March 20, 1994
The thing about Hollywood is, everyone knows where you mean, but once you get there it’s impossible to find. Sure, there’s Hollywood the place, but Paramount is the only big studio still making movies there. A lot of the industry is out in the Valley. The executives, producers, directors, agents and, of course, the stars are to be found on the affluent Westside, in the privately-policed suburbs of Bel Air, Westwood and Beverly Hills. Even the famous sign on the hillside is a replica. Geographical Hollywood starts where the Armani Exchange gives way to 99 cent burger joints and fluff-and-fold laundromats on Sunset Strip, but that’s not Hollywood. It’s as if the closer you come, the further away you get. The thing about Hollywood is, it’s a state of mind.
You can tell they’re nervous. A foot-jiggling, hangnail-chewing anticipation heady enough to rearrange the ions, positive to negative. They worry about that sort of thing in California. Forty grown men dressed in singlets, sneakers and baseball caps, awaiting a two-minute audition for a 30-second commercial where the lucky ones will be at best a blurred human backdrop, extras to screen out the distraction of blank space. But less of the negativity. Even stars have to start somewhere.
”Aaaah – no.”
Bernard Wright, casting director, consigns another career to the trashcan, although number eight, a well-built, good-looking Afro-American now on his way down the stairs, doesn’t realise it yet. Enter number nine, a pasty-face with drop shoulders and incipient receding hairline. A polaroid snap to compare with the airbrushed resume photo, and ten seconds on camera talking about baseball. Exit number nine. Bernard smiles. Him? ”What was good about him was he looks like poor white trash: a lot of baseball players have that look to them.”
Sometimes he likes them because you can tell they’re not actors, sometimes he’s impressed by their professional form, some decisions are explicable, some gut instinct, sometimes he just doesn’t like the guy (”I’m supposed to be better than that but I don’t have to be”). Once in a while discrimination strays into the realms of the perverse. ”I love him because he said everything wrong,” he remarks after one particularly bumbling contender. “We hire people like that all the time, they’re great: totally fuck up. It’s really funny.”
The point is, however insecure Bernard may be about his career prospects, his position as a 6 foot two Afro-American in a company run by white Englishmen, this afternoon, for these 40 hopefuls, the casting director is God.
”It was one of those nights I’d had five events to do, and a couple of my friends had been observing me. I was really hyped up. And at the last party one of them said ‘we don’t know who you are any more, you’ve just become Mr Hollywood’. It hurt me. No, I wasn’t flattered.
”Well, maybe I was a little bit.”
Steve Valentine is a publicist, one of the multitudes who never set foot inside a studio, and yet seem indispensible to the functioning of the dream factory. Flamboyant in black silk, golden goatee and chunky silver bracelet, this Mississippi boy has long since wiped the mud off his Guccis. His clients range from restaurants and nightclubs to Hollywood hot property Denzel Washington and the more tepid celebrities Tia Carreras and Bernie Taupin. Right now, however, nothing matters but tomorrow night’s Oscar party.
Time was there was only one party worth talking about on the night of the Academy awards: Swifty Lazar’s do at Spago’s restaurant on Sunset Strip. Swifty now permanently decelerated, the battle is on to fill his shoes. Steve’s celebration at the Roxbury nightclub (haunt of Madonna and Arsenio Hall) is up against the Vanity Fair party at Morton’s, Elton John’s Aids benefit at Maple Drive, and dozens of lesser soirees. But it’s looking promising. He’s got Bonnie Rait, Michael McDonald, Tia of course, and a good chance of Kiefer Sutherland and Charlie Sheen. Officially all these parties are good-cause fundraisers, but everyone knows their real purpose. The only reason anybody does anything in Hollywood: to be a player.
If you want a crash course in Hollywood lifestyle, spend a little time with Steve Valentine. Personal trainer, cellular phone, pet chihuahua (he must find a walker), end-to-end appointments where business and pleasure inextricably mix. Steve doesn’t just do lunch, he power breakfasts, and has been known to swallow two dinners of an evening. Thank heavens for the Stairmaster in his office.
Restaurants are important in Hollywood, a town which tends to the neurotically underweight. Most stars seem to have a financial interest in some eaterie. Newspapers employ columnists who do nothing but chronicle who’s eating where and what they have on their plates. The primitive cult of celebrity throws up curious superstitions. You are what you eat (and maybe if I eat it some of the magic will rub off.) Preferable to cannibalism, I suppose.
Steve lives off the crumbs of celebrities’ tables. That and adrenaline. Two to three hundred phone calls a day. He’s turning away clients – ”I have to have a vibration” – but he’s careful not to offend. This may look like a big town but it’s really very small. ”A lot of people know someone that you know, and that can make or break you. You can’t burn your bridges, you see the person at lunch the next day.”
Being glamorous is such hard work, he sighs, tongue in cheek (as far as you can tell with a man who converses in italics). You have to go to the right trainer, the right parties, the important movie premieres. Home is the place he worries if he sees too much of. Open the fridge, you’ll find dog food and a bottle of water. He says yes to every invitation, quintuple-booking himself, just to make sure he’s on the guest list. Sometimes he thinks about slowing down, maybe making time for a relationship, seeing his friends instead of catching up on the phone, spending an evening out without having to work the room, but to be a has-been in this town, even by choice, is unthinkable.
”I hate myself for it sometimes, but if I’m sitting at home it’s ‘my God, I could have done this deal, I could have seen this person’ and I just freak out. The other night I made two deals out in the parking lot.”
There are no pedestrians in Beverly Hills. Round the clock, the city vibrates with the bass and treble of traffic, the river of frosted metal, but the sidewalks are empty and immaculate. To set foot there is to proclaim yourself a criminal, or a psychopath. Even the homeless stick to the central reservation, hurling their appeals at the blurring cars. There are no pedestrians in Beverly Hills but, mornings, they’ll power-walk around a 200 metre cinder track. Just once, towards Melrose, on a side road clustered with sound studios and colour labs, I spot a grip in high-top sneakers jogging backwards. They say it strengthens different muscles.
Hollywood is America’s second largest export, an $18bn industry staffed by people in bed by midnight so they can be in the gym at dawn, men and women who go to work on cholesterol-free eggs. A society dedicated to long life and beauty, built on a massive geological fault.
The earth moves the first morning I wake up in Beverly Hills, a bed-jarring aftershock measuring four on the Richter scale. Driving around town you see doorways secured by the yellow plastic tape signalling quake damage, but nervousness soon dissipates. Once you acclimatise to this extraordinary eco-system it’s inconceivable that anything could destroy it. Everyone’s jogging backwards in Hollywood.
You can buy earthquake survival kits, boy scout affairs with their battery radio, flashlight and block of tofu, but these are mere symbolic offerings to keep the angry gods at bay. The real survival kit consists of status, power, money, looks. Like the child’s game, Scissors Paper Stone, they represent a shifting hierarchy, but their collective supremacy is never in doubt.
Premiere magazine publishes an annual list of the 100 most powerful figures in town and, less formally, everyone else gets put through the same process. To set foot in Hollywood is to empathise with the egg in the egg packing station: you’re sized and graded instantaneously. Beauty is less a positive asset than a sine qua non – if beauty’s the term for those women whose expressions of perpetual surprise betray career-dieting and the surgeon’s knife, the male bodies built by pec implant and calf job.
And then we have the mysterious alchemy of fame.
Cameron Docherty has been to Swifty Lazar’s party (twice), plays tennis with Warren and Jack, lives rent-free in Roger’s guesthouse and once, inadvisedly, beat Sean at golf. A while back he was dating Emily Lloyd.
In 1989, as a 20 year old freelance journalist working Glasgow’s rain-swept streets, he turned up to write a location report on a Michael Winner movie and its star Roger Moore jokingly told the boy he could take off that jacket, ”You’ve won the bet.” Today the pair are more like family. The actor admitted later that Docherty’s blend of arrogance, enthusiasm and naivete reminded him of himself at the same age. A year or so later he asked the journalist to help write his autobiography, in which capacity Cammie turned up at the doors of 100 industry powerbrokers, starting with Moore’s closest friends Michael Caine, Sean Connery and Gregory Peck. There are worse introductions to Hollywood.
So now he’s known as the tactful hack, a trustworthy interviewer. Stars know they’ll recognise themselves in his words. Which is not necessarily the same as showing them as they really are. For a pro who cut his teeth on the tabloids, it’s a mixed blessing. Do a bum interview and word gets round fast. ”If you cross someone here they don’t forget.”
Docherty runs with the Britpack, which means he gets to enjoy the Hollywood lifestyle – white convertible, personal shop assistant at Ralph Lauren on Rodeo Drive – and take the mickey out of it. Roger may not be on the A-list as he was a decade ago, but he’s still on the fun list, and that opens most doors.
Stars earn their place on the A-list by being able to greenlight a movie with one phone call, which in turn reflects the gross on their last picture. That’s what counts. The beach house in Malibu, the Range Rover, the Mexican gardeners, the maid and the pool men hoovering dead leaves out of the water are just the trimmings.
People talk about their bodies, and who’s doing well in the movies, and interior design, he says disbelievingly. ”They sit and worry all day about whether they’ve got the right sort of wallpaper, really mundane things, because they’ve got nothing else to worry about.”
Hollywood is turning the former Sun reporter into a moralist.
Doherty has seen how it works from the inside. The A-list parties, B-list parties and, God help them, C-list parties. (Guests do not overlap.) The A-list restaurants, Morton’s, Chasen’s, Spago, where you know exactly how powerful you are by whether they miraculously find you a table when it’s fully booked, and where exactly that table is placed. Status is everything. They even rate you by your telephone exchange: 310 numbers (Beverly Hills) always get their calls returned before 213s (surrounding area), and if you’re 818 (the Valley) you can wait all day.
Don’t be fooled by the crew cut, the residue of a teenage skin problem, that frayed collar on his fifties bowling shirt: Chris Gore, 28, is editor-in-chief of six publications, Los Angeles Magazine rated him 41st of the 50 most interesting people in LA, his office is on the 6th floor of a smoked-glass skyscraper in Beverly Hills, he has a 310 phone number. Chris Gore is a player in this town.
No one could mistake him for a fan of the industry, yet he is eternally in its debt. Were it not as vapid, paranoid, and morally bankrupt as Film Threat magazine is always saying, it would not set him off to such advantage. Only in Hollywood are intelligence, honesty and a vigorous line in invective a gimmick. Chris Gore has made a name for himself because the emperor has no clothes.
A Swiftian among the Barbie dolls, he describes a town full of opportunists weight-pulling, ass-kissing, “fucking over their friends” and sleeping their way up the ladder. It’s like ancient Rome. ”Nero’s in charge, he’s acting crazy. In order to survive you’ve got to act just as ruthless, just as crazy.” No one has the guts to point out that the product is crap.
One night, over dinner with a producer, he explained his idea for a low-budget horror film. The guy didn’t go for it. ”He said ‘I’ve got a better idea: a horror film for dogs. You shoot the whole thing from a low angle, you show things like fire hydrants, swatting newspapers, feet. You show this thing to your dog and he gets scared. Whaddaya think?”’ No prizes for guessing his answer.
We’re sitting in an industry restaurant on Wilshire Boulevard but we’re a little early for the lunch crowd so he gives me his impression of what happens when anyone new walks in, his head swivelling like a lighthouse. ”Is this someone I should be talking to? Is this a producer…? Hollywood parties are even worse. ”If you think people rubberneck in restaurants, we’re talking Rubberneck Central. He used to take it as read that this town was full of assholes, but editing his other magazines he finds people pleasant, helpful, polite.
“I realised not everyone was a prick. It’s industry-specific.”
Anyone will tell you there’s a lot of opportunity in Hollywood. Compared to New York, it’s wide open. But you have to know the right people. You’re either in the loop or you’re not. There are so many go-getters, so much success, why waste time with the flops? Being associated with Schwarzenegger’s Last Action Hero is not exactly a social asset right now. On the other hand, you don’t burn bridges…
”You really watch who you step on, especially coming up. The production assistant you work with today, five years on is the producer of a TV series. You never wash anyone’s laundry because you never know when it’s going to come back.”
Bernard Wright grew up in the hills. He started out following his mom into acting but switched to casting when he realised that six feet two inches of looks, charm and long-limbed, easy grace wasn’t enough. Too many guys out there looked better than any girlfriend he’d ever had.
His mom always told him: be nice to everybody, but he had to learn the hard way. There was this producer who’d slept with a famous groupie and when her kiss-and-tell book came out the guy wasn’t name-checked. Boy, he was mad. It was hysterical. Then one day Bernie went touting for work with his company. Who knows who shopped him? He shakes his head. “I must have told that story 150 times.”
There’s no formal training in movies, most jobs can be done by most people. The only real qualification is an ability to get on with the names who can give you the breaks. Whether you’re a producer, casting director, or actor, those are the rules. And sometimes they’re rules that work to his advantage.
Sure, he hires girls he’s sexually attracted to. He gets to spend 12 hours chatting to them on the set. And why not? ”It would be very hard for me to believe a man or woman who has never ever done something for somebody because they liked that person.” If he needs a big cast his mom’s working, his neighbour’s working, his tennis coach… ”It’s very natural.”
The problem with the wannabes who flock to Tinseltown is that there’s nothing to choose between them. His mom used to say it’s better to be ugly than pretty in Hollywood. ”But you gotta be the right kind of ugly.” There are a million girls with long legs, great shape, blonde hair. ”It’s like, ‘hi, I just moved out here from Nebraska’. I tell them it’s better to rule in hell than serve in heaven.”
But do they listen?
”People do anything from breast implants to shooting their lips up. I’ve had people ask me ‘is your hair real? are your teeth real? are your lips real? are your boobs real?’ It’s like, excuse me, this is me, what you see is what you get.”
In any other town in the world Greer Mexic would be extraordinarily beautiful: 27 years old, 5ft 11 inches tall, legs the length of the Pacific Coast highway, curly blonde hair, Maryland via New York, Kim Basinger out of Daryl Hannah. In Hollywood, she’s the standard product.
She waits tables to pay the rent, has sat 100 auditions over the past year, but has yet to land a job. Not that she’s despondent. That’s the biggest obstacle, you see: your own negativity.
These days spirituality has replaced analysis in the self-improvement stakes, ambition dressed up as inner peace. Even hard-headed executives have their personal gurus. One in three still see a therapist, but they don’t discuss it over the dinner table any more. Greer has only just started learning but already it’s helped her so much, and let’s be honest, she needs something to sustain her through the humiliations of the casting call.
Giving your all in front of a couch full of people eating lunch: being told to turn up in a swimsuit and finding yourself in silicon valley, some bimbo beauty contest from hell. Faced with this, who’d begrudge her the fantasy that she’s going to be a star? She could even be right: however daunting the odds, someone has to make it.
After a while Hollywood glamour subverts even the Calvinist soul. All that positive karma, year-round sunshine, gentle shirt-rippling breezes. The smog gives great sunsets. Dusk arrives with a flattering clarity that makes everyone look studio-lit. Golden light on cream stucco, palms silhouetted against oyster skies, biscuit-coloured dust mixed with the scent of eucalyptus. OK, so the palm trees aren’t indigenous; the gingerbread houses, haciendas and Tara-style mansions are 20th century pastiche… They’re easy on the eye.
Nice meeting you, she says. And it was. She shakes my hand, slim fingers tipped with long, whitish nails.
Acrylic, since you ask.
Last year five million visitors paid their $29.95 to file through the turnstiles of Universal Studios. These are the Americans who, despite their dayglo sportswear, tend not to work out at dawn. The smell of warm confectionery mingles with exhaust fumes, leaving a sweetish film on the back of the throat, toxic but delicious. On the 420 acre backlot, sets half-recognised from Dirty Harry and Back to the Future await their next incarnation. Special effects are deconstructed. Behind the facades of wild frontier town and Roman forum, chicken-wire is revealed. The intention is to make movie-making seem accessible – a seductive possibility, but as much of an illusion as anything you’ll see up on the big screen. Breaking into pictures will cost you a lot more than $29.95.
“There’s a lot of very unhappy, monomaniacal people in this business, who will do anything, anything, to get the next deal or the next promotion. Literally sell their soul. And many of them don’t know they’re doing it.”
Lance Young was the executive who did everything right. Caught Steven Spielberg’s eye with a student movie, worked as associate producer on ET, improved his management potential with a spell at Harvard business school, worked his way up the ladder to senior vice president of Paramount and then shifted across to the same rank at Warner’s. He was overseeing 15-30 projects at any one time, films like Black Rain, Regarding Henry, and The Pelican Brief. A year ago he quit, by mutual agreement. He was 33.
So now he’s back at the bottom again. It doesn’t take long to lose your profile in this town. They don’t return his calls as fast but at least he’s not going crazy with office politics, and he doesn’t have that stress-related back problem any more. These days he’s ”writing and growing”, polishing off a screenplay for a movie he hopes to direct if he can raise the money. Three million dollars. Approximately the sum they flushed down the toilet trying to devise an underwater special effect on The Hunt for Red October.
At Warner’s you needed ten people round a table to agree before a movie could get made. It’s one way to run a business, but not necessarily one that makes for the best movies. His mistake was fighting for scripts well past the point where the yes-men abandoned ship.
The way he tells it, the job was a cross between public executioner and whipping boy. You carry the can for unpopular decisions because the company president doesn’t want to jeopardise a relationship. You push for a project and they hate you because you’re being a pain in the ass. Then a rival studio gets interested, the company loses a bidding war, and it’s all your fault. If you’re good, you just make the boss feel threatened.
Many successful people love the process. Loving movies is optional. “It’s lunches and dinners and a lot of contact with a lot of agents and producers and writers and you find yourself being social, having hundreds of associates but no real connection. I loved it in my twenties, but when I got in my thirties I had to get off that train. It was killing me. Ultimately you’ve got to find out what your price is as a human being.”
Star Wares, down in the shoreline settlement of Santa Monica, carries the usual stock found in suburban thrift shops. Static-generating synthetics, jersey just starting to bobble, yesterday’s modes. Admittedly that drab chiffon triangle happens to be the scarf Sharon Stone wore in Sliver, they’ve got Madonna’s bustier and Rod Stewart’s shiny silver shirt, but it’s hard to muster much awe. For $25 you can acquire Kiefer Sutherland’s socks (slightly foxed), Bob Hoskins’ slacks are a snip at $15, and you could furnish an entire wardrobe with Cher’s cast-offs. If you had a penchant for white leather, rhinestones and mock-giraffe.
Browsing through the rails raises fascinating philosophical questions. Why does Joan Rivers favour brown rayon? What possessed Jaclyn Smith to buy that blue candlewick dressing gown? Can any pair of flip-flops, even Mel Gibson’s, be worth $300? Mostly, though, the experience serves as a reminder that Hollywood is infinitely more beguiling at arm’s length.
Courtesy of Scotsman Publications