Emmy Rossum Is L.A. Billboard Queen ‘Angelyne’ in Quirky Peacock Biopic

Los Angeles is the kind of city that attracts a particular kind of person seeking fame for its own sake. Some aspiring celebrities at least have a notion that through talent they might hit the big time. But then there are those who want nothing more than the glory, and a select few achieve it through nothing more than turning into the product itself. Peacock’s “Angelyne” profiles a woman who was kind of a pioneer in her own right. Her real name is Ronia Tamar Goldberg, but in the annals of pop culture history she’s Angelyne, who conquered the City of Angels through that ever present fixture, billboards. This cheeky limited series doesn’t pass any harsh judgment on Angelyne because while she may have had the idea, it was a public that gushes over fame that gave her what she wanted.

The real Angelyne claims to have had no connection with the making of the series, which features an entertaining, lively performance by an almost unrecognizable Emmy Rossum in the title role. Inspiration is instead taken from a Hollywood Reporter article, “The Mystery of L.A. Billboard Diva Angelyne’s Real Identity Is Finally Solved,” by Gary Baum. The narrative progresses like a series of life chapters all forming the bigger picture of Angelyne’s rise to fame. In the early ‘80s she fronts a local rock band. The music isn’t that great, but Angelyne is almost aware of this. She seems to purposefully pit band guitarist Cory (Philip Ettinger) and keyboardist Freddy (Charlow Rowe) against each other. For one thing, she manages to place herself alone on their posters. When the band falters, the buxom blonde with a Betty Boop voice tries her luck with Harold (Martin Freeman), who owns a large printing company. She sells him on the idea of creating billboards about Angelyne — and nothing else. Pretty soon she’s achieved celebrity and the quirks that come with it.

Creator Nancy Oliver and showrunner Allison Miller do something very smart with “Angelyne” in crafting the style of the show to go with the very personality of the subject. This is far from a traditional rags-to-riches story. It keeps swerving from elements that are hilarious to rather dark. The structure riffs on true crime shows or biographical documentaries, by using an interview format where characters share memories and information in-between dramatic scenes. It makes absolute sense because Angelyne cannot be boxed into a normal TV series. Rossum captures the character of a natural go-getter with a particular kind of narcissism. Her entire focus is on being seen and known, with the self-assurance that she’s already great enough to merit attention. She never blinks when the band she joins falls apart and assures Harold she’s the best investment he will ever make. When a journalist named Jeff Glaser (Alex Karpovsky), who is writing a profile of Angelyne, asks if salacious rumors are ever a bother, she answers that no, as long as people are thinking about her. 

Of course the great irony is that we can’t say Angelyne was wrong. She knew how to tap into how getting famous for anything turns you into instant royalty. In many ways she’s a precursor to influencer culture and the obsession wannabe models have with posting all week on their Instagrams, hoping to achieve that follower count that will grant them importance (and hopefully money). Photographer Rick Krause (Hamish Linklater), who becomes her assistant, wants to convince us Angelyne was essential to raising L.A.’s spirits during the conservative Reagan White House. Spotting her pink corvette becomes a local legend while hash smokers in Morocco see her billboards on the news. It’s no surprise when Playboy founder Hugh Hefner comes calling, although Angelyne is too smart for his “you remind me of Marilyn” pitch. Hugh can’t argue with Angelyne’s argument that she doesn’t need to pose nude considering she’s plastered all over Los Angeles.

But the series also emphasizes the microcosmic human tolls people like Angelyne also leave in their wake. The most prominent is Harold’s daughter played by Molly Ephraim, an aspiring actor who sees her show get canceled while Angelyne starts getting movie parts thanks to Harold’s billboards. Years later she will bump into Angelyne outside of a Ralph’s and realize the once huge star, who dominated her nightmares and nearly shattered her family, now sells merchandise outside of the trunk of her car. Notice how up to now, nothing much has been said about who Angelyne actually was. That is something to be explored in the latter episodes, which is essential, even if when the Hollywood Reporter piece appeared, some wondered if it was right to expose the identity of someone who didn’t want it known. On the other hand, Angelyne should have been aware that once you become a public figure, most aspects of your life become hunting trophies for a hungry public. The somewhat tragic truth about Angelyne is that behind the scenes, she was just as human and frail as all of us. The billboards were a façade, just like our social media pages are today. Angelyne achieved her goal, then reached out and realized there was just empty air to grasp.

Angelyne” begins streaming May 19 on Peacock.