Six Degrees of Julie

"In the real world, the right thing never happens in the right place and the right time," Mark Twain once said. "It is the job of journalists and historians to make it appear that it has."

I'm guessing he only left out screenwriters -- charged with righting every brand of wrong with a big screen finish --  because neither movies nor Hollywood had been invented at the time. I can't imagine any self-respecting reporter bothering with anything like fact checking when weaving a filmable tale.

This got me thinking about my tendency to amuse my followers, real or imagined, by dwelling on the fallacy of my failures rather than the truth of my successes, however spotty. In reaching for the next laugh, I guess I'm also trying to exhibit some hard-won humility. I figure nobody likes a blowhard, which is why I generally decline to name names when relaying my occasional ass-kicking over adversity.

I considered the many celebrities I've worked with over the course of my stop-and-start-again career. While in Hollywood this is an exercise in sheer dumbassery, elsewhere it may be a source of inspiration. A distant cousin, for example, recently looked me up to ask about a certain box office favorite who once bought a script from me. Though I didn't have the heart to tell her it would never be made into an actual movie, maybe that kind of detail only matters to actual moviemakers.

What excited her was the idea that he and I worked together. In the interest of professional affirmation, my who's who list would have to omit stars I'd encountered only casually -- chatting up at some industry event (Brooke Shields, Hallie Berry), in line at the market (Faye Dunaway, Martin Landau) or walking a picket line (Julie Louis-Dreyfuss, Alicia Keyes).

Forget those who'd expressed only a passing interest in my work -- as well as the fast talking suits who brought me in for a "general" while scanning the trades for any obtuse reference to themselves. Only instantly recognizable names and faces with whom I'd collaborated directly would make the cut -- regardless of whether our project went anywhere.  Even Ron Howard will tell you that doesn't happen nearly enough.

Off the top of my head, I jotted down this dizzying list of Oscar-, Emmy- and even Grammy-honored co-conspirators, past and present, in no particular order: Val Kilmer, Patricia Arquette, Don Johnson, Philip Michael Thomas, Stanley Tucci, Mare Winningham, Barbara Mandrell, Mariska Hargitay, Danica McKellar, Meg Foster, Jennifer Tilley, Fisher Stevens, Joan Cusack, Lonnie Anderson, Ione Skye, Tim Curry, Dabney Coleman, John Astin, Allyce Beaseley, Glenne Headly, Jon Cryer, Tim Allen, Owen Wilson, Edward Norton.

While even we originators of the classic underdog story have ways of diminishing our own power before somebody else does if for us, the most obvious one here is giving in to my fear of irrelevance. So maybe I would like to improve my batting average. Some extra pocket change would by nice. Maybe a little house in the Hills and a sandy-bottom lap pool -- tended by a fetching young groundskeeper with strong Balkan features and a poor command of the English language.

"All you need is ignorance and confidence and the success is sure to follow," Mark Twain said in some other disembodied quote that basically sums up everything. Maybe the irony about trying so hard for so long to get into the game is that's what makes you a player.

Julie Gets Cooking

All my life I've been looking for drama. College in New Orleans might have yielded a Southern Gothic novel brewing inside me, but I was too busy binge dieting and typing papers for some grad student (who went on to run The Simpsons and stopped returning my calls) to feel very inspired. Chasing some fuzzy notion of becoming a significant writer, I was asked after graduation to house sit for a gay millionaire in Key West. The words were sure to flow as naturally as my next breath, if only I'd had something to say.

I took an office job in the travel section of the local newspaper and accidentally became a journalist -- which only sounds dramatic on paper. Imagine my breakthrough reportage around another honeymoon-for-one on some idyllic tropical island while battling mosquitos with a travel-sized can of Off.

Eloping didn't pack the dramatic potential I'd hoped for -- not even when the groom was a Croatian cruise ship waiter I'd been with for seventeen days. Feeling desperately short on time, I was almost thirty! -- the same age as Lucille Ball when she ran off with a Cuban bandleader who later invented the modern sitcom, filmed in front of a live audience. She didn't deliver their first child for another ten years -- making her ancient, by the standards of the day -- though it was carefully timed to coincide with network sweeps. Supposedly all of it was part of a grand scheme to get him to stop running around on her and put down some roots in Hollywood.

Hollywood! By the time it occurred to me that this place is as dramatic as it gets, I was roughly the same age as a certain aimless spinster at the outset of World War II. She boarded a boat to China to become a spy, meet and marry a mysterious OSS officer and become Julia Child. According to a PBS documentary I happened upon last night, she couldn't make a biscuit out of a box before settling in post-War Paris to study French gastronomy. By the time she debuted the TV show that made her a national treasure, she was forty-nine years old.

Unseating Lucy as my favorite late bloomer of all time, the bored heiress had been born Julia and quickly dubbed Julie  -- just as I had. She carefully recorded the seemingly uneventful details of her early life for later re-telling, somehow confident such a thing would become necessary. While food became her medium, it was the painstaking writing at the core of the best selling cookbook in history that made it so accessible. Once an aspiring novelist, she, too, had been rejected in literary circles before discovering the value of her own story -- the one jumping through the screen in TV clips, photographs, and early interviews by, with and about her. It's as if she knew all along that her entire life, and not just her kitchen, would have to be properly preserved for display at The Smithsonian.

It occurred me that regardless of how my own tale might end, there may actually be some merit to it either way. Today I'm waiting for another call about another big script, another big day job and another smaller one that would pay the bills for another month. Whether all of that happens or none of it does, I'm creating a legacy simply by virtue of living one. Croatian waiters and Cuban bandleaders come and go, as do heartaches, rejections and cheese souffles that didn't quite work out as planned.

As for that missing element that only seemed to elude me?  "Drama is very important in life," that other Julie said in her later years. "You have to come on with a bang. You never want to go out with a whimper. Everything can have drama if it's done right. Even a pancake."

Julie and The Rat Pack

Last night I dreamed about a dead rat. It was sort of cute, as dead rats go, white and fluffy with a pink nose and ears. It seemed to have gone peacefully, although who wants to be end up alone in the middle of a fancy buffet table that's been pretty well picked over?

In the dream, we'd gotten to the restaurant so late the flames had died out beneath all the chafing dishes. My brother-in-law was was doing a lot of complaining about the gravy being cold when he stuck his finger in it. My sister, meanwhile, emerged from a chat with the manager to deliver the happy news that the three of us had been comped, since there wasn't much food left, and there was a dead rat on the table and all.

I kept screaming for somebody to get rid of it, but nobody really made it a priority. They seemed to think I was being a tad overdramatic. It's not like it was a living rat for God's sake.

My sister was hosting some kind of a party, and the place was crowded with guests. We stood around the reception desk and shared some steaks they brought out from the back. This was better than what everyone else was getting, so I was supposed to be grateful and forget about all that trouble on the buffet.

The rat was actually gone next time I checked, but since this was one of those dreams where you know you're dreaming, I wasn't sure if I just kind of willed it away. The rat could have shaken death off on his own and made a run for it when it hit him that you can do that in a dream.

I got up and Googled dead rat dreams to make sure I'm not living in some freaky Twilight Zone episode where it turns out I'm the rat and that was my own funeral. I learned this could have been a good dream, provided I view rats as enviably intelligent survivors. Actually I find rats especially terrifying and utterly vile. Let's just say Ratatouille made my skin crawl.

Another expert advised I consider whether someone in my life is behaving unethically, a dirty rat, so to speak. Have I recently encountered anyone untrustworthy? Do I ever have the feeling of being caught in a maze? Yeah, hello, this is Hollywood?

Suddenly it hit me.  The rat is my half-dead career, which has been showing some spontaneous signs of life! The buffet is the unwelcoming bones of the industry, and the revelers are the others working in it who could care less if I arrive late, or not at all. I don't know where my future ran off to, or what'll happen when and if it reappears, but in the meantime, I should probably mind my own business and keep enjoying the occasional free steak.

This Gun's for Hire, and Limited Free Download!

My recent return to freelance writing has involved some new and improved setbacks around technology. It turns out that nowadays every last one of us is a widely well-received author. That means you, crazy cute house cat with a trendy Tumblr feed. You too, glib grandma, with your shiny smartphone and the fancy friends following you all over the "Faceboard."

Log on and take your pick among huge bestsellers crowding the virtual bookstores alongside big, steamy piles of self-published pulp downloadable free of charge. We working writers who once scratched out a living somewhere in the middle are now left wondering whether we can still spin a salable yarn. After all, we've made all of it look so easy even a monkey could do it if only he had more time on his paws.
Learning I've earned another set of walking papers from a perfectly sensible full-time job, friends whose careers remain securely intact grow visibly wistful. One wants to write a novel about an entertainment lawyer who lost her job as an entertainment lawyer and wrote a novel about it. Her husband, a well-published British photographer, would gladly give it all up to publish a volume of unpublished  British photographs. Stop the madness!

Remember that movie where James Franco must choose between certain death and sawing off his own arm with the lid of a tuna can? That's pretty much how I feel every day when I sit down with a cup of coffee and decide whether to work on a spec script nobody's asking for or a blogpost few will bother to read. Neither option feels in line with the pain-payoff ratio.

So what if I am coming across as a big whiny-whiner, plodding toward an enviable destiny. Any real writer will tell you the choice was never hers; we all start crafting our little tales long before learning to make letters. Writers write, that's how you know you are one -- even securely locked away like Oscar Wilde or O. Henry, we'll find a way to bring the babble. And don't forget Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot. Or was he a painter? Anyway, he had stories to tell with the original hands-free device.

Even if I never sell a word of the blather I record here, my online journal might serve as a daily warm-up to something more solid. "I write my stories in the morning, my diary at night.," Anaïs Nin tells us in the third volume of her published memoirs -- the keys words there being "third" and "published."

"I need an hour alone before dinner, with a drink, to go over what I’ve done that day," Joan Didion said. "I can’t do it late in the afternoon because I’m too close to it. Also, the drink helps." How much cooler this thankless job must have been back before clean living happened, and you could measure a day's work in lipstick-rimmed martini glasses and stamped-out cigarettes rather than the number of re-Tweets of your assorted bon mots.

"Write drunk, edit sober," Ernest Hemingway advised. Now there was a guy with the economy to purge those demons in a hundred and forty characters or less. He might have been creating a brand for himself all along, sponsored by Life Magazine and some market-savvy wife or another. Instagram had nothing on that bunch.

Maybe we are all storytellers, adding our margin notes to the great human narrative -- yes, even you smart-ass granny, and your mouthy cat, too. Some are better at fooling the rest into thinking a job this silly merits any pay at all.

Which brings me back around to screenwriting. I never could have imagined screenplays coming full circle as my last best hope, the one remaining genre to require some skillset, however murky. A monkey couldn't possibly do it, not without a strong story sense and some decent representation. No, there's nothing smart about writing for money, but here in Hollywood, dope springs eternal.

Pictured at work: Erma Bombeck, Ernest Hemingway, Veronica Lake, Anne Sexton, and two unknown pin-up girls, possibly Vargas.

The Secret Life of B!

I'm not sure if this is a new psychiatric diagnosis, but my friend B. seems to be suffering from some kind of phobia stemming from the growth of social media. When I explained Twitter to him as no more a privacy intrusion than a custom billboard system along your own personalized highway, he confessed he's also developed a fear of driving. And billboards. And systems and customizing. "There's too much information out there!" he said. "They're bombarding us with it!"!"
Imagine his reaction when I asked him to log onto an online filmmaking competition to help keep my project trending. "I don't know," he waffled. "They'll want to know my name and where I live."

"Sam Clemens," I told him. "You're a caustic young cub reporter from the greater Hannibal area."

"But I'll have to give them my e-mail address," he said. I wondered how a guy who hooked up his own Blueray player -- in his car -- had suddenly become such a boob. "Use a shadow account," I told him. "That's what I did." I have at least ten of these that I couldn't access at gunpoint.

"I can't keep track of another shadow account," he said, mysteriously retaining ownership of a set of random key strokes his fingers once let fly. While this makes as much sense as keeping track of his own farts, I had to agree either pursuit would be daunting.

Privacy issues aside, it dawned on me that we content creators put forth the blatant falsehood that your full and accurate input actually matters. In soliciting your assorted likes, shares and follows, we've led you to believe you're constructing the story rather than just reacting to it. In truth, we never needed either -- though you are fun to play kickball with on a notoriously lonely street.

A high level studio production accountant, B. is unlikely ever to rely on the internet to cultivate his own brand. Though he eventually signed in to endorse my trending indie film project -- using his full legal name of all things -- he's asked me to add an exclamation point going forward when referring to him in these pages.

Maybe "B!" isn't as clever a pseudonym as "Mark Twain," but I suppose even a numbers guy needs something to hide behind while offering up all those opinions, solicited or otherwise, along this long, hazard-filled highway of my own mysterious creation.

Now, please be so kind as to register here and show me some stars. Like I said, people, I'm trending.

Reasons I Love My Fancy Pants Beverly Hills Lawyer

Because his pants are fancy.

I’m certain he pays more for his suits than my car would go for on Craigslist. He undoubtedly has like two hundred ties, color coded in gradating order to match his shirts, like Richard Gere in American Gigolo only originally from Sherman Oaks and holding a Yale diploma.

Because he has a secretary who likes to be called that. She’s slightly overweight and wears glasses, hose and sensible heels in a town where low-rise jeans, an exposed coin slot and a tiny hint of an attitude are de rigeur among executive assistants.

Because his office provides a selection of beverages on a tray. You get to pour your own into cut crystal glasses, plopping in some cubes of ice from a bucket with a pair of silver tongs. The tray appears to be sterling, though one can never be sure without turning it over, which would of course be tacky. My current plan is to drop a paper clip, squat down to retrieve it and look up through the glass table to read the stamp and hallmark. Not that I've given it much thought.

Because he represents any number of A-list movie stars whose names I’d like to drop at big Hollywood dinner parties. Of course I don’t go to any big Hollywood dinner parties, but boy are they impressed by my connections at the Ralph’s deli counter, where I generally dine and dish.

Because he sends me letters on super heavy stationery with a very high linen content. Heck, it might even be linen. So what if it does wrinkle easily and not wear well past Labor Day? The point is it’s engraved! With his name, a lot of other names and a fabulous address.

Because one such letter, hands down my all-time favorite, suggests it “appropriate” for the studio to pay any and all WGA dues I may or may not be behind on, above and beyond a contracted fee I would already describe as a “crapload.”

Because he scrawls pissy little notes all over my contracts that any idiot could tell you will never become even remotely relevant in my case. Possibly my favorite: “After commencement of principal photography, if ever, Writer shall receive an expense allowance of $1,750 $2,000 per week in major cities such as New York, London and Los Angeles and $1,500 $1,750 elsewhere."

Because a long time ago my dad was a fancy pants Beverly Hills lawyer. He, too, had a mahogany desk and a fountain pen. Before retiring to Ponchadilla to grow oranges, he drove the large Mercedes, ate steak for lunch and hired older secretaries openly smarter than he. Even with all the dreams I'm indulging in Hollywood, I never imagined finding another man to look out for me with Dad's brand of old school class.