This Hollywood, Is It Real?

Toward the end of the civil war in the former Yugoslavia, my Croatian Ex-Husband and I drove up the still stabilizing Dalmatian Coast to Venice, lured by the promise of a cheap vacation. The only major flaw in our travel plans was a small section of Bosnia, where the fighting raged on, and which I will only remember as a series of tense military road blocks along the craggy coastal highway fronting the Adriatic. While the attitude toward a Dubrovnik-born national would vary according to the religious and ethnic identities of those controlling the area in question, all factions seemed very friendly toward me, an American, a Southern Californian, no less.

I remember one curious young soldier stamping out an unfiltered Camel to examine the address on my driver’s license, smiling broadly through a set of tobacco-stained teeth. “This Hollywood,” he mused aloud. “Is it real?” He'd  apparently mistaken Hollywood for a concept rather than an actual city where ordinary people go about their daily business. Given our famous way with illusion, this is an easy trap to fall into, even among those of us who call the place home.

This morning My Very Supportive Manager set up a meeting with Yet Another Confident Young Producer interested in my Hilarious Funeral Comedy. By “interested in” I mean she wants the right to pass it around among her Big Deal Movie Star Friends without having to put up the money for an option, while at the same time being guaranteed the credit rightfully due her should a feature film ever result from her tenuous involvement. For her part, Supportive is a master at making these people think this lopsided deal would be ever so interesting to us, while she’s primarily trolling these waters in search of work for me among the producer’s open studio writing assignments.

Either way, I get a free meal, and this one would prove to be some seriously glamorous eats. Though it’s only blocks from my house, I’d never been inside the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel—a mammoth, Spanish Revival grande dame—into which I, the jaded former travel writer walked in and gasped, “Is it real?”

In a case of art imitating life, the recently renovated hotel—the sight of the very first Academy Awards Ceremony in 1929—seems to have inspired the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror at the Disney MGM Studios, a thrill ride trailing a Shirley Temple-esque child star who falls to her death in a runaway elevator. Those crafty Imagineers were clearly aware that the real Shirley Temple received her first tap dance lesson from Bill “Bojangles” Robinson on the Moorish tiled stairway in the lobby. 

The place is said to be haunted by Montgomery Clift, who stayed here during the filming of From Here To Eternity while learning to play the bugle—a skill he still practices, or so the hotel guests claim, on long, windy nights. Marilyn Monroe’s ghost often appears in the mirror re-claimed from her poolside bungalow—which is no big surprise, since it’s now strategically placed to reflect a portrait of the starlet hanging in a public hallway.

Having undergone a major renovation, the hotel made more recent headlines when Courtney Love passed out while partying here and had to be whisked right back to rehab in an ambulance. The clubs and restaurants are being vigorously marketed to the Hollywood A-list by promoter Amanda Scheer-Demme, widow of the much loved late director Ted Demme, who was apparently a close personal friend of the Confident Young Producer hosting me for breakfast today at “Teddy’s.”

“Actually, I knew the gentleman this place was named for,” she told the Snooty Maitre D’. This was at least partially in response to his inquiry as to whether we had reservations—or were at least guests of the hotel.

“You knew Theodore Roosevelt?” he sniffed.

“Oh. I thought it was named for Ted Demme,” she said.

“It’s been the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel,” he replied, “since Mr. Roosevelt was President.”

“Right,” she said, deferring to this geek sporting an attitude dyed to match his employer-provided tuxedo. I mean, here she was about to drop a hundred bucks on a couple of plates of hash only to be trumped by the help.

“Wait a minute now,” I piped in. “Maybe Ted Demme was named for Ted Roosevelt. In fact, I’m sure I read that somewhere.”

This pretty simpleton had never read anything anywhere, and thus didn’t have much to add. He slinked away, a failed soap star with a spray-on tan relegated to inquiring if lowly tourists are “on the list” while buffing the oversized leather menus with Armor All.

“Thank you for that,” Confident mouthed. “Thank you for this,” I said, as a far more appropriate waiter—the type whose father used to serve Erroll Flynn at this very table, who considers all this his legacy—unfolded a crisp white napkin on my lap. “I think I’ll try the Eggs Benedict, so what if it is a Tuesday.”

I'm sure I heard that ghostly bugle whistling the theme from Bridge Over The River Kwai as coffee and water were poured from linen-tied silver pitchers. Another thing they won’t tell you in film school is that while you’re waiting around for that big phone call certain to change your life forever, success really can sneak up on you one meal at a time. And maybe not every day, but certainly on some of them, yes, this Hollywood is real.

Fly Me to the Moon

This week I went in to pitch an open studio assignment to re-write an R-rated comedy. This was somewhat tricky, since the producing partner of an A-list, twice Oscar-nominated actor wrote the original draft off which I'd only managed to preserve the character names. He would have the final word on my hiring, so my Very Supportive Manager told me just march in and "be adorable about it."

Yesterday the studio executive phoned Supportive to say I had indeed "delivered a movie." The producer reported that I was in fact adorable but he’d like to have lunch with me privately just to be sure I hold up well under harsh lighting conditions. Oh, and he’s got to hear one more “courtesy take” next week—either from his lover, his nephew or the brother-sister team of Sofia and Roman Coppola would be my guess—before making the final decision.

This time it’s not a one in three chance, or even two in three. It’s ninety percent, Supportive estimates. We’re relying on the executive who is trying to set up my spec script and senses I can’t wait as long as that might take. While Supportive feels I should avoid begging, fawning or crying in the meeting room, just for laughs I may have intimated how I only have three weeks left on my unemployment claim and plan to either sell my car to pay next month’s rent or give up my house and move into my car.  Supportive isn’t sure of the exact pay on the ten-week re-write, but the ballpark figure is more than I’ve managed to scratch together over the last four years combined.

Surviving this kind of wait requires many hours of re-arranging my sock drawer, polishing what I haven’t pawned off of the family silver and scrubbing the bathroom grout with an old toothbrush.  I sorted through an old music box filled with jewelry I never wear and thought about throwing out the box along with the J.Lo hoop earrings the size of shower curtain rings that seemed fabulous at the time. Then I remembered my grandmother had given me the box one Christmas. I doubt it was very expensive, just something she picked up on sale at J.C. Penney’s while passing the last of her Golden Years mall walking for exercise.

I never knew her very well until I was in my twenties and she bought a condo near my first apartment. She’d raised my mother alone and never felt obligated to say exactly why. It seemed to me she hadn’t answered to much of anyone in her life at a time when a girl could get arrested for that. She worked two jobs to put my mother through Catholic school, private college and even grad school. Beginning the day my mom gave up her teaching career to marry a struggling law student, Grandma referred to my father as “Whatshisname.” Though she didn’t drink often, she didn’t do it well. Even a glass or two of dessert wine on Christmas Eve fostered some paranoid delusion that Frank Sinatra was trying to kill her. I never did get the details, but frankly it seemed perfectly plausible. She died when I was twenty-six, of natural causes. Later appearing to me in a dream, young again and dressed in fox furs in front of some swank, pre-War hotel, she'd never looked happier.

I couldn’t remember the song the music box played, so I wound it up, expecting the usual "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies" or "Moonlight Sonata." It was "Fly Me To The Moon," made famous by Frank Sinatra.
Fly me to the moon
and let me play among the stars.
Let me see what spring is like
on Jupiter and Mars…

With that, she'd managed to deliver another message from beyond that there was never a thing to fear, that the future most certainly holds something truly magical for me if I can only hang on long enough to let it. I gave myself exactly five minutes to cry before getting up to clean the bathroom.

Note: In response to a student's request for specifics of my Hollywood journey, I've re-published this piece from January 7, 2006. And yes, I did get the job. Stay tuned for tomorrow's post, "Be Careful What You Wish For, My Little Hollywood Hopeful."

Miss Julie Makes a Movie

My first name has inspired quite a few screen gems over the years. Much of the early credit for my nominal popularity belongs to August Strindberg, who wrote a 1888 stage play about love, lust, power, class warfare and death before dishonor. Though the movies were decades away -- courtesy of those judgy French of all people -- this Miss Julie is here to tell you that's the plot of pretty much all of them.

If you don't believe me, look no farther than the poster outside every brand of world theater. This time of year it's a sure bet I'm being mounted, forgiving the innuendo, on a summer stage near you. While the community player crowd can't get enough of me, how is it nobody's after new material with my name on it? Et tu, Main Street?

A longtime favorite at the cineplex, I was once played by Doris Day, according to what has to be the coolest piece of key art ever. Boy, they really laid it out for you back in the '50s, when enticing the masses into the cheap seats meant painting an extra disturbing portrait of the female psyche. "What happened to Julie on her honeymoon?" You'll have to pony up a quarter for the answer to that freaky diagnosis. Something tells me Hitchcock passed on me, the fat bastard. So what if I'm not an icy blonde with a kitchen knife? "Run, Julie, run run run for your life!"

In the seventies, Julie went to Bollywood, where I naturally became a huge blockbuster among all four quadrants of the lucrative Younger Older Sikh Sunni audience. I am a girl next door from Goa who gets dumped by my boyfriend and moves to Mumba to become a call girl. Mayhem ensues when my boyishly handsome millionaire industrialist boyfriend (think President of the Senior Caste) uncovers my checkered past. Still a very hot ticket, I likely incite many a  hallway skirmish in the rougher Punjabi film schools.

Judging from the poster pimping his good name beneath my own, Peter Sellers plays either my dad or my boyfriend in John and Julie. I'm a cheeky English schoolgirl who runs off to London to see the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. Eerily similar to my real life story, my journey to that big party to which I was never invited is seriously impeded by the many questionable characters I encounter along the way. I ask you, how can one name in all its various derivations enjoy so much significance in film and so little in filmmaking?

Call it Romeo & Juliet, Gnomeo & Juliet or Homeo & Juliet, the all-new queer film certain to open a future fringe festival.
Call it Fröken Julie from Ingmar Bergman's bunch or Mademoiselle Julie of the French New Wave.
Call it blog-based The Julie Julia Project,the rare one hundred percent inconsequential Meryl Streep spot-on cultural icon vehicle. And yes, I do have an ax to grind, since I formally answer to both Julie and Julia -- and also have an eponymous blog overdue for a big screen debut. Or a small one. Seriously, would it kill someone to fund, cast and shoot me for free streaming in some obscure web series nobody's talking about?

Though that pretty much wraps it up for my on-screen credits, I also enjoy remarkable irrelevance in pop music. Look no farther than Bobby Sherman, who never once bothered to meet, date or marry me. Though I highly doubt he actually wrote "Julie Do You Love Me," that guy built an entire career on my name -- which sure makes one of us.

All Quiet at the Best Western Burbank

I started writing my first screenplay while literally under fire. At least that's the way it felt visiting Dubrovnik at the tail end of the civil war. Working as travel writer at the time, I was there with some well-meaning congressional sub-committee or another bent on helping the city re-build its tourism infrastructure just a tad prematurely. For one thing, once the Serbs bombed the power plant for what seemed to be sport, no electricity was to be had, not even at the finest hotel.

We toured shelled out castles and imploded museums, visiting shrapnel-riddled churches guarded by decapitated Jesuses. Daniel Day-Lewis, in his bravest performance ever, dodged sniper-fire— along with snickers from battle-scarred locals judging him pretty goofy, under the circumstancesto stage Hamlet on the ramparts. Seized by the tragicomedy of it all, I sat alone in a waterfront bar, turning the sweat-dampened pages of my reporter's notebook to scribble the bones of a classic wartime satire.

Yeah, not so fast.

All these many years later, just when I've finally regained the luxury of writing at home, my television set broke. I was thinking of cutting it off anyway to save on the cable bill, since I never watch anything but Jeopardy, Chopped and the live trial of some oversexed murderess who'll probably end up V-logging in hiding after the bombshell verdict. Disparate as my programming choices may seem, is each not the stuff of high drama?

Will the geek grab the cash? What about the chef who lost his finger in a head of escarole to save the family diner? Will the twat Tweet from the gallows?

Though I'm not at all sure how to go about my day without the most basic of creature comforts, the fact is comfort is anathema to the serious writer— even an out-of-work Hollywood writer with the hard-won humility to use that term very loosely. The point is, if drama is born of conflict, why are we writers always fighting it tooth and nail?

“It is easy to write," goes the quote most often credited to Ernest Hemingway. "Just sit in front of your typewriter and bleed.” The fact that these words have been claimed by no less than fourteen subsequent writers should tell you something extra about the brutality of our ragtag little militia.

As with any battle the career soldier will somehow learn to survive, a bout of writing gets easier once the adrenaline kicks in.

There does come that magic moment, once I'm deep enough into a story, when the characters will capture my fingers and deliver the story on my behalf. I wouldn't say peace washes over the land, but there is detente. For now, anyway, I am where I'm supposed to be, doing what I'm supposed to be doing.

As for learning to live inside the green zone of my mind without surrendering to an onslaught of daily distractions, maybe I don't need a battalion of extraneous characters buzzing around the home front once I get  my own brigade of imaginary friends primed to come out and spar. All it takes to charge on alone into the unknown -- all it's ever taken, now that I think of it is feeling okay about turning my back on my real friends, past and future, along with the new husband I never married, the home we never bought and the family we never had.

Like I say, folks, war ain't pretty. War is war, war is hell and war happens for a reason, not the least of which is it makes the best movies.

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm off to write one of those here in the idyllic suburbs of Southern California. Right after I call the junkman to haul off the corpse of the dead TVand take a quick look online to see if we've got a verdict on the whack job with the boob job tearing up the airwaves.