Billy Wilder wants an older and isolated Mae West to star in his next film. Or does he? 2,062 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
He was on a drive down the street where dreams die whole. The diminutive movie director steered his serious white car towards the stately Art Deco pile at 570 North Rossmore Avenue that had been named for black birds in trees. He didn’t need a map of the movie star homes. Rabenswald, he thought, as he looked for the doorbell. He’d been in Hollywood over twenty years but still couldn’t desist from mental translations. He wasn’t born into the German-speaking world by accident. Billy Wilder had never really left Berlin.
He was on his way up to Apartment 611 to see Mae West. She’d lived there for decades, resolutely in Hollywood — hanging on, hanging tough, out of the limelight, nebulously entrenched in the collective imagination. The easy life at a ranch or a beach or a mountain resort was unthinkable for the sex goddess. For Broadway Mae had been bound for Hollywood the instant she froze, hands on hips, at the center of a pitted nickelodeon stage near Times Square and demanded her spotlight. Shadowy stagehands did her bidding and swung their beams her way. Light was the semen and ovum of her showbiz. Stars are born from light. They burn and shine and can’t last forever. Actors who are really stars illuminate till they burn out. What’s left, on reflection, is ashes, smoke, in her case, a nostalgic perfume.
Billy knew a thing or two about stars, even though he never took any astronomy classes at any fancy-pants East Coast college. He knew sex, power, mystery. He was a writer, basically: a storyteller who made his creations reflect the world’s darkness under brilliant piercing light. His imagination cut through the shadows and fog of the erotic swamp.
So Billy rang her doorbell and lit a fuse.
But first he stubbed out his cigar in the ashtray by the elevator in The Ravenswood’s lobby. For some reason, he thought his smoking might annoy the legendary woman he wanted to star in his masterpiece.
Billy had written his script meticulously, hypercritically, mercilessly. Harsh light obliterates and cleanses. The bound pages in the manila envelope he held were pure black light that cauterized, sterilized, dazzled.
Mae started every Ravenswood day with a long hard stare in the mirror. She honestly liked what she saw. Mae had escaped her origins for good. Under torture, she might’ve been able to point to her birthplace, Brooklyn, on a map. Her Bavarian Pop had driven the seed into her Germanic Ma that had breathed Mae into life. Gleaming brass steam engines had replaced the steed and put him out of work. Mae was shoved into showbiz to help support the family, and grew up into a brassy Yankee broad who knew better than any other dame on the street, stage or screen that one cunt-hair over the line led straight down the toilet. Leave the bedroom door open and become a product, baby. Close the same door in an alluring manner and become a star.
Mae knew she didn’t have to keep up an act or even keep up appearances with Billy Wilder. Too bad he wasn’t more her type. She watched as the funny little jockey-type guy strutted down the slightly sinister Ravenswood hallway like a military-minded monkey. His crooked smile was a beacon of friendship, survival, respect. Not a Hollywood smile at all. No need to look for knives, either front or back. This director’s angles were all out in the open.
Billy beheld a blonde head and blowzy bust thrust through a doorway, with pale pink-green backlighting. Eyes like mascara on prunes. Chin and mouth like a chimp in the zoo. When perceived reality matches a dream too closely, the only thing an artist can be sure of is that what he sees is a dream and will soon be gone. Dreams sublimate and vanish the instant the artist realizes he’s only dreaming and it’s time to wake up and get to work. The harder an artist works on the substance of his dreams, the closer he gets to the truth of the original. But he knows the dream version was not just slightly different but better. Others may see what he did with the dream. But he saw the real thing.
No one had offered Mae a decent role in decades. She was fucked, a zero in the sycophantic Hollywood collaboration machine. She could only write for, play, and be herself. Her image for public consumption only existed at drag balls and everywhere schmaltzy arcana was treasured in mummified form.
But Billy knew he had to ask her first, anyway. True, the masses were asses and could be counted on to buy any glittery garbage thrown their way. But given something good, they’d buy the quality product too, eventually. Just don’t make the high-end merchandise so hot that they scorch their gaping eyeballs. Point them in the right direction. Let them decide how far they want to follow and think it was their choice.
“Whatcha got for me, Billy-boy?”
“This is big, Mae. I kid you not. Big.”
“Well, usually I like ‘em big. Come on in and don’t mind the mess.”
Billy looked dangerously close at the flesh-and-blood woman and the rat’s nest she lived in. Unblinking observation was a bad habit of his. But Billy couldn’t bring himself to say, “Whoops, forgot to put a dime in the parking meter. Be right back.” He’d pushed the bell. He’d entered the building. Pulling out prematurely was unmanly. He had to go all the way with Mae. He knew what she’d say, unless everything he knew about the physical universe was wrong, or a lie.
Mae also understood showbiz gravitation and optics as deeply as Los Alamos eggheads understood positive and negative attractions, critical mass and radiation. Physicists in the early 1950s were close to an understanding of how the sun worked. They’d moved conceptually beyond the military speculation that if they split enough heavy atoms, they could harness sufficient power to blow up the world. Light atoms smashed together to create light waves and light particles and keep heavenly bodies in perpetual motion until the whole production collapsed. No viable fusion furnaces existed yet on earth, let alone Hollywood. No mechanical source could supply the amperage and wattage required to illuminate what lay in deep shadow behind Mae’s mask and monumental figure.
“You know I’m always happy to see you, Billy, but I’m particularly glad you showed up right now. Something sorta awful just happened.”
Broken glass and bloody feathers were strewn near the French windows in the shabby living room. A robin, bluebird or oriole had crashed through a clear pane of glass to get at cake crumbs on Mae’s largely unswept floor. Billy had never studied ornithology, biology, botany or patisserie. He saw a badly injured bird gasping as it lay dying on the dusty and stained parquet floor.
“Scared the absolute shit out of me,” Mae continued. “I was sitting here minding my own business when slam, bam, crash, tinkle. Must’ve come through beak first. Look at his poor little face, all torn up.”
Billy had never studied medicine or veterinary science either, but he knew there was only one possible solution. “Don’t look, Mae.”
“It’s my floor. You bet I’m looking.”
He had his shoes custom-made in London, but he knew they were just shoes. He strode purposefully and stomped on the bird’s head, extinguishing its brain instantly.
“You sure it’s dead?”
“One thing I absolutely guarantee: it’ll never get any deader.”
“Do me another favor, Billy. My maid… well, she sorta took the day off. Would you mind getting rid of him for me? I’ll tell the super to fix the window when we’re done.”
“No problem, Mae.”
Billy hobbled to the kitchen, wiped bird blood and avian gray matter off his sole with a rag from under the sink, and came back with a broom and dustpan. Mae was already reading the working draft of Sunset Boulevard, enraptured. He quietly swept up, wiped the floor clean. He’d been witness to plenty of conscientious Hausfrau work during his Austrian childhood. He knew the pragmatic movements, the gestures, the attitude, the expression.
“Oh, Billy, the story starts off fantastic. Best opener you ever wrote. I’m not just saying this, neither. It comes alive, in brilliant Technicolor.”
“I’m going to shoot black and white on this one, Mae.”
“Big mistake, if you ask me. Oh my God, a funeral for a hideous baboon.”
“A chimp, Mae. I was thinking chimpanzee. Maybe we could get J. Fred Muggs. Or Ham, the one who went to Outer Space.”
“Who’s my male lead?”
Billy’s heart leapt like a hooked trout. “William Holden told me he’s firmly 100% on board.”
Mae growled at the thought. Big Bill Hold ‘Em wasn’t flashy or overly young. She imagined the feel of his outsized mitts all over her. A vision of his barrel-shaped hairless chest flashed. The man dripped Average Joe sex appeal.
“Perfect,” she said. “Great work, Billy. You’re worth more than anyone in the biz… Hey, wait a minute.”
Billy felt a rush, a complicated mix of impending disaster and sweet relief. He re-lived a near-forgotten episode with an Alexanderplatz hooker, a Hausfrau-for-hire. The woman was nearly twice his size, with bazooms like potato sacks stretched over Graf Hindenburg zeppelins. Her red hands spoke of expert caresses and near-fatal spanking sessions.
“This crazy old Norma Desmond of yours feels sorry for herself. This horrible stupid hag winds up in the loony bin. Because she’s not strong enough. Billy, how could you do this to me? How could you even think of me playing this macabre antithesis of everything I ever created?”
“Think like an artist instead of a work of art, Mae. Drop the mask for just a minute. You know this is the best Hollywood picture that’ll ever come out of Hollywood.”
“Do you know what you’re asking from me, Billy?”
“I know, Mae. Believe me. The role of a lifetime.”
Mae believed him. She thought deeply, for a moment. Could she face the changes she’d have to make, the sides of herself she’d have to reveal? Acceptance would have implied a soul sacrifice, not a sale. She was angry and hurt. Any showbiz pro can spot a hot opportunity. The pain comes from a glimpse at the hidden cost. Better to be blind, in that sense.
“Can’t do it, Billy. This is yours. I’m mine. All I have left is me, and I can’t give myself up. Myself ain’t much anymore, but it belongs strictly to me. You need a real actress. I mean a real has-been actress. Which is something I’ll never be, no matter what anyone says, thinks, imagines or knows.
Billy felt like crying. He remembered the time he was physically dragged, against his will, to witness a cabaret show that featured a famous mime from France. The dumb show was unmitigated kitsch horror, but there was something poignant about the intensive training and physical exertion that had gone into one skit where the man put on a make-believe laughing mask of happiness, then couldn’t get it off again. The look of animal terror behind the smiley face transcended the corny outfit and makeup and music. A sublime instant was enough for salvation, sometimes. Like this moment, in The Ravenswood, in an aged star’s cream-and-gold living mausoleum.
He saw that Mae’s face was trapped behind the mask of washed-up hopeless oblivion and the maggot-packed zombie corpse of fame that refused to die, no matter how much the prisoner longed for release or another chance to beam proud and beautiful.
“Thanks for reading the script, Mae. Don’t ever change.”
“I won’t, Billy. I can’t. Not even if I wanted to. And I don’t.”
Billy knew Mae would never take the part he had to offer her. If she’d agreed to play Norma Desmond, he’d have known she wasn’t the right star for the job. He made his greatest movie without her.
Mae remained Mae West until remains were all that remained. Heavy relics were removed from her apartment by the auction house movers built like professional wrestlers. They scared a bunch of crows strung out along the telephone wires suspended above North Rossmore Avenue. The birds took off and flew into the infinitely blue sky over Los Angeles.