D23068BE-CF11-44C8-9935-20DBBD90BB93

Dead For A Living

by Jordan Riefe

A dispirited film journalist in Hollywood is having a dismal time in this book excerpt. 2,777 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.


It sucked being on the Red Carpet again. It may seem exciting on TV, but in real life it’s a drag. It’s always at the end of the day, your feet are hurting and you just want to go home but, no, you’re in a scrum down. And you’re not even guaranteed the “talent” is going to talk to you unless you’re Entertainment Tonight or Access Hollywood or some other high-power purveyor of poop, which Renny Aucoin was not. Instead he was a low-power purveyor of poop, writing for Wonderwall and MSN. Could be worse, he thought, could be August and 100 degrees and sickening with the smell of perfume and sweat. Mercifully it was May and pissing rain instead.

He hadn’t done a Red Carpet in years, but the damn intern didn’t show up, and his editor threw it at him. What could he say? The venue was 6925 Hollywood Boulevard. A quintessential movie palace from the golden age, this kitschy Chinese deco gem upstaged only by its famous courtyard featuring an endless array of handprints dating from Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks through C-P3O, whose imprint had to be reworked after Regis Philbin stepped in the still-wet cement during a broadcast.

Renny knew all this on account of his life-long love affair with movies. Since childhood they represented an aspirational universe, a shining city on the hill, and Old Hollywood was the Garden of Eden. He quoted movies the way others quoted scripture, and the Chinese Theater was his Vatican.

Grand Hotel, King Kong, The Wizard Of Oz, Shane, West Side Story, Star Wars, just some of the classics that premiered at the illustrious venue. And tonight, amid a deluge of biblical proportions soaking sad-sack journos and fans deranged enough to endure it for a glimpse at the C-list, She’s Not In My League, a hapless piece of shit rom-com, will be added to that venerable list because that’s Hollywood in 2018.

The new movie starred Jay Burkle, Caroline Ritter, Tommy Milner, and the ever-delectable Alice Eve who, in Renny’s opinion, was perfect in every way. Inevitably at events like this the young cast bonded, insouciantly hip, cracking wise to cameras like they’re the Beatles. It’s either kind of cute, cause they’re making the best of the moment, or sad because they’ve seen the tracking.

An explosion of flashbulbs turned Renny’s head as Burkle and Milner arrived at the photo line. Photographers yelled for their attention amid bursts of light as they stood for as long as they had to. Moments later they emerged into the last crush of journos in the courtyard, hallowed handprints underfoot.

“Jay! Jay!” a round woman in a red dress next to Renny was shouting. Burkle was the face of the film. Before She’s Not In My League, he’d only played second banana. A lucky shot at the lead meant riding this pony as far as it would take him, which meant accommodating and adoring the press. But no more than 30 seconds per journo, according to his handlers. Keep it brief and stick to the basics: “He’s a genius. Awesome. Brilliant. So great. Blessed,” he recited.

“Jay, what drew you to this role?” It was the kind of thing that passed for a question on the Red Carpet.

“The script. Sean Anderson and Don Morrison are geniuses. I just feel so blessed, really.”

“We have to go,” the flack, a nervous woman with messy hair, swept in and that was that. The crowd, the rain, the jostling and stupid questions, all so he could get that plangent nugget of wisdom from the internationally renowned Jay Burkle. Alice Eve wasn’t there, lucky dear.She was filming in London. Milner had already skipped past, through the doors and into the lobby. Clearly it was time to pack it in.

But suddenly a ruckus erupted down the carpet and the photographers started going berserk: flashbulbs, shouting. “Bonita! Over here!” “Hey Bonita!” “Te quiero!” It swelled into a wave and kept on swelling – Bonita Juh-Tem had arrived, singer of “More Love,” the hit single off her debut album “Love.” It’s shit, but she’s hot, and she knows that can go away real fast, so she’s everywhere all at once.

She attempted to slip demurely passed the photographers wearing only heels, fishnets, a white leather bikini bottom, and a white chinchilla mid-riff with matching hat. She posed, turning to the right, left and middle, shifting her weight on goddess hips, flashing peace signs, then herded along by handlers.

“Bonita! It’s Angela from the the Dallas Morning News!” a woman in the crowd yelled. The publicists tried to keep moving, but Bonita is from Dallas and, as she loves to says, has a soft spot in her heart for the Lone Star State.

“’Sup, Angela?” she asked, as if they were old friends.

Angela, a plump woman in her fifties squeezed into a teal and black gown, was ecstatic. “Oh my God, you look amazing tonight!”

“Why thank you,” Bonita smiled warmly.

“So you’ve just wrapped up your first world tour for the album, amazing reception everywhere. How does it feel?”

“It feels awesome. The fans have been so awesome. And everyone seems to like the music, so I feel blessed,” her TV voice flowed from her TV face.

“And you’re starring in a movie this summer,” Angela invited a plug.

“That’s right. I’m starring in You Again with Bryan Reynolds,” Bonita plugged. “It’s gonna be awesome.”

“Who do you play?”

“Well, I’m not allowed to say too much, but I’m like this girl that works with animals. And I meet this guy, played by Bryan, who is so awesome. He’s a genius. But then it gets complicated. And Gena Malone is in it.”

“It sounds amazing,” Angela fawned.

“We have to go,” the publicist interjected.

“Peace out, everyone, and remember to download ‘Love’ on iTunes, and see You Again this summer! I love you!” she shouted to no one in particular, then gave the peace sign and began to float away atop her stratospheric heels.

But suddenly something shiny buzzed through the air, slicing a path like an assassin’s blade, only less lethal. It harmlessly tapped her on her fur hat then fell to the carpet at the base of Bonita’s towering heel (which later researched revealed to have been designed by Frank Gehry). She froze, stunned, then scanned the crowd. Her eyes landed on Renny, who looked down at the object as it rolled to a rest – a CD, Doris Day’s 1956 album “Day By Day” including Gershwin’s “If Not For You.”

Bonita — mouth agape, perched atop her Gehrys, fishnets splayed — stared at the disc as if to say, “Who the fuck is Doris Day?” Next there was pushing and shoving behind Renny as three women in green hoodies and black face masks bounded over the barricade separating journos from civilians.

“Fur is dead!” shouted one of them right in Renny’s ear.

Bonita froze like a giant chinchilla in the hunter’s scope.

“Shame on you!” a protestor reached into her pocket just as two burly guys in suits pounced, violently pinning her to the ground next to the handprints of Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell. The other two protestors disappeared back over the barricade into the rain as journos recoiled en masse.

Photographers broke from their pen, rushing down the Red Carpet toward the action. A tsunami of flashbulbs strobed the scene as Bonita, still frozen atop her Gehrys, was swept up by a phalanx of handlers and hustled into the Chinese.

On the carpet, the two goons dragged the woman to her feet. The strobing of the flashbulbs made it impossible to see her face, but Renny caught a glimpse of a nose stud with a symbol on it: an “A” and a “V” superimposed on top of each other in a circle. As they escorted her away, a line of guards turning the cameras back to the Red Carpet.

“What happened?”

Renny turned to find himself bathed in a glaring light mounted atop of one of E! Entertainment’s cameras. A beautiful woman stood next to it, staring earnestly.

“Uh, she was protesting fur or something, cause Bonita Juh-Tem was wearing a fur coat and hat and uh…” it suddenly occurred to Renny he was on T.V. and, oh yeah, he’s a journalist, and something unexpected happened. Something called news. If he got his shit together and sounded somewhat professional, he could be the face of the story. Renny straightened his hair and stiffened his spine.

“My name’s Maria. Can we do it again?”

“Sure.” He waited, unsure. “So, now?”

“Anytime.”

“So I believe she said, ‘Fur is death,’ Maria. But it was only as she bulldozed her way through here and reached into her pocket – ”

“Was she armed?”

“Not that I could see.”

“Was Bonita Juh-Tem harmed in any way?”

“Not that I could see.”

“Did you get a look at the assailants?”

“Judging by their voices, they were definitely women. But they were wearing masks and hoodies, so you couldn’t really see,” Renny realized how useless he was sounding. The moment was slipping from him as he searched for something relevant to say, something that would get him on the six o’clock news.

“No, I saw a lot. I saw…” he paused, organizing his thoughts. “I saw…” What did he see? The nose stud! “I saaaawww…” He was going blank, brain shutting down. What the hell was going on?

The bright lights grew dim, commotion and noise around him. He was falling, dropping off the face of the earth. Out cold before he hit the sidewalk, the last thing he saw was John Barrymore’s imprint with the words, “The Great Profile,” scrawled in the cement.

Renny woke up in a deathly quiet hospital room in the middle of the night. In the dimness beyond the arcing girth of his belly, he could see he wasn’t alone. There were two other beds holding two other bodies, but they were so silent he might have been in the morgue, which, of course reminded him of Sunset Boulevard.

He pictured himself laid out like William Holden in the scene that nobody saw at the beginning of Billy Wilder’s 1950 classic. While the opening that everybody has seen is groundbreaking in and of itself – the voiceover of a dead man floating in a pool, talking to the audience from beyond the grave – the original opening had Holden on a gurney in the morgue with a sheet over his face, which was how Renny felt now.

He didn’t move. He tried to, but the next thing he knew he was waking up again and it was morning and Dr. Borges was by his bed.

“Look who’s here,” he smiled a perfect set of straight white teeth, impeccably coiffed, shaven and body fit.

“What happened?” Renny frowned up at him.

“Well, they’re running tests. Should know more in a few hours. Have you been experiencing any fatigue lately?”

“You mean since high school?” he tried to smile.

Borges tried to smile back, “You’re exercising regularly?”

“I walk all the time…”

“Good.”

“When my car’s in the shop,” Renny joked.

Borges forced another smile, “You should exercise more often.”

“Agreed. In fact, I would like to begin exercising right now,” Renny sat up.

“Please, Mr. Aucoin, you can’t – ”

“I feel fine, doc.”

“We’d like to keep you for observation until tomorrow morning. We’ll have all the results by then and we can be confident you won’t have a relapse.”

“No thanks.” Renny had a screening at 2 p.m. on the Disney lot and a junket in the morning

“What do you do?” asked Borges, trying to distract him.

“I’m a film critic and reporter. I talk to movie stars and directors and things like that.” He was usually proud to tell people what he did, but in recent years he had begun to notice their level of excitement was usually in direct correlation to how dull-witted they were.

“Where might I read you?” Borges persisted.

“MSN? And I freelance for Empire magazine in the U.K.,” Renny’s mind was moving forward to screenings, emails, scheduling interviews.

“Ah,” said Borges. “I’ll have to check it out.”

“Now, if you’ll excuse me.” Renny started to get up.

“I really need you to stay here, for your own sake. Just until we know,” Borges couldn’t keep him there and was beginning to lose hope in the situation. “I’ll be back to check on you in a bit.”

Renny knew he probably had the body of a man twice his age. Overweight, no exercise, no proper diet, even at forty-nine, his mother died young, his father died young, and he had every reason to think he would, too. He wondered how he’d react if the doctor told him he was dying. He tried to imagine, and was surprised at how easy it was. Sure, underneath he knew life was sweet, just not lately, not for years.

Renny thought he’d wait till the coast was clear, and then make a run for it… right after he checked his email, a string of thirty missives, among them an invite for a junket in London for Green Zone with Matt Damon. He remembered the last time the studio flew him to London. He stayed at the Dorchester. He sat down to start drinking with two other journalists at around four o’clock, and by seven the party had grown to fifteen. By the time they finished at three a.m. Renny was standing there, a pitiable sight amid the wreckage, holding a bar tab for $4,000. The others had all moved on.

“What do you have there?” a familiar voice asked. It was Mark Johnson, Paramount publicist. It was easy to hate a fat drunk guy like Renny, which may be why Johnson took pity on him.

Renny tried not to look drunk. But even when sober, he appeared inebriated. Only on this foggy London night there was no mistaking: he was fucked up.

“It’s not mine. I only drank about four or five…” he splained.

“Don’t worry about it,” Johnson mercifully snatched the check from his hand

“Dude, thanks so much,” Renny blubbered.

“You having a good time?”

“What time is the press conference?” asked Renny, suddenly all business.

“Four p.m., Grovesnor House.”

“I’m there,” Renny affirmed.

Thinking back on it, London rocked. But to go, he would have to find an outlet substantial enough for Universal to want to fly him there and put him up. He could volunteer it to someone but then he wouldn’t get paid, just the free trip.

Suddenly, Renny wasn’t in such a rush to leave the hospital as he sat back and started checking for theatre tickets in the West End, the museums. Ah, “Salvatore Dali and Cinema” at the Tate. Shit. That alone was worth the trip.

The word “London” was searing its way into his mind now as he pictured himself strolling the streets, appetite supremely sated on roti, nan and five-alarm vindaloo. His palms began to tingle. He would have a culture-packed weekend in London. Maybe even extend it a day or two on his own dime. He would drink the best ale, Prosecco at the parties, and maybe even get a blowjob from Gina, that TV journalist with the pipe curls from Miami. Last time they partied together, they both got drunk and, even though they were in a booth, she reached under the table and rubbed him until he was erect, dully looking straight ahead, betraying no hint to the others.

No doubt civilians would sneer and say, “Shit, if you want to go to London, then buy a ticket and go.” Thing is, Renny couldn’t afford a ticket, not since the great recession and tectonic shifts in his profession resulting in depressed incomes and thousands jobless. That’s what people with an outgrown sense of entitlement don’t understand. At $150 per review, he was clearing less than $500 a week. He had a 24-year-old niece who was making twice that on Madison Avenue just two years out of college.

So yeah, Renny would take the free trip to London any fucking day, thank you very much. It was either that or be noble and stand on some kind of principle (a laughable notion, especially in Hollywood) and forego the periodic trips to faraway cities in five-star hotels where drinks are on the house and the women are TV anchor hot, in order to watch DVDs in his ratty L.A. apartment with no air conditioning. No, integrity is a luxury he could ill afford. Life is short, so standards be damned. Next stop, London.

About The Author:
Jordan Riefe
Jordan Riefe Is a voting member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association. He began as a camera assistant working with directors like Steven Soderbergh and Tom Hanks and later wrote a screenplay produced in China. He switched to journalism and currently serves as West Coast theatre critic for The Hollywood Reporter while also covering art and culture for The Guardian, Cultured Magazine, LA Weekly and KCET Artbound. He recently finished the showbiz novel Dead For A Living which is excerpted here.

About Jordan Riefe

Jordan Riefe Is a voting member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association. He began as a camera assistant working with directors like Steven Soderbergh and Tom Hanks and later wrote a screenplay produced in China. He switched to journalism and currently serves as West Coast theatre critic for The Hollywood Reporter while also covering art and culture for The Guardian, Cultured Magazine, LA Weekly and KCET Artbound. He recently finished the showbiz novel Dead For A Living which is excerpted here.

  One comment on “Dead For A Living

  1. Hilarious! This truly captures the nostalgia for the Hollywood of our dreams and the reality of Hollywood today.

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