OSCAR FICTION PACKAGE: Well, here’s one way to avoid another no-host awards show. 1,299 words. Illustrations by Mark Fearing and Thomas Warming.
George Markus didn’t like to be kept waiting. Since he’d been nominated for an Academy Award for special effects, the whole industry had recognized his talent. But that was four years ago. Since then, Markus had all but disappeared. Now, practically coming out of left field, he had demanded a meeting with the president of the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts And Sciences who apparently was enmeshed by problems caused by this year’s host-less Oscars.
And so all Markus could do was wait. Sitting in the anteroom outside Berman’s office, Markus closed his eyes and decided to hone his pitch. This has to fucking work, he thought. They have to see its value. And, for the hundredth time, he went over his opening line.
Another twenty minutes went by.
“Mr. Berman will see you now.”
Lost in thought, Markus looked up from his paperwork. He nodded curtly at the secretary, rose from his chair, took a deep breath and followed her into Berman’s office. The President was sitting at his desk.
“Sorry to keep you waiting. What’s on your mind today?” He didn’t bother getting up to shake hands, waving Markus into a facing chair.
Markus ignored the slight. “We’ve come up with something new, Mr. Berman. Next year I can give you the best Oscar show in the Academy’s history.”
No reaction. Maybe bored skepticism.
“What have you got?”
The CelebLife reporter could dig up dirt on any actor — unless she liked him. 2,214 words. Part One. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
I freshen up, check my teeth, brush my hair, reapply my makeup while I’m standing in line. I wait a few moments before a staffer notes my sparkling wristband and waves me in with a smile. The club is packed because they’ve clearly let too many people inside for Tristan Catline’s movie premiere. I check my watch: fifty-five minutes to go. I have to dodge Tracey while scanning for Tristan and figure out who Ms. Creamsicle is. I beat my way through the crowd to find one of only two bars in the place, and it’s clear I’ll be spending my remaining fifty-something minutes waiting for a drink. I check my phone, fending off people pushing past and cutting the line.
Who’s the angel who got me in tonight? Lance? H. Mark? Who else could it be? Of course, another fantasy option has occurred to me but I don’t dare acknowledge it. I get to the front of the line and shout my order for a Love-tini, tonight’s signature drink that sounds suspiciously like a glorified Cape Codder. I am on my first sip when I see Tracey.
She’s standing alone in a corner looking like a frightened bunny, holding her own Love-tini up to her face like a security blanket. She’s supposed to find Tristan and watch his every move. But, from what I can see, she’s doing no such thing. Interesting. Lance and H. Mark burst into view, sweaty and grouchy.
“I literally would take one detail at this point,” growls Lance. “Tristan’s shit-hot right now, but he’s not talking, OK, fine. But can’t he, like, talk to a girl or fall down drunk or do something in public where I can see?” Lance looks around frantically. “He’s not even here, is he, at his own premiere party?”
“Don’t sweat it,” H. Mark yells over the din. “This is the reality of celebrity reporting. As glamorous as a Port-a-Potty at a rodeo.”
As I watch them disappear into the crowd, the mystery redhead appears by my side like a ghost. “Miss Noble. If you’d like to come with me.”
The CelebLife reporters go hunting for a scoop, while the powerhouse publicists protect their A-list clients. 2,475 words. Part Two. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Quinn clicks a button and up comes someone I once met, a lanky boy with innocent eyes, freckled cheeks, and a shy smile.
“Tristan Catlin,” Tracey narrates. “What the hell happened to him?”
I don’t know. The shy lanky boy I met on the ice that day no longer exists, and I don’t know what did it to him, Hollywood or life. His eyes are puffy, he’s got a hint of alcohol bloat (I know from bloating), and he’s had his normal-looking nose whittled down to please the cameras.
Tristan became the darling of independent film a few years after I interviewed him. The world was introduced to “Tristan Tears” when he cried in every other scene in And She Played On, a movie in which his piano-genius wife threw herself in front of a car to save his life. It earned him an Oscar nod but no award. Marrying America’s sweetheart, Josephine Jansen, put him on the A-list and secured him a role in an action franchise. But his marriage to Josephine began to crumble. She held on for a long time, after co-star affairs and rumors of various addictions, but now they’re embroiled in a messy split.
“We’re hearing Tristan is still living at the house. He’s been seen there,” I say. I’m Augusta Noble, a freelance reporter for CelebLife, one of the world’s most read media outlets. I ended up in the Los Angeles bureau after the London office was shut down abruptly due to budget cuts.
“Great,” Maguire Carnaby, the conniving L.A. bureau chief and my bitch of a boss, nods to me. “Is Ivan confirming?”
“Does he ever?”
The young writer loved listening to the Hollywood history that the veteran shared. Was it true? 2,451 words. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
Hearing more and more stories about Hollywood in its heyday, Kaplan often found himself musing about how much he had missed. Not that his life had been boring or circumscribed, coming as he did from an industrial town in New Jersey where he had been a part of worlds never seen by kids from suburbia. In that blighted but interesting environment, he grew up with sons of the local Mafia, became one of only two white kids on the high school basketball team, and by the age of 16 financed excursions into Lower Manhattan by selling bags of oregano, catnip, and twigs to rich kids. Later he was an impoverished American in France with an expense account, thanks to a gig he hustled writing the Paris section of a travel guide for the youth market.
But the Hollywood that Kaplan later encountered was run by MBAs rather than moguls, and populated by “bankable" actors who seemed more like flavors-of-the-month than the stars of yesteryear. But as a young screenwriter then lunching with a stuntman turned writer-producer turned director on nothing but margaritas, chips and salsa, Kaplan was hooked.
Long enamored of the original version of Kiss Of Death — and even more of Richard Widmark, who carved a special niche for himself in film noir history by pushing an elderly woman in a wheelchair down a flight of stairs — the scribe was stunned to learn that his lunch partner, in drag, had done the stunt. Even more astonishing was that Verlaine had arrived on the set that day simply to visit his girlfriend, an actress who had landed a small role in the film. Only when every professional stuntman on the shoot balked at the far too dangerous gag did Verlaine, who had been searching for a way to make a name for himself in the business, volunteer.
Ironically, the largely alcohol-based lunch set up by an agent attempting to steer Kaplan away from feature films and into episodic TV was in many ways a mistake professionally. Because it came on the day when Verlaine, deluged with ridiculous network notes, received one that was a deal-breaker.
A few jobs in Hollywood are glittering and exciting and rewarding. The rest aren’t. 2,534 words. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
Errol Flynn sat at the bottom of his kitchen stairs, sobbing.
His hands hung between his tuxedoed knees, shaking. In his left fist he had a broken arrow, the shaft snapped roughly in two near the head. In his right, he had a bottle of whiskey. There were red smears on the arrow’s feathers, and crimson fingerprints on the bottle.
It wasn’t his blood.
“It’s not my fault,” he said.
It never is.
They wrap their nice new Pierce-Arrow around a lamppost at 90 miles an hour? Not their fault. That lovely lady they met at the Trocadero on Friday night turns out to be 15 years old on Saturday morning? Not their fault. Oh, and nine months later, when she’s heading for the maternity ward in a hurry? Not their fault either. These people? No, never.
And cleaning up after themselves? That’s not their job, either. That’s my job. And that job, very basically, meant making sure that the studio’s stars were kept out of trouble and able to work. Get out my wallet and pay the cops, pay the lady, pay the reporters. Hold my nose and pick up their dirty laundry and shove it someplace where it won’t smell, where it won’t be seen. The studio’s money, sure, the studio’s orders, but still my job. And I don’t like it any more than I did when I started.
But I like paying my bills, occasionally, so I keep doing it.
The unemployed TV writer joked about the most depraved series ever for a black kid. Uh-oh. 3,254 words. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
Eric Ornstill was imparting phony inside tidbits about Tom Cruise during another of his tours to the homes of the stars when the name of his former agent, who’d fired him a few months earlier, lit up on his phone. Eric jerked the van to the side of the street and informed his tourists he was about to present them with a very special treat: a conversation between a habitually unemployed TV comedy writer and a bona fide Hollywood dealmaker. He tapped the speaker icon on his cracked iPhone 4 and turned to face his confused passengers.
“Denny?” Eric asked, trying to mask his incredulity.
“Network’s got a show for some kid under contract,” said the agent. “Want to meet him?”
A few hours later, Eric called Denny and reported on his meeting with the talent and the talent’s manager.
“I sat in the Yum Yum Donuts at Melrose and Highland, with an African-American woman and her son, the star of the series, a somnambulant 5-foot-8, 286-pound 12-year-old who occupied the two chairs opposite. The mother didn’t pitch me a premise, she pitched a bunch of fat jokes while her son never took his eyes off his cell phone and consumed the contents of a box of Boston creams. It was clear to me that this grotesque excuse for a parent considers it in her interest – and, yes, in her son’s interest – that the kid remains morbidly obese for at least as long as it takes to produce a hundred episodes of the piece of shit she pitched me, if he lives that long.”
“And you nodded and smiled, right?”
The struggling actress decides to be a cult leader with money and power all taken from the Hollywood elite. 2,563 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Thirty years ago in a small town in rural Pennsylvania, I knew exactly what I was going to be when I grew up. I would be an actress. There was always a white Christmas, and Amish buggies often blocked your way on single lane roads, and some of the nicest buildings were impeccably maintained barns sporting Hex signs. I got out of that place and went to a respected conservatory where some of my idols had studied. The moment I got my BFA I did exactly what they trained you not to do; I went to L.A. to be in movies. Heresy! I’d turned my back on the theater and embraced its lesser upstart cousin, film.
Ten years later I was still a waitress. A goddamned fucking waitress.
It was at a nice Westside restaurant at least. When I first arrived in town an agent told me that I was, “Fine for a human but ten pounds overweight for an actress.” I’m pretty and pleasant and always on the ball, so I did well with tips. And every evening I had the honor of serving overpriced tiny portions of exquisitely arranged delicacies to people who had everything I ever wanted. Lesser people who had fallen upwards, as only you can in this business. Connected kids with no cares and little talent. The farthest they had to travel from home to achieve my dreams was their doorsteps.
Except her. Sabine. (A stage name, of course. Should I have changed mine? Would it have made a damn of difference?) She was good. She actually deserved all of her success, and there was a lot of it. Once a performance of hers had given me chills. Real goosebumps raised up across my flesh as I sat at the Arclight believing she was a doomed historical figure and not the biggest female star in Hollywood.
She came in for dinner one night a week. Every Friday she was in town. I suspected it was her cheat night and that she starved herself every other long hungry day. I waited on her often and she was always nice. (What in the world did she not have to be deliriously happy about anyway?) Finally, I reached the point where I created the role of a lifetime for myself to take what I deserved: some sort of success in Hollywood.
It becomes clear that the scheming student filmmaker’s only talent is for blackmail. 2,602 words. Part One. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
As the evening was drawing to a close, Danny Shields began to question his plan. Would he ruin his chances of being accepted at the USC School Of Cinematic Arts in the traditional way in the event the admissions office came to their senses and recognized his genius? If he replaced his cousin Chuckie with real actors, Danny was certain his movies would more than hold their own with the early works of notable auteurs.
It was now 9:30 p.m. and many of the alumni and a few of the prospective students were beginning to leave. At the buffet, Danny reached for the last of the salmon and maguro sushi that had been exposed to the air too long. It was that precise moment when Danny caught J.T. Quinn’s mirrored reflection approaching in a stainless steel tray. As Danny slid a few inches sideways, the Admissions Office executive absentmindedly stepped behind him, hovering only a few inches away, still indecisive on whether he would indulge himself with the picked-over platters.
Danny was on autopilot since he had envisioned a version of this very scenario at least fifty times from twenty different angles when he initially hatched the idea. He took out his refurbished iPhone and held it over his shoulder, as if he was casually photographing the gathering in a master. Danny reversed the lens, pivoted to his left, pressed record, then suddenly stepped backwards into Quinn, as if momentarily losing his balance, squishing his face in victim mode, the same way he had been rehearsing on the bus. J.T. reflexively mumbled, “Excuse me” and wandered off. Danny hit pause as Quinn steered his wife to the door, oblivious to what had just happened that would change his life forever.
Was the casting director promoting a sexist and racist business model? Or just finding roles for underserved actresses? 2,149 words. Part One. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Look, I’m not blind. Or stupid. Even back then, I knew there were a few black women who slipped past the gates to become legitimate stars, including Academy Award winner Halle Berry. (I admire her so much that I’ve granted my husband blanket permission to sleep with her if she ever happens to ask him. I can bed Mahershala Ali.) Now it’s even better, with blazing talents like Viola Davis, Jennifer Hudson and Lupita N’yongo walking away with Oscar statuettes.
No, my role in the industry was not to build the careers of those special few but to champion the right for my SBGs to make a decent living off supporting parts in substandard material, just like any white actor of middling talent in Hollywood. Time’s up on waiting for our right to cash in on being mediocre, just like everybody else.
Time to get sassy! My assistant Cherie and I began watching the video.
The actress’s smile disappeared instantly. The earrings stopped moving and hung immobile for one long alarming moment. Then she spoke in a voice devoid of any dialect. I would never have represented this blandness.
“Hello, Sassy Black Girlfriend Agency Inc. I submitted this video not in hopes of signing with your agency, but to tell you in a very digital way that I am one of a new coalition of Hollywood actors of color who object to your very existence in 2018. Time’s up on limiting your clientele to women — even worse, specifically black women — and reinforcing negative stereotypes by sending them out for this very limited segment of available roles.
“We’re calling you out on your sexist and racist business model and demanding that you cease and desist immediately.“
African American film and TV roles are all the rage right now. But it wasn’t always that way. 2,135 words. Part Two. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
I opened the photo attachment to full screen. The 23-inch monitor was sitting on my mid-century modern desk, positioned in feng shui perfection beneath a classic wooden ceiling fan in a Spanish-style apartment complex turned office building just off Cahuenga and Santa Monica Boulevards in Hollywood.
Too much detail? Deal with it. That’s just the kind of person I am.
I also like to be able to see things clearly, hence the big screen attached to my MacBook Air at the office. I’m too old to watch Netflix on an iPhone, thank you very much. My Gen Z assistant, Cherie, peered anxiously over my shoulder, standing stork-like on one small bootie-clad foot.
“What do you think?” she asked, nervously stretching the cuffs of her pink cotton H&M sweater down over her tiny hands.
Visually, this actress was just right. Black, mid-30s, with too-tight clothes, at least one hundred long braids, sky-high heels and three-inch gold-painted nails bearing so many jewels they looked like they had clawed open the royal gates of Versailles. Stunning.
Still, there remained one important test she had to pass.
A hit TV show set in Hawai’i is ending an eight-season run. Then disaster strikes. 2,874 words. Excerpted from the 2018 novel Waimea: Uprising by Gordy Grundy. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
"I didn’t tell you that Sanders tried to recruit me for his posse party," said Amanda. There was no way in hell she was going to jeopardize her career.
"Equal opportunity," Waimea laughed.
"I’m always up for a new experience." She shook her head and whistled. "But raiding a hippie commune seems highly unadvisable." The TV actress’s star was rising and she wanted to keep the trajectory into the clear smooth blue.
"Heard any word about it on the set grapevine?" asked Wai. His job as second Associate Producer on the Hawaii cowboy epic Paniolo had been waylaid by a favor for his boss. "Any gossip?"
She thought about it and was surprised, "No."
With tensions climaxing, the filmmakers wonder if they can convince the famous actor to quit. 1,649 words. Part One. Part Two. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Operation Death moved through the studio slowly but surely. Casting proceeded apace. Costume fittings were routine for a contemporary picture. Naturally, Forsyth would be contractually permitted to keep his clothes. Sets went up on schedule and, as expected, Dr. Doherty’s home, seen in only one quick sequence, was decked out with expensive dark brown shag carpeting.
Director-screenwriter Allan Spanner was Overseeing storyboards for the screenplay when his agent ordered him to find some place private to take the call. He chose the men’s room off the office.
“Are you sitting down?” the rep asked. “I just got a call from Pete Trimble, the newspaper columnist for one of the Chicago papers. He said he was letting you know that, under Writers Guild rules, a writer who is hired to write behind another writer has to inform the first writer.”
“What are you getting at?” Spanner asked.
“Pete Trimble is a friend of Brendan Forsyth. It looks like your old buddy has hired his old buddy to rewrite your script.”
“You mean the one we’re starting to shoot on Monday.”
The celebrated actor starts driving the filmmakes crazy. Can they control him? 2,191 words. Part One. Part Three. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
The first phone call started as an innocent inquiry.
“Does he have to drive an SUV?” Brendan Forsyth’s agent asked.
“Why not?” Charlie Greene, one of the two producers on the film Operation Death starring Forsyth, asked back.
“Brendan feels that the character would drive something sporty. Say, a Porsche.”
Don Masaroff was an old-time ten-percenter who brought his client list with him when he’d hopped agencies the year before. He was known as a gentleman, had repped Forsyth since forever and was used to nudging producers rather than playing brinksmanship.
“The man’s a middle-aged surgeon,” Greene said. “Plus, we’ve lined up a promotional tie-in with GM for free vehicles in exchange for an onscreen credit. A Porsche wouldn’t be in character or in the budget.”
“Brendan thinks the character should be more daring,” Masaroff said, ignoring Greene. “That raises the stakes for his encounters. Besides, a lot of middle-aged guys buy a sports car. It’s a rite of passage, you know? I did.”
A comedy-action star stretches to take on a daringly different dramatic role. 1,705 words. Part Two. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Brendan Forsyth was a green-light machine. Ever since he shot to stardom opposite Ryan Howson in Gangsters Two, the pair playing two lovable rogues, he had become one of those rare Hollywood commodities popular with both public and critics. He was also smart. He had a social conscience and supported many causes and charities, but he kept a low donor profile. His marriage was stable and the press treated him and his wife, Barbara, with respect. He was selective with interviews.
His ability to choose projects was equally remarkable. He famously passed on the starring role as the ship builder who rescues all the passengers in the disaster picture Sea Doom because it was the builder’s flawed design that put everybody in jeopardy in the first place. Rather, he wanted to play the captain of the rescue liner because that was the only guiltless character in the script. Interestingly, Howson had no qualms playing the ship builder, and the re-teaming scored a box office record.
Forsyth would even take a supporting role if he thought it could help a picture get made. That garnered him a lot of good press, but it also made his fellow actors wary of him. And yet the guy was just so likable that they had to forgive him. What other big star would have played the fireman for barely ten minutes in the children’s movie, Cathy’s Kitten? Because his daughter loved the books, that’s why. Or the voice of a paranoid caller on the TV series Shrink Rap? Because the sitcom was his guilty pleasure, and it set off a trend of celebrity cameos.
So when Forsyth agreed to play the hotly contended role of Dr. Bob Doherty, an alcoholic surgeon who climbs on the wagon to save the U.S. President’s life in the medical thriller Operation Death, it was seen as another daring decision by the iconoclastic star. Producers Adam Hoffman and Charlie Greene were thrilled; Larry Cooper, the retired surgeon who’d written the bestselling novel, was honored; and screenwriter-director Allan Spanner was eager to work with his friend of twenty years dating back to when they were both struggling actors.
Hollywood may have too many award shows but everyone still wants to be a winner. 1,929 words. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
Hollywood – 1978
"And the winner is," heralded Artie Edgar, hesitating a beat in an effort to heighten the suspense.
Known mainly for his role in the made-for-cable comedy series, Geezers, Edgar had been tapped to emcee history’s first cable TV awards program, the Inter-Connected-Networks awards, or simply, the ICONs.
The program was being televised nationally on every cable channel, a joint effort to elevate awareness of the non-conventional fare now being offered by a myriad of new programming services.
The year was 1978, fifteen years before the cable industry’s first Emmy nomination. For its time, however, the ICON awards were the symbol of excellence in cable programming.
"The ICON goes to Burlesque Heaven," Artie Edgar gleefully announced.
She invited him into her palatial Hollywood home so he could comfort her at this next catastrophe. 2,378 words. Part One. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
Jill Racine, television’s biggest star, observed the vehicle full of old people pointing, chattering, struggling to take photos of her. Still smiling, she urged me to go fuck myself, then skipped over to the tour group, leaned into the nearest elderly man and asked perkily, “You guys thirsty?”
I helped the tourists out of the minivan and watched Jill usher them toward her mansion. Hot, exhausted and angry as they were, my people were frantic with excitement. Ruthie had removed the handkerchief from her forehead, revealing a small abrasion. The German, expressionless, was the last to disembark. I didn’t know whether he had the faintest idea who our hostess was.
Stepping inside, the folks luxuriated in the air conditioning and begged for selfies with Jill, which she promised them “after you’ve cooled off and had something to drink. You guys like chocolate chip cookies? I made some with Daisy.”
Damn she’s a good actor, I thought.