The manipulative movie executive who got away with murder is back – and even more desperate. 4,366 words. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
Griffin Mill was broke, he was down to his last six million dollars. No one knew he was broke, not Lisa, his wife, not June, his first wife, not even his lawyer, but the nine million dollars in investments that he made on the advice of his business manager, convinced of a permanent new economy charged by an expansion of wealth made possible by technology, had failed and what had once been sixteen and a half million dollars in options in the studio’s decrepit stock could now generate barely six hundred thousand dollars a year and if he wanted to preserve the principal, the stock’s value would have to increase by more than the six percent he drew down, but the parent company had made a dismal merger, and a stock which rose to ninety-three was stuck, five years later, at seventeen. The parent company refused all offers for the film division to avoid a declaration of surrender.
Until last year, Gregory Peck Swaine had badly managed the division of the studio created for buying and making low budget films, reporting to Griffin. Greg complained that the studio never committed enough money for prints and advertising, which was true, because distribution didn’t expect Greg’s films to do well, and only sustained the division so that the annual report could include pictures of the executives at the Sundance Film Festival, as a validation of their devotion to film as art. When Greg released four of what he called art films one year, each set in the American heartland, with roughly the same scene in the local coffee shop, of impotent highway patrolmen, intellectual commercial fishermen and slutty but honorable waitresses, finally and reluctantly the studio shut the classics division down, and tossed Greg a generous settlement, in veneration of his last name. Greg’s father, Warren Swaine, had produced sixty-two movies, and still, at age 85, made a movie every few years. Greg and his father were not close. Now Greg was stupidly trying to raise money to run the same kind of company without a studio’s support. He was the dullest of Hollywood types, a Nicholas Ray intellectual who knew the jargon of French film theory, a neutered film buff who whined about the bean counters, who believed that Hollywood had once been better. But Hollywood has always been the same.
Greg Swaine had five children, and while he was Hollywood royalty, his own achievements failed to open the doors at the elite elementary schools, and even if they had, he couldn’t have afforded the cost, about twenty-one thousand a year for high school. Warren Swaine, indeterminately wealthy, in the style of his generation’s barons, did not support Greg or the grandchildren. The son of Warren’s short second marriage, to a Sabena air hostess, Greg was three at the divorce. Though the elder Swaine paid child support, and paid for his son’s education, father and son never knew each other well. His mother never married again, and smoked herself to death. Greg wanted to be a producer so that he could prove himself to his father, a stupid reason by itself, but even worse because that’s what he told everyone.
The settlement for his last job was just enough to support an office and secretary, which he needed, because if he worked out of his house, when prospective investors returned his calls there was the chance they’d hear a vacuum cleaner in the background. Elixa told Lisa who told Griffin, that when Greg returned calls, he sometimes ran the hair dryer near the phone, and said he was on a private jet. Griffin kept this to himself because some people are so creepy that even to know this about them is a sign of dangerous proximity to contamination.
He called Greg and asked him, “What is going on? Coldwater is the best private school in the country, probably, you know that, don’t you?”
"And I can’t afford it,” said Greg. “I can’t afford Eli’s school. You know I’m not making money, and the wife, to use that phrase, isn’t making enough to keep the house running and cover a twenty-three thousand dollar a year tuition, especially since my four younger kids will want to know why their big brother goes to private school and they don’t."
"Have you asked your father?"
"Yes. He said No. I barely know him. It was like going to an uncle by marriage. I’ve never felt so marginalized." Griffin couldn’t contain himself.
“Marginalized? You know what that sounds like, Greg? Marginalized is what a college professor with an Italian last name says he feels when he’s denied tenure by women and uses the language of gender and race identity instead of getting angry. Instead of going all Dago on them. Does he know how many children Coldwater sends to the Ivy League and Stanford every year? It’s incredible. You’ve seen the facilities, you’ve seen the labs and the gyms and the library. The place is set up better than some colleges."
"He doesn’t care. He won’t pay. I can’t afford it, so that’s, you know, all she wrote. The fat lady has sung. All my life I tried to be Richard Widmark and I end up whining like Dan Duryea, you know what I mean?"
“Who is Dan Duryea?”
“Look him up.”
“I don’t want to look him up.”
“He was an actor, a great character actor. I’m too caught up in my own life as a character actor. Maybe I’m not even Dan Duryea. Maybe I was wrong to aim for Widmark, maybe I should have set myself up as Glenn Ford, he’s more of a family man than Widmark. I wasted years on my Belmondo phase, and maybe that’s the problem, too, instead of Delon. Alain Delon and Glen Ford. You know what I mean about Glenn Ford.”
“No. I can’t name a single Glenn Ford movie and I’d rather be listening to Glen Campbell while drinking Glenfiddich. I want to know one thing. Would you send Eli to Coldwater if you could?”
"3:10 To Yuma, and of course I’d send him there. I’m not doing this out of pride. Courtship Of Eddie’s Father. I don’t have contempt for the school just because I can’t afford it. I’ve worked on myself. I’m more developed as a human being than that. The Big Heat. Fritz Lang directed it."
Griffin thought, if you were really developed, you schmuck, you’d have made money with the classics division. You’d have made films with sex and blood instead of coffee shops. You’d have taken what you love about film noir and bought up some Korean cop movies. Or you would have made big brilliant comedies about stupidity and vanity and the way love can’t blossom until everyone, the hero especially, knows the truth about themselves.
Warren Swaine lived at the top of a street Griffin had never been to, high in Kenter Canyon, in Brentwood. The house was a broad hacienda, filling a promontory with a view of the city, wealth turning the air into a magnifying glass that also filtered out the brown stain of pollution. Looking towards the ocean over the ridges and arroyos of the Santa Monica Mountains, one could believe that everything was right with the world.
Swaine answered the doorbell himself, though the butler was in the background, handsome as Griffin expected from his voice, groomed like a Marine with a trust fund, but out of uniform, just a guy who was there for the pure pleasure of service.
"Thank you for seeing me, Mr. Swaine," said Griffin, The only other people to whom he spoke so respectfully were his children’s teachers, but with them the custom of such honor was a condescension in exchange for their low pay.
Swaine brought him around the pool to his office in a small house surrounded by roses. Beyond the pool, Griffin didn’t recognize the canyon to the west, which he hadn’t seen when he was at the front door of the house. This should have been Mandeville Canyon, but Mandeville was one canyon over, and the canyon that he was looking at had three riding rings and a broad polo field, something too large for Griffin to have missed after so many years in California. The large houses along the canyon were all evenly obscured by their gardens, which ended in a neat line along the border of a few dozen long rows of grapes on the vine, a vineyard, which surrounded the deep green polo fields and riding rings. Griffin counted five small children on Shetland ponies, who were learning to jump in one of the rings, supervised by a couple of lanky women in riding clothes.
“That’s a pretty sight,” said Griffin. “But what canyon is that? It should be Mandeville, right? But it isn’t.”
“Why are you here?” said Swaine, and Griffin didn’t want to divert the conversation into his own confusion about geography.
Swaine took the big seat behind his desk, instead of taking an arm chair in the sitting area of the room, so Griffin had to face him across a skyline of awards. Swaine wasted no time. “What do you need from me?"
"This is very awkward," said Griffin. "This is not about movie business.
"If it were, you’d have told me what you wanted on the phone."
"It’s about your grandson."
"From which one of my children?"
The producer’s face was so obviously set not to tell his true feelings about his son that he might as well have held up a sign that read, “Ready To Kill The Fucker.”
“It’s about Eli. I know him pretty well because he’s my son’s best friend. They go to Walter Reed together.”
“Well, it’s a surprise that you send your own kid to a public school, and I have to say I already like you for that.”
“Why is that a surprise?”
“Because, well, you’re one of them, I hate to say, but you know what I mean. I learned too late about the problem of private education, and the one who paid the price for that is Greg. But you’re smart to send your son to a good public school. He’s going to be ahead of the game, way ahead, when he’s an adult.”
“I’m glad you say that, that’s what I want from his education, but there’s been a change. My son got into Coldwater, and so did Eli.”
“I can’t begin to know where this is going, but I’m getting a really bad feeling.”
“Well, sir, I can’t pretend that I don’t know that you have a strained relationship with Greg. I don’t know all the causes but I can guess. Greg worked with us at the studio and he didn’t do a good job with the classics division. We had to let him go. In spite of that, the fact is, we’re still friends, not as friendly as our sons, but our wives are very close. My second wife, that is, Ethan, my son, I had with my first wife. I’m not digressing to no purpose, sir, I want to draw a picture for you, a social picture, if you will, sir. As I said, my son and your grandson were accepted at Coldwater. It’s a great school."
"Ten percent of the kids at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton are geniuses, no question. The rest are shits. And not just the legacies. The same for Coldwater. It’s a school for weaklings. It’s a school that trains the children of the rich to be greedy nervous shits, that’s what it is. It’s a fucking cruise liner. Teachers in this world used to have authority, Mr. Mill, but at Coldwater they’ve been made into the entertainment directors on a cruise ship. Don’t tell me about that school. I know the people there, I know who went there and I know whose children go there now. My son asked me to pay for Eli’s tuition and I told him absolutely not. He should go to public school with Mexicans, Africans, Koreans, Armenians, he should be down on the street with real people whose parents have real jobs, or don’t have jobs, so that when he’s forty, and the world is in ruins around him, he’ll feel in himself that he’s a man among men, and he’ll know who to trust and who to avoid, and he’s not going to get that kind of real social education in a fucking hot house incubation tray where the kids drive new Hummers, and when the world collapses will be all in a tizzy because they can’t get room service and people aren’t smiling at them all the time. And why do you care? What are you, a social worker? You’re here from the school hoping that if I pay for my grandson I’ll buy them a hockey rink so my grandson can hire some farmer’s kid from Manitoba to play in his place?"
"It’s not like that, sir."
"Well in what way is it like, then, Mr. Mill?"
Griffin took a breath, and in that parentheses he wrote his destiny, he wrote the loss of the moment for his one big move, he wrote a forced retirement because he was getting older and they could promote someone younger or hire someone from outside who could do just as good a job for a lot less money. He wrote bankruptcy. He wrote his death.
"No sir, but just because you fucked Marilyn Monroe doesn’t give you the right to throw your grandson into the ocean and hope he learns to swim."
"You’re rude, and disgusting. I didn’t fuck her, I made love to her."
"He’s your grandson and he deserves a great education. He’s had eight years at public school and he’s learned whatever he needs to know about the real Los Angeles and the real America. He’ll always have that."
"And what are you to him, you molesting him? Is that what this is about? You’re not blood. Does your son live with you or his mother?"
"Did she remarry?"
"How much time does your son spend with you?"
"Saturdays and Sundays."
"When I’m in town."
"So what the fuck is this about? I guess if you were molesting the kid you’d pay for his education yourself, unless you’re broke. Are you broke?"
"Of course not."
"A lot of people are broke these days. My son is broke."
"Yes sir, and he wants his son to have a chance that he has failed to provide for."
"Let me tell you what I’ve learned about life. A son who knows that his father is a demented, deranged loser, and makes a break from him, grows up to be a stronger man than someone whose loser father manages to scrape together enough material to give the kid the illusion that his father actually knows something about the ways of the world, and how to survive. Eli’s mother, no saint herself, believe me, pays the rent because his father is washed up, and he’s not even forty-five. If my grandson goes to public high school he’ll come to learn that his father’s failure to provide is a crime against nature, because his father had every chance, and he will make himself rich, or a leader in whatever he chooses even if money isn’t the point, to avenge the shame of his father’s sins. My father was a loser and a degenerate gambler. Plain and simple. I made sixty-five movies, Griffin, sixty-five, and do you know why? I had to knock on doors to get a quarter that people owed my father. That’s why I made sixty-five movies and that’s why I made love to Marilyn Monroe, because I understood life and I knew she was in pain. I hold myself responsible for her suicide, because I let her go. That’s my pain. My grandson, who I happen to know is a very bright and capable boy, a good looking kid with some real inner fiber, will go to public high school, and when it’s time for college, I’ll tell him if he goes to Berkeley I’ll support him, but if he’s bound for the Ivies, I’ll pay his tuition, room and board, and for his books, but if he wants spending money he’ll have to get a college job. I’d like to see Eli become a doctor. Not because it would make me proud, well, maybe, but it would mean the lifting of the curse on this family and someone would actually make a difference in the world instead of serving up distraction, which is the real name and purpose of our business, Mr. Mill. And besides, in twenty years, when he’s out of medical school, the ocean will have risen those few inches that mean the death of the ice caps, and we’ll be in hell, and in hell you get burned, and when you get burned you need a doctor. So get out of my office."
Griffin stood up, went to Warren Swaine’s desk, put his face close to the old man’s and whispered, "You’re just doing this to punish Greg, you stupid selfish fuck. If you know so much about what a child needs, why can’t Greg make a living? I know why. You were too busy fucking Marilyn Monroe to teach your son to swim."
“You think you know what you’re talking about, Mr. Mill? You think I’m the one to call a sick fucker? Is that it? Do you think your generation is better than mine? Do you think you know my son? Do you think you know what I’m protecting my grandson from? You have no idea. None! Nothing! You don’t know any…” He stopped shouting and whispered the second syllable, “…thing.” He held up a hand, asking for a time out from his rage. With a voice dry with what Griffin at first mistook as pity, Swaine croaked out, “You don’t know a thing about my son.”
Swaine’s breathing slowed behind a look of puzzled contemplation, as though his whole spiritual battle was like a tongue trying to find a psychotically annoying nearly invisible thread of celery between the teeth, if such a thread was also his soul. Ferocious but weak from agony, Swaine reached a palsied hand to a file drawer on the side of his desk. Griffin thought, he’s going for the heart medicine and moved quickly around the desk and then as though innocent of what he was doing, braced his leg against the drawer and looked into Swaine’s eyes. Lying to him, Griffin asked, “Warren, are you all right?”
Swaine fought for the drawer but Griffin’s knee held it closed, and the dying man didn’t have the power that Griffin knew would return if he could only get to the medicine in the drawer that Griffin was blocking. “Should I get help?” But he meant to say, if you live, and you don’t pay your grandson’s tuition, then my son Ethan won’t go to Coldwater and I won’t survive the end of the world.
Warren Swaine fell forward, his nose hitting the desk. Griffin touched the back of Swaine’s neck, and finding no pulse he shouted, “Help!” and ran for the handsome butler, who called for a private ambulance, using his speed dial, and if the ambulance was on speed dial, with Swaine’s weak heart they were prepared for an attack, which would deflect suspicion about Griffin, if there was going to be any, and there would be. They ran back to the office, where Swaine was sitting up, his nose bleeding, the drawer open. The butler said, “Oh, thank God, Warren, Griffin thought you were dying.” Swaine raised his right arm and pointed a finger at Griffin, and after a guttural squawk that sounded enough like "him" not to sound like anything else, settled in his chair, and fell forward again, this time dead. The drawer was open but Griffin couldn’t see inside. The butler saw, and then closed it, before touching his dead boss. Though the paramedics found a dead man they still used electricity to try and start his heart again, but in respect for the old man, and his Oscars on the desk, they were gentle with the body. The butler called Swaine’s daughter, and said, "It’s Chris Tryon at your father’s, and I have some bad news." Tryon told her the truth simply. "Your father just passed away. He was having a meeting and his heart stopped. It was over quickly. The ambulance came in twelve minutes, by the way, but it was too late. I think he died peacefully."
From Tryon’s side of the conversation Griffin understood that Swaine’s daughter would tell Greg.
Tryon didn’t even mention Griffin’s name, or the sequence of events, because they didn’t matter to the woman, but then he called Swaine’s lawyer.
"He was having a meeting when he collapsed. … Griffin Mill." To Griffin, "Toby Redd would like to talk to you."
Everyone knew Swaine’s lawyer, who treated the world with an indiscriminate familiarity that always made Griffin feel that he had been mistaken for someone else.
"So you were having a meeting?"
"We’d just started."
Griffin looked at the posters on the wall, and two of them were for films that had been made at the Studio when Griffin was five. He grabbed one title. "I was here to ask him if he would let us develop it for a remake."
"He must have loved that."
"He seemed pleased, yes."
"He was a character. Old school. To die knowing that he was still wanted."
"That’s the way we all want to go."
"After a full life, of course."
"So you brought him comfort."
"I hope so."
"Or the shock that anybody still cared was enough to kill him."
"I hope not."
"I assume you don’t want it in the public record that you were there when he died."
"There’s no reason, is there?"
"I don’t think so," said Redd.
Griffin left the office and sat in a chair under an umbrella by the pool, waiting for Greg Swaine, while Chris Tryon talked to other people on the phone.
"I’m so sorry," said Griffin as soon as Greg walked into the back yard. He could have added a few more words, but any embellishments to the simplicity of sympathy would be noticed by Greg like a gaudy monogram on a handkerchief offered to wipe away a tear. In response, Greg had no obligation greater than saying ‘thank you’, and then he asked Griffin to stay where he was, while he went into the office to see his father’s body. Griffin timed him, to set a mark against which he could measure someone else the next time this happened. After thirty-five minutes, Greg came out. Griffin assumed he’d called his sister, or his wife, or doctor, or lawyer, or all of them. Greg was now an orphan.
"I never got to say goodbye."
"And you were here why?"
"To see if he thought any of his old films might be worth a remake."
"He must have liked that."
"I think he did."
"So he died the way he wanted."
"Yeah. He always wanted to be carried out feet first."
"And having lived a full life."
"Did he say anything before he died?"
"Chris said my Dad raised his arm and pointed at you, and said ‘him’."
"I think he was just pointing in front of himself and there I was."
"No, he said my father pointed at you and said ‘him’."
"I don’t know."
"I thought it was more of a religious moment, actually. He could have been looking into the distance and he could have said ‘heaven’. It could have been that."
"It could have been. It sounded like this. It was sort of like, ‘hwhimmnn’. It wasn’t one syllable, he drew it out, it was the end of his breath, Greg. It could have been ‘him’, it could have been ‘heaven’, it could have been nothing. Or maybe he wanted to finish business. He knew he was dying, Greg. I think he was upset that he was being taken away from me."
"Why did he point?"
"Because he couldn’t stand up. Maybe he was reaching to me, for me to give him a hand. Maybe he was saying, ‘Please, God, don’t take me away in the middle of a meeting, I haven’t finished talking to himmm." Griffin pointed, to make his point.
"Finish business. That’d be my father. Not even to give himself enough time to die in a spiritual way."
"I wouldn’t know. Active death, active life, why die in contemplation?"
"How is that spiritual? I mean with closure, with peace, with his family around him, after he’d made peace with us and peace with himself. Maybe this was his punishment, to die with a stranger, no offense."
"But this way he went quickly, without pain."
"The heart attack was painful."
"It was over in three minutes."
"I hope you’re right. But between us, fuck him. That’s what I have to tell you. Fuck him. He wouldn’t even give me his death. He took that away from me, he even took his death away from me. I’ll never have a chance to prove myself a man to my own father," a sentiment he repeated to everyone, even the foreign investors he took to dinner. “Still fuck him, because now that he’s dead he’s going to give me what he wanted to keep from me. He’s only leaving me a million dollars, but the first check I write is to Coldwater. Eli’s going to get the education he deserves.”
Griffin wanted to see inside the drawer he had blocked, but Chris Tryon was sitting in the dead man’s chair, talking on the phone with the caterers for Swaine’s memorial service. There was the body floating under the words, “Vegetarian, yes.”
This was all because of Griffin’s second murder.
THE RETURN OF THE PLAYER © 2006 by Michael Tolkin; reprinted with the permission of the publisher, Grove Press, an imprint of Grove Atlantic, Inc. Photo credit Nicholas Jarecki.