A young and impressionable journalist falls for a famous 1980s film director. But is it love? 4,699 words. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
Later, when I thought about the body of work that had made him famous — his oeuvre, as the fawning critics put it — I was stupefied that I had ever let Bruce Donegal anywhere near me. My God, what did I need, a billboard on Sunset screaming Warning, Danger Ahead? A freeway sign flashing Don’t Go There in six-foot letters?
My boyfriend at the time, a charming loser named David, had been as excited as I was when he learned that I’d scored an assignment to interview Donegal for the Times. Former enfant terrible, now pantheon-certified auteur, Donegal had made his mark with stylish, misogynistic horror-thrillers. His latest feature, as usual a sophisticated slashfest, was getting raves.
I was one of the lucky few to get a one-on-one, and David was eager to help. He even supplied me with a list of incisive cinephiliac questions that were sure to intrigue the famously film-savvy director.
“If you can,” David entreated, “mention my Baby Face Nelson project, would you? The whole psychotic anti-hero gangster thing would be right up his alley. I mean, if you can work it in.”
I made a note to do that.
But once I’d been escorted through the Paramount lot to Donegal’s office (replete with iconic posters of his movies and framed photos of him with his peers: Scorsese, Coppola, De Palma, Ashby and Altman), and we started talking intensely about Film with a capital F, and I began to feel as if he were the visiting guest professor and I his star pupil — I completely forgot about Baby Face Nelson.
A couple of hours had elapsed rather quickly, and we were on our second diet Cokes when we began to wind up. I was so thrilled with the rich material Donegal had given me — the great quotes, candid opinions and deep background — that I was already envisioning a major story. I couldn’t wait to go back to the office and write it.
What had buoyed the conversation along was a slightly flirtatious vibe, a little electric charge, that had surfaced every so often. Of course, I wasn’t silly enough to think that it meant anything. Movie people can’t help being seductive, and, wreathed in success and adulation, Donegal was a seductive movie director. So I didn’t take the flirting too seriously.
“If you need any more quotes, or have any questions, call Clive and he’ll get them to me pronto,” Donegal said, standing to stretch his lone-pine body. Clive was his manager. Donegal was far too smooth, too subtle, too cool to just hand me his own telephone number.
“Thank you,” I said, putting my tape-recorder away. “This has been wonderful, Bruce. I feel so much smarter than when I walked in.”
I put out my hand and he took it but held on to it, almost absent-mindedly.
“It’s fun to talk to a girl reporter so steeped in film,” he said. I was obscurely flattered when he called me a girl reporter, as if he were referencing Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday. Howard Hawks had been one of his great influences. “Do you have any plans this weekend? I’ll be doing press all this week, but I’m at large on Saturday.”
The interview suddenly expanded, like the iris of a Rolleiflex, into multiple possibilities. The first was that I might go on a date with a brilliant director. The next, following in quick succession, were that we would become lovers, or that he would become my mentor, or that my life would be transformed overnight.
Get a grip, I told myself.
Besides, Saturday happened to be my 30th birthday and David had made plans. He didn’t often make plans — as an aspiring screenwriter, he was usually broke (“the key to tap city,” as he put it) — and our dates consisted of attending the studio screenings I’d been invited to. But for my 30th, he’d scraped together some money he’d made writing PR releases, and we were to dine at a special destination he was keeping secret.
"As a matter of fact, Saturday is my birthday," I said.
"Does that mean you’re busy?"
“Yes…but perhaps I can change that,” I said.
“I’d love to take you out on your birthday,” he pressed. ”I’ll call you midweek, and you can let me know.”
I floated out of his office and off the Paramount lot, slightly dazed. I couldn’t wait to start my Bruce Donegal opus. As for going out with him, one voice in my churning brain asked, Wouldn’t that compromise my objectivity? A second more insistent voice countered, You might get even better material from him that way! Voice #1 warned, But what does he get out of it? Voice #2 said, Who cares?
Voice #2 won. I had to think of a way to break it to David.
It wasn’t long before David called and demanded to know how it went.
“It was amazing,” I said. “He’s a genius, and we had a great rapport.”
“That’s great. Did you get a chance to ask him about Baby Face Nelson?”
Now was the time to tell David I wouldn’t be able to see him on Saturday. But… “No,” I said. “It just didn’t come up. I’m sorry — maybe when I talk to him again.”
There was a few seconds’ silence, a lot for a phone call. “Are you talking to him again?” David asked carefully.
“Probably. For follow-up and clarification.”
“Oh, yeah. Sure,” David said. Then, “Do you want to get together tonight? Hang out for a bit?”
He was taxiing me up to the gate I’d been avoiding.
“I’m just really hot to get started on this story,” I said. “While it’s fresh in my mind.”
“Of course,” David said. “But I’m still going to see you on Saturday, right?”
This time it was my turn to be silent for too many seconds. David broke the pause. “Donegal asked you out?”
“Yes,” I replied.
“And you’re going?”
“David, I can’t not do it,” I said. “I’m sorry, but you understand, don’t you?”
“Well, fuck you,” he said, and hung up.
But I’m sure he did understand.
By the time Donegal called that Wednesday, I’d finished about half the piece, and I was pleased with it. I thought the profile was revealing, probing, serious, but also entertaining, like some of the best Rolling Stone interviews had been in the early days. I wanted to show it off to Donegal, but I restrained myself.
“Did you manage to get free for Saturday night?” he asked. I said that I had. “Oh good," he said, sounding pleased but not surprised. "We’ll go to The Ivy.”
I’d been to The Ivy for lunch a few times—it was the quintessential Hollywood restaurant where tourists went to see celebrities, and I’d done a couple of interviews there at a quiet back table. There were always paparazzi out in front, jostling for space with the valet parkers. I didn’t know anyone who went there at night. Prime time.
“That sounds wonderful,” I said. “I’d love it.”
“I have to jump off now, but I’ll call you in a couple of days to get your address,” Donegal said.
I continued working on the piece, but now enveloped in the strange feeling that we were having some kind of dialogue as I wrote about him, that I was trying to see him through his eyes, how he wanted to be seen. It was almost eerie.
And I waited for him to call, an unpleasant feeling that sent me straight back to high school. Of course he would call, I assured myself. I’m writing a story about him for the Times. If for no other reason than that it would be stupid of him not to call. But Thursday came and went, and now it was Friday and time for me to leave work. As far as I knew, Donegal only had my office number. And I wouldn’t call him, or rather Clive, to give my home phone. That would just be too humiliating.
At 8:15 pm, I gave up and went home. It looked as if I was going to spend my birthday home alone, stood up by a famous director. Our meet-cute had turned into a Bette Davis weepie. I thought of calling David and saying, Please forgive me, I’ve been an asshole.
Instead, I opened a can of cream of tomato soup and poured a glass of white wine and distracted myself by putting on a Pretenders album and reading The French Lieutenant’s Woman. I fell asleep on the couch and dreamt we were in a theatre together, sitting side by side and kissing as we waited for the movie to start, and then he got up from his seat and started to slip away. I tried to follow him, but there were shards of glass on the floor. So instead of walking up the aisle, I had to clamber over seats to try and keep up with him. But he was too fast, and he got away.
I awoke to the sound of the phone ringing. My tongue felt furry. It was midnight.
“So what’s your home address?” Donegal asked.
“Who is this?” I said, because I didn’t want him to think I was sitting around pining for him to call.
“It’s Bruce,” he said. Just the first name. It created a kind of intimacy.
“It’s 637 N. Orange Grove,” I said. “How did you get this number?”
“I’ll pick you up at eight,” he said, ignoring my question. “I can’t wait to see you.”
He was driving a black Mercedes sedan, roomy and luxurious. It was the most unremarkable car a Hollywood man could drive, the equivalent of the reliably chic Armani suits worn by female studio execs. We kissed hello at the front door, and he stood studying my living room as I went to get my purse. “Ahh, the girl reporter’s apartment,” he pronounced, taking in all the details. The walls were papered with movie posters, the shelves were crammed with books, the floor was covered with stacked record albums, and the tables contained scattered folk art from places I’d been, like Day Of The Dead skeletons made in Mexico. It was the home of a youngish and not-terribly-well-compensated journalist. It had not been professionally decorated.
“Ground floor apartment, no window bars, in the burglary district?” he inquired.
“I know, I should get them," I said. "A lot of apartments have been broken into around here. I just haven’t gotten around to it.”
“Do it,” he said. We climbed into his car and left the burglary district for West Hollywood and The Ivy.
The attention Bruce received at the restaurant, from the valet guy to the maître d’ to the waiter to the sommelier, was perfectly and gravely obsequious. I was given admiring looks merely for accompanying him. He ordered a Brunello, and recommended the strozzapretti. (“Streetwalker pasta, who could resist it,” Bruce murmured, and the waiter gave a knowing chuckle.)
Another famous director came over to our table and Bruce introduced us. The two gossiped about a third director’s recent meltdown as his masterpiece soared over budget. As the other famous director turned to go back to his own table, he said to me, “Don’t let him eat too much, OK?” and winked, patting his own burgeoning belly.
Our conversation was as vibrant and juicy as it had been earlier, but this time heightened by wine and good food and the possibility of sex. Except I knew I wasn’t ready to sleep with him. When he walked me to my front door, I asked if he wanted to come in and felt relieved when he said he had to be on a plane early the next morning to do press in San Francisco.
Then he came in anyway.
We sat on my couch and kissed for a while, but when he started to unfold his long frame, I disengaged.
“I have work to do in the morning too,” I said. “I need to finish the story.”
“I’ll be back in L.A. next week,” he said. “What about Thursday? Come to my house for dinner. I’ll have Clive call you with the address.” He stood and pulled me up and we embraced one more time. Then he left.
When I sat down to work on the piece the next day, what I’d written seemed all wrong. The evening at The Ivy had shown Bruce to me in a new light, given me insight into who he was, and I needed to convey that. He wasn’t just an acclaimed auteur and film history savant; he was a celebrity, a personage, Hollywood royalty. I had to get this across.
I changed words, moved paragraphs around, and finally decided to start over. Again, I experienced the unnerving sense that Bruce was looking over my shoulder.
That night, as I was taking a break and standing at my counter eating a tuna fish sandwich and watching 60 Minutes, David called.
“I hope you had a nice birthday,” he said sarcastically.
“Please don’t be that way,” I said. I liked David a lot, he was fun to be with, but it’s not as if we were engaged.
“Did you fuck him?” he asked.
“That’s a rude question. But no, I didn’t. Whatever this… thing is with Donegal, it’s all part of the story I’m doing. Don’t you understand that?” Even as I said it, I hoped it wasn’t true. “Look, sweetie,” I said, trying to soften him, “we’re talking about Bruce Donegal. I’m not going to marry the guy. He’s doing press all over the world for this film, and after this week I’ll probably never see him again. But while I have the opportunity, I want to let this play out.”
“Whatever,” David said grudgingly.
By Thursday, I was once again well on my way to a solid story. I still hadn’t heard from Bruce though, and I began to resent this suspenseful drama he seemed inclined to create. He appears, he disappears — what is this, Vertigo? I have a life, for God’s sake. I didn’t need this.
But the truth was, I did need this. My toehold into the world of Bruce Donegal had supplanted everything else. All my previous goals seemed puny next to the possibility that This Could Be The Start Of Something Big. That I could experience on a regular basis the glow of adulation I had felt at The Ivy, the respect and envy I’d received for those few hours that I was his anonymous date. Imagine what it would be like if we were a Couple, if I became known as Bruce Donegal’s consort? I would still pursue my career in journalism, of course, but I wouldn’t be the outsider trying to breach the walls of Hollywood. I’d be on the inside. I’d have instant access. Life would be so much better.
So I waited.
At 6:30 pm, I was still at my desk working on the story. Messages were starting to stack up from contacts on the other features I was working on. Publicists were getting back to me regarding interviews I’d tried to schedule, and interview subjects were responding to queries I’d left. I was usually able to juggle several stories at once; I kept a blackboard next to my window with the various timelines for moving all the stories along at a brisk pace. But the Donegal piece had pushed back the rest of the work, like an invasive species. I couldn’t rest until I finished it, and it had to be good. Really, really good.
The phone rang. I grabbed it eagerly, pride be damned, and waited expectantly for Bruce’s slightly nasal baritone. But it was a different voice, a haughty English voice. “Hello, Perry. This is Clive Randolph, Mr. Donegal’s assistant. Mr. Donegal would like to send a car for you at your home tonight, if you don’t mind. Around 8?”
Eight? That barely gave me time to rush home and shower.
“Could he send a car a bit later please? Say, 8:30? I’m still at the office. Or I could drive myself,” I offered.
“Eight-thirty would be fine,” he said, then hung up.
I had just finished applying mascara when the same Mercedes came to collect me, but this time with a driver who opened the car door with a flourish. He didn’t wear a uniform and cap, like Erich von Stroheim in Sunset Boulevard, just black jeans and a black t-shirt.
“I’m Ben,” he said as we turned left onto Sunset. “There’s wine and Scotch in the cabinet." I would never have noticed the doors in the back seat of the car, camouflaged as they were by the wood-grain veneer. "Help yourself,” Ben said graciously.
But I declined.
Bruce Donegal’s house looked a lot less lived in than his office at Paramount. It was austere, minimal, almost impersonal. There were no group photos or movie posters or awards. He acknowledged this as he led me into the living room and turned on the sound system with a remote. “I hardly spend any time here,” he said, as we sat down on the long modular white couch and he proffered a joint. “I’ve been away a lot for the last few years, and after my divorce I bought this place. But I haven’t had a chance to make it very homey.” My mind immediately went to the things I’d do to warm it up. A few throw pillows, an Indian rug or two, some artwork… I was certain I had the needed skills.
As we got high, he told me about the music we were listening to, which was by one of his favorite movie composers, Nino Rota. Of course, I recognized the plaintive strains of all the Fellini movies I’d watched over the years. I asked him how Fellini had chosen Rota, and that led to the subject of how composers become associated with a particular director, like Bernard Hermann with Hitchcock. Before long we were deep in discussion about the elements that go into making a movie. We could have talked like this forever.
But instead, he took me by the hand and said, “Let me show you around.” He led me into the kitchen, almost as spotless as the living room, and then into the library, which at least had the personality and idiosyncrasy that shelves of books somehow manage to convey.
Off the library was a doorway leading to an alcove. “What’s in there?” I asked.
“Just a computer set-up,” he said. I peeked into the little room, and a monitor was lit up with an image that appeared to be a picture of Adolph Hitler. I looked at my host quizzically.
“It’s a game I’m playing called Hitler’s Lair. A friend of mine created it and wanted me to test it out.”
“So who are you in the game? Hitler?”
He grinned. “I can be Hitler. Or I can be the guys coming after him.” I stared at the screen, which had a scene reminiscent of an Alpine forest, and a Tyrolean lodge, and inside was the character who resembled Adolph, his arms crossed and sitting at a table where a map was unfurled. I tried to fit a predilection for playing a game in which one assumes the role of Hitler with my understanding of who Bruce Donegal was.
A few conversations and a study of his movies had led me to believe I had a good grasp of who he was.
It seemed I was wrong.
“Who’s winning the war?” I asked.
“I think Hitler’s ahead,” he said. “Do you want to see the rest of the house?”
The next room on the tour was his bedroom. Like the rest of the house, it was immaculate, the bed beautifully made with plumped pillows. In short order we fell upon it and made love. OK — add to the mix that Bruce Donegal was a very good lover, ardent and athletic.
Advantage, Bruce Donegal.
"It’s late," I said after we had lain in bed talking for a while. “I better head home. I have an early editorial meeting.” The truth was, I was afraid David would call, and I didn’t want him to find me not at home in the middle of the night. I was hedging my bets. If David asked if I’d slept with Bruce Donegal, I could plausibly say no — unless I didn’t answer my phone all night.
Bruce kissed me. “Just tell them you were unavoidably delayed by this guy you’re in love with. They’ll understand.”
In love with? He used the word love. That’s the last thing I would have expected from him. Could it be that he was really falling for me? That I was a refreshing change from the actresses he habitually dated, lived with, married?
“But I didn’t bring my contacts with me, Bruce. I really can’t stay. As much as I’d like to.” I started to gather my clothes.
“Or is it that other guy — the one you had the date with on your birthday?” he asked, telepathically. “You don’t want him to catch you staying out all night?”
Mumbling something about contact lenses again, I eventually made my way out the door. “Get her home safely,” he called out to Ben, who was waiting by the car.
Then we kissed again.
I needn’t have worried about David. There were no calls on my answering machine. I realized, regretfully, that I could have stayed at Bruce’s all night. Fortune favors the bold, but I’d played it safe.
Over the course of the next few days, I failed to hear from Donegal. My anxiety machine began working overtime. He had given me a chance, and I blew it. He’d decided that I wasn’t worthy of him. The great Bruce Donegal doesn’t grovel. All my fantasies lay in a messy pile at my feet. The piece was nearly finished, but I could hardly write. David didn’t call either. I couldn’t blame him.
By Wednesday, I had to do something. So I called Clive. I had my pitch prepared. “I have a couple of questions for the director before I can wrap this thing up. Do you think you could have him call me?”
There was a pause. “Would you mind holding for a minute?” he asked.
“No problem,” I said. He clicked off, and the theme from La Strada came on. Nino Rota. The haunting trumpet music wafted over the line as I doodled on my notepad, where I’d written two questions deliberately structured to require complex answers, so Clive could not dismiss me with a yes or no. Was he calling Bruce on the other line to say the annoying girl reporter was on the phone, how should he handle it?
And then the line went dead. No more Nino Rota, just the hum of the dial tone. I sat at my desk, shattered.
Humiliation washed over me in nauseating waves. My face felt hot. There was a faint ringing in my ears.
Diana, the woman who sat across from me in the office, interrupted my agony. “Are you going to answer your phone?” she asked me.
It was Donegal. “Hey,” he said, “how are you? I’m sorry I haven’t called. I was doing press in Denver. Clive says you have a couple of questions?”
I had to take a deep breath in order to sound normal.
“Yes, I thought we could meet for coffee, or—”
“Coffee?” he said. “What about dinner?”
I felt like a condemned prisoner whom the governor had pardoned. “That would be great. When?”
“Saturday. You pick a place near your apartment. I’ll come by around 8.”
I decided I would show him the story. I was proud of it, and he could fact-check it right then and there. Of course I knew that this was totally unacceptable journalistically speaking, but then so was sleeping with my subject.
I spent the rest of the week in a happy haze of polishing and tweaking and perfecting. I had never put in as much time on an article as I had on this one, and I felt it would bump me up to the next tier of Hollywood profile writers. At the very least. At the most — well, I didn’t want to dwell on that. I would just take it as it came. I had learned my lesson.
At 7:45 on Saturday, I was finishing getting dressed when Donegal called. “I’m running a little late,” he said. “Could I meet you at the restaurant?”
I was disappointed. Not only had I cleaned the entire house, but I’d done some touching up just for him. I framed a poster of The Public Enemy with James Cagney, because I knew it was one of Donegal’s favorites, and hung it on the wall. I retrieved an old Navajo rug, a souvenir from a trip to Sedona, and placed it under the coffee table. And I’d bought brand new 400-thread count bedsheets on sale at Bloomingdale’s.
I consoled myself that he’d see it all soon enough.
Emilio’s was in my neighborhood, charming but expensive, so I’d meet friends there for just a snack after a movie. Once I’d eaten there with David. We’d gone Dutch, of course. Tonight, the restaurant was busy and lively and noisy. I was glad. I wanted as many people as possible to see me with the world famous Bruce Donegal.
“Buona sera, principessa,” Emilio said as he led me to a good table in the front room. After all the attention at The Ivy, it would have been embarrassing to be seated in Siberia. “Grazie, Emilio,” I replied. The waiter came over and asked if I wanted to order a drink while I waited.
Well, a glass of wine would calm me down — I was a little keyed up. Or I could wait for Bruce. The place had a very good wine list and maybe he had a favorite. So I demurred. “Just some water, please,” I said.
The waiter brought the water, and then he brought the breadsticks. After 15 minutes, he asked again if I wanted some wine. This time I said yes. I sipped the wine slowly. I’d ordered a glass of Chianti, because this was an Italian eatery, and it would go well with whatever we ordered. After another 15 minutes had passed, the waiter came over again, trying hard to conceal his sympathetic smile. “Signorina, another glass?” But I’d had enough.
“I don’t know where my friend is,” I explained. “Maybe he was in an accident or something.” The waiter just nodded. “Could I have the check, please?’
“No, no, it is on the house,” he said.
I walked home slowly. I passed my local video store, realizing that I’d thought about going in and renting a movie after dinner to show off Bruce Donegal to the guys who worked there. A twinge of self-loathing arose, but only for a second. I hadn’t done anything wrong. Sure, I was proud of being seen with him, but that’s not the reason I wanted to be with Bruce Donegal. The fact is, movies were my life. I watched them, I read about them, I wrote about them. I knew film history. And so did he.
My vision, I saw now, was to be with a kindred spirit. Someone as obsessed by film as I was professionally and personally. This was nothing to be ashamed about.
Back at the apartment, I sat in the living room for a while, staring at the Cagney poster. Leading men certainly had changed. It was doubtful Cagney, such a tough little guy with a thin hard mouth, would be a big movie star today. Maybe a character actor, but the lead? No way. “Top of the world, Ma!” Very Freudian. Just a guy trying to please his mother.
I don’t know how many minutes had passed when I realized I was very tired. It was only 9:30 or so, but I wanted to go to sleep. I walked down the long hall to my bedroom and stopped at the doorway.
The window had been propped open with a long stick. My books and papers had been scattered all over the floor. And the beautiful new sheets were bunched up in a ball. I stood there in shock. Could the burglar still be in the apartment? Or did he flee when he heard me coming? How did he know I’d gone out just for those few hours?
And then I noticed the piece of paper, torn from my notebook and impaled on a pencil. Trembling, I went to my night-table and detached the paper. On it was scrawled, “What were your questions?”