An aging actress ends her career in Palm Springs only to hope it’s the start of a comeback. 3,973 words. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
Marcy Gray (née Madeleine Greenspan) had slept with a number of men for more or less professional reasons. From the perspective of time, however, she had to admit that she hadn’t slept with the right ones. If she had been more judicious in her choice of sexual partners, she may not have found herself, at a delicate age, living on a SAG pension and Social Security in a one-bedroom condominium on Paradise Road in Palm Springs.
Not that Marcy Gray had ever become a marquee name. But over the decades she had managed to cobble together a decent living from guest actress jobs on television and the occasional damaged woman role in low-budget features. During the seventies she was booking jobs as junkies, abused wives, schizophrenics. She got so good at it that she could virtually phone in the performance: vacant eyes, aspirated, brittle voice. In the early eighties, Marcy Gray was the go-to actress if you needed a hooker or a divorcee, with or without a heart of gold.
She continued to work in the nineties, auditioning for middle-aged women with dry skin, arthritis, insomnia . She drew the line at laxative commercials. And now and then, there was a role with a little meat on it, and for a week or so she felt like an artist. More recently, when she got her SAG dues form, the numbers stared her in the face. She had moved from damaged girls, to damaged mothers, to damaged mothers with teenage children. There weren’t a lot of roles for damaged grandmothers. Casting directors continued to call her in for oddball roles, but she booked maybe one in 10, and that one was rarely more than a day’s work.
She had good friends, mostly fellow struggling actors with whom she shared the ups and downs of the bumpy road of a film career. She continued to take classes, perfecting her technique, rejoicing in brief interludes of glory when she got to do some marvelous scene in class, and became, for those fifteen minutes, Anne Bancroft, Shirley McClain, Meryl Streep, or the occasional Equity Waiver play in a 99-seat theater in East Hollywood.
Marcy hated admitting defeat, walking away with the odor of failure on her. She had gotten so close, for so long. There were roles that she’d narrowly missed getting that would have helped her break through to the next level — the level where they made offers without auditions, sent cars with drivers to take you to the set, gave you a personal hair and makeup person and an assistant to go on latte runs.
The problem had begun with her choice of husbands.
There were two of them. The dead one she had met, just out of college, in an acting class on Hollywood Boulevard doing Breakfast At Tiffany’s . His name was Troy, and he was seriously gorgeous. Six-two, slim, pale blue eyes, with a dancer’s grace, and a soft Kentucky accent that rolled off his tongue like a shot of Jack Daniels. When he suggested that, in the interest of authenticity, they rehearse the bathtub scene naked, she was there. It was the Sixties. Everyone took their clothes off. Everyone slept with everyone. And for actors putting up a scene together, it was pretty much de rigeur.
The scene killed, and a couple of weeks later, they took a trip to Vegas in Troy’s ’65 Mustang, won $1,200 letting it ride on a $2 crap table, decided it was an omen, and went off, stoned out of their gourds, to a wedding chapel downtown to get married with an Elvis impersonator singing “Love Me Tender.” The hangover didn’t kick in for awhile. They were doing scenes, running to auditions, dreaming the dream, living off the State of California’s liberal unemployment benefits. The sex was more often than not lacking any sense of tenderness or intimacy. Afterward, he was up, bouncing around the apartment, showering, checking his messages, instead of lying with his arms around her.
Little by little, the picture began to get clearer. Troy spent a great deal of time grooming himself, joined a gym they couldn’t afford, avoided kissing her on the mouth. He had more clothes than she did in their communal closet. It wasn’t until she came home and found him in the shower with a waiter from their favorite Mexican restaurant that she had to admit that she’d married a gay man.
They hung on for six months, distracted by the erratic adrenaline hits of auditions, scenes, workshops. This producer might be coming to class; that agent was looking for new clients; this casting director was a cousin of someone that someone used to know. The gossamer labyrinth of Hollywood dreams. But it was a losing battle, and they both knew it. He was destined to live his life in the big closet that Hollywood provided for gay actors.
He became just another girlfriend. They stayed in touch – long phone conversations dishing late at night when both of them were blue and drunk – until years later when they got divorced so that she could marry her second husband.
Neil was at least straight, though she wouldn’t have minded if he was just a little bit gay. With some of the wit that her gay friends possessed. He was a writer she met when she’d landed a job on Owen Marshall: Counselor At Law. Or was it Petrocelli? Neil Breslau was the Nice Jewish Boy her parents had always wanted her to marry. He was Jewish, all right, but he wasn’t all that nice. Deep inside him was a vein of passive aggressive anger that bubbled up to the surface and expressed itself in a wounding sarcasm that she grew to hate. Over the six years of their marriage his frustration with a writing career that remained below the radar expressed itself by his inability to find any pleasure in anyone else’s success. Including hers.
She wound up taking home more money than Neil, and that turned out to be the deal breaker. The chip on his shoulder got so large that when he went in to pitch for a job, all the producers had to do was breathe, and it fell off. He spent his days writing depressing, bitter, scripts about depressing, bitter men that no one wanted to make. He refused to get a day job, or consider Plan B. When she came home at night, it was like coming home to a beaten dog who didn’t even want to go out for a walk. She began staying later at classes, auditions, eating out with her actor friends, avoiding going home.
Then she met Yves, a French director 15 years older than her, who had a brief flash of cachet in the movie world after he’d won a prize at Cannes for a long, slow, interior film. Marcy met him on a movie he directed about a drug dealer. Who else but Marcy Gray to play the damaged junkie who falls in love with the lead? She nailed both the audition and the director. And after the first day of shooting, she broke her wedding vows and slept with him in his hotel room in Fresno, where they were filming. And the second and third night as well. It was clear to both of them, going in, that the duration of the affair would be the length of the shoot. It barely outlasted the wrap party. He flew to Vancouver to cut the movie, and she never saw him again. Or the movie, which was never released.
But he left with her the desire to rediscover men. And the conviction to dump Neil. He wanted not only half of their house in Silver Lake, but a piece of her SAG pension, and an alimony payment until he “got back on his feet.” He had hired a lawyer and was threatening to take her to court claiming that he “sacrificed his own career for hers.” What a load of bullshit. The divorce dragged on for almost a year, the lawyers milking it for all it was worth.
So Marcy found herself unattached, undiscovered, and unloved. And she continued to hope that there would be someone she could love the way a woman was supposed to love a man – fully, madly, deeply. Instead, she indulged in flings with below-the-line crew guys and struggling young directors, boozy weekends in Baja or Vegas.
At 60, or some approximation of that age, she had gone under the knife. Twenty-five grand to a top-of-line Bedford Drive plastic surgeon, who had done such a good job that you couldn’t really tell. There wasn’t a working actress in her age range who hadn’t gotten work done. It was self-defense, she told herself. The surgery didn’t do much for her career, which continued to dissolve by imperceptible degrees.
When Plan B began to falter, she moved on to Plan C. Which involved selling the house in Silver Lake and getting a condo somewhere she could afford. The options were narrow. An actor-realtor friend told her she could get a decent place for her money in the desert. It took her awhile to give up the ghost and admit to herself that it was time to leave Hollywood.
She could get out, with her head high, and go on to something more rewarding. She could play herself – a woman in control of her destiny, instead of a woman sitting around and waiting for the phone to ring. So she sold the house in Silver Lake and moved to Palm Springs. She didn’t tell her agent she was out of the business, just that she would only come up to audition for real jobs.
“What’s a real job?” Artie Reman, her agent of 20 years, asked her.
“One that has a little meat on it.”
“You mean, the stuff that Meryl turns down?”
Artie Reman cut to the chase with a ruthless economy of words. Better to rip the Band-Aid off quickly, especially for a woman with a lot of wounds. He would call her up and say, “You’re not getting the job.” Or “they think you’re too old.” Or “they wrote the role out.” And this time he was no gentler. “Look, I’ve got women 15 years younger than you can’t get arrested. Actresses have a shelf life, and yours is past due.”
Marcy took with her cartons of headshots, old scripts, videos of her performances, photos of her at the craft-services table with actors whom people might recognize. She had chosen Paradise Gardens, from all the other condominium complexes in Palm Springs, because the ground-floor units each had a little patio. Her very funny, very gay neighbor was Stanley Hochberg, a retired choreographer,who had worked on several of the big production musicals of the Fifties and Sixties. Stanley being both gay and Jewish, they bonded. They drank wine, cooked for each other, watched old movies on television. He told her she was gorgeous, and that if he’d had an ounce of hetero blood in him, he’d be all over her.
It was Stanley who coined the phrase “Purgatory Gardens” to describe the thirty-unit complex. It’s not quite up to the standards of hell. And it was to Stanley that she had confided that she felt her life, at that point, was mostly about damage control. She needed to circle the wagons and figure out a way to get through the years in front of her.
"Seriously, who’s going to take care of me in my old age?”
“I will,” he’d said, and meant it. Until he got ill and died of stomach cancer. She had nursed him as much as he would let her, fighting back tears. After Stanley went, she felt more alone than ever. She even considered moving back to Los Angeles, to an apartment in the Valley where she could live out her time as a recovering actress, go to Twelve Step Programs in church basements and stand up and say, “Hi, I’m Marcy. And I’m an actress.”
Her new strategy was clear: find someone to take care of her. He didn’t have to be Mr. Right, just not Mr. Wrong.
She had narrowed it down to, conveniently, residents of Paradise Gardens. She was already at callbacks, having scouted the available talent and come up with the only men who were presentable and straight. The safer choice was a retired cement company owner named Sammy Dee, who had hit on her while she was on the StairMaster in the exercise room. He was on the short side — five-nine, maybe five-ten in shoes with heels — and could lose a few pounds, but he had a rich head of undyed hair and nice skin.
Sammy Dee was from somewhere on Long Island, and had just enough of the East Coast accent to attract her. She liked the way he listened with full attention, never interrupting, keeping his eyes focused. And he had old-world manners. He opened car doors, pulled chairs out, got up when she entered a room.
There was something about him, however, that didn’t quite add up. Apparently he had no family, or at least none that he was close to. He told her he’d never married, was an only child, and his parents were long dead. He said he’d left home at 17 to work in construction and owned his own business by the time he was 30. He said for the last 10 years,he’d been an independent investor. What to make of a straight guy pushing 70 who had never married? She thought there had to be some skeletons in his closet. Google was no help. Did you mean Sandra Dee?
The first date she had with Sammy Dee was at the Olive Garden. He skillfully evaded her questions about his past, as well as about his present and future. On their second date, he took her to a high-end French restaurant where he ordered off the top of the wine list. He dropped a couple hundred on the dinner. That went into the credit column. She drank too much and got cuddly in the car on the way home.
She consulted a private detective. “It’s the numbers that give him away.”
“Social security number and driver’s license number. A person’s social can tell you something about their age, where they were born, how long they’ve been in this country. There are sequences that have meaning, and, with the right databases, you can make certain assumptions about someone. And then there are the funny numbers. Funny numbers are computer-generated numbers that the government comes up with when they’re trying to conceal someone’s identity. I thought you were in the movie business. You never heard of witness protection?”
“You mean, like, for the Mafia? You think Sammy is in witness protection?”
“Maybe, maybe not. Look, there are a number of reasons someone does an identity scrub that have nothing to do with crime. But I’ll bet you his name isn’t Sammy Dee, he’s not Jewish, and he’s never been in the cement business."
Then, a few days after that conversation, Sammy’s car got blown up in the Vons supermarket lot.
By the time the screaming died down and the sound of police sirens could be heard in the distance, Sammy Dee was standing outside the supermarket looking at the carcass of his Lexus. When his heartbeat slowed down, Sammy considered whether he should disown his car. Just walk away and hope that the job was thorough enough that there would be no way to identify the owner. But Sammy had watched enough episodes of CSI to know that these guys could make you from an eyelash.
It didn’t take long for the shit to hit the fan. The news vans started showing up outside the condo complex. Before the reporters began calling, his special WITSEC phone rang. “Are you all right?” Marshal Dylan asked him, without apparent interest or sympathy.
“For a guy whose car was just blown up, I’m not too bad.”
“First of all, do not — I repeat, do not — talk to anyone.”
“What about the police?”
“We will fix that. But do not say anything to reporters, or even to friends and family.”
“As you know, I don’t have any friends or family.”
“This is no time for self-pity.”
“Frankly, I can’t think of a better time.”
“You need to avoid being photographed.”
“How do I do that?”
“You don’t leave your house. And keep your blinds shut.”
It was refreshing to be able to reassume the persona of Salvatore Didziocomo, if only to talk to the FBI. Sammy was no longer Salvatore Didziocomo, who knew a lot of people who could get a lot of things done. But Sammy Dee didn’t have a long list of people to call on for help.
Sammy almost didn’t hear the knocking on his door. He got up, walked over, and peeked through the tiny hole. Marcy Gray was standing there. With a casserole. Opening the door narrowly, he moved her inside quickly and closed the door behind her. “Look, Marcy, the reporters may try to talk to you.”
“They already have. I told them to get lost. I know what you’re going through, Sammy. Believe me. I went out to dinner once with Jimmy Caan. For a week afterward, they kept calling me and asking about our relationship. I wouldn’t even tell them what Jimmy had for dinner.”
“I appreciate that.”
Marcy hadn’t spoken to her agent Artie Reman since she had moved to Palm Springs.
“How you doin’, doll?”
“Okay, I guess. You’re calling me?”
As she asked the rhetorical question, she remembered the sick joke about the actor who comes home to find his wife beaten and raped. When she tells him it was his agent who did this to her, he beams and says, “My agent came by?”
“I saw you on television.”
“Really? Oh, you mean on the news?”
“Yeah. You were going in to see your famous neighbor, Sammy Dee.”
“Oh that. . . he’s just a friend.”
Marcy waited for the pitch. There was no way that Artie Reman had called her just to say hello. “So, listen, at the staff meeting this morning, guess whose name came up?”
“Mine?” she replied, playing along with what she hoped wasn’t just a cruel game.
He laughed. “After the meeting, my office was full of lit agents. They all want to get the rights to this guy’s story, for their clients. It’s a clean seven-figure option deal for whoever walks in with his rights. But nobody can get to him. He’s not answering his phone.”
“So I’m figuring you can get to him.”
“So if you can get to him, maybe we can put something together. A movie deal. What I’m talking about, Marcy, is putting you up as the girl in a movie about this guy.”
“Yeah. there’s got to be a girl, no?”
“Come on, Artie, you ever see Tommy Lee Jones or Harrison Ford, or even Clint with a woman his age? And he’s nearly 80.”
Years of playing this game kept her on the line. Where there was light, there was hope. Artie Reman picked up on the thickness of the silence. “So you talk to him and see if he’s willing to let us put him with a writer. And then we’ll go from there, okay?”
“I’ll get back to you, Artie.” The agent had just reeled her right back in. And it hadn’t been very difficult. Just when she was getting to the point of accepting the reality that she no longer had a career, he had dangled a little bait in front of her and she was biting. Big time. If they got the DP to light her well, she could play 60, 61. Maybe even late 50s. a good man.
Before she went over to see Sammy, she dressed the part of the 55 year- old — she could get there with a really good cinematographer, a serious diet, and a wardrobe magician — who would conquer the heart of whoever they got to play the ex-mobster in witness protection. Marcy Gray was already in makeup. This time, she waved at the reporters. That’s how good she looked. She brought pastries and wore the Manolo Blahniks that she had splurged on when a large residual check had fallen out of the sky last summer. Sammy answered her knock by opening the door a crack and letting her slip in. He was unshaven and wearing a bathrobe. She liked the look — Tony Soprano after a night of burying bodies.
“You look great.”
“Thanks. I got an audition later,” she lied.
“No kidding? What for?”
“Just some TV thing.”
“So. . . this is all pretty exciting, huh?” she led with, trying to recast the incident in a more positive light.
“It’s a pain in the ass, is what it is.”
“Of course. But still, you know, there could be some good things happening for you.”
“I’m sure people want to talk to you about your story.”
“They’re coming out of the woodwork.”
She took a moment, dangling her Manolos in an alluring fashion. “What’s so bad about their writing a book or even making a movie about you?”
“I don’t need the publicity.”
“There could be a lot of money, serious money.”
“C’mon. Who wants to make a movie about a retired cement guy whose car happened to be parked in the wrong place?”
“The writers will change all that stuff around. They do it all the time. They’ll probably change the story so much that no one will even know it’s you. Just take the money and run.”
He still wasn’t biting. It was time for one final gambit. She’d go right for the ego. “What if they got, like, Tommy Lee Jones or Harrison Ford?”
The façade cracked just a bit, enough for some light to sneak through, and she went for the kill. “You’d have casting approval, of course.”
“You’d be calling the shots. You could get, I don’t know, maybe Jimmy Caan, or even Clint Eastwood.”
He shrugged. “I’m thinking more Al Pacino.”
While the literary agents in Artie Reman’s agency did a triage of their A-list writers, Marcy kept the pressure on Sammy not to back out. He seemed torn between the idea of cashing a big check and allowing his life to become public. She came by at dinnertime with a lasagna and her Jimmy Choos hoping to shore up the deal.
The next day, Artie Reman called with news that they were in negotiations with a Triple-A writer. That night, Marcy lay in bed and indulged in the luxury of evaluating the men she wanted to play opposite. Clint really was too old. They’d let him direct, and there’d be endless script rewrites, and the movie wouldn’t be made for years. She’d already worked with Jimmy Caan, who at 73 was still doing Sonny Corleone. Pacino was in his 70s, too, and they’d never cast her as his love interest. She’d wind up as his older sister, or, worse, his therapist. Maybe she should give Sly a call. Hey, Sly, how’re you doing? Remember me — the complex, damaged USO worker you had a one-night stand with in Rambo — or was it Rambo III?
She drifted off to sleep with the fantasy of walking the red carpet at Cannes, where her powerfully understated performance in The Sammy Dee Story had gotten her a lot of buzz. When she gave her acceptance speech, she would make sure to mention all the people who’d never hired her.
Copyright © 2015 By Peter Lefcourt. From the book Purgatory Gardens by Peter Lefcourt. Published by Skyhorse Publishing, Inc. Published by permission.
4 comments on “Purgatory Gardens”
I read The Dreyfus Affair years (?) ago and loved it. I need more more more. Nice piece. Bittersweet, funny, just a tad grim. In a good way grim.
This is an excellent enticement to read the book, as I am now completely invested in what happens to both of these characters. Proof that teachers can do as well as teach … if you’re the same person who got a fifteen year old to extrapolate a short story from a trip to Night Court or the photograph of Tim Hardin on an old album cover.
You bet, Steven. Dalton School, circa whenever. Good to hear from you.
This is a pretty good piece that speaks to a greater truth, but man, is it ever depressing. A sad, bleak tone throughout. If that’s the intent, to show how depressing Hollywood is (and the people within the mechanism), congrats on achieving it…