A heartbroken woman uses the actor’s movies to get through a painful breakup. 3,015 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
I wasn’t expecting any of this, but they say when the student is ready the teacher will appear.
If you had told me back in January that Ewan McGregor would pull me up out of the pit of despair, I would not have believed you. I didn’t know that one day he would come to me all sexy and whisper in my ear, “Choose life.”
I should start by saying that last year was a difficult year for me.
The break-up took me so by surprise that it was like a movie with a twist ending. You have to go back and watch it again. My boyfriend turned out to be Keyser Soze and now I had to re-read every text and replay every date looking for the clues I missed. I pieced the timeline back together, now with the new plotline: his face and hers together in a picture she had posted back when he and I were together. I knew everything in that instant. His confession came much later.
There is this thing your brain does in grief, replaying the story, as if reliving it could change it. I searched for the moment when things went wrong, desperate to fix it, or at least understand it. Was it a word I said? Or maybe it was my childhood? Or maybe his?
My brain sputtered. My mind was caught in an infinite loop. All I wanted was my boyfriend back. The heart wants what it wants. There was no explaining to mine to let go, and there was no explaining to his to hang on. Thinking about it became exhausting. I had to find something else to occupy my restless mind. I knew that much.
The L.A. psychologist follows the seductive allure of his new-found showbiz fame. 3,152 words. Part One. Part Two. Part Three. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
“The mailbox is full and cannot accept messages at this time.” What a difference an anonymous tip makes.
Say hello to Dr. Dennis Corbin, Hollywood guru. My client list now rivals that of a boutique theatrical agency. The driveway is a Red Carpet arrival ceremony, sans couture. I feel bad for Caroline. She held onto Dennis Corbin stock forever then bailed before it popped. Like selling Apple in 1997 before Steve Jobs’ return.
Sitting before me is my latest celeb. Welcome to Corbin World, Monica. You may have seen her standup on one of the late night shows. Monica Reardon, with her Nordic noir hair, tattooage and piercings. I know what you guys are thinking: get a load of those big tats.
She started out doing random, disconnected jokes: I stuck a pin in a pincushion and my couch dropped dead. I like to feed unpopped corn to pigeons and watch them explode in the sun. Realized non-sequitur comedy was a dead-end and developed more personal material. The result was a trifecta of well-received HBO specials: Potty Mouth, Old Maid, and No Immediate Survivors. She dug deep and hit a gusher.
At the moment, she’s fidgeting with a soft pack of Pall Malls, unfiltered.
When he’s thanked on TV, the L.A. shrink tries to become Hollywood’s new must-see. 2,354 words. Part One. Part Two. Part Four tomorrow. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
It’s one of those nights, rare in L.A., when you can hear the quiet. There’s a faint but audible electric buzz. The Adirondack chair is as hard and cold as slate. Across the black void a woman in a lighted window washes a single plate. The sprinklers whoosh on. I flick my cigar into the wet grass.
Stop The Presses! is great. I love my recurring role on it. I’m their Keyser Söze. Three days in, the Dr. D mystery — a non-story, if ever there was one — is kept alive by my client Sadie’s trendingness and a slow entertainment news week. Not that you’d guess it from Carlito’s caffeinated hysteria. But it doesn’t take an “entertainment reporter” to know that with no new news, this story will soon die. Then I can forget about a bonanza of new clients. About turning things around.
I freeze-frame on the show’s closing crawl: Got a tip? Submit tips anonymously: email@example.com.
I read a line once in a self-help book that stuck: the best way to escape from your problem is to solve it. This thought is accompanied by dramatic music: the startup chord of an iMac. Followed by these words on the screen: the ease & simplicity of Gmail, available across devices.
Create an account.
The L.A. psychologist is more focused on his bumpy marriage than his showbiz clients. 2,512 words. Part One. Part Three tomorrow. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Food Merchant is a family-owned Southern California supermarket housed in a former warehouse on Lincoln Boulevard. Step inside and you enter a world of specialty foods lovingly displayed in a Disney theme park version of the Kasbah. A colossal indoor souk divided into sections with names like Marrakesh, Algiers, and Casablanca posted on banners overhead. It’s 10:40 a.m. and I’m here, as on most days, killing time. My next (and last) appointment of the day is at 4:00. It’s why Caroline’s lost all respect for me.
Her Big Grievance #1: Not holding up my end. I could surprise her with FM’s Natural Turkey Bacon, smoked over hardwoods without preservatives. See, Caroline, I’m bringing home the bacon. A joke, Caroline. Ah, forget it.
Big Grievance #2: Dr. Dennis Corbin, Day Trader. I studied the financial markets. Study may be too strong a word. I skimmed business news on the Internet. Watched that morning guy on One For The Money. He rated E-Tec a strong buy. “Lithium-ion batteries — it’s the future, Caroline. Cell phones, electric cars, personal computing. Green technology. Trust me, I’ve done my homework.”
Big Grievance #3: Buying more on the way down (technically, #2A).
Big Grievance #4: We were going to start a family when we had the savings.
I won’t get into the Little Grievances.
My new ringtone: Kubrick’s 2001 theme. “Hello?”
“Sadie Cowen gave me your number.”
An L.A. psychologist with a boring practice has one cool patient: an Emmy-winning tabloid princess. 2,571 words. Part Two tomorrow. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
“Graceful, isn’t she? I’m a full-on spastic.” The presenter in the tangerine gown fighting with the envelope is British actress Myrtle Davies. Myrtle won last year in this category — Outstanding Lead Actress In A Comedy Series. She’s in the third season of that cable show set in Brooklyn where she speaks in a New Yawk accent. It’s surprising to hear her proper English, as if this were the acting.
“Bless your patience,” she says, tugging at the enclosure. Myrtle yanks the card free. Applause. “How humiliating.”
Caroline and I are sitting at opposite ends of the living room couch. Alan, our black shepherd mix, takes up the demilitarized zone. He sleeps a lot these days. We’re watching the Emmy Awards on the widescreen. Caroline hates award shows, but the marriage counselor wants us to do more activities together, so she sits there working on her laptop. She can’t stand this Hollywood bullshit. I love it. All of it: the golden lives, the yawping narcissism, the better class of women.
“And the Emmy Award goes to…” Myrtle scans it, breaks into a broad smile. “Oh, this is extraordinary… Sadie Cowen! Yes!” The orchestra plays the Good To Go theme. It’s the first comedy series based on a food delivery app.
Myrtle and Sadie are friends. I know this because Sadie told me so in therapy. I, Dr. Dennis Corbin, also know that she and Myrtle had a threesome this summer with Ezra Garrett. Google says he’s a “fuckboy” and a “wannabieber” who starred in something, I forget what. At the time, Ezra was a hair shy of eighteen, a fact discovered late. It threw Sadie into a panic. “Ah’m a rapist,” she moaned in her Texas drawl. It took most of a session to talk her down. But, hey, that’s what I’m here for.
I’d like to share this bit of gossip with Caroline. It might make her laugh, something I was once able to do. But professional ethics prevent it. So I say nothing as she goes over Monday’s cases and Hollywood continues to celebrate.
A 17-year-old Latina aspiring actress has the best and worst day of her fledgling showbiz career. 2,073 words. Part One. Part Three. Part Four. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
I drove back down Franklin Avenue until I reached the 101 Coffee Shop. I sat at the counter and tried to come up with a game plan. I pulled up Craigslist on my cell and scoured the rental listings. Everything was too expensive. The cheapest was a share in Koreatown for $500 a month. I called the number.
“I’m calling about your furnished room. Is it still available?”
The woman who answered made an appointment for me to see it in 30 minutes. As I drove, I felt a lump form in my throat like I was going to cry. I pressed the worn out button next to Unit 3 and entered the creaky elevator. Please don’t be a murderer, I whispered to myself. To my relief, the woman was in her twenties with a warm smile.
“Hi. I’m Liz. Let me take you on the grand tour,” she said wryly. The place was tiny. “I’m never around. I work all the time as an assistant in a talent agency. What do you do?”
“I just moved here. I’m a model and an actress,” I told her.
“I figured,” she said looking at me.
To rent the room, I needed to pay one month’s rent in advance. My heart sank.
“I’m filming a Target commercial next week and can give you the money as soon as I get paid.”
Liz’s face had a skeptical look.
A veteran movie reviewer recalls her first vote as a member of the Gotham Film Critics during awards season. 2,540 words. Illustration by Thomas Warning.
"Nose punched," Rhoda said.
"Eye blackened," said her 20-year-old son.
"Technically, the black eye happened before the narrative’s frame," she pointed out.
"Technically, scalded with chicken stew," he countered.
"Shot in the toe. The gut. Bathed in bloody barf. Brain matter splattered. Never have I so wanted to wash the chunks out of a woman’s hair," Rhoda said. "That level of misogyny, well, it’s really straight-out misanthropy. So does that make Tarantino’s treatment of women less revolting? He needs therapy, not another big budget. "
After seeing Quentin Tarantino’s master-jerk The Hateful Eight, mother and son were driving home and listing the horrors heaped on the movie’s primary female character.
"I love Jennifer Jason Leigh,” she continued, “but perhaps her performance would have been better in 70mm Panavision."
Right then, in the middle of a right turn, Rhoda flashed back to 1995, the year she first voted with the Gotham Film Critics. That awards season, she influenced her peers to award Jennifer the Best Actress for her portrayal of the twisted little sister in Georgia.
A search for the script reader accurately predicting Hollywood’s hits and misses. 2,789 words. Story and illustration by Mark Fearing.
I noticed a detail on a Tuesday afternoon that changed my life.
There I was, studio executive Ben Kurtwin, reading scripts from successfully made movies like some office assistant or film student. I know this will surprise you, but sometimes studio execs read scripts. Especially when they’re a junior exec clinging to their job. And let’s be honest – I don’t want to be fired because what the hell else can I do? I have no actual fucking skills.
Anyway, I was reading scripts from the previous few years’ biggest hits looking for the intangible that makes a popular film. All of these big-earning features had been offered to Destination Studios where I currently spend my days and many nights, but we’d bought only a few. Enough to keep on doing what we do. But I wanted to see first-hand what my dearly departed colleagues had missed and why we had passed on pictures that had gone on to make mountains of money. Maybe the answer lay on the page after all.
As I started to read Death On Mercury, the biggest moneymaker from last year, that’s when it happened. The detail I noticed wasn’t something in the script but from the coverage. The reader had given this screenplay a big thumbs-up and a high score and advised the studio to jump on it. The reader’s name was “Jody.”
A commenter thinks he can do better than the newspaper’s lead film critic. 2,681 word. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
Griswold had promised himself never to look at the online comments to his reviews, but he heard the snickering all over the newsroom so he finally had to see for himself. It was his review of a supposedly feminist comedy that featured such empowering scenes as projectile vomiting in the middle of a wedding, and then went downhill from there. He had condemned the flick as the witless and moronic trash that it was. It made $100 million on opening weekend.
“Shouldn’t comedies be assigned to reviewers who actually have a sense of humor? Or a life?” was one of the kinder remarks.
Many were personal attacks on the person they imagined Griswold to be: “He’s apparently too cool for the room. Go back to your decaf almond milk lattes and leave hilarious comedies like Sisters Of The Bride to a critic who doesn’t have his head up his ass.” Some attempted to be clever: “My idea of the date from hell: going to see this movie with Griswold. While all of us are laughing our heads off, he’s choking on his own bile.” A few were so profane or threatening that they were “removed by moderator for violation of rules.”
And then this comment caught his eye: “Reviews like yours are the problem with modern film criticism. You’re so obsessed with the bodily function gags that you can’t appreciate how the editing cleverly juxtaposes the protagonist’s conflicted feelings about her wedding with her incestuous interest in her maid of honor. This was patently obvious to anyone actually watching the film. Perhaps you should focus on what’s on screen instead of that tub of popcorn…”
Griswold was startled. He rarely ate popcorn at the movies. When seeing four or five films a week, such indulgence would have quickly made it impossible for him to fit into the seat to do his job. However, knowing what he was in from the hack who had directed this one, Griswold had decided to order a box. But how could this commenter have known that unless he or she was at the private press screening?
EXCLUSIVE: Michael Tolkin debuts the beginning of his novel-in-progress about a veteran executive’s humiliation when he has to start over in Hollywood. 2,974 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Chapter 1 – Out With A Scream
For thirty-five years, I was the right hand man to John Brine Trubb, the legendary producer who would have been immortal if he hadn’t died. I had the privilege of being at the old man’s side when he went out with a scream. It’s the great puzzle of Rosebud that no one was in the room to hear Kane’s last word, but three of us were there to hear the Trubb’s final adios. JBT’s attorney, Redoubtable Maize, always too fancy with his allusions, heard in the old man’s dying expression the horror of Don Giovanni dragged into Hell at the foot of the Commendatore’s statue, agony after defiance. JBT’s special friend Auspicia Renn, his Abishag, said that it was the sound her rather older lover made when he was in ecstasy on Ecstasy. A logical guess, but wrong; from my catbird seat forward of the curtain that hid his day/nite bed on the Gulfstream, I knew too well the shape of the sordid bellow she was able to draw out of him and I can arbitrate the credit for his final yodel; she loses. No, JBT’s death shout was a blend of the old man’s two favorite moments in all of cinema, opening with the start of the cattle drive in Red River, the close ups of cowboys waving their hats in the air, calling Yee-Haw! And blended with the "Yah-hoo!" at the end of Dr. Strangelove, when the great Western actor Slim Pickens rides the nuclear warhead out of the bomb bay, setting off the end of the world. I kept this observation to myself, as JBT would have wanted. “Hum this every morning when you brush your teeth: never share your personal taste,” he used to say to the people he knew in the business, the people who looked up to him. It was a ridiculous mantra, bad advice, meant to send his enemies, which meant all of you, in pursuit of wasting someone else’s money. Pursue failure. That was the message inside the advice however justified by the circumstances. He had plenty of good advice, too, look at what he did, but he never shared it, not even with me.
The funeral service was austere but per his manifesto, surprisingly well catered for a crowd of three hundred or so, although I had no appetite after my first pass at the pastry table, when attorney Redoubtable took me aside. When his first words were, “Look, Martin,” I could have written the rest of what he said, or hired a writer to do it, at scale.
An ambitious scripter rethinks his relationship with his writing partner when they can’t see eye to eye. 4,233 words. Illustrations by Mark Fearing.
They had been sitting in this airless room for six hours and the empty spaces in the conversation were becoming unbearable, at least for Alex. The morning session had passed with the usual peaks and valleys but by now time had slowed like the last half hour of algebra class. Alex was enough of a pro that he tried not to let his boredom seep into his partner’s creative process, but for the last three or so months he’d been fighting a losing battle to disguise his disgust with their lack of progress. For a second he found comfort in a fantasy where he sprinted out the door screaming, “I’ve spent my whole life with people who don’t exist!”
But instead Alex corkscrewed his 62-year-old spine, realizing the too-comfortable chair he was anchored to neutralized his caffeine rush from an hour ago. His interior rant about fictional characters was, in screenwriter parlance, First Thought Theatre, a bad idea that built a bridge to a more workable one. He had to leave, but a tantrum would be counterproductive. His frustration needed to be dramatized with nuance. So Alex strode along the wall of framed movie posters to the office’s lone window and cranked it open, letting in a slight, cool breeze that carried signs of life from the street three stories below, hoping to lure Santiago’s thoughts to the outside world.
Santiago was sprawled on a convertible sofa that had yet to be used as a bed. He started to speak and then stopped, discarding his idea mid-sentence, further irritating Alex. As the only one in the room with an IMDb film credit, Alex’s primary job was to pitch ideas. Santiago’s was to evaluate their worth. This was teamwork, although there was an unacknowledged competition that occasionally resulted in Santiago’s bruised ego. Alex was the pliable one — the matador, not the bull. Alex was also the manipulative one since it was relatively easy for a writer with his acumen and experience to come up with suggestions with a minimum of effort. Occasionally, he even sat on a good idea till he felt Santiago was ready to hear and understand it. Once, at a dinner party, Alex sat across from a cardiologist who asked him where he got his ideas. “It wasn’t coming up with ideas that was difficult, it was eliminating the ones that got in the way.”
Even though he wasn’t born into wealth like his Dominican benefactor, Alex had worked hard to give himself the bearing of a New England preppy, and every woman he had ever dated thought he was two inches taller than he measured. Santiago, with his hunched posture and endless involuntary burping due to a lack of rigorous exercise, looked like a character actor in a sci-fi B movie who advised the handsome lead on the chances of survival if they took the shortcut through the meteor storm. Santiago was 90% blind in one eye and completely blind in the other since his Caribbean boating accident at age eight, one that cost his twin brother his life. So even though he knew what most things looked like, he had to visualize them from distant memory. This enabled him to add distortion to visual concepts that on rare occasions produced a happy screenwriting accident, lifting them out of the realm of the mundane. But most of time Santiago was just rampaging in Alex’s china shop of ideas.
This new mogul may be expert in Big Media business but now he’s being schooled by the art world. 2,819 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Luck was with Pincus “Pinky” Peterman that day. Here he was, CEO and the largest shareholder of one of the biggest entertainment conglomerates in the world, including a film studio, television network, and a lot of new Silicon Valley ventures he didn’t totally understand. And now he’d acquired a prized online news service. Immediately some CNBC analysts said once again he’d purchased at too high a price. At first Pinky was hurt and depressed. After 24 hours, he snapped out it. He may have overpaid for what he’d bought so far, but he’d also learned a lot. An education, he realized, always comes at a price. Besides, he was the newest Big Media mogul and about to enjoy it.
Tonight, he found himself at a posh dinner party seated next to the most exquisite leggy blonde he’d ever seen. Not bad for a 48-year-old guy from Merrick on Long Island, he thought to himself, enjoying the view as his dinner partner shifted in her seat and allowed her skirt to ride up a little further so he could see what pleasure lay beneath.
Then the impossible happened. Somewhere between the appetizer and the main course, this vision named Natasha Rostova ran her fingers lightly down his thigh. Could he dare to imagine what would happen later? Peterman knew he was short, paunchy, and balding and that this was happening because his hostess had told Natasha that he was powerful and worth billions of dollars. But he didn’t care. His heart — and other parts — were pounding in rhythmic overdrive.
As Natasha lifted her manicured fingers from his thigh, she handed him a card which announced that she was the director of the Michael Simeon Gallery. As it happened, Pinky’s decorator had just started his huge new Holmby Hills home, and there were lots of bare walls crying out for art. After all, he was a mogul now and needed all the high-end accoutriments.
He suggested that Natasha check out his needs — all of them — by having dinner with him at the house the following evening.
HOLLYWOOD BLACKLIST SERIES – On November 24-25, 1947, forty-eight studio moguls surrendered to HUAC’s Red-baiting. 2,492 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
As a hotel employee of some 20 years, Nino was used to keeping the secrets of guests. But this was the first time they ever made him swear to it on a copy of the Old Testament. The request came as he was setting up his bar in the third floor function room of New York City’s Waldorf-Astoria. Nino knew this wasn’t a drinking crowd; if anything, they were a complaining crowd. Because whenever the Hollywood moguls stayed at the swank hotel, they bitched that business was always bad no matter how much money they were making. He recognized some of the guests from their previous visits as one powerful executive after another entered, many greeting each other in Yiddish.
A spread in Life magazine had come out that morning entitled “The Movie Hearings.” Written by Sidney Olson, the article purported to reveal how Reds were trying to take over the movies, and why the House Un-American Activities Committee had summoned a galaxy of star witnesses to expose the supposed conspiracy. Many during the October 10-20 hearings had testified willingly — but others had noisily defied the commiittee, triggering the gavel of HUAC Chairman J. Parnell Thomas. Ten writers, directors, and producers who had refused to discuss their beliefs and associations were called The Hollywood Ten. Now the suite was filling with film studio brass who not only had been friendly witnesses but also shared the HUAC Chairman’s impatience with the First Amendment.
“We’re not supposed to be here,” warned Barney Balaban, the President of Paramount Pictures. “When you get the heads of all the movie companies in one room, it’s called restraint of trade.”
“Who’s restraining trade?” asked Harry Cohn, the President and Production Director of Columbia Pictures. “We’re just talking business.”
HOLLYWOOD BLACKLIST SERIES – A superstar couple with a secret grapples with HUAC’s purge of Communists inside the movie industry. 4,474 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
“How’s this? Take my right side, fellas. That’s always my best side.”
Grant Strickland and his actress wife Lili Reynolds stood on the U.S. Capitol steps posing before a crescent of jostling still photographers as dozens of fans waved and reporters shouted questions.
“Grant, are there any Communists in the movie industry?” asked one newsman over the din. Strickland and Reynolds hooked arms and leaned toward each other for the press photographers.
“I’m not into ‘isms,’” the actor replied with a chuckle, “—unless it’s capital-ism!”
“And what about you, Lili? How do you feel about your husband appearing before the House Un-American Activities Committee today?” another reporter called out. “Are you nervous?”
The former chorus girl who became one of Hollywood’s biggest draws as the sassy dame-next-door type whom men adore glanced up at her husband and then back at the questioner. “I’m here to support Grant — and also our industry.”
Given the seriousness of the HUAC hearings, though, she ignored shouts to dip her chin and show off her steely sultriness.
“Grant, what do you think of these hearings?” asked another reporter standing at the back of the horde.
HOLLYWOOD BLACKLIST SERIES – Decades after the U.S. House Un-American Activities Committee held hearings, a son confronts his father’s accuser. 4,692 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
We were halfway through Silas Raymond’s funeral when I realized that the fellow mourner I had been struggling to recognize was the man who had blacklisted my father. Two days later, I saw him again at Musso & Frank’s. He sat alone in a booth, watching the door as if he expected J. Edgar Hoover to burst in and arrest him. Then I thought, no, they won’t arrest him, they’ll arrest the people he named to Silas Raymond’s Motion Picture Industry Council.
Silas Raymond was the most notorious Red-baiter of the witchhunt era. Even though he didn’t sit on the House Un-American Activities Committee, he walked in goose-step with them. He said he could spot a Red within five minutes, and he decimated Hollywood’s creative community with a campaign of intimidation, guilt by association, and outright lies. That’s why I went to his funeral back in 1995; I wanted to make sure the son of a bitch was dead.
They planted him at the stroke of noon (though the stroke of midnight would have been more fitting) at Forest Lawn, and I remembered thinking that the low turnout for such a one-time heavyweight wasn’t because he was forgotten. It was because he’d outlived all of his friends and most of his enemies. I was one of the latter.
I behaved myself during the services, even though I wanted to put a stake in his heart right there in one of Forest Lawn’s smaller chapels. I needed to see who would show up to honor him. Among his handful of mourners were, appropriately, his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.
And Marcus Gottfried.
That was the name I finally connected with the face. A former film director, he was now in his low eighties, twenty years older than my father was when he died. We swapped glances during the services and then went our separate ways. Maybe he was wondering who I was, too.
A film editor gets the opportunity of a lifetime with the world’s greatest director. 4,163 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
I liked Martin from the get-go. He was extremely polite, with an unexpected sense of humor, and eyes so intelligent and intense that most people feared him. Fortunately, I had grown up around a man with fierce eyes, my grandfather. Being his favorite, I was the only one of his grandchildren permitted to sit on his knee and – privilege of privilege – play with his beret.
This day of my interview to work at Kaleidoscope Studio, Martin was wearing a checkered brown and white shirt and brown corduroy pants, but no beret. Not that day.
“May I ask a question?” I say. He nods. “Why am I here?”
Martin breaks into laughter. “We have three films and three films in trouble,” he declares. His producers Forest and Gary nod in agreement.
Martin wants to take me on a tour of the studio. Once outside, something quite weird happens. He points to a black bicycle leaning against a wall.
“Come on the bike.”
Martin repeats, “Come on the bike.”
“I haven’t done this since I was two years old,” I tell him. But I jump on the front of the bike and off we go.