OSCAR FICTION PACKAGE: An actress thinks the Academy Awards are all about her. 2,991 words. Illustrations by John Donald Carlucci.
The party is swirling and Eleanor Gautier is already drunk.
Charles Dumont had been silent throughout the long drive from Malibu to the Hollywood Hills and silence is rarely a good sign for the moody French director. He’s wearing that brown silk shirt that Eleanor absolutely abhors. She wonders why so many items in his closet resemble the result of an intestinal virus. He’s also smoking, another way to irritate this year’s Oscar-nominated actress who stars in Oscar-nominated Charles’ gritty cop drama Brutal Norms, which received a standing ovation at Cannes and the Palme d’Or.
Tonight’s hostess, Liz Fontaine spots the gloomy couple from across her living room and quickly makes her way around knots of party guests. “You made it!” Liz exclaims as she air kisses the pair. “I wasn’t sure you’d come. As you can see, everyone is here and they adore you both. You’re the buzz of Hollywood, you know.”
“She knows,” Eleanor says as the stir of her vodka martini punctuates her statement. When she’s drunk, she refers to herself in the third-person.
Liz introduces the couple around. Eleanor’s eyes stray and then narrow. “Is that Melanie Milapeed?” she asks Liz.
“Yes, how thrilling I have the two leading Best Actress nominees here at my party,” Liz replies.
“Are there any Oscar voters present?” Eleanor asks, her eyes tick-tocking between her rival and Liz.
“The place is overflowing with them,” Liz winks and lowers her voice to a vaporous whisper. “I’d estimate there are at least thirty votes within these walls. All dying to meet you.”
Eleanor keeps looking across the room at Melanie and thinking what a most unlikely Best Actress nominee, perhaps the most unlikely ever. Wasn’t Melanie waiting tables in some diner two years earlier before she dazzled at Sundance? And look at her. As American as peach cobbler and a glass of whole milk. The moon-pie face. The Darla Hood bangs. Her breasts receding where they should be inciting public interest.
Yet as Hollywood, and more painfully Eleanor, now realize, Melanie is not what she seems. She’s a bundle of talent — a dual threat to be sure, for not only has she been nominated for Best Actress in her very first film, but also an Academy Award nominee for Best Original Screenplay. She’s that good. In fact, her indie film, Weathervane, was made for peanuts and has been compared to Oscar winner Annie Hall.
“Eleanor must meet her,” she tells Liz, nodding in Melanie’s direction. Midway across the room, Eleanor sees heads turn but ignores the stares. The focus of her attention remains on Melanie, who at this very moment is regaling famed film critic Maxwell Chambers with a story from her movie set.
And Maxwell, dubious of all things Hollywood, is laughing until his sides hurt. “You’re the genuine article,” he tells Melanie. “So refreshing.” Immediately, Maxwell’s phoniness antenna goes up as he swivels to greet Eleanor. “Ah, Miss Gautier!” he says, lifting a glass filled only with ice.
Eleanor quickly air kisses the critic and chit-chats, her mascara-deepened eyes darting to Melanie every chance they get. “Monsieur, would you mind if Melanie and Eleanor — we girls — speak in private?”
The question seems to hover for a second before Maxwell relents and takes a stiff bow. “I’ll catch up with you both later,” he says before strolling away.
“This is truly an honor, Miss Gautier,” Melanie gushes and attempts a clumsy curtsy. “Let me just say that I was blown away by Brutal Norms. If anybody deserves an Oscar, you do.”
“So, we finally meet,” Eleanor replies to the younger woman. “Tell me, darling, how did you ever write such exquisite dialogue? You have extraordinary talent in this regard.”
“Well, to be honest, I just sat down and began typing what came into my head. That movie is really my life unspooled. You see, I was once that dumb ol’ sassafras of a waitress living in Dubuque. But enough about me, Miss Gautier—“
“Call me Eleanor.”
“Okay…Eleanor it is. Anyway, if it wasn’t for my mom, who raised us kids all by herself working two jobs after Dad died, I wouldn’t be here now. I just know it. Tell me, Eleanor, how does it feel to win an Oscar?”
“But Eleanor has not yet won an Oscar.”
“Oh, please,” Melanie chuckles, “I’ve seen enough movies in my life to know that your performance is a winner. I mean, the way you play an undercover cop who is brutalized by that mob and spends months trying to get up her nerve to put on the badge again — why, that’s one of the most mesmerizing acting jobs I’ve seen since Sophia Loren in Two Women.”
“You are so kind.” Eleanor nods and looks away.
“How do you do it?” Melanie asks.
“How do you just go and morph into a character that you’re not remotely like? I mean, my part came naturally. I knew her inside and out. But you’re always taking on new and challenging roles. You were a countess in one film, a prostitute in another, a woman who commits treason in that spy thriller. How do you do it?”
“We women are all of these things inside.”
“People are saying that it’s only a matter of time before you get a fireplace mantel lined with Oscars and Golden Globes and SAG Awards.”
Eleanor pats Melanie’s hair. “Yes, people are saying this, aren’t they?” But now a frown greets Melanie as Eleanor explains, “Eleanor doesn’t think she will ever play a waitress in Dubuque. The French accent. It would give her away, no?”
The two women dissolve into laughter.
“So, tell me,” Melanie asks, “what are you going to say up there?”
“Up on stage. The acceptance speech. What are you going to say before all those millions of television viewers? Doesn’t it unnerve you?”
“Oh, that. Who gives such things much thought?” Eleanor says as her expression grows serious. “Certainly not Eleanor Gautier. Should she be fortunate enough to win, then she will thank her team.”
“Her agents. Her manager. Her lawyers. Her stylists. These are all important to her.”
“Not your director?”
Eleanor sighs. “Of course. Charles Dumont. How can she forget him? After all, he has given her this rare opportunity to shine, no? At least, that is what he tells all the magazines. But he has his own worries.”
“Charles so desperately wants to marry Eleanor.”
Melanie shrieks, prompting nearby partygoers to stop their chattering and turn their heads toward the two actresses.
Eleanor lowers her voice to a cathedral whisper. “Darling, please do not repeat a word of this.” Then, with a girlish pout, she explains. “Eleanor is inclined to reject Charles’ proposal.”
Melanie’s eyes widen.
Eleanor touches Melanie’s elbow with two fingers. “Please, this is a very painful time. You see, darling, Eleanor Gautier is at a crossroads in her career ambitions.”
“Is that right?”
“Charles wants her desperately to star in his next film, but right now she has her sights set on the next projects of Iñárritu or, maybe, Fincher. She can’t decide which.”
“Now, they have not actually offered her the roles yet. But should she win the Academy Award, then she is confident that these cinematic geniuses will seriously consider her.”
“What about Charles? What if he wins Best Director?”
“Trust me, he won’t. All the Oscar buzz around him has long since… What do you call it when the water goes up in the air?
“No, the other way.”
“No, like it is nothing. Back to the clouds where it was born.”
“Yes. And why is he back to the clouds? Because that’s where his head is. Behind his back, he is being called — how you say in America? — the one-time wonder.”
“Yes, that is it.”
“Pardon me for saying this, Eleanor, but I think you might be selling Mr. Dumont short.”
“He was born short. He just does a good job of stretching himself out.” Eleanor laughs. “Look, let’s keep this between the two of us — especially the marriage proposal. Eleanor would be very upset to see this news find it’s way to Harvey.”
“TMZ.” The French star stares directly into Melanie’s eyes. “Understand, darling?”
“Sure,” Melanie replies uncomfortably.
A new thought strikes Eleanor. “You are such a great writer. Not many so young and sweet and from the middle of nothing have what you have. Why, Eleanor Gautier would die to have a skill like that.” She suddenly grasps Melanie’s hand. “You want to have some wicked fun?”
Melanie looks puzzled. “As long as I don’t have to skinny dip in the hot tub with Maxwell Chambers.”
“What would it take for the two of us to achieve a little Oscar history?”
“I don’t understand.”
“Darling, a thought has just struck. What if we each take a stab at writing each other’s acceptance speeches?”
“What do you mean?”
‘You write one for Eleanor Gautier, which she would deliver if she wins, and Eleanor writes yours. Why, just think: she could provide you with the kind of speech that would give you international flare. It would prove so attractive to European directors that you could instantly become much more than this waitress who wrote a movie about her life.”
“Oh, don’t misunderstand what I’m saying. You can still thank your school drama coach. But you do not yet have the global experience that Eleanor Gautier has.”
“So, you really want me to write you an acceptance speech?”
“Exactly. And I would be flattered to write yours. And it would be truly memorable. Just think. Should the news ever get out that two Best Actress nominees wrote each other’s acceptance speeches, it would be talked about for years to come. Why, we would go down in Oscar lore.”
Melanie looks up at the ceiling. “I bet I could write a damn good acceptance speech for you, Eleanor.”
“She knows you can, darling. After all, you are being hailed as the best female screenwriter of your generation. Eleanor would be honored if you wrote her speech. That way, even should you lose, you win. Don’t you see? Should the news ever leak out that you wrote a fantastic speech for Eleanor Gautier, then people would applaud you, too.“
Melanie snaps her fingers. “I’ll do it! When should we get started?”
They shake hands and double over laughing at their audacity.
Ah, the joys of Blue Curacao!
A week later at their Malibu rental, Eleanor is savoring the smooth taste of her preferred drink as she watches Charles slip off his leather sandals, remove his loose-fitting white pants, and stand buck naked beside the deep end of the pool. She appreciates his sinewy physique, admires his dyed-blond buzz cut which reminds her of the first time she saw him. It was in St. Tropez. He was canoodling at a bar with his wife at the time. And two nights later, Eleanor was nibbling Charles’ same earlobe in a hotel room. By the completion of their movie Brutal Norms, she had reeled him in and the wife was sent packing back to Lyon.
Eleanor takes another sip of Blue Curacao and returns to the task at hand. Stretched out in her thong bikini atop a towel-covered chaise lounge, the actress studies the screen on her tablet and recites the words she intends Melanie Milapeed to utter should the Dubuque waitress pull off the stunner of all stunners and is named Best Actress. An absurdity to be sure, Eleanor thinks, given the competition arrayed against her, but a possibility nonetheless.
Eleanor bursts out laughing and, in mocking tones and butchered Midwestern dialect, says, “Oh, wow!… This is so darn amazing! Thank you, folks! And thank you, Academy! And I also want to thank my producer… and my agent… and my manager… And I’d like to thank the screenwriter but that’s me!”
Eleanor stares blankly at the pool and notices that Charles has disappeared underwater.
She googles famous Oscar speeches and comes up with Sally Field’s. “I can’t deny the fact that you like me, right now, you like me!” Eleanor howls. Her smile dissolves. Melanie and her mama probably know that speech by heart. She scrolls down to other memorable Oscar acceptance speeches. Gwyneth Paltrow’s. Jared Leto’s. Roberto Benigni’s.
A few minutes pass. What would a Melanie Milapeed say at the biggest moment of her life? “When I was a little girl growing up in Kansas, I could only dream of one day becoming as great an actress as Catherine Deneuve! Juliette Binoche! Marion Cotillard!”
Eleanor erases all those names and then types: "Eleanor Gautier!" Pleased with herself, she gazes nonchalantly at the pool and another thought strikes her. Poor Charles. Little does he realize that right after the Oscars, she plans to let him return to his silly wife, who keeps calling him at all hours threatening suicide. Let her have him back. Besides, Charles is becoming such a conceited bore. He thinks Brutal Norms is a success because of him. The truth is he had no clue how to direct Eleanor Gautier. Yet he takes all the credit.
“Did you say something to me?” Charles asks from the far end of the pool. His shadow beard sparkles like crushed ice in the mid-day sun. His skin glows like spiced rum. Eleanor blows him a kiss. In the meantime, there’s Blue Curacao.
Her cell beeps. A text from Melanie: Done.
Eleanor quickly texts back: Excellent! Finishing now!
“Who are you wearing?” the Entertainment Galore TV reporter asks Eleanor on the Red Carpet of the Academy Awards amid a blizzard of camera flashes and the din of Dolby Theatre arrivals.
“Givenchy. Isn’t is chic?” the French actress replies.
“How does it feel being here tonight, Miss Gautier?”
“It’s a dream – and more! And to see all these great actors gathered here in one place… Truly amazing.”
“And Miss Gautier, do you have a speech prepared in case your name is called tonight?”
Eleanor laughs. “Oh, yes, I have a few words. Not many.”
“Well, thank you so much and good luck!”
A publicist guides Eleanor with Charles in tow along the Red Carpet. The actress becomes annoyed when Charles steps into the pictures and flashes a “V” for Victory sign.
A few steps behind them, Melanie Milapeed is leading an older full-figured gray-haired woman who is wearing a cheap and ill-fitting dark blue sequined gown. Melanie catches Eleanor’s eye and calls out, “My mom’s here!”
Once inside the Dolby, Eleanor takes her seat besides Charles who leans over and whispers, “Excited?”
“If my name is called,” she deadpans.
The show begins. Wild applause at a litany of Trump jokes. Presenters. A message from the Academy president. In Memoriam. Finally, Denzel is at the podium to announce the winner of Best Performance By An Actress In A Leading Role. The camera zooms in on Eleanor, who applauds for herself.
“And the Oscar goes to….” There is a pregnant pause as tension rises. Backstage, journalists stare at the TV monitors. Twitter readies to unleash 140 character commentary. Who will it be? “…Melanie Milapeed!”
Eleanor is stunned. The theatre erupts in wild cheers.
Melanie’s mom nearly faints. Melanie mouths from her seat, “ME?” Hand over her heart, she bursts into tears and trembles as she attempts to stand. Then she leans down and kisses her mother and heads toward the stage.
Denzel kisses Melanie on the cheek and hands her the golden Oscar. When she steps to the mic, the audience grows quiet.
That’s when Eleanor notices Melanie is holding a slip of paper. It must be the acceptance speech that Eleanor Gautier has written for Melanie Milapeed. She’s going to fulfill their secret pact, Eleanor thinks.
“Thank you—“ Melanie begins, wiping away tears. The media send her words to their readers and listeners. Melanie basks in the adulation of the moment. The waitress from Dubuque, against all odds, touches the heartstrings of the masses.
“It is a beautiful speech, no?” Charles whispers to Eleanor, who is silently seething.
“She didn’t mention my name,” Eleanor mutters as her lips tremble in anger.
“What are you talking about?” Charles asks.
“Why didn’t she give the speech I wrote for her? The speech that praises Eleanor Gautier as her more accomplished idol.”
“Are you crazy?” Charles laughs as everyone around them continues cheering Melanie. “She is a writer. You are but an actress. She doesn’t need you to write her lines.”
Eleanor turns and slaps Charles across the face. Then she bolts from her seat and storms backstage where she confronts Melanie who is gripping the heavy Oscar with both hands. “Eleanor, how did I do?” Melanie asks.
Eleanor slaps Melanie and grabs the statuette out of her rival’s grip. “Give this to me!”
“Like hell I will!” Melanie shouts back.
The actresses begin yanking the award back and forth before tumbling to the floor. “You ungrateful little amateur!” Eleanor shouts as they roll around. Melanie yanks Eleanor’s hair. Eleanor raises the Oscar menacingly above Melanie’s head. Melanie screams as the statuette comes crashing down against her forearm. Eleanor sees a crumpled piece of paper on the floor beside Melanie and grabs it.
At that moment, security intervenes. Her Givenchy gown in tatters, mascara smearing her makeup, her coiffed locks askew, Eleanor is led away and bundled into a limo with Charles and driven away. The stage manager yells for everyone to resume their places. Melanie picks up her Oscar and looks as if she’s just survived a Midwest twister.
It doesn’t take long for the headlines to hit the internet. OSCAR CHAOS! MELANIE-ELEANOR DUKE IT OUT! BEST ACTRESS WINNER ATTACKED BACKSTAGE BY JEALOUS RIVAL! PUNCHES THROWN! HEATED WORDS! OSCAR HISTORY MADE! ELEANOR AND CHARLES FLEE IN LIMO!
The next day, Eleanor is sulking and refusing to get out of bed. She unfolds the crumpled piece of paper she found on the floor backstage near Melanie. It’s the Oscar acceptance speech that Eleanor had written for her. But it’s X-d out and in its place are three words penned in Melanie’s own hand:
“Thank you, Mom.”
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