The Death of Cool
Jimmy drives you around Westwood before the premiere. You're stretched out in the back of the studio's town car. The air smells like vanilla and carpet cleaner. A Red Bull sits in the cup holder. You're wearing boots, jeans, a scarf, a beret, and Ray Bans. It took two hours to get ready, and that was without a shave.
There's a folded Hollywood Reporter on the floor. Jimmy's. You wouldn't be caught dead reading that trash. Front page had an article about this week's releases, including the film you're in. The headline read, "The Comeback Kid?" That's you. Stellar career, blockbusters for ten years, then a few flops (not your fault), and then nothing. You fired everybody. Gave up New York and alcohol. Did the full circuit from western to eastern medicine; shrinks to shrines. Everything but take the only jobs offered — the ones with a cut in salary. Eight years later came the offer to do a sequel. You felt like a retired rock band that got back together.
It's 6 p.m. in October, already dark. Otherwise, you wouldn't be out. You rarely leave the house during the daylight, except for a movie set. Men in suits with horrible ties are everywhere. Soldiers of the system. Civilians, that's what you call anyone not in the arts. One guy's tie is slung over his shoulder. All he needs is a beam to tie it on.
Your assistant calls. "The conference call," she says.
"Yeah." You say it nonchalantly, but inside, you feel like a Twizzler. And why did you have to set it up? Why is it your job to teach them theirs? "What's the score?"
"Everyone is saying it's a home run," says your agent.
"The test audience rating was through the roof," says your lawyer.
"Studio is behind it 100%," says the director. It bothers you that he hasn't said anything about your performance. You tap cigarette papers on the can of Red Bull and wait. He starts talking about the cinematographer. You cut him off.
"Gotta jet, J.T. Peace." You take a deep breath, smell Jimmy's cologne and cough. "Are they gone?"
"Officially," says your assistant.
"Douchebag. Anyone else call?"
"Just Sherry." At the mention of your girlfriend you feel a twinge of guilt. You meant to break up with her by now. You won't stay with her when the film takes off. But there were too many rough spots leading up to tonight. So what if you didn't bring her to the premiere? PR 101. Everyone knows the value of a Hollywood bachelor. You told her it was work.
You think back to your conversation with the director. "Jimmy, do you think J.T.'s a hack?"
Jimmy eyes you in the rear view mirror. Waits.
"I think he's a hack." You take a long pull on the Red Bull. "I do."
You call your lawyer back. "I think J.T. is a craftless studio hireling."
"No. Just static. Later." That didn't help.
You pass several bus stops featuring the poster for your movie. Now that you're working again, you're going to give Jimmy a raise. Have him quit his day job. He's stuck with you through the thin years. Moved here from Queens before your career took the nosedive. Kids himself that he's a screenwriter. He lives in a one bedroom in Encino when he could be in New York meeting girls with big hair that chew gum. Even dialing the 818 area code depresses you.
You tell him to stop at a place on Wilshire. It's one of those overly bright California restaurants with too many windows, white everywhere, and a college kid for a bartender. Jimmy gets out and says something to a valet wearing a tiny red vest. The valet looks like he doesn't understand. Probably Mexican, though he has blonde hair. You reach for your notebook and write down, "Blonde Mexican."
The sidewalk rises to meet you. Too many cigarettes or too little Red Bull. Jimmy walks in front to the door, a script spooled like a paper towel roll under his arm. You nod at the valet who looks away. Probably never been to the movies.
Inside, you stare at a piece of art on the wall. Primitive shapes mounted on a silver canvas. People stare at you staring at the art. There's an old broad in a sequined SCOTTSDALE t-shirt at six o'clock and two fat girls at eleven o'clock. Not the babes you're used to, but it's something.
The over-dressed hostess looks like one of those perky morning talk-show blondes. She and Jimmy are talking like old friends. She indicates the "be-seen" table, front and center. You point to one in the back. "Of course!" Her eyes widen.
Jimmy puts a hand on her waist. "Thanks sweetheart."
The waitress is cute in a milky white Mid-Western way. She asks for an autograph. "My name is Hazel." She winks. "Like my eyes." You write, "May you never wear spectacles" in big script and sign it. Not your best shot but hell, you're out of practice.
You order a shrimp cocktail and mineral water with olives. Jimmy asks for New England clam chowder and beer on tap. You repeat his order to her. No one seems to hear Jimmy but you. Hazel brings the food within minutes, with bread and something other than butter. Jimmy frowns. "What is it?"
"Olive shit." You squeeze a lime onto both the water and the shrimp.
"Whatever happened to saltines?" Jimmy mumbles as he dips bread in his chowder. He's wearing a maroon tracksuit and three gold chains. Normally he wears one chain, but he got dressed up for tonight. He's handsome in a gangster kind of way. Shit, what if the movie tanks. What then? You're supporting Jimmy who's supporting a mother and sister in Flushing.
Hazel hovers. You nod at Jimmy. "Got any crackers?" Five minutes later you spot her walking past the window with a see-through shopping bag, a box of saltines inside. By the time she gets to the table with a side dish stacked tall with saltines, Jimmy's finished the chowder. "Encore," you say to both of them. "Bring him another bowl." You love to feed Jimmy. You and Jimmy could write a book about L.A.'s all-night diners. You jot that down in your notebook.
It feels like the shrimp are doing calisthenics in your stomach. Hazel keeps coming over and asking how everything is.
Jimmy wipes his mouth with the napkin that's fitted into his shirt collar. Nods.
Hazel puts her hand on your shoulder when she removes your plate. You consider her. She's the right age, about twenty years younger. See, that's the problem with Sherry. When you first met her, she was under thirty-five. Now she's thirty-six. Shame. She knew how to take care of you.
When she brings the bill, Hazel hands you her number on a bar coaster. Just like the old days. "What time do you punch the clock?"
"Anytime." A man at a table with two other men is looking at her. "Waitress!"
"I'll call," you mouth as you saunter towards the door. Jimmy's paying the bill.
A woman in a wheelchair is parked alone near the bar. You grab a handful of toothpicks, pocket all but one and approach her. It's good to make gestures like this on opening night. Just like Jimmy D. IYou lean over. "What happened?" She says she has M.S., that she was fine until thirty then slowly began to lose all motor control. "I know where you're coming from," you say, and tell her of your struggles over the last eight years. She starts to cry. Hazel walks past. Stops. Waits. Pretends she needs something from the bar.
"It was destiny that we meet." You shake her hand; feel its roughness.
"Sure. M.S. Those are my initials."
The hostess yells at Hazel from across the room. You tell the wheelchair woman to come to the premiere and give her the name of the publicist. Hazel is putting on her coat. Psycho alert, you think and hurry for the door. As your car pulls away, she jogs out onto the sidewalk. "Loco" you tell Jimmy, sticking the bar coaster with her number in the ashtray. Jimmy's cologne hits you in a chilly blast when he turns on the air conditioner.
It's after 7:00 but still too early to show up. You phone your assistant. "Calls?"
"Nope." You hear her typing as she speaks.
"Stop here," you tell Jimmy. He pulls up at a music store close to the theater. In the store, your agent calls.
"Where are you? You need to work the crowd."
This new crop of agents doesn't understand arriving late to premieres. Shit. You were hoping for news, an offer, something.
"Hare Krishna." You hang up.
You buy four jazz CDs. Three are imports. Good taste in music defines you. A blind homeless man outside the door is singing the theme song from The Flintstones. "When you're with the Flintsones, have a yabba dabba do time, a dabba do time…."
"Historic, man." You clap and turn to Jimmy, who hands him a twenty. In the car, Jimmy puts on Miles Davis. "That's the stuff."
At 7:45, you arrive at the theater. The press clusters around you and Jimmy. They ask where you've been, who you're dating, and what's next. You tell them you're dating Wilma Flintstone and that you've been on a safari. They love it.
A kid with a Hitler Youth haircut walks up. "Right this way, Mr. Shelly." He's wearing a headset and an "All Access" badge.
The lobby smells more like rancid butter than popcorn. "Who's here?"
The kid extends an arm for you to follow. "Everyone but the head of Olympic Studios, Les Steiner."
"Yeah, I know who Les is. Where is he?"
"I heard he got held up with Spielberg. Let me show you to your seat."
"For Les? He might not make it."
Do these new aides-de-camp know anything about how the business works? The Hitler kid takes wide strides off.
A minute later your agent comes up. "They wanna start."
"Benediction." You call your assistant.
There's a bustle behind you. It's Les. Your assistant's voice on the line: "Michael? Hello?" You hang up, shake Les's hand, and move into his circle. It carries you into the theater. Everyone looks up as you and Les enter. Bingo.
J.T. introduces the film. He's talking about the original, the new script. He lumps you in with the rest of the cast. You wouldn't work with him again if he were the last director standing.
The lights go down. J.T. walks past. You could stick your foot out. Instead you take out your notebook and write in the dark: "Movie star trips hack director at premiere."
People start clapping at the names on the screen. Your name gets a lot of applause. Even some whistles. So does your co-star. That phony-Buddhist-solar-machine-tanned punk. If he were any more wooden, he'd be mistaken for a tree.
You look pretty good . . . tough line but your delivery worked . . . that's the line you ad-libbed. J.T. kept that? Maybe you deserve a writer's credit. The girl's okay, a good kisser. Is she's still dating the solar-tanned punk? Good that you insisted on the gray shirt . . . this bit's boring . . . J.T. better not have cut the scene in the bank . . . wait, wait, wait.
Les is getting up? Going to the men's room? This can't be good. Of course, he's seen the film a zillion times already. But not with an audience. Maybe something came up? Maybe it's better to just leave now? Here's the bank scene. At least that's still there. But still no Les.
Everyone stares as you walk out. Good. Now they know you're not really a part of this film. You are not giving it your endorsement. In the last row you spot the woman in the wheelchair from the restaurant. Is that screwball Hazel with her? You passed them too quickly to be certain, but fuck, it looked like her. You text Jimmy: "Nut job waitress in the house. Keep an eye out." This'd be a good story for Letterman or Leno.
You head for the bathroom. Even though it's twenty minutes since he left the theater, Les is there. In the doorway. On his phone. He salutes when you walk in, says, "Stephen" over and over, and something about a writer J.T found who has scripts in "greenlight shape." Spielberg. Of course. The Almighty Zeus. Maybe if you play this right you can get a role?
You nod at Les and call your assistant. "Get a script for the new Spielberg film."
A girl comes out of the women's room. If you had to put the perfect girl together, head to toe, here she is. Dressed in black. Dark hair. Light eyes. More New York than L.A. Europe perhaps. Prague. She looks like Prague. Small café, sitting in the corner reading Chekhov while it's snowing outside. Soulful. Effortless. She walks past without looking, into the theater.
You hang up on your assistant. When you open the theater door, there you are on the screen kissing the co-star. What luck. But where's the girl? You scan the rows. Someone waves from the back. You sink into your seat.
Prague looked slightly familiar. Actress? Model? Maybe you saw her in something? No. You'd remember her. Thank God Sherry didn't come. You knew there was a reason.
The movie ends. You stake out a good position in the lobby. Jimmy materializes out of nowhere. People come over, tell you how great it was, you were. You measure every word. You spot the woman in the wheelchair and Hazel heading your way. You catch Jimmy's eye. He's on it.
The theater is almost empty, and no girl. Maybe she'll be at the party. Girl like that. How could she not be invited?
A small mass of people follow you back into the theater. Some you know, others you don't. Eight people, mostly studio drones, ask where Sherry is. "Keeping the bed toasty." You laugh. After the fifth one, you realize you've been with her way too long. No need to feel bad. She went into this with her eyes wide open. You're a celebrity for fuck's sake. What'd she expect? Marriage?
In the lobby, someone is screaming. It's that psycho Hazel, screaming your name. It occurs to you that you like it. Yes, you're the type of star that people get crazy over. "I'm going to sit this one out." You put a toothpick in your mouth and sink into a last-row seat. Within minutes, Jimmy pokes his head in. "Clear sailing." You follow him out, past the blinding cameras. Security guards dragging a flailing Hazel down the block.
Your assistant calls. She asks how the movie was.
You hand Jimmy the phone.
"Yo." Jimmy is sucking a lollipop. Though he plays it cool, Jimmy is crazy about your assistant. She's a good girl. Hard working, simple. Perfect for him. He's mentioned a new girlfriend, but it can't be serious. You'd know. The other night you told Sherry he was your best friend. He's too far away for you to hear what he says about the movie.
The after-party is in a tent adjacent to the theater. You look around for the girl. Normally, you love darkness. Tonight you're yearning for equator light. You remind yourself to write that down later.
The minute you walk into the reserved area, you spot her. She's alone. Taller than you thought. Is she wearing heels? She's heading towards the bar. You walk over to her, trying to think of a homerun first line.
"Didn't we meet in Prague?" She smells like shampoo — something clean.
She looks around to be certain you're addressing her. "No."
The bartender ignores others, including you. Asks her, "Can I get you something?"
"Stoli martini," with a smile that makes you want to punch him.
"Same." She and the bartender turn towards you. You glance over your shoulder towards Jimmy.
"Was it Soho then?" She shakes her head. Better change tactics. "What'd you think of the film?"
"I preferred the script."
As much as it kills to hear it, you have to agree. Plus it confirms that J.T. is a hack. "I was thinking the exact thing! That's why I did the film. Script was phantasmagorical. I pride myself on being a good judge of material." The girl looks away, taps her fingers. You put a hand on her shoulder. Chicks love that. "I think J.T's a hack. I've been saying it all night. It was exiguous. That's what it was. Being an actor, you're at the mercy of so many people. I'm going to start writing my own stuff. I've been writing everything down. I'll need some good talent to pull it all together. How'd you read the script?" SHIT. Nothing seems to be working. Maybe she already has a famous boyfriend?
"I read everything." A hand goes through her hair.
The martinis arrive, and you gently click her glass. "Do you work for an agency? I'm primed for a switch," you whisper conspiratorially.
"No, I just like to read," and with that, she excuses herself and walks off.
A week-old balloon. That's you. Set the drink down, turn and watch where she's going. You walk away without the drink. Run into the Hitler Youth kid. "Hey kid." He hustles over, ever-ready for an assignment. "See that girl walking there. Any idea who she is?"
"The skinny one with the scarf? Remy Trent.""
"Trent? Not J.T's daughter?"
"Yeah. J.T's daughter."
You're aware of your teeth. The bass line is pounding in your mouth. The Hitler kid is saying something. You can't hear him. The bile in your mouth has a faint cocktail sauce and olive taste to it. You need to leave. Now. J.T. will tell Les. It's finished. What if you find her, tell her it was a joke. You're a wisecrack. Have her watch Entertainment Tonight if she doubts it. What have you got to lose? Everyone has a different sense of humor. Apologize. Tell her you meant to make her laugh. Nothing more.
You walk unsteadily to J.T.'s table. She's not there. Then you spot her sitting alone with someone. A guy. Jimmy? Your Jimmy? It makes no sense but you don't care. What could be more perfect? That's right, sweetheart, he works for me. You love this guy. Every move he makes is the right one. Then suddenly there's J.T., standing next to them, holding a rolled script. Oh well. Suck it up. You've done this dance before. But something's not right with this picture. Jimmy's talking. They're laughing. His arm is around her shoulder. And it hits you. The script J.T.'s holding is Jimmy's. And now he's walking toward Les.
You have to will your mouth closed. You're dreaming. The music, strobes, scene — this is all part of a nightmare. Touch something. If you feel it, you're awake. You put a hand on a buffet table, feel its edge. Now it's helping to keep you upright.
In the men's room you picture yourself throwing bottles and glasses across the room outside, turning over tables. You're screaming at people in your head. If you had a gun, you'd shoot up the room, just like that scene in the bank. Gradually you become aware that someone's next to you. The Hitler Youth kid at the next urinal. Look up ubiquitous in the dictionary, there's this kid's picture.
"I love your work." He zips up. "Anything you need?"
You shake yourself, zip up, say, "Yeah. Do you drive?"