An impoverished and naïve student is tempted by film acting. Will she succeed or fail? 2,434 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Paris – 1966
Pauline was a young girl.
A busy and broke young girl.
Hustling and bustling from class to class, and working at temp jobs to make ends meet.
One day, Dimitry Fedotoff, a friend who worked as a still photographer on movie sets, announced he had a brilliant solution to Pauline’s financial woes. He had just been hired to shoot an American movie about World War II France at the Boulogne Billancourt Studio. He had learned the production was about to cast French prostitutes as extras, loads and loads of them. He thought Pauline had a great chance to be cast.
“You’re a pretty girl. You could play a prostitute,” he said.
“What exactly do you mean?” Pauline answered, slightly hurt that he could so easily imagine her playing a Lady Of The Night.
“You’re sexy — but you know that. Anyway, you could make more money than you’re are at your meaningless office work.”
For the second time, Pauline felt insulted but decided to ignore his last remark. She knew the secretarial job was boring but she did not like hearing him saying it. “Acting in a film could be tons of fun. I have never been on a movie set.” she said instead.
“An adventure, for sure.”
Pauline was studying Art History at the Institute of Art and Archeology, a part of the Sorbonne. A very odd choice for a daughter of the working class. But most of the other students were daughters of legislators and investors, pretty but obnoxious young women who might not need a job in the long run. Their pearl necklaces, Austin Mini Coopers, and 16th Arrondissement homes had gotten the better of Pauline. She did not belong. Oddly enough, learning about paintings and architecture made her feel she could. It was like sucking on ice cream in summer.
Pauline had dreamt of being a foreign correspondent but, at the time, a woman couldn’t study a college degree in journalism. So the principal of her high school had recommended her getting a law degree to achieve her goal of traveling the world and meeting interesting people. He was the same man who had called her into his office to announce that, although she was valedictorian of her coed class, she didn’t deserve the honor because he knew she had not worked hard enough for it. His son was in the same grade as Pauline, and that’s how he had learned the information. Flattered by the attention of the all-powerful Monsieur Charpentier, she had agreed to let him take away her award.
But back to being busy and broke.
Pauline was immersed in the art of the past but also was trying to connect to the current Parisian creative scene. A provincial, the first in her family to go to college, she had a lot of catching up to do. During one of her many visits to the galleries, she had met Dimitry, a White Russian descended from that country’s royal noblemen who had fled the 1917 Revolution. With his aquiline features, thin frame, and exquisite manners, Pauline fantasized about him as a young officer at the Tsar’s Court waltzing the night away. She found him interesting but not sexy. He, on the other hand, had fallen for her. The prince and the peasant. It could have been a fairy tale.
Dimitry’s family fortune had been lost a long time ago. He was not rich, but he was generous. Feeding Pauline became his mission. He would come over to her tiny room with large bags of groceries full of delicious goodies. He introduced her to blinis, caviar and vodka. The new tastes were thrilling to Pauline. Sometimes she felt guilty to be the recipient of such largesse. Although she had always been clear with him about his lack of chances, it didn’t seem to matter to him. He kept coming over. Pauline had devoured Russian novels in high school and was very familiar with The Brothers Karamazov. She decided that masochism seemed to be a Russian male trait.
As the day approached for the prostitute casting. Pauline became extremely nervous.
“Anyone can be an extra,” Dimitry kept saying. “Nothing to get stressed about.”
Easy for him to say, but Pauline was tense nonetheless. Unconsciously, she was confusing being an extra with being an actress. She had never considered trying to be in a movie. It had never been a dream of hers. Singing, yes.
She had sung in the high school choir. She was a mezzo soprano surrounded by girls who were sopranos. So when it was decided that they were going to perform an operetta, she was cast to play the villainess because of her deeper voice. Carrying a sword, she had made an awkward entrance, almost falling down, and had barely been able to sing what with so many eyes staring straight back at her. Not an auspicious acting debut.
Now her panic kept mounting. She did not have the right outfit. Nothing she owned screamed sexiness because her budget for clothes was very limited. Fortunately, she had kept a pair of lacy stockings worn once when she’d dressed as Marilyn Monroe for Halloween. She had felt uncomfortable and had a horrible time. She swore never to wear a costume again. Anyway, she had the right stockings. It was a start.
Pauline decided to borrow a friend’s blouse that was a little more open in front than the shirts she owned. Not that she had a lot to show up front. They were delicious breasts but small, she had often been told. Heels she had, a little worn out but wearable, and a black skirt. The outfit completed, she waited for the day.
When the dreaded morning was upon her, Pauline washed her hair. It was a shiny Venetian mane, one of her best features. Unfortunately, it was so long that she had to embark on the difficult task of drying her hair in the oven. Once done, she applied a little make-up. Time was running out and. sweaty and nervous, she dashed to the Metro for a very long ride from her apartment to the studio.
Once in the subway, Pauline felt self-conscious as if everyone was staring at her. And they probably were. Her Lady Of The Night outfit looked definitively out of place in a transit car packed with rush hour workers. Her eyes cast down, her face red from blushing, she bore the humiliation for a good cause: money.
Exiting the station, she ran as fast as she could toward Boulogne-Billancourt. When she finally made it through the studio gate, she had no time to reflect on the wonder of entering such a magical place that had been home to so many great actors and directors. Instead, the guard pointed her to the casting office.
Dimitry had warned her it would be a cattle call with many girls and to make sure she was prompt. But he also had been very encouraging because he believed in her chances. Miraculously, she arrived on time.
But Pauline opened the door and was surprised to find no one else there but an older secretary behind a desk.
“I am here for the.. uh… casting of prostitutes?”
The secretary suppressed a smile. “I am sorry, dear, but the casting was yesterday. You’re one day late.” And just like that, the secretary went back to what she was doing, unaware of the blow she had just dealt Pauline.
Dejected, the art student slowly started the long trek back home. Once seated again in the overcrowded subway, she felt rage toward Dimitry. Foolishly, she had trusted him and thought she would get the job, make some money, and solve her most pressing problem. Instead, she plummeted from hope to despair.
She started to think the worst of him. What a fool. What a loser. How could he have given her the wrong date? Was this his revenge for being rejected? So she’d be humiliated in return?
The last few weeks had been such a roller-coaster of emotions that she’d found her self-image tested in small and big ways. Am I pretty enough? Do I have the right clothes? Will they pick me? Can I handle the job? Will I embarrass myself?
Oh, and she needed to ensure that her father never find out about any audition. Pauline was certain he wouldn’t appreciate his daughter playing a prostitute. Movie make-belief would go right over his head once he even heard the word.
That evening, Dimitry apologized profusely. He seemed in such despair over his mistake that she started to feel badly for having judged him so harshly. He wanted to make it up to her. There would be more castings, he assured. A few weeks later, he called to say he had good news: another prostitute casting. This time, he pledged to make certain his go-see information would be correct.
Pauline debated with herself and her friends whether to go or not. But the lure of being in the movies and making money were now too strong and overpowered her best judgment. She decided to try again but vowed this time would be different. No washing and drying her hair in the oven, no make-up, no costume. She would go as herself and that was that. Of course, she still had to take the long subway ride to the studio once more.
This time, however, it was the right day and right time. Pauline was ushered into a basement where dozens of women were already queued up. Once she joined the throng, she realized that all of them were at least twice her age. This casting session, her neighbor in line said, was for older prostitutes.
After taking a breath and thinking of fleeing, Pauline decided she didn’t care and was staying regardless. As soon as she finished her thought, like a king coming down to survey his subjects, the director descended the stairs followed by an entourage.
Without saying a word – maybe he only spoke English, she thought, since this was an American film – he started to choose.
When he got to Pauline, he paused. Then he took a closer look at her, didn’t speak, and moved on to the next woman.
Pauline was devastated. She had come in vain. She was too young probably, or not prostitute enough. Her movie debut would be postponed. Meanwhile, the lucky ones were gathering on one side smiling and laughing. They had won the lottery. The others grimly started to move away. Dejected, Pauline began to follow the losers out of the basement.
When suddenly, the director’s first assistant peeked out from the top of the stairs and, pointing at her, said: “Girl over there! You’ll play a waitress in the bar scene.”
Envious looks focused on Pauline from all around. She was no longer an extra anymore but had been cast in a bit part. Her movie debut was back on. What a break!
That night, Dimitry was ecstatic. “Have some more vodka and caviar. Russia is great!” True, Pauline had never acted before. And, worse, of all the jobs she’d done, she had never been a waitress or carried a tray. But these worries were for later.
The day Pauline showed up for her acting role, there were no other women scheduled to perform. She had the undivided attention of the make-up artist and hairdresser who both pampered her like a star. Glorious.
The movie lead, a young American, was getting made-up not too far away. Pauline sensed the pair were not enamored of the actress who didn’t seem very friendly. Was she nervous perhaps?
After all the primping and fussing, Pauline looked at the person in the mirror and didn’t recognize herself. She hated the way she looked. She hid her disappointment by praising and thanking the crew who were pleased with their latest oeuvre.
Finally, the moment had come. A prop man handed Pauline a large tray, the size of which she had never seen before. Quickly, he showed her how to carry it. Before she even had a chance to practice, she was called to set. The bar was crowded with actors dressed as American GIs. She was to walk between their tables and pretend to take their orders. Walking past any crowd of men would have been a challenge under any circumstances, but in front of a camera and a crew? Terror set in.
“Action,” she heard. And didn’t move.
“Could someone instruct the young lady? Please, hurry up.”
All eyes were on her.
The first assistant rushed over and showed Pauline where to go and what to do.
The tray was gigantic. The lights blinding. The faces intimidating. She soldiered through it. The director did a few takes. Quickly, Pauline was dismissed with a forced, “Thank you.” She had been wholly unprepared for her first chance on the Silver Screen. In all candor, she had not given a thought to what playing a waitress entailed. She had only heard the words “movie” and “money.”
Back in the make-up chair, she held back tears and hoped no one would witness her debacle. She felt better when a production accountant handed her a check. She signed for it. The movie people had held up their part of the bargain. But she had not.
The Metro ride back home was grim. The money had always been the goal, right? But nicer to have done a good job and received praise for it. Too late. Nobody to blame but herself.
What would Dimitry think when he found out she had embarrassed herself? Would it hurt his relationship with the production? But, generous soul that he was, he let her off the hook, “They don’t know I sent you. Anybody could have done it.”
“Thank God,” she replied.
A few months after her attempt at acting, she had put the whole disaster behind her. Or so she’d thought. Pauline’s father was on the phone now. Upset. Very upset. “Is it true that you played a prostitute in an American movie?” he demanded after finding out from a friend about Pauline’s adventure on the Silver Screen.
Pauline tried to calm her father down. “No, Papa. I didn’t play a prostitute, I played a waitress.”
“Then why would Francoise lie to us?”
“I have no idea.”
Relieved, her father hung up the phone. Pauline thought he didn’t need to know she had almost played a prostitute.
Meanwhile, after no success coupling with Pauline, Dimitry floated away.
Time for Pauline to go back to being busy and broke and alone.