She never thought a dog’s Hollywood career would be better than hers. 1,710 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Maura Downing was waiting to hear what her former employer had to say, and when it came, the last 25 years of their relationship of professional and emotional gymnastics snapped into focus.
“I’ll give you a $6,500 vintage Hermes Jane Birkin handbag…”
‘Subcontract rate for a couple of months’ work is a designer handbag? Seriously?’
The rest of the conversation was a muddle of Maura refusing showbiz work for the first time ever. While she had been underpaid for years, never had she been offered an empty purse for writing services rendered. It seemed almost funny, ironic in a tragic bad novel sort of way.
“What else are you going to do? Work at CVS?,” the Boss taunted.
Maura passed a thumb over the Apple icon to end the call, watched the lighted face return to the home screen, then fade to black. “Fade Out,” she narrated to the empty living room. How do you mourn putting your entire life into a TV project, especially one that stars a stunt dog?
When they’d met decades earlier, the former boss had nearly stalked her, literally, by calling her relentlessly off the famous film school list and hounding her into working for a fledgling TV show. Had Maura ever read What Makes Sammy Run? by Budd Schulberg, she would have recognized herself as the Julian Blumberg character whose writing and soul are sucked out but without the turn-about-is-fair-play ending.
Ten years later, when Maura’s personal life blew up. the Boss rode it like a show pony. Maura’s most excruciating divorce battle and postpartum depression were thrown in her face by a seasoned pro. “Your husband used the nuthouse to take your kids away when you took maternity leave of your senses.” Budd Schulberg also covered this territory, noting how superiors bring up embellished or inappropriate details to cut down the underling’s self worth so he or she will work almost for free. Whenever Maura’s embarrassment about the temporary insanity, husband’s infidelity, and fear of losing everything again welled up, her boss would tear her down with comments intended to break up a room, like “I tell everyone you’re crazy. But you’re also a great writer." This would break up a room. Or, “I know you lost custody of your kids to your ex-husband but just write. The writing will save you.” Or, “If I had your talent, I’d be making so much money,” which was the Boss’s go-to capper after airing uncensored details of the divorce particulars in public mostly and before high-stakes audiences.
Privately the Boss’s housecleaner took her aside to say: “The people who takes care of her cat make more than you do.” What wasn’t said aloud was that once you start pulling away the wool strategically positioned over your eyes, you can’t make out reality anymore. If you admit the truth and give voice to the exploitation or abuse, you can never be the perfect victim anymore. Yet this Underling somehow admired the Boss. Because the Boss gave off an artificial intimacy required for the business of entertaining colleagues at Maura’s expense. So Maura shut out the world to write usable dialogue in that acrid air which sets all kinds of Hollywood projects in motion.
The TV show initially was called Please Don’t Talk To My Dog, based on a real-life experiment done by a Stanford University professor who trained his Poodle to follow voice prompts and use chalk to draw photo-realistic portraits of world figures like Stalin, Madame Curie and Nixon. One assumed this gifted dog could draw anybody, but the apricot-haired canine’s repertoire was culled only from a carefully memorized pile of historical photographs.
The Boss had come up with the show after execs had kicked her off Catitude, a long-running iconic feline series with a merchandized pajama set for viewers. Revenge had been on her brain as well as Maura’s who’d used proving her ex wrong as motivation. It was tandem madness, each pulling a Flying Dutchman of perceived hurts into some emotional safe harbor. All for a show in development where no one could talk to the dog. Because any extraneous commands would ruin the artwork, often resulting in the canine actually eating the chalk, then foaming at the mouth and requiring medical attention.
In truth, Maura worked on the show but had no fondness for said Picasso Poodle, though the real dog had only made one appearance followed by a parade of other dogs over the years. Each episode had stunt casting in the form of a famous pooch from the past, a lookalike as in homage to Old Yeller or Rin Tin Tin. Once TPTB even considered casting the Doberman Pinscher from Martin Scorsese’s film flop Hugo.
Maura had been told it was the Boss’s own money allegedly bankrolling the series, but the Underling never saw the budget breakdowns. If she wanted to raise the temperature in the room, all she had to do was ask a direct question about financing. Low wages came with a hard stare. The dog could poop at will but bathroom breaks were monitored for the humans with the looming Boss literally breathing on her monitor.
The pair slipped in and out of this toxic work relationship in break-ups and make-ups all too familiar in the entertainment landscape. Each time a bigger hurt was handed out, Maura would come crawling back.
“We only ever fight over money,” the Boss would coo. But money was not the real driver. A screenwriter friend of Maura’s analyzed, “You like to be humiliated.” This was a backhanded compliment because it suggested that Maura didn’t deserve to write a hit TV show or come up with such challenging inner-dog dialogue so easily. In truth Maura sometimes had writer’s block so bad she couldn’t even create a text.
Tragically, Maura could only write under duress, like the pain from a shouting match where the personal insults would obscure the here and now reality of a life that Maura needed to escape so badly. Moments lIke mIssing family holidays, not picking up stuffed animals off the floor, having someone else put that dollop of sour cream on mac’n’cheese… and wishing the separation hadn’t gone so awry.
Sure, this same soul-smashing Boss would bolster Maura’s belief with the assurance that “Your children will come back when they grow up a bit, don’t worry.” This was accompanied by more intense demands for Maura to write under the gun. That pressure served to unite them.
The Boss exploited Maura’s guilt that she wasn’t an A-List writer or had sold her many spec screenplays by claiming this “stepping stone” would get her somewhere, even though it was the employer alone who marched on. It should be said that neither the show’s pilot nor any of its episodes were ever picked up. It hadn’t helped when Please Don’t Talk To My Dog was ordered to change its title officially to Picasso Poodle when the TV show was sued by a UK competitor. Maura ghost- wrote the Boss’s statement to the court but her side lost. It fell to a contract writer friend to spell it out: “Their dog so ate your dog.” While the Boss had shaken with a fury that made plants wilt, Maura ate the grief with ketchup. Eventually she consumed her weight in In-n-Out lunches. “Your ass Is fat” was the boss’es new normal greeting for Maura. Followed by an apologetic, “At least you don’t have fat ankles.”
Fifteen later, perspective was not Maura’s friend. Even a little money for writing was better than looking inward, or shelving volumes of story ideas. Plus she’d taken other jobs. Along with countless emails she’d written for the Boss over the years, it was not uncommon for Maura to ghostwrite all manner of missives so the Boss could sound coherent and sign her name to the work. “Even the President has a speechwriter,” was the rationale. Whether it was a long con or a short burst of misuse, Maura saw her writing appear under someone else’s name. While it hurt initially, the slow bleed stretched out the pain.
And when the day came, that triumphant day, when one of her children came to work with her? The Boss kicked the kid out of the production office. Made Maura leave the beloved innocent, now a teenager, for five hours at the local Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf. “She doesn’t want there to be any witnesses,” the son observed, “to see how she treats you.”
So it had all been a lie: that the Boss was on her side, rooting for her to return to the grid of her own family again.
Yet for a couple more years, Maura stayed on as if that hadn’t happened. There was no way to explain why she never voiced the ongoing organ-ripping humiliation or sorrow. Nor had she ever warned others. Perhaps out of hope that somebody new could avoid being the shit magnet, a seasonal position which this Boss always filled.
Had there been good times? It made Maura sick to think of the false intimacy, and how she never said a word in protest, even when the Boss hit her on the head with a computer mouse during an argument about Milk Bones. While it had been a glancing blow, it was more of the same undermining of any shred of human dignity in the workplace. At least the show’s star Poodle had The Humane Society and PETA to help enforce animals rights on the set.
Over the years, Maura’s literal world view had been warped by the experience of never having enough while the Boss went on trips to Bora Bora, built a pool, bought a Martha’s Vineyard summer home. Without a fair wage, benefits, or even respect, Maura soldiered on while the Boss spent big dollars to laser her face to the point of seared tuna. And through it all Maura found it easier to write scenes rather than live through actual events. If she did have a dream, instead of Julian Blumberg, she would be Kit now, the wry screenwriter in What Makes Sammy Run?, the one woman Schulberg animated with a little knowledge insofar as the Hollywood world turned.