, his first of many convictions.

With Michael at the Stock Exchange during the day and doing cocaine on weekends, Dina was at home with the freckle-faced baby. Dina started to take Lindsay on the rounds, and during the years of Michael's time in jail, young Lindsay's career as a child Ford model became the family's second income source. "I was born into the business," Dina told the New York Daily News this year. "My mother was an entertainer. It was natural." Lindsay was in Gap ads, Bill Cosby's Jell-O commercials, and soap operas. Photogenic and enthusiastic, she probably never knew a time when her face wasn't on screens or in print. Lindsay has talked about being bullied at school about her incarcerated dad when she would return from working.

She was in high demand, snowballing on a clear path towards child stardom, and unsurprisingly, along the way, Lindsay became very good at acting. While Lindsay's new performance in "The Canyons" was being shot this year, Bret Easton Ellis tweeted: "The main thing I've learned about people who become actors: They become actors because they don't want to be themselves." Think about it: At age 11, Lindsay Lohan was a bullied child with a tumultuous home life. At 12, she was one of the world's most famous child actors.

In 1998, Lindsay she beat out 4,000 other girls for the role every child actress must have badly wanted. Charles Shyer and Nancy Meyers, the team who assembled Disney's remake of "The Parent Trap," were sold on Lindsay 30 seconds into her screen test. It is – by far – the most difficult role in the film, and it remains possibly the most challenging role Lohan has been given. It is actually two roles, something that became a hallmark of Lohan's later work: Lindsay plays Hallie, the daughter of a wealthy, handsome Napa vineyard owner, and Annie, the wealthy daughter of an wealthy, famous wedding dress designer. They meet at camp, realize they are the twin daughters of divorcées, swap places, conspire to reunite their parents, etc.

Why, exactly, is Lindsay Lohan so good in "The Parent Trap"? I think it's because the film carries so many parallels to her young life. The film's basic premise is shocking in its blatant familial dysfunction: The girls are sheltered from all information about their other parents and their counterparts, being raised by the household help because their parents are upwardly mobile. The story of separated sisters wasn't all that far from Lindsay's own life, either. Her father was unfaithful to Dina, and he had at least one other secret child. Last week on the UK chat show Trisha, Michael Lohan took a paternity test that proved he'd fathered a love child that would have been growing up during the making of "The Parent Trap." I don't know if Lindsay knew about this at the time – I wouldn't be surprised if she did – but the similarity is too striking not to mention.

Either way, watch Lindsay's original screen tests for the role: here and here. She was lucky, I suppose, to be given sides for the two scenes that would have, at the time, required the least imagination: Annie-as-Hallie talking about the dad-daughter relationship, and Annie finding out she and Hallie are twins. She shows no nerves or self-consciousness, and she has a professional focus. Notice, for example, how she puts her head down and steps out of character (and accent) at the end of the second scene, erupting into a proud smile. It's exemplary, professional, and poignant child acting.

When she actually won the role and was signed to a three-picture deal with Disney, I imagine her confidence grew even further, because the assurance she shows in the screen tests grows tenfold in the film itself. In the behind the scenes material, Lindsay disregards the difficulty of the role, and is elated to be on set with her Momager – Lindsay's word, not mine – in tow. She seems to relish her luck and is already making plans to move onto a major career: "I want to go to college like Jodie Foster," she says, fully aware of the impending make-it-or-break-it realities of transitioning into adult roles. But even during the production of the film, Lindsay couldn't get away from her family troubles. While she was shooting in Napa, Michael violated his probation, flew out to California, and was put in prison for another year.

And why do we keep coming back to "The Parent Trap"? You can't peruse Tumblr without coming upon one of its GIF-able moments, often accompanied by jokes at Lindsay's expense. It remains one of the best-loved films from my generation's upbringing; ask any of us.

The answer comes from its studio. Disney, the owner of the only princess-related media franchise, is the origin of American conceptions of princesses and royalty, and though none of the characters in "The Parent Trap" are royals, there are countless references to the crown. In the film, Regrave acting royalty Natasha Richardson is a visual copy of Princess Diana, with her cropped blonde hair and miniskirts. The divorcées met on board the Queen Elizabeth II ocean liner. There is a (breathtakingly awful) deleted scene in which Hallie meets the Queen. Lohan is still referred to as a Disney princess by the press. (Note the recent SNL skit "The Real Housewives of Disney.") "The Parent Trap" made Lindsay Lohan an American princess with its symbolic combination of the English throne and the American dream, represented by the vineyard. 

We grew up wanting to be Lindsay, but we didn't know about what she had been through by the time she gave her debut performances. Her abilities came out of financial and emotional necessities that ought never be placed upon a child. Her stardom came because she relished the opportunity to get a new mother and a new father.

With "The Parent Trap," Lindsay's coronation was complete, but as any princess will tell you, the job security doesn't solve anything.

Check back tomorrow for part 2.

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