A studio head throws a LACMA party for VIPs but only cares about the invited guest who replaced him. 3,647 words. Art by John Mann.
Ben Robbins circulated with a finesse that came from years of working a party. He played tennis regularly and was a serious student of martial arts. But this was his strongest sport. Usually, he was aloof — which he knew had been key to his allure as the head of a studio. Until tonight.
He didn’t move more than a few steps in any direction without reaching out to someone – and he was a master of the nuances and calibrations of movie industry relationships. He understood the minuet of manners as if at a levee of the Sun king.
Some, particularly Oscar winners and big directors, he greeted with a bear hug, ending with an extra few slaps on the back using both hands. Others, including influential directors, producers and the most powerful agents he dealt with regularly, got the hug, but pats from only one hand. Longtime colleagues or in-demand younger agents got the hug, but no accompanying pats. For older agents who handled actors he might need soon, as well as some of these intense younger actors who played both action and art movies, he would laugh a greeting as he grabbed both elbows, and a variation involved clutching both forearms. With some of the most gamine of actresses, he would stand close enough so that he could put a hand affectionately at the back of their neck as he kissed their cheeks, often standing on his toes to do so; others, including the sylph-like young actresses swanning about the garden, received a kiss as he held one of their elbows. He would also use that affectionate back of the neck grab for some younger actors, since he regarded this maneuver as almost shorthand for a hug.
Ben felt so relieved his party was working that he extended his physical repertoire down the food chain and became demonstrative. If some people were worth only a handshake, he reached out with two hands. Or he enclosed the person’s wrist with his other hand. Wives got a hug in addition to his ritual air kisses. It was all about creating the illusion of close contact. And maintaining his presence at the top of the food chain.
There was no way Ben could have known how bad the timing of this party would be.
The director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art had called more than eight months ago, asking if Ben would host a dinner at his Brentwood house for the opening of the Bruce Nauman exhibition. Ben said “yes” so quickly it didn’t occur to the director that the studio head had, as always, weighed his options. In fact, Nauman was such a big deal that Ben was sure this would raise his profile in the art world. It might help get him to MoMA – all he really wanted. He could end up being approached not just to lend Hollywood glamour for fund-raising, but as a serious player, worthy of respect.
Subtlety didn’t work in Hollywood. The town was too shameless. Besides, it didn’t give him the degree of satisfaction he needed. It was like irony. Wasted in Hollywood. Certainly Ben didn’t subscribe to it. That was the turf of his longtime associate, Fred Hirschberg. Fred had nothing but irony. Ben had no use for it.
The art world offered a now-unfamiliar challenge to Ben. At this point, there were few things beyond his reach in Hollywood. He was considered irresistible — but without the charm that word implied. His negotiating position was to get what he wanted. Nothing else was on the table. It was the way he talked. His arguments registered as self-evident. People sitting across the table came to see it was a fool’s game not to agree.
Ben always made sure that his tone was never anything but calm and friendly – a tactic he had perfected years ago. It scared people more, he found, when you didn’t raise your voice. Especially in Hollywood, a town filled with screamers — people who practiced a scorched-earth policy in their daily lives, setting flamethrowers on high over a missed call or not enough ice in a Diet Coke. There were former personal assistants all over town with charred psyches, burnt to a crisp, still fragile years after the fact. It was when Ben lowered his voice, however, that even studio vice presidents shivered.
Nauman was flying up to Los Angeles for the dinner and Ben was planning a high octane affair. His aim was to lace the L.A. art scene liberally with his Hollywood power base, and a touch of the Downtown L.A. establishment.
He knew how difficult it was to get movie people to talk to anyone outside the business. Their insularity, an essential narcissism, was encouraged. People from other professions were so eager to hear about the film business that movie people never had to talk about anything else. Ben knew he could rely on a Pasadena lawyer to ask about life on the set. But you could not count on industry players to have any interest in civilians — non-industry people. They had no conversation for outsiders. In any case, he focused on the industry because he wanted the party buzz to reach West 53rd Street in New York. He pulled out all the stops — major military invasions hadn’t been strategized as carefully.
He had wrangled three of the biggest stars — two Oscar winners, and a third who could open a picture and give it room to breathe for a week or even more. Two of the three had housekeeping deals on the lot, and the third, notoriously elusive, was negotiating for the studio’s big summer movie.
Ben was also expecting Nick Copley, the big-time action star who, a lifetime ago, had been a respected serious actor. He had leveraged commercial success on a big action movie series (Part 4 and counting) to become an Oscar-winning director. Copley was not a friend exactly — but Ben made sure to have dinner with him roughly every six weeks. They had made a lot of money together on two projects — which, in Hollywood, translated as friendship.
To round it out, Ben had asked two other major action stars — both, he was sure, had never been in a museum. They had done business with him, though, and each promised to come.
He’d also asked his wife Dianne to call friends she made through the kids. He couldn’t remember ever socializing with the people she’d suggested, since they were execs at other studios. But he wanted to include more of the town.
Ben had called in chits from two big comedy stars, Saturday Night Live alumni from different eras. A good 20 years separated them. The older was the most passive funny guy Ben knew. His personality felt like a black hole — sucking in the life force of all around him. Yet Ben made three calls to make sure he came. He was an important art collector and smart — if he decided he wanted to talk. The younger star would be bringing his posse, three witless friends dating from high school. Entourage manqué. Fine, if it meant he would show.
Ben had worked hard to ensure the evening would be notable. But it turned into something unexpected — since it was also the start date of his new career.
A few months ago, Ben finally decided he could no longer work with Harry Lefferts, the owner of the studio. His relationship with Harry was complicated — but not so different from anyone else who worked with him. In fact, few people at the top of any company Harry controlled had stuck it out as long as Ben.
Even in a town filled with screamers, Harry stood out. You could do a healthy trade in stories about his venality. Since Harry’s divorce and this new marriage, his third, he had calmed down a bit. But he had recently started interfering in deals he would never have cared about before.
About three months ago, when their conversation grew caustic, as it did with greater frequency, Ben had played his usual card — insisting he was too old and too rich to put up with it. He could leave tomorrow. He expected Harry to back down — as bullies usually do when pushed. The studio had to move forward and approve another sequel for one of their biggest franchises, even as the budget sailed north of $225 million and the script made no sense. If they wanted it for Christmas, they had to pull the trigger now.
Ben usually got what he wanted with this sort of threat. But, for the first time, Harry had said, “Fine, go.” Both men blinked. Their fight de-escalated, if only because shooting had to start. But Ben decided he’d had enough.
He called an old friend on Wall Street who’d been telling him for years he ought to set up an independent production company. Even in this economic climate, the line of credit wasn’t hard to secure.
He’d had long talked with Dianne about his making a change – usually during Mach-10 fights with Harry. This caught her off guard, however. There had been so many fights, he realized, over so many years, that Dianne had decided this day would never come. She flinched when he told her, inhaling with a sort of gasp. But all she said was “What?” As if she hadn’t heard correctly. Now, months later, Ben sometimes caught her with a dazed expression — as if she had walked into the living room and found the chair legs all sawed to three-quarter height.
It had been a strange three months. Especially when Ben found out that Fred Hirshberg was taking his job. This was not what Ben expected to happen – which was that Fred would come with him to the new company.
Ben finally decided it was all good that his long-time associate would be running the studio — though it would be odd sitting across the table from him. Irritating as well. It bothered Ben that he hadn’t seen how close Fred had grown to Lefferts.
Ben finally remembered the LACMA opening about two weeks after his deal was announced. It was so random, he thought, that the party was the same day his new company officially launched. But he decided it was fine. More people would come, he concluded, since they would want to see how he was holding up. They would see nothing had changed – in fact things were better.
The party started like so many others he had hosted over so many years. First, cocktails on the back patio. The antique Italian terra cotta tiles, from a monastery outside Padua, lit by lanterns and candles. There were tall heaters scattered throughout, to warm the chill night air. It was silly to call it cocktails, though, since most guests drank water — exotic brands of fizzy or still water, but water nonetheless. But tonight as he looked around the garden, he realized people must actually be drinking. Voices a little too loud. Perfect!
Ben surveyed the crowd and realized that one person talking too loudly was Nick Copley. With his second Jack Daniels, Nick usually started his cartoon imitations. It looked like he was on his third, but things wouldn’t start to go south until his fifth. He was going to begin looking for a date right about now, though. His wife, Hannah, always stayed out in Trancas with the kids, so Nick was, as usual, on the loose. Ben looked around and saw Cyd Townsend, a young vice president at a production company on the lot. She was a statuesque brunette with a sense of humor. Ideal for this. He went over to kiss her hello. “Nick seems at loose ends,” he said. “I’m sure he’d love to talk to you.” She understood – and walked over to Copley.
Ben assessed the crowd again. Everyone he wanted was here. He was particularly happy that all three of last year’s Oscar winners had shown up. For this alone, he felt the evening qualified as a success.
He was also glad to see that the biggest agents in town — power players from four different agencies – had come. They were longtime regulars at his parties. Most were big art collectors, since that was an easy way to network in Hollywood — far cleaner than politics.
Yet even as Ben circled the garden, laying on hands, he couldn’t let go of the fact that Fred wasn’t coming. Fred’s assistant had called about 45 minutes before the party, to say he was tied up at meetings. This would be Ben’s first big party in more than 20 years that Fred was in town but not there. Ben wondered if people knew. He thought there was a muffled “Hirshberg” off to the right. He was probably hearing things though, since it was on his mind. Then, he distinctly heard “Hirshberg” on his left. People knew.
“Benjy, Benjy.” He heard Milo Flintridge’s voice as his shoulders were grabbed from behind. Milo had directed so many hits for so many different heads of production that he cut through the power games. Milo had been navigating Hollywood’s stratified social milieu since childhood: his father had been an important movie executive from the mid-’50s through early ‘70s until, one day, he wasn’t. So Milo was immune to the drama of studio musical chairs. His own success had been a long time coming — he had honed his directing skills on years of commercials and episodic television. Until he hit it big, then did it again, and again. He had too many successes for it to be luck. But he worked hard at wearing success lightly. He knew how easily it could all be lost.
Ben pulled Francesca, Milo’s wife, toward him and kissed her on both checks. Francesca Frateli had been a star in Italy, but her first big Hollywood film, an action movie, had just opened. Ben had known Milo over many years, through two earlier wives, as well as innumerable girlfriends. But he had a good feeling about Francisca. Milo put his arm around Francesca as Ben greeted them and then walked away.
“He looks like he knows that Fred isn’t coming,” Milo said to her, with a faint smile. “This is going to be quite a night.”
“Why exactly didn’t Fred come?” asked Francesca.
“He doesn’t have to anymore,” Milo replied, as he leaned down to kiss her forehead.
Unlike Ben, Fred had legendary people skills and many, many friends. Ben kept thinking about Fred. It bothered him that his longtime junior partner hadn’t called himself to say he couldn’t come. He returned every call – that was his trademark. So it left a weird aftertaste that Fred hadn’t found time. So out of character.
Dianne hadn’t said anything when he told her Fred wasn’t coming. She was in the middle of getting her hair and make-up done, and knew better than to talk in front of her glamour squad who took care of half the Westside and had appointments with at least three of her guests tonight after they left her house.
Yet, as Ben looked around the garden, right before the guests started to walk back to the front lawn for dinner in the tent, his spirits lifted. He hadn’t realized how tense he had been these last two weeks. This thing with Fred was worrisome. As Ben surveyed the guests, however, he decided it would all work out.
He saw Ralph Grossman, who was probably Fred’s oldest friend – literally as well as figuratively. Now in his early 70s, Ralph had been producing hits longer than Fred had been in the business. Yet when Ralph decided to direct small projects, Fred was the executive he called.
Ben wanted to give Ralph a heads up that he and his wife Evie were at Nauman’s table. Dianne was going to be seated with Nauman, too, and Ben knew she would find out from Ralph what was up with Fred. But Ben wanted to suss it out himself first.
Ben walked toward Ralph and got right into it. “What happened with Fred?” he asked, “What’s up?”
“He got stuck in a meeting,” Ralph said. “He can’t get away.” Clearly, Fred had talked to Ralph. “He got trapped in a long conversation with Lefferts and it screwed up his day. He was telling me how sorry he was that he couldn’t get here.”
Ben realized he had stopped motioning people into dinner and returned to that mode. But he now thought he heard the words “Fred Hirshberg” from two different directions. It was spreading. “Hirshberg” seemed to ricochet through the night. Ben’s smile felt like a pasted-on rictus.
To get to the tables, the guests walked under the pergola beside the house. They could look into the side gallery, to see some of his collection, including a Robert Ryman, a fairly good Johns and a notable Rothko in yellow, orange and green. But Ben felt too many guests seemed more interested in getting to the front lawn than in looking at the art. Not often the case — and unexpected tonight.
Out front, a large white tent covered almost two-thirds of the lawn, with a white wooden floor laid down. There were more than 25 tables, with starched white tablecloths and centerpieces of white and green orchids. The wait staff wore short white jackets and green bolo ties. Like so many other evenings at the Robbinses.
Until it wasn’t. Once inside the tent, Ben knew something was off.
Tables were partially empty — expected since guests were still circulating. But there should have been more people standing and talking, or trying to locate their seats. It looked like there were fewer people than at cocktails — and it wasn’t because the lighting was brighter. There were not enough people standing to fill all the empty seats.
Ben realized the very people he had been so delighted to see earlier in the garden, who had assured the evening’s success, were no longer there. It took him a beat to grasp that many guests, regulars at his parties for years, had walked through the tent without pausing to find their table. Instead, they had headed for the curb — and the valet. To get their cars. They had stopped by, Ben now realized grimly, but since he was no longer the head of a studio, they were not staying. They hadn’t bothered to tell him; hadn’t even said to him apologetically, as only a few had dared in past, that there was another event they could not miss.
Ben looked around at the tables, many only partially filled. He checked Dianne’s, where Nauman was already seated. The problem was clear. Some of the most important guests were to have sat there — the very people who had opted not to stay. Of course, the two LACMA board members were already at the table. But most of the Hollywood contingent was missing — probably already in their cars. There was a barren swath at the table – of the 12 seats, the six to the left of the guest of honor were empty.
He had never experienced anything like this. He realized that when he was younger, his parties never included power players. Now, he had gotten so used to life as a studio head that he hadn’t even considered this possibility. Certainly not at an evening for Nauman. Hollywood was too obsessed with art.
Dianne would have usually dealt with this sort of problem, but she had her hands full on the other side of the table as she tried to figure out what, if anything, was up with Fred. “But he didn’t even call,” Ben could hear her say to Ralph. “They’ve worked together for 25 years, and he can’t even call.”
Ben knew this was Dianne’s most important conversation of the evening. But it meant no one was paying attention to Nauman, who looked forlorn. Ben walked over to Ralph’s wife Evie, seated almost directly across the table from the artist. Unlike the guest of honor, Evie was surrounded by people and engrossed in conversation about Evie’s favorite topic: Hermes. They were weighing the assets of the Birkin bag versus the Kelly. Evie was saying that her robin’s-egg blue ostrich Birkin got more compliments than any other handbag she owned — and she owned 23 Birkins in as many colors and skins. Ben walked over, putting his hands on Evie’s shoulders. She looked up at him and smiled brightly as he bent down to talk into her ear.
“Evie,” he said, “there’s been a mix-up with this table and you can see that Nauman is virtually alone. Would you please go over and sit next to him? He is the most amazing guy and he needs someone to talk to.”
Evie smiled up at him, sweetly, and leaned over to whisper in his ear. “I don’t want to,” she said in a patient tone. “I already know too many people. I don’t want to meet anyone new.” She beamed, proud of her answer. Ben knew it was from some movie, but he couldn’t place which. She patted Ben’s hand and turned back to continue dissecting crocodile versus ostrich.
Ben looked around to see how he could solve this problem. He had to get back to his own table. He needed to be there to make sure that the guests seated with him stayed. But he had to deal with this first.
Ben couldn’t believe, in retrospect, that he hadn’t seen this coming. He had watched it happen at Hollywood events — and done it himself. Dropped by for cocktails before heading on for a more important dinner or just going home. Because he’d felt most people were only worth a drop-by. He only now understood that, no longer a studio head, he was one of those people.