Everything But Oscar

by Quendrith Johnson

OSCAR FICTION PACKAGE: A screenwriter turned Hollywood blogger obsesses about award shows. 2,673 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.

He liked to call her Celeste, after Celeste Holm, because he said, “You are destined to be a character actor of writing.” Kenny was the first screenwriter turned journalist she ever met who really got somewhere. And Kenneth J. Bodemire was incredibly smug about it at the time. Framed magazine coverage of himself with famous film names lined a back wall in his Marina Del Rey stronghold on the beach. It looked like a set decorator had given the place a nautical going over.

Since nobody was making any money from journalism these days, Kenny characterized his career collapse with this line: “When the Internet went up, the price of words went way down. And the price of assholes went way up.” Which referred to professional trolls, he said, as if he’d just discovered this decades-plus phenom.

On this day, she saw him up at Peet’s on Montana near 14th Street, one of his favorite “I’m still here” hang-outs. Next thing she knew, he was walking toward her car. Unbelievable. Zip, window down.

“Isn’t there a law against walking under the influence?” she smiled.

In hindsight, she wished she’d had a body mic to record their conversation. At the time Celeste had no way to help him, even as Kenny poured his Tequila-soaked self into her passenger seat. As soon as he got in the Volvo, he quipped, “If you give me $20, I’ll get out.” That was his new reflexive funny line. Celeste side-eyed him, trying not to think how steep his drop had been. She really didn’t like driving around with this level of manic depression energy in a closed space.

“You don’t know how rotten the whole thing is, all of it. Everybody is in on it. Except Oscar.”

“I’d never pegged you for a paranoid schizophrenic, but I’m warming up to it.” It was meant to be funny, but he tightened. “What’s your objective, Kenny: to bring down the entire Award Show establishment?”

She’d asked him this over and over again, through all the years Celeste had to listen to Kenny’s Major Televised Award Show Conspiracy Theories. He was once a name screenwriter, then a Hollywood journalist, but now just kindling ready to light.

“Someone already called out the National Board Of Review. Watch what happens. Everybody is going down. Except Oscar.”

Celeste slammed on the brakes for a pedestrian on Ocean Avenue. “That should be a hashtag,” she laughed until he stopped her with a deadly silence, huffing down his smartphone. “Why don’t you just cover the Oscars, if you think everything else is so corrupt?”

“They wouldn’t fucking credential me because I’m blacklisted. By poisonous publicists. Every award show hires these snakes. Snakes in the snake pit. I used to believe, Celeste, that I was immune to their venom as one of the Movie Folk. Went to their parties. Danced on their lawns. Jumped clothed in their pools. Snorted their dreams.”

An Ohio transplant who pretended to be from the Valley, Kenny as a screenwriter was best known for a film about a motocross racing team who inhabit a dark underworld of cage riders but end up saving the life of a cheerleader when she escapes a narcoleptic serial killer in the Mojave, more or less. This was in the T&A era, before PC, #MeToo and meaningful diversity. At 5’6”, he stuck out as more of an unlikely character among scripters than the wooden no-talents who inhabited his high concept testosterone-baloney car-chase back catalogue.

How he lost all his money, his house and his dignity was too easily summed up by addiction. It wasn’t just the recreational activities that maxed out his investment instruments; Kenny was one of those guys who saw something bigger coming and always spent accordingly. Career-wise, there was a blown deal with Warners. Something that fell through with Universal. There was another project in turnaround that was placed with a producer making an umpteenth comeback. It would be a hit, if nothing else came through. Except it wasn’t.

Then a much older, rounder and grayer Kenny became a pro blogger of sorts. Basically he just wanted to sue everyone he’d ever shared a meal with in Hollywood. There was no low point to his rage.

On this day, every so often, he made himself alternately more calm and more crazed by punching the ceiling of Celeste’s Volvo. It had helped his reporting that he knew every scandal by heart from Peggy Entwistle to Pia Zadora. Not just the usual “jumped off the Hollywood sign” story, but “Peg was married to the guy who was Brian Keith’s father when she was 19.” He would say phrases like “racketeering” and “ticket-scalping” and “someone has tapes,” as if some safety deposit box somewhere was full of damning audio conversations from the inner sanctum of Awardsdom. Kenny knew where the bodies were buried because years before some scandals broke, he’d already set up his own whisper campaigns. It was his clout.

Celeste was that one friend who would pick him up and console him at any time of the day or night. What she loved about Kenny was his Kenniness. That total bullshit obsession with movies that went so deep he couldn’t separate himself from the frantic motion in some pictures. He knew everyone in the credits of most major studio releases, and would always talk through the scroll in hushed tones that implied a weird sense of self-importance. But even more impressive, Kenny knew every award that any movie had ever won, and who else was up that year for the same prize. He’d tell you about front-end loading: how award shows put a red herring out with so many nominations, while the second loaded entry usually jumped ahead in the final wins.

Now he was so down and out that someone had put a photograph of his license plate on Instagram and shown him sleeping on two laundry bags (actually, stuffed pillowcases) as evidence that he lived in his Chevy Suburban.

“Who do you think posted your Suburban on the internet?” Celeste asked as they randomly headed for Malibu.

In the passenger’s seat, Kenny sulked. He was making it difficult for Celeste to drive because she kept wondering if he was going to pop the door open and roll out onto PCH. She clicked the safety lock on the doors.

“Like I fucking care. Didn’t Hillary Swank or Jim Carrey once live in a car?”

“You’re not an actor, Kenny, unless you have a double life I don’t know about.”

“They made me believe I was one of them. Then I saw the star machinery, and they threw me out. No more Red Carpets, no more travel junkets or gentle coercion. Pulled my credentials. I’m as welcome as someone who lights the filter of their cigarette the wrong way in their mouth. Stunk up the place. Hey, I haven’t been credentialed since Mira Sorvino announced the Oscar nominations way back when —“

“That’s something,” Celeste slipped in, but he was on a roll.

“Here’s why you’re a good screenwriter, girlfriend, and you make almost no money —“

“Fuck you, Kenny. I’d always said I’d do screenwriting for free.”

“And they’re taking you up on it.”

By this time, Celeste guessed, he was fairly drunk. Talking Drunk. Not Yelling Drunk yet. Kenny looked really healthy, even though he smelled like something with olives in it.

“Don’t compare my career to yours, Kenny-boy. You burned all your bridges.”

“No, I burned on the bridge,” he drunk-snapped. “As I was saying, everything but the Oscars is crooked. Except Oscar.”

“Why don’t you just name names? Go on a Reality Show, or find some outside-the-business reporter who knows what to do with what you’re saying. Or just let it go, Kenny.”

“Celeste, you don’t understand. These people are vicious. They have a lot at stake because they control the whole thing; everybody is in on it. These kids who come to Hollywood and complain about having to suck a knob, this is what the business is in the dark corners where the careers are decided. Award shows are the proof. Except Oscar.”

From Celeste’s POV, he’d done an Icarus: gotten too close to the sun and forgotten who he was. Back in 1999, when Kenny was on top — magazine-, news media- and pundit-wise — she’d asked him to go to Sundance and Cannes with her and her then script. But he declined. His career as a journalist was blazing. Kenny hung with huge talents and fired up a trail partying through the best film festivals. There was talk he might make a screenwriting comeback, maybe even direct. That’s when all his “Hollywood Friends”dumped him.

“Hey, here’s a story,” Celeste started, and Kenny let her continue because he knew it was one of her schadenfreude feel-good stories. “At least you’re not that certain Former Hollywood Correspondent who’s taken to writing about his penis for Men’s Health Online.”

“Everybody knows about my penis already.” He wasn’t kidding.

“I know what’s really bothering you, Kenny. Want to hear?”

“Celeste, your problem is your fucking toxic optimism.”

She took that as a “yes.”

“Here is it, I’ll spell it out for you: The Digital Age. It made you obsolete, and you hate that. Even if you had the biggest scoop ever, you refuse to use WordPress. You still want to fax things, FML.”

He began to cry. Not weepy big-drop real tears. More howling like a dog with its leg caught in a bear trap. There was no joking him out of it.

“They killed my dream, these people. Took away what I loved about Hollywood: that everyone had a chance who took a chance on this fucking clown town. Yes, there were the Ups, the Downs, but always you could get Up again. And then you look close, you get closer, and see nobody has a fucking chance except those who they handpick, these award show fuckers. Except Oscar. I’m not just saying ‘the Oscars are legit’ just to say ‘the Oscars are legit.’ They are legit. Five thousand plus real members. Who still matter,” he continued. “No other award show really adds to box office totals. That’s what they’re supposed to do, right? Fatten the bottom line?”

He wiped his nose on the lint-free green microfiber cloth from Auto Zone that was strictly for Celeste’s windshield. She kept silent.

“You say you understand but you don’t understand, Celeste. I was there with them. I cared, man. It was the Revolution. Films were important before the term ‘Fly-Over States’ existed. I had traction, a voice in the Biz. I mattered. I could say things in print —“

Celeste had to stop him there. “Kenny, nobody says ‘in print’ anymore. You’re not alone watching the money in journalism disappear, the credibility, the reporting. It’s all a bygone era.”

“I can’t teach,” he wailed. “I don’t even have a degree beyond a B.A. I don’t have a fucking pension. Someone should give me one for all the soldiering I did on the front lines of Film Journalism when it mattered. For all the stories I broke, for all the set visits, for all the interviews that took people out of their miserable lives long enough to believe in The Hollywood Dream Factory.”

“How about all those famous screenwriters you used to party with? Can’t they help?”

He snapped up the snot rag again, rubbing his eyes and bawling, just outright bawling. More like animal cries than human.

She patted his back when he started choking on his own grief.

“Stop writing. Why can’t you do something else? Travel, maybe far from all this.”

“Yeah, so in some other country I can trade on my big Hollywood past?”
He spit while he said this. “Somewhere they have no idea that I’m a nobody now? No Big Byline. No Hollywood Friends. Not even any Hollywood Enemies. Who used to get quoted on the movie posters, made the DVD covers, and now has nothing to show for it all?”

Celeste was driving on PCH. The Pacific Ocean ticked by, wave upon wave. She tried to hug him in the passenger’s seat. So much for using Malibu to change his mindset. She listened to the soothing hum of the car engine instead of his crankiness about the loss of his cronyism.

“I always feel this way when Award Season starts,” Kenny confided. “All these fucking shows, one after another, just run right over me. I’m getting zero invites, nada. Nobody is calling me. Not even the shitty publicists with stars who used to be on cancelled TV shows. Ain’t no Sunshine Sachs where I’m going.”

Celeste decided to get him as far out of town as possible, given such an organic downer. Maybe by Oxnard he’d be human again, remember he had a life outside of so-called show business. Why Celeste wasn’t jaded as well had more to do with never having risen as high as Kenny, she reasoned, almost glad now that his flaunted success hadn’t happened to her. It was just painful to hear about.

“Hollywood is an illusion, right? So why are you, one of the best reporters I know, shocked? What did you think it was?”

He brightened for a moment, “Look, I think AFI has the right idea, ‘No winners or losers,’ just a big party to drop a few names.”

“Hey, leave AFI out of your rant, Kenny.” He’d got her blood pressure up finally. “AFI isn’t fair game.”

He was backing Celeste into a corner when they slammed into a stopped Lexus at the green light at the intersection to Topanga. The airbags detonated, both sides, and hit her loose arm hard. Kenny’s face was turned toward her as he skidded down the bag, bleeding onto Celeste’s shoulder. Airbag smoke fluttered and some of the incendiary matter that flew out with the inflated lung-like crash protectors. Their auto spun around and slammed into the cement barrier beside a cliff face.

When all the motion stopped, Kenny was laughing with his mouth wide open, but no sound was coming out. Then the airbag-air escaped, and they slow-motioned down to the reality. She to the steering wheel; he to the dashboard.

“It’s a Volvo. We’ll be fine,” Celeste reassured with the clarity of a captured fighter pilot, secretly praying no one was hurt in the other driver’s car.

“This is a good sign,” Kenny sputtered through a split red lower lip. “Something. Real. Just. Happened.”

Three months later, in February, Kenny called.

“Hombre, nice to hear from you. How’s your neck?” Celeste asked.

“Guess what? I got credentialed into the Oscars. The Press Room. The Whole Nine. This is great news. Nobody got credentialed into the Oscars from FilmFixers Online, except me.”

“What are they paying you?”

“Don’t be like that.”

“I’m hanging up now.”

“The Oscars, man. The Big Kahuna. And I learned how to use WordPress, you should be happy.”

“What about how everything is corrupt? And you’re going to take down the whole system?” she hissed.

“I’m back in with Oscar, Celeste. Now I got a guy who wants to put my interviews into a book. I got called for a pundit gig because I used to know Johnny Depp. They want me to talk about his money fight with his reps and the downturn in his fortune. I still owe you for when I bet he was going to win the Oscar for Black Mass because it was his redemption. Did I tell you I once saw Whitey Bulger in a cheap-ass windbreaker in Santa Monica before they caught him? Swear to God. Oh, I’m working on something new, a biopic. Plus, I moved to Playa.”

That’s when Celeste hung up. Kenny was back to being the Old Kenny. He was on Lord-It-Over-You mode, like nothing had ever happened and it was just Award Season as usual.

About The Author:
Quendrith Johnson
Quendrith Johnson is a journalist, novelist and awards show writer. She graduated from UCLA Film School where she won the Marty Klein Comedy Award. She has written two books: Redlight Greenlight Limelight and fiction about David Foster Wallace. She is the founder of the Screenmancer.website and included in the book Innovating Women: The Changing Face Of Technology.

About Quendrith Johnson

Quendrith Johnson is a journalist, novelist and awards show writer. She graduated from UCLA Film School where she won the Marty Klein Comedy Award. She has written two books: Redlight Greenlight Limelight and fiction about David Foster Wallace. She is the founder of the Screenmancer.website and included in the book Innovating Women: The Changing Face Of Technology.

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