OSCAR FICTION PACKAGE: A Best Actress nominee has the best and worst time of her life. 2,746 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
The first thing Lyla thought when she found the script for Circle Of Squares in her mailbox was, This has come to me by mistake.
She lived in a guest house on a property belonging to a beloved actress known for a series of “grumpy old lady” comedies that had touched a chord. Though claiming to be retired, the landlady was still very much interested in being courted by filmmakers. Way back in the day, Lyla occupied the same casting niche of supporting comic character even though she was two generations younger than her landlady. But the older actress snagged every part, cashing a nice little paycheck for a couple hours of work.
Lyla was used to delivery people dropping packages on her porch because it was accessible to the road and the landlady’s house was situated down a long driveway behind a tall security gate. But this screenplay had Lyla’s name on the envelope.
She began reading it and her first thought was, It doesn’t make any damn sense at all. It’s even more inexplicable than Cloud Atlas. Lyla had never understood the point of pointless movies.
But as Lyla finished the script, she knew it had Oscar bait written all over it.
The story and characters had everything the old farts in the Academy liked in an indie movie, she realized, beginning with the pretentious and never-explained title right through to the heavy-handed political message and depressing plot.
It was a bonus that the role she was being offered was the star.
Lyla guessed that Helen Mirren, Meryl Streep, Glenn Close and Susan Sarandon had all turned it down. But when she met the young writer/director, he told her, “I wrote the part for you.”
He was third generation Hollywood and, unlike Anjelica Huston or Drew Barrymore, he was singularly lacking in the first generation’s charisma and talent. And if she were being honest, he wasn’t much in the looks department, either. “He’s not even interesting enough to be ugly,” his famous mother once remarked, not realizing he was within earshot. He’d responded by melting down her Best Actress Oscar and pouring the molten metal slurry — part gold, part britannium — into her bidet. His mother had never asked the Academy for a replacement because she was too embarrassed to admit what had happened to her statuette. Lyla had heard the story and, when she met the writer/director, kept it in mind. If he did that to his mother, she wondered, what would he do to a stranger?
The filmmaker told Lyla he’d especially loved her performance as a wise-cracking crossdressing drug dealer in the indie High And Goodbye, a movie even her best friend James had refused to see. He’d taken her out to dinner to soften the blow. He’d also hated her next movie and the folksy southern accent she’d been ordered to adopt for the role of a lovelorn dispatcher with a thing for the small town police chief. Because of course, there’s nothing funnier than a fat and frumpy woman who’s dumb enough to fall for a handsome man, Lyla thought.
The actor who played the police chief had been a closeted gay who’d over-compensated by being super macho and handsy with every female on the set. Despite that, Lyla had actually liked him because he reminded her of her James.
James was a former actor who’d left the business to find steadier employment as an insurance broker after he realized the pinnacle of his career was going to be playing the terrorist standing behind Alexander Godunov in Die Hard.
James had told Lyla he never regretted his decision, but every Oscar night he was at her house, watching the ceremony from the pre-game festivities to the Jimmy Kimmel Live Special after the Academy Awards. Together, they’d get shit-faced on margaritas and pig out on nachos in a night-long snarkfest.
The year that Demi Moore had graced the Red Carpet in those ruffled bicycle pants, they’d both said simultaneously, “What on earth was she thinking?” That phrase, abbreviated to “wowshit,” had become their inside joke. All either of them had to do was whisper “wowshit” to crack up the other.
The filmmaker had warned Lyla that his movie was ultra-low budget, and he wasn’t exaggerating. But she wasn’t picky about roles. She couldn’t afford to be. Acting was how she made her living. She didn’t answer phones for a realtor or wait tables at Jerry’s Deli or sign up new members at the local gym.
When Circle Of Squares came into her life, she had just two other acting offers: playing a wise-cracking judge in a legal thriller or a character who bites the dust in the first act of a horror movie. Having her name above the title in Circle Of Squares appealed to her, so she told her agent to put a “no quote” in her contract and signed on. She figured it couldn’t be any worse than some of the student films she’d done.
Catering were pizza lunches and Subway dinners and forget about providing separate vegetarian options or offering gluten-free meals. When they shot on Yom Kippur, one earnest young extra asked if any part of the meal was kosher, and the caterer had just laughed. After each day’s filming, Lyla would meet James at Panera or Thai Barbecue and relate the latest horrors. The writer/director wasn’t a people person and clearly modeled his on-set style after David O. Russell.
“It’s like he’s trying to get someone to punch him in the face,” Lyla joked to James.
The auteur’s bad behavior didn’t really bother Lyla. She’d encountered worse. Back before she started working steadily, she’d done her share of temping and had spent a week working for Dawn Steel. So when the filmmaker embarked on one of his little tirades, she just tuned out and calmed herself with the thought that her character was onscreen in nearly every frame.
And she was crushing the part.
To everyone’s surprise, especially hers, Layla’s star turn began to get Oscar buzz. James stayed over the night before the Academy Award nominations were announced. He brought wine and she served cheese and crackers and dried mango slices with chili. He fell asleep on Lyla’s couch after they binge-watched Academy screeners he’d borrowed from a screenwriter client who’d just bought a house on the good side of Ventura and wanted James to insure it up the wazoo. Too nervous to sleep, Lyla watched three movies with the sound turned off so as not to disturb James. When she ran out of savories, she powered through half a bag of Oreos.
James was still a little bleary when the Academy news conference started at 5:30 am the next morning. Lyla wondered, Just sleepy or hungover? He’d brought three bottles of wine and she’d only had two and a half glasses. That she remembered. Of course, she was a little out of it herself. It had been years since she’d pulled an all-nighter.
She had hoped and prayed to be chosen, but it still stunned when her name was announced in the Best Actress category. James claimed she’d snagged “the Mickey Rourke” nomination. “There’s one every year,” he’d explained. “It’s fore someone who’s done really good work for a very long time, so they nominate the person even though the movie isn’t very good.”
James had kissed her on the cheek and congratulated her, saying, “You deserve it, kid,” even though he was five years younger than she was.
“Thanks,” she said. “You know you’re coming with me.”
“No place I’d rather be. We need to go shopping.”
“I was thinking I might get something designer.”
“That’s a great idea. There have to be some designers who work with full-figured women. You should find out who made the dress which that Precious actress wore.”
Lyla chose to think that James wasn’t trying to fat-shame her.
James was a fan of basic black, but Lyla wasn’t sure black was the way to go. She’d been curating a collection of Oscar dresses in her head for years, trying them on mentally to see which ones would work best for her. She knew anything in the beige palette would wash her out. There were a couple of pink gowns she had in mind. She wanted something that was going to make a statement without going full-on Bjork. One of her favorite Oscar dresses had been the glam red strapless which Sandra Bullock had worn several years before she actually won. That had been a dress fit for a princess. Lyla wanted her princess dress.
Lyla hadn’t gone to prom. She’d never been married. So if she was going to get her princess moment, with the beautiful gown and the sparkly jewelry and all eyes on her, it was going to be on the Oscar Red Carpet.
“Just for god’s sake don’t wear pants. There is no statute of limitations on bad taste,” James warned, then added “wowshit” recalling Demi Moore’s get-up. The phrase also conjured Whoopi Goldberg in paisley pants with matching shoes and Cate Blanchett in really expensive lounge pajamas.
After the nominations were announced, a dress designer reached out to Lyla. CelaDon was a recent graduate of the Arts Center School of Design in Pasadena and wanted to use her moment in the spotlight to kickstart his career. When he showed her his portfolio, she’d thought it gorgeous. So, too, was the dress he designed for her: a storm-cloud gray verging on purple with silvery crystals sewn into the folds where they twinkled like shards of trapped lighting. It was off the shoulder — “to showcase your beautiful décolletage,” he gushed — with a matching sexy little stole. Lyla was thrilled.
She brought James with her to the final fitting. But he looked at the dress, made a face, then said to CelaDon, “Don’t you think it’s a little youthful? What if you filled in the neckline with chiffon so she won’t look so fleshy?”
“Get out of my atelier,” CelaDon ordered.
Lyla was shocked by James’ opinion and waited for an apology. Instead, James said, “I’ll wait for you outside.”
On the way back to her place, James went through the drive-through at Jack In The Box and ordered two of every fried thing on the menu. The food smelled good to Lyla but he didn’t offer to split any with her. He just dropped her off back at her home. He called her later that evening and said he hadn’t been feeling well. Of course she forgave him because he was her oldest friend and it would never occur to her that he hadn’t actually apologized for his behavior and instead offered an excuse.
But Lyla was on a high. There were interviews and press conferences and Academy luncheons and all required clothes dressier than her usual uniform of XXL leggings and t-shirts. So she bought outfits she saw online without even trying them on. Then she went to Nordstrom for strappy silver sandals and a clutch purse so tiny it only held her house key. She even went to Allen Edwards and splashed out for the haircut, base color and weave by Allen himself, even though it cost her more than $500 by the time she tipped everybody involved.
But it was worth it. Her hair never looked so good. Nor will it ever again, she thought. But it didn’t matter. She just needed to look fabulous for one night.
She was pretty sure James was drunk when the limo picked him up on her way to the Dolby Theatre. She had wanted him to come over earlier that afternoon, but he’d told her he couldn’t take that much time off work. Lyla felt her stomach clench but she couldn’t tell if it was anger or nerves. She knew James wasn’t trying to bring her down, because he was her best friend, but on purpose or not he was bumming her out.
“Are you all right?” she asked when he stumbled into the car.
“I’m fine,” he said, then turned away to stare out the window.
Lyla want’ used to hells and twisted her ankle getting out of the car. But at least she didn’t fall like Jennifer Lawrence. As she and James moved along the Red Carpet, she felt the buzz of adrenaline light up her mood. She couldn’t stop smiling. And then she was at the head of the line, and some blonde TV reporter she didn’t recognize called her name. And, just then, James stumbled again, stepping on the hem of Lyla’s dress and tearing some of the fabric. Her dismay was Instagram fodder, and that’s when the people in charge of keeping bad things from happening on the Oscar Red Carpet realized Lyla’s escort — labeled “a friend” in the picture captions — was falling-down drunk. Lyla told him to go into the theatre without her while she went to the ladies’ lounge in search of a sewing kit.
A stylist who was wrangling some country music star — what has she got to do with the Oscars? Lyla wondered — took pity on Lyla and quickly whip-stitched the torn dress back together and sent her on her way with a sincere “Good luck.”
Lyla took her seat next to James, who was gawking at all the celebrities in the audience as if he’d been pulled off Cahuenga to be a seatfiller and couldn’t believe he was really in the same room with Tom Hanks, Dame Judi Dench, and Bradley Cooper.
For most of the show, Lyla practiced her poker face, the one that said, “It’s an honor just to be nominated and I am so happy to be here.” It was either that or beat the living hell out of James who was annoying her just by sitting next to her. She was so mad at him she didn’t know if she’d get in the limo with him at the end of the night, much less bring him to the after-parties.
And then it was time for the Best Actress category. Ryan Gosling took the stage. And just as the cameras were picking out the faces of the nominees, James leaned close to Lyla. Close enough to get in the shot, she thought sourly, as if this is his moment, too. She wanted him to take her hand or maybe whisper something soothing in her ear. But instead, he kept leaning in and then vomited right in her lap.
Lyla bolted up out of her chair so that people who weren’t near enough to see what happened thought she was anticipating the award. By the time Gosling read her name as the winner, Lyla was back in the ladies lounge, desperately trying to scrub away the vomit. But this time the dress couldn’t be saved.
When Gosling realized Lyla wasn’t coming onstage, he made a graceful joke, thanked the Academy on her behalf and exited.
Inside the lounge, Lyla borrowed a phone and called her driver. She had no intention of going back to her seat or rejoining James. She asked the driver to meet her down the block. It was a chilly night but she barely noticed as she limped on her sore ankle down the sidewalk. The only thing that kept her anger from exploding was that she’d get another chance to shine the following year when she presented for Best Actor.
She was so caught up in her own thoughts that she didn’t notice the homeless guy sidling up behind her until he said, “Gimme a dollar.” She kept moving. “Come on now,” he said louder. “I just want a dollar.”
“Get lost,” she replied and wondered where her driver was.
“Then how ‘bout you give me those earrings?” the street beggar demanded.
Lyla didn’t turn around. “They’re fakes,” she said about the eBay baubles. But he reached up to pull them off her. Lyla stiffened when she felt the edge of a knife slide across her throat. At first it didn’t hurt. But then she couldn’t breathe.
She collapsed on the sidewalk just as her driver pulled up and the thief ran off. She was dead before the limo driver reached her.
The next day, the Academy decided they would ask Meryl Streep to hand out the 2017 Best Actor award and have her say a few kind words about Lyla. They also agreed to include Lyla in the next year’s In Memoriam portion of the telecast.
Because the show must go on.
This story first posted here on January 11, 2016. Oscar®, Academy Award®, and AMPAS® are registered trademarks of The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, ©AMPAS.