OSCAR FICTION PACKAGE: A director and editor have a complex relationship that’s even more complicated by Oscar nominations. 3,556 words. Illustrations by John Donald Carlucci.
NEWS BULLETIN (Hollywood, CA) – Oscar-winning film editor turned director Mona Hessman, whose initial helming effort Once Upon A Midnight earned her a Best Directing nomination this year, has vanished. Hessman has not been seen since the Academy nominees luncheon on February 6, though she was not officially reported missing until yesterday when she failed to show up for her Oscar gown fitting. Hessman’s cell phone was tracked to a dumpster where it was found inside a Prada purse containing her ID and credit cards.
Mona sat up the cold leather sofa. She had a pounding headache and, as she stroked the back of her head, felt the crusted blood in her tangled hair.
She knew exactly where she was. She’d napped on this sofa for the better part of twenty-five years and was familiar with every sag and indentation. The realization of where she was brought to mind the last words she’d heard before being knocked unconscious: “You’re dead. You’re fucking dead.”
How many times had she heard those words before? But this was the first time they’d been directed at her. And she was left to wonder whether, this time, Max Barton might actually go through with one of his heated threats.
Like several other preeminent directors, Max worked almost exclusively with a female editor. Mona was part of a select group that included Verna Fields, Dede Allen, Thelma Schoonmaker, Sally Menke, Anne V. Coates and Carol Littleton. Like her peers, past and present, she was good at what she did. Damn good; the custom-fitted glove on a great director’s hand. And Max was a great director. Inventive. Fearless.
At least when he was in the director’s chair.
When he stepped into the editing bay, he lap dissolved from Genghis Khan into Chicken Little. This was Mona’s signal to take over. As editor. As surrogate mother. As therapist, confidante, cheering section and, for two months at the very beginning of their twenty-five year collaboration, lover.
It was Mona who ended the affair. As a couple, they had no future together. Max was a man’s man, only truly comfortable around his own sex, with whom he could alpha-male to his heart’s content. Like many of his contemporaries, Max viewed women primarily as scratching posts. Celluloid was his true aphrodisiac. If he wasn’t making movies, he was conceiving movies, discussing movies, watching movies.
Max did fall in love with women on a regular basis. Actresses. Always. Rather, he fell in love with the widescreen concept of romance and was crushed when real relationships refused to adhere to a neat three-act structure. The affairs burned hot for a time and ended abruptly, usually with as much fanfare as they’d begun. Max never went quietly. To him, the parting shot was vital. As in his films, the success of an ending relied on a pithy closing line or arresting final image.
The exceptions were the two actresses he got pregnant. He married them and filed for divorce soon after they delivered. And paid alimony and child support, and resented having to do so. Like other successful men, he complained that women were only interested in his money but rarely provided them another good reason to stay.
Years ago, Mona had come to the conclusion that she was the only woman he’d ever loved – more deeply than he cared to admit, a dependency that burrowed under his skin. Made him petulant. Irritable. And now, finally, vengeful.
In this one arena, Mona maintained the upper hand. While she enjoyed their collaboration and the way they fed into each other’s creativity, she was not inextricably tied to him. She had Cyril, a British ex-pat with an Italian’s heart, a patient and understanding lover with whom she’d shared herself for the past two decades.
Since Cyril was very much married to a Belgian countess, he was in no position to carp about the months she spent as Max’s editing slave, holed up in a private log cabin on his estate sequestered in the woods above Lake Tahoe. Her second home.
Generously appointed, comfortable but not ostentatious, the cottage’s main room was dominated by a state-of-the-art digital editing console where she spent an average of five months, sometimes longer, piecing together the footage of Max’s latest opus as he paced the oaken floors in B-movie panic.
“It’s never going to work,” he would scream, sweat pouring down his face. “I never should have taken on this project. I should have passed it on to Spielberg or Scorsese. What was I thinking? I’m finished. This is the end.”
Mona had heard countless variations on this doomsday scenario and spent year after year coddling and reassuring him, splicing together numerous variants of particular sequences, and watching as he picked them apart frame by frame, pulling at his thinning hair and emitting anguished yelps. Finally, after two or three spurious suicide threats, he would finally approve one of the cuts. But Max always demanded the last word, even if it was, “Do whatever you want. I don’t care. It’s shit. It’s all shit.”
Then, on to the next scene, and more tears and anguish and slapping his head against the cabin walls until it bled and she quietly stitched it back together. And then he’d hop back to a previous scene he’d already approved because he felt it would no longer flow into the new one.
As she’d cradle his head in her lap at the end of one of their daily sessions and stroke it gently, she would softly hum “Good Ship Lollipop” until he fell asleep. Then she’d call Rufus, his bodyguard/driver who’d carry him back up to the house and put him to bed.
The process was as endless as it was torturous. Mona remained game-faced throughout. It was how she survived. It was how Max survived. On the seventh day, they would rest, Mona’s one non-negotiable demand. Sundays were devoted to watching old movies. Four or five in a row. A different genre every week.
Then a new six-day siege.
As soon as they locked picture, he would be back to his brash, unflappable self, ambling away blithely as if the past few months had never happened. Mona would return to Beverly Hills, get into bed and wait for Cyril to arrive and make it all better. He had a talent for that.
“You do realize that he will snap someday, go completely bonkers,” Cyril would warn her.
Cosseted in his arms, she would coo, “And you, Sir Galahad, will come to my rescue.”
“So what movie do you want to see before I kill you?” Max asked as he stood over her. And before she could respond, he added, “I do have to kill you. You know that.”
“Yes, because that’s how it would happen in the movie version of this story,” Mona replied.
Max nodded and sighed. “Exactly. And I have compiled ten of my favorite movie murders ranked in the order of gruesomeness. Curious?”
“Tell you what. Surprise me,” Mona said.
“Oh god. I don’t know what I’m going to do without you,” he lamented. “But it’s your own fault. So, what’ll it be?”
“Anything by Preston Sturges.”
“Be more specific.”
“Unfaithfully Yours?” she tossed out.
“Not funny,” he said with a wince.
“You choose. My head hurts.”
“The Sin Of Harold Diddlebock?”
“Sure. Why not? Hardly my favorite, but it’s better than any of the first three films you directed.”
“You bitch,” he said, and doubled over laughing. With a flick of a switch, a movie screen descended from the ceiling and Max tossed a popcorn bag into the microwave on the wet bar counter.
“A beer?” he asked.
Mona shook her head. “I’m trying to lose a few pounds.”
As the film unspooled, Mona noted that, even in his weaker vehicles, Sturges’ remarkable ensemble always came to the rescue: in this instance, Lionel Stander, Franklin Pangborn, Rudy Vallee, Margaret Hamilton, Edgar Kennedy. Each of them was worth the price of admission, stealing scenes without ever breaking a sweat. The current crop of thesps, she’d discovered, were maddeningly erratic. The sleight of hand she had to perform to meld an acceptable line reading from one actor to another’s in a different take was one of her more thankless assignments. Making it all appear seamless was why she was indispensable.
Max was right about one thing: she only had herself to blame. How clueless was she not to foresee the outcome of her decision to direct, even with Max’s blessing? “One of those precious little Sundance films that no one’s going to see?” he’d smirked. “Sure, go ahead. Knock yourself out while I try to decide which of the projects I’m developing will go next.”
Once Upon a Midnight had come to her via Tricia Carter who, a decade earlier, had produced one of Max’s films. He’d deemed her “strident.” Actually, Tricia was no more opinionated than Mona. But instead of using subterfuge and manipulation, she expressed herself forthrightly. Like a man. Mona could see Max’s balls shrinking every time Tricia opened her mouth.
The initial director had walked off the film three weeks into pre-production. “But I’m not a director. Never wanted to be,” Mona had argued when Tricia beseeched her to step in.
It was Cyril who finally persuaded her. “Get out of your comfort zone. It’s a good script and, at the very least, it will be well edited.”
Despite Mona’s reluctance, within a week she’d laid the film out in her mind, like a mental flip book. The main difficulty in directing, she came to realize, was having a hundred hysterical people tugging at her hem instead of just one. Otherwise, she tolerated the experience and quite enjoyed retreating to the editor’s room with all the footage she needed rather than what she’d been handed by Max.
Oh how she missed the tactility of 35 mm. But the finished product proved to be a digital version of the flip book she’d conceived in her mind. “It was okay,” Max had said after she screened it for him shortly before the film’s Telluride premiere. “Not how I would have shot it. But not an embarrassment. Glad you got that out of your system.”
Translation: “It was better than I expected. So don’t do it again.”
Nonetheless, she was pleased with the accomplishment, though completely unprepared for the overwhelmingly positive response, not just at Telluride but Toronto and New York as well. The Oscar talk started early and strong box office, $22 million so far in limited release, had helped the film secure seven nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Editing. Since part of her deal was a producing credit, that meant three separate nominations for her.
As the accolades began to snowball, Max became increasingly muted. Shouts and declamations, Mona could handle. Max’s silence was unnerving. “I’ll probably never work for him again,” she’d confessed to Cyril.
“Darling, you’ve had a good run. Time to spread your wings. Look at that pile of scripts over there. Budgets from one million to eighty million.”
“But I’m an editor first. Max’s editor,” she’d insisted.
Cyril had sighed. “Very well. You’re a big girl. You’ll figure it out. Now I’m up for a good shagging before returning home to my wife. Care to join me?”
“I’m sixty years old,” Mona chuckled, wrinkling her nose. “What do you still see in me?”
“A goddess,” Cyril replied. “And a woman. “
He’d said it with such sincerity and conviction that Mona had been moved to tears.
“Restrain yourself, my dear,” Cyril said. “If you insist on weeping, at least have the decency to wait until we’re finished.”
As the credits for the Sturges film rolled, she thought of Cyril and how much she missed him. The idea of never seeing him again was far more distressing than the imminence of death. Cyril was right. Max was bound to go “bonkers” at some point.
“Before we watch another Sturges,” Max began, “would you prefer to die before or after the Oscar ceremony?”
“You’re the director,” Mona said. “This is your project. But why?”
Max jumped up from the sofa. “Because I let you do this cockamamie movie with the full understanding that it should be competent and no more.”
“But you yourself said it was just okay,” Mona replied.
“Don’t pretend you couldn’t read between the lines,” he fumed. “Having a succes d’estime is one thing, but financial success and seven Academy Award nominations… No, I cannot let that pass.”
“Because I’m a female?”
“Please spare me the woman card. No. Because it reflects badly on me.”
“Ahhhh,” she said.
“I can hear the critics sharpening their knives and doing a full reassessment of my career, making bogus claims that without your editing, my work would be mediocre at best.”
“Max, you’re one of the world’s greatest living directors. Idolized to the point of religious worship. Why is that not enough?”
“You, of all people, should never lie to me,” he screamed, pacing around the room. “Before you started editing my films, they were at best pedestrian. I learned more in the editing room with you than on the set. That’s why my movies have gotten progressively better.”
“Oh Max. Talk about revisionism. Filmmaking is school. You always get better by doing. If I were to direct another movie, I’m sure I’d learn from my…”
“Well, I’m here to make sure you never get that chance,” he snapped and she nearly burst out laughing because he sounded exactly like Snidely Whiplash. “This is the end for me,” he continued, his voice escalating into full-blown paranoia. “Why couldn’t you be content winning an editing Oscar? Why did you have to be greedy? Now I’m stuck. If I continue working with you, everyone’s going to say I’m a hack director whose movies are saved in the editing room. You’ve ruined me and you will pay for that.”
“Anybody ever say you have a weakness for hyperbole?”
“You did,” he laughed. Then, in a calmer, almost placatory tone, he said, “There are precedents here. Remember Gene Klayman? He directed three near masterpieces while he was married to his producer, Emily Parker. Then, after he threw her over for that no-talent actress, he never directed anything worth spit.”
“There could be a hundred reasons for that,” she said.
“Then explain how, after Emily shacked up with Barnaby Guilfoyle, he won two Oscars in a row. After they broke up, his career nosedived.”
“Coincidence,” she replied. “Max. I directed one movie. Beginner’s luck.”
“You’re the odds on favorite to win the Oscar. You think I don’t read Gold Derby and The Envelope?”
“So what if I win? Where’s the glory in it? I’ll be dead.”
“Damn right you will. And I’ll make you suffer, especially if they call out your name on Sunday.”
“I don’t really care, Max,” Mona said, though she was beginning to be a bit concerned as to how her life would end. “Does this mean we’re going to watch the ceremony together?”
“Why break tradition?” he smiled. “But right after that…” Max ran an imaginary razor across his throat.
Max threw himself dramatically into an armchair, exhausted by his rant. “I wish I didn’t have to kill you. I feel like I’ll be killing a part of myself. Maybe I will kill myself after I’ve disposed of your body.”
“You won’t kill yourself. Egotists rarely die by their own hand. And please tell me the shower scene from Psycho is not on your list because I’m going in to wash my hair.”
“What do you take me for? I would never stoop to anything so obvious. Though I did consider planting a ticking time bomb in your car trunk.”
“Touch Of Evil? Nice,’” Mona mumbled. “At least that would have been quick and painless.”
“Yeah. Where’s the sadistic pleasure in that? No, my dear, you have betrayed me. I must be avenged.”
“Tell me if I’m off-base here, but I’m guessing either 1980s-1990s Hong Kong or something from a Hammer film?”
Max grimaced. “You’re taking all the fun out of it.”
“Very well,” she said. “But do me a favor. Promise you’ll cremate me. I don’t want to be buried.”
“How am I supposed to do that?”
“You’ve got that big fire pit out back. You spent thousands on it and never use it.”
The TV news was on in the background. Max turned his attention to the screen and Mona’s eyes followed. “Where did they dig up that photo? I look like death warmed over,” she complained, though the mention of the word death gave her a twinge. “Could you turn up the sound?”
The continuing coverage of Mona’s disappearance included numerous interviews with several of her friends and colleagues. “On Tuesday, Max Barton dropped out of sight,” the reporter said.
“I’m going to take my shower now.” Mona moved toward the bathroom. Then she stopped and added, “By the way, where’s Rufus?”
“Gave him the week off. We are all alone. Not a soul for miles. And lions and tigers and bears out in the woods. Believe me. Whichever scenario I choose will be better than being mauled like Leo in The Revenant.”
“Comforting,” she said. “You realize that you will be caught? This is not one of those Woody Allen movies where the murderer gets off scot free.”
“If they give me the chair, they give me the chair,” he said.
“They don’t have the chair anymore. It’s lethal injection now.”
Max rolled his eyes. “So uncinematic.”
“Yeah, so if you were planning Cagney’s dead man walk, or even Susan Hayward in the gas chamber, you’re out of luck,” Mona said.
She shut the bathroom door behind her and ran the hot water, pleased that she’d planted doubt in his head. Moreover, she’d had the audacity to equate his murderous plan to a Woody Allen movie. Max despised every movie he’d directed after Bananas. (“He could have been Chaplin, but instead chose to be an Upper-West-Side Bergman.”
The shower was remarkably soothing and she became lost in it. But her calm was interrupted by a sense of dread that she might actually win the Oscar, which would throw Max into a murderous rage and she’d be dead before it subsided. Max simply could not endure being upstaged.
But maybe she’d lose and his wrath would subside. Then what? They could come up with a variation on Gone Girl. Hadn’t she and Max once discussed changing the film’s denouement? What was it again?
Her ruminations and the noise of running water almost muffled the sound of the shots and Max’s screams. Alarmed that he might have hurt himself, Mona jumped out of the shower and quickly pulled a towel around her. Stepping out into the living she saw smoke and smelled sulfur. On the other side of the haze stood Cyril holding a delicate pistol with an ivory handle. He was smiling his smugly beautiful smile.
On the floor, Max was writhing in agony, a bullet lodged into the flesh of each buttock. “How did you know it was me?” he yelled up at Cyril.
“Because I know my kind,” Cyril said, sounding like George Sanders in a 1940s potboiler. Turning to Mona, he added, “We’re such pathetic creatures, darling. My sincerest apologies.”
“Always the gentleman,” Mona sighed.
Max refused to be taken to a hospital, so Cyril and Mona plied him with painkillers and booze and dug out the bullets with disinfected pincers. No organs or arteries hit. Merely flesh wounds and a loss of pride. Cyril was a crack shot. Practiced every week without fail at the Beverly Hills Gun Club.
Placated and doped up, Max transformed into a lap dog. “You’re not going to leave me all alone and go to the ceremony?”
“I should, but I won’t,” Mona said.
“Good. Because if I see you get up on that stage, I don’t know what I’ll do. At least if I can keep you away, it will sting less.”
“Yes, Max, I understand,” Mona said.
“Children. All children,” Cyril said, his eyebrows arching.
After a day of westerns and another of films noir, Oscar Sunday finally arrived. As Mona and Max commented on the arrivals during the pre-show. Cyril quietly endured. Halfway through the ceremony during her introduction to a clip of Once Upon A Midnight, producer Tricia Carter delivered a tasteful and impassioned speech about Mona’s disappearance — and they were all reduced to tears.
“Good thing I kidnapped you after the ballots were in,” Max observed. “Otherwise, you would win just on sympathy. Like Liz Taylor for Butterfield 8.”
“Still want to kill me?” Mona asked.
“Yes,” he said. “But I gotta say, I enjoyed the third act twist. I would never have cast Cyril as the hero. But in a way, that’s what makes the whole thing work. Mona, you did it again.”
“Don’t thank me. It was entirely Cyril’s idea.”
“Does this mean you’re never going to work with me again?”
“I’m not sure,” she admitted. “You still have some good pictures in you. But you must promise not to try anything like this again.”
Max nodded. “Unless there’s a sequel.”
“Shhh!” Cyril said. “Tom Hanks is about to present Best Director.”
This story first posted here on February 22, 2017. Oscar®, Academy Award®, and AMPAS® are registered trademarks of The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, ©AMPAS.