The Hollywood Dodo
Part One

by Geoff Nicholson

A father accompanies his actress daughter to a first meeting with a Hollywood agent. 3,202 words. Part Two. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.

I was sitting with my twenty-one year old daughter Dorothy on a Boeing 777, London to Los Angeles, in October, the skies more than usually turbulent. We were traveling in business class since we were indeed going to L.A. on business of a sort, or at least my daughter was; and also because, given my size and shape and great bulk, I have some difficulty fitting into the narrow confines of a coach class seat. Shameful but true. And I was thumbing through the airline magazine to see what movies were going to be available on my “personal in-flight entertainment system,” and I was thinking of some of the many things I hate about the movies.

The thing I was hating most at that moment was the way that aeroplanes in movies are always so pleasant. They’re spacious and airy, so well lit, so quiet, the passengers have so much leg room, the aisles are so unnaturally wide, it’s so easy to get a drink. In the real world it is never like this. Even in the ruinously expensive business class none of this, in my admittedly limited experience, is ever the case.

I’m not a fool. I realize there’s a perfectly good reason why movie aeroplanes don’t much resemble real aeroplanes. Moviemakers want their movies to look good. They need lots of light. They need quiet so that the dialogue is audible. And I suppose the gangways have to be unnaturally wide so that the crew can wheel the camera up and down between the seats. But these rational, practical considerations weren’t making me hate movies any the less at that particular moment.

Now, I know you could say that the above was no reason to hate the movies. In fact you could say that it was actually much more of a reason to hate real life, and at that time I certainly thought I had every reason to hate my real life, but in the circumstances I decided it was preferable to hate the movies instead. It seemed to me they were in business to deceive and trick us, to make us believe the world was a more glamorous, colourful and desirable place than it really is. Does this seem like enough motivation for hating movies? Perhaps not.

Actually there was a much more local, much more personal reason for my hating movies on that particular day. You see, I was flying to Los Angeles with my daughter (whose real name, the name I gave her – Dorothy Cadwallader – had been abandoned for the stage and screen, in favor of the infinitely more prosaic, though allegedly far more commercial, Dorothy Lee) because she had ambitions, indeed an opportunity, to become a movie actress, possibly even a Hollywood actress, conceivably even a Hollywood star: and frankly this was worrying me a great deal.

Her opportunity was coming via a Hollywood agent she happened to have met in London, a man called Bob Samuelson, who had invited her to come to L.A. to get a feel of the place, to meet some people, chat with producers and casting directors, perhaps do some auditions, possibly have a screen test. He had sounded enthusiastic and confident about her chances of success. I talked to him briefly on the phone and he had sounded perfectly plausible and professional, if a little manically upbeat for my tastes, and he had assured me that he saw a fabulous future for Dorothy. Be that as it may, he had not offered to fly her out. This trip was at Dorothy’s own, or in fact my own, expense.

As far as we could tell (I mean we’re not complete idiots, we did do a little research via Dorothy’s drama school and the few people she knew in the business in London) this Bob Samuelson was bona fide. The agency he worked for was small but respectable, he had a good reputation, at least by Hollywood standards, and that was all some relief, though it was hardly enough to entirely dispel a father’s worries.

I was concerned that whatever his reputation, Samuelson might still turn out to be a crook, a liar, a seducer, a user. I was worried that he might hurt my daughter, and I was aware that he might do that even if he was perfectly honest, decent and honourable. Sometimes things just don’t work out despite everyone’s best intentions. Basically I was worried that my daughter might be flying all this way simply to be disappointed.

Much as I love my daughter, much as I thought she was talented, beautiful, gifted, determined and so forth, I was well aware that a father’s judgment isn’t the most objective in these matters. And so I was concerned that Dorothy might not be talented, beautiful, gifted and determined enough to succeed. And even if she was, I didn’t know that this would necessarily be a good thing for her.

We all know what Hollywood does to people. It changes them, and very seldom for the better. It makes them vain, glib, fake, embittered. And this seems to have nothing much to do with actual achievement, with how well or badly they’re doing. Hollywood success and Hollywood failure can be equally corrupting, though presumably in different ways. Forgive me if I talk as though I knew about these things. The truth was, I only knew what I’d read or imagined or – let’s face it – seen in the movies. (Now let’s see if it’s true).

And I kept thinking of what somebody once said, that for an actress to be a success, when you see her on the movie screen, “You’ve got to want to fuck her,” and this is not a comfortable thought for a father. It’s not the way he wants to think about his daughter and it’s not the way he wants anyone else to think about her either. The very idea made me want to lock Dorothy in some fairy tale tower and threaten to slay any man who so much as glanced towards the drawbridge.

But I knew I had to keep these worries to myself and not share them with Dorothy. My role was to be supportive, to express oceanic confidence in my daughter, to be a cool dad; a role that I thought I’d played more or less convincingly over the years. I thought we had a good relationship. I thought she liked me. I thought we were pals.

All the same, I was aware that it was rather peculiar that a daughter should be taking her father along with her on a trip like this. And in fact Dorothy was less than thrilled by the arrangement. There had been a few arguments and tantrums about it, about my not trusting her, about my treating her like a child and so on. I wouldn’t say that I had won these arguments exactly, but given the circumstances and the traumas we’d been through recently, it wasn’t too hard to convince even Dorothy that there were good reasons for my not wanting to be alone in England. It’s a long story, and one that I do eventually intend to tell, but not at this moment. I now understand that in the world of movies this is known as backstory, and my own backstory was not without its cheap drama, mostly regarding the recent death of my wife, Caroline, Dorothy’s mother, but we all know there’s no value in revealing too much too soon.

My personal in-flight entertainment system was offering twelve channels of movies, a notional something for everybody, including a classic channel showing Rear Window, which seemed surprisingly cineast of them. It’s one of my favorite movies. Don’t ask me to tell you the others. I hate people who make lists of their favorite movies, and despise even more those who make lists of the greatest movies of all time. Above all, I despise people who then go on to debate these matters, who criticize other people’s lists, who demand to know how you could possibly leave off The Bicycle Thief.

Perhaps this will confirm what you may already have guessed, that I don’t really hate movies at all. I love them passionately and if not exactly unconditionally and uncritically, then at least with an essential generosity. If they sometimes let me down, well that’s the way love is.

The truth, sad or happy depending on your point of view, is that I’m a movie buff. But that’s all I am. I never wanted to be anything other than a spectator sitting in the dark having his hopes, dreams and fears played out, exploited and sometimes confounded and just occasionally exceeded. And it seemed that I had passed on my love of the movies to Dorothy, and I was pleased by that, but Dorothy wasn’t content to be merely a spectator. She wanted to act. She wanted to star. I think you can see why a father would be worried. I think you can understand why there might be a moment on the aeroplane when he thought he hated the movies.

We had been in the air for a couple of hours. Dorothy lolled beside me, dead to the world as far as I could see. She had headphones over her ears, a sleep mask over her eyes. She seemed neither as excited nor as nervous about this trip as I expected her to be. Perhaps my fatherly presence was dampening her natural high spirits, or perhaps I was having a soothing, calming effect on her. I was prepared to accept either.

I had never been to L.A. before, except in my dreams, except in the movies. I knew it was full of cars and freeways, palm trees and sun and salads. I knew there was ocean and beach and some extravagant shopping centres. I knew it also had pollution and poverty, gangs and drive-by shootings. But that seemed acceptable. If some parts of the experience turned out to be seedy and threatening, well, that was very much as promised, too. I felt I could cope with anything it threw at me.

How Los Angeles might cope with me was a different matter. I was a fifty year old Englishman: not slim, not fit, not tan, not buff, with a tendency to wear tweeds and corduroy. I suspected I might not be laid back enough, not glittery enough. I feared that L.A. might find me too down to earth and insufficiently health-conscious, that I might stick out like a sore, plump Englishman. I had managed to put the matter in abeyance by telling myself all this would be L.A.’s problem rather than mine, but whether it would work on the ground remained to be seen.

And what, as my daughter had asked me more than once, was I going to do while she saw various movers and shakers of the movie world? “I’ll be a tourist,” I said. “They have museums and art galleries in L.A., don’t they? They have sights. I’ll go to Universal Studios, I’ll go and look at Grauman’s Chinese Theater. I’ll go on one of those ‘death tours’ where they ferry you around in a Cadillac hearse to see where celebrities died. If the worst comes to the worst I’ll go and watch a movie.”

You find somewhere to park, you briefly stand in line, buy your ticket, step inside. You’re glad you made it, but it’s not quite as you imagined. You were deceived. You believed the word of mouth. The scenes you saw in the trailer had other, lesser meanings when seen in context. There was less than you expected, less of everything, fewer explosions and car chases and sex scenes. The exposition was clumsy. The dialogue was flat, the performances wooden. You got restless and thought of walking out before the end.

The light at the end of the tunnel is the light from the projector. But what do you see? Motes, beams, shapeless light. The images are now behind you, being thrown over your shoulder. The light’s nothing till it hits the screen. And perhaps it’s nothing much even then; ghosts, shades, chemical traces, digital enhancements, special effects that aren’t so special. You preserve memories of big names and has-beens, shooting and falling stars, the holy and the wholly corrupt. It all decays; the body, the film stock, the remembrances. In the cinema of your imagination you run the only movies you own. You are the lone viewer here, the only customer and one who’s not easy to please. You watch the pterodactyls and the winged dragons, the mutant slime, the things from the lab, the girls in the fur bikinis. You watch the cartoons and the newsreels, the shorts and documentaries and stag films. It all passes before your eyes like a life, yours, and it all looks so old hat, so last season. Was this really the blockbuster you awaited so eagerly? Was this the hot ticket you’d have killed for? The house lights are always dimmed, the aperture is always contracted. There’s always a twist in the final reel. You settle down, kick back. You close your eyes and wait for the next movie to start.

Dorothy and I were waiting for our luggage to come down the carousel, and I was thinking of another thing I hate about the movies; weight improbability. There’s often a scene in a movie that requires an actor or actress to be shown struggling with something heavy and cumbersome; large quantities of luggage or shopping bags or packages. But movie actors and actresses are apparently far too delicate to heave weighty objects around and so in the movies you can see that the things they’re pretending to struggle with aren’t really heavy at all. The performers load huge cases into the boots of cars, swing them up into luggage racks, as though they weighed next to nothing, and that’s because they do weigh next to nothing. The suitcase is empty, the package is just a wrapped cardboard box. Thus the performers are left with the job of having to mime the weight of the luggage, and being movie actors rather than mimes they can’t do it at all convincingly.

You think I’m being too literal and nitpicking? Well, possibly, but isn’t that what we’re constantly being told movie making is all about; precision, thoroughness, the deadly eye for detail?

Dorothy and I continued to wait. I had imagined that traveling business class might mean that our bags would come swiftly off the plane, and in fact my own battered leather suitcase did. However, the wait for Dorothy’s many, huge multicoloured bags was a good deal longer. I had known better than to try to persuade Dorothy to travel lightly. It was not in her nature, and besides, this was going to be an important, possibly a life-changing trip, for her, and therefore she obviously needed her supplies; a whole conglomeration of outfits; evening clothes, sportswear, high heels and trainers; the hairdryer, the travel iron, the small trunk of make up. I had managed to talk her out of bringing her weights with her but it hadn’t been easy.

You see, I had done some research on L.A.. And my daughter had done a little of her own. I wouldn’t say that Dorothy had ideas above her station, but she certainly had financial aspirations that were well outside my budget. She wanted to stay at the Chateau Marmont. She wanted us to hire a vehicle from Exotic Car Rental; I think she envisaged a pink convertible with fins and a leopardskin interior. She wanted us to be seen at the Polo Lounge and the Viper Room and Trimalchio’s, although I was well aware that in these places she’d rather not have been seen with me.

I did my best to rein her in a little. There was a certain amount of sulking, from both of us possibly, and her sulking skills are much more finely honed than mine, but we did come to a compromise; a good, moderately priced hotel, a sensible car, and a promise that we would upgrade both should Dorothy’s meetings start to look promising. She may still have felt hard done by but at least she stopped sulking.

How long did we intend to stay in L.A.? Well, we had told ourselves we were going for just two weeks; after that I had to return to work in England regardless. This was just a holiday for me. As for Dorothy, she’d heard stories, as who hasn’t, about people who go to L.A. for the weekend, find that fortune smiles on them, and end up staying for the rest of their lives. If that happened to her, then so be it. I would be very, very happy for her.

Two weeks was clearly not enough time to succeed to any great extent, though it was certainly enough time to fail. In any case, I thought it ought to be enough to give Dorothy, and me, some sense of whether it was going to be worth her while to stay any longer. If things were looking good, if she was doing well and wanted to stay on, then she’d have my blessing. If failure looked imminent I would be there to assure there was no shame in our both getting on a plane back to England. Did this all sound far too sensible and rational to be true? Possibly.

The movement is westward, racing along the swarming freeway, chasing the sun, in your painted wagon, in your rental car, further, west of here, west of your life, towards some old dream, some new darkness, away from the old world. It’s a race we always lose. We move too slowly. We can’t outrun the gathering dusk. The sky turns carotene orange. The palm trees turn into cartoon silhouettes.

Dorothy and I drove from the airport to Hollywood, (where else?) on the better end of Sunset Boulevard where we were staying at a hotel that stood within shouting, or at least viewing, distance of the Chateau Marmont. Dorothy now regarded this proximity as something of a provocation but I declined to argue about it.

After we’d parked, registered, and examined our rooms – identical in every way and separated by a decent length of corridor – we went to a rather bland Thai restaurant for dinner, although as far as I could see Dorothy didn’t actually eat anything, just pushed squid and noodles around her plate until our waiter, who was called Chip and who looked like an actor playing the part of an actor playing a waiter, took them away again.

We went back to the hotel for an early night. Tomorrow, Friday, was bound to be a difficult day. We would both no doubt be suffering from circadian dysrhythmia (jet lag) and in the afternoon I would have to drive Dorothy to her meeting with Bob Samuelson. I’d suggested that we come a couple of days in advance so Dorothy could acclimatize but she was having none of that. She said she wanted to hit the ground running. So be it.

Part Two

From THE HOLLYWOOD DODO: A NOVEL by Geoff Nicholson. Copyright © 2004 by Geoff Nicholson. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.  All rights reserved.

About The Author:
Geoff Nicholson
Geoff Nicholson is the author of many books of fiction and non-fiction, most recently The City Under The Skin, Walking In Ruins, Bleeding London, Bedlam Burning, Gravity's Volkswagen, The Hollywood Dodo. A movie was made of one of his novels, Permanent Vacation. Hollywood has optioned several of his books for films, scripts and treatments.

About Geoff Nicholson

Geoff Nicholson is the author of many books of fiction and non-fiction, most recently The City Under The Skin, Walking In Ruins, Bleeding London, Bedlam Burning, Gravity's Volkswagen, The Hollywood Dodo. A movie was made of one of his novels, Permanent Vacation. Hollywood has optioned several of his books for films, scripts and treatments.

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