The film buff father worries about his daughter becoming a Hollywood actress. 3,190 words. Part One. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
I realize that as a father I’m not the very best judge of these things, but come the next day I really did think Dorothy was looking absolutely gorgeous; bright-eyed, pert, quite the English rose. I was very proud of my daughter, and I felt full of confidence on her behalf. How could she not succeed as a Hollywood film actress?
In due course I dropped her off at the office of the agent, Bob Samuelson, located in a black glass building in West Hollywood. Neither of us had the slightest idea how long this meeting might take, but we agreed that we’d meet up in an hour’s time at a coffee shop we could see on the corner a block away. If the meeting went on longer than that I’d simply wait. Fathers are very good at waiting. I tried to give Dorothy a goodbye and good luck kiss but she held me at arm’s length, afraid I’d smear her make up.
I found myself thinking about Marilyn Monroe, a woman who, in general, I don’t think about all that much, but now I was recalling the story of when she was discovered by Ben Lyon, head of casting at Twentieth Century Fox. He met her and liked what he saw, so he sent her out to do the rounds of studio xecutives and he gave her letters of introduction to each of them. In every office the same thing happened. Each executive welcomed her, looked her over, read the letter, then walked round his desk, opened his fly and put his cock in her mouth. The “letters of introduction” merely said that Marilyn gave a great blowjob.
Who knows if the story is literally true? I’m inclined to think not. If Marilyn was so willing to perform oral sex on all and sundry then why would there have been any need for the letter? And even if Ben Lyon needed to tip off the other men, wouldn’t he have just phoned them in advance rather than messing about with the written introduction?
Nevertheless, you’re bound to feel that the story is symbolically true. Or perhaps we just want it to be true. The moral, I suppose, is that even a goddess like Marilyn Monroe had to degrade herself before she got a break in the movies.
The corollary, perhaps, is that degrading herself is the only thing an actress needs to do in order to get a break in the movies, that even the best of them are sluts who connive at their own exploitation.
And I wondered what Dorothy was up to. Would Samuelson be as enthusiastic on his home turf as he had been in London? Would he write letters of introduction? Would there be requests, demands, for oral sex, and if so how would my poor baby react? The worse scenario I could imagine was that she’d just shrug her shoulders, say “OK” and get on with it. This did not bear thinking about, and I had a modest plan to distract myself. My guide book told me there was a movie memorabilia store not too far away, a place called the Beauty Vault, a name that managed to sound simultaneously like a hairdresser’s and a sex club, but the book assured me it was not to be missed and that it contained a “trove” of desirable merchandise.
I must say I’ve always had some ambivalent feelings about movie memorabilia. Back in England I had, if I said so myself, rather an impressive library of video tapes – slowly being upgraded to DVD – and they were a great source of pride and pleasure. But I didn’t consider them memorabilia; they were the thing itself. Equally, I’d read and indeed owned my share of film histories, reference books, some movie star biographies, even a few books of the saner kind of critical theory. These were secondary materials but they didn’t seem too far from the source. And I suppose I could see why people might want movie posters to decorate their rooms, or even framed portraits of their favorite movie stars, even though personally I had no desire for these things at all.
But actual memorabilia, that seemed to be something else completely. The desire to own, say, Jane Russell’s bra, this I thought was pretty odd. It made movie stars into saints, and the things they’d owned or even merely touched, became holy relics. This was surely not a good thing.
And yet I couldn’t absolutely condemn it. I could see the appeal these things had, even if I didn’t want to. I solved the problem somewhat by telling myself it was all right to look at these things, just so long as you had no intention of acquiring them. And that was why I was going to the Beauty Vault.
Judging by the outside, my guide book had overstated the charms of the place. It was a grubby one story shop tucked in between a dry cleaner’s and a shoe shop. Some movie posters, for Breakfast At Tiffany’s, Psycho, Attack Of The Fifty Foot Woman had been stuck over the door and windows to prevent anyone looking in, and perhaps also to deter and intimidate the less determined browser, but I was damned if I was going to be deterred or intimidated by some shop that called itself the Beauty Vault.
I parked in a sort of yard round the back of the store, which was even less impressive than the front; bins, ducts, an abandoned car – backstage paraphernalia. A Mexican family, the wife heavily pregnant, appeared to be living there, in the back of a rusted white van. For a moment I wondered if they were likely to steal my car, but decided this was being unnecssarily wary, to say nothing of racist.
I entered the Beauty Vault. It was bigger than it looked from outside; a long, deep, high-ceilinged space arranged with shelves and cabinets, books and posters, and a museum-size vitrine down the far end that no doubt contained suitably fetishistic items of movie memorabilia. I appeared to be the only customer.
There was far too much to take in at once, and so my eyes searched for some focus and fell on the nearest thing, a display arranged along one wall of the shop. Mounted there were a hundred or so framed portraits of female movie stars; Rita, Marilyn, Brigitte, Raquel, Lana, Hedy, Ava, Farrah; all the iconic ones who can be identified by first names only. Then there were ones who were less iconic though certainly no less beautiful, and then some younger ones whose attraction are obvious and yet who frankly (and I know it’s entirely because of my age) leave me rather cold; Selma Hayek, Demi Moore, Jennifer Lopez. There were certainly one or two I couldn’t identify. I have never denied that my movie buffdom (buffery?) has its limits.
The immediate impression was of having walked into the den of some poor little rich teenage boy, and the keeper of this display was in some sense boyish though he was actually white-haired. He was up a ladder rearranging some of the framed photographs. I could see he was slight and trim, a dapper little character in sharply creased aquamarine slacks and a black bowling shirt.
His skin was blanched, papery white and he wore sunglasses, a ridiculous affectation in this cavern of artificial light, I thought.
“Be right with you,” he said. “Just putting the ladies in order.”
“Do they need that?” I said.
“Oh they most certainly do.”
He straightened Sophia Loren and gave a beam of exaggerated satisfaction before he came down from the ladder with a balletic jump. Then I saw that the sunglasses were less of an affectation than I’d thought. It appeared to the doctor in me (a real physician) that the man was suffering from erythrohepatic porphyria, a dominantly transmitted mendelian genetic disorder, basically an enzyme deficiency, characterized by acute photosensitivity reactions.
How strange and unusual and self-punishing, I thought, that a man with this condition should choose to make his home in the relentless sunshine of Los Angeles. And yet, having made such a choice it was inevitable that he would have to live his life in the shade, in the darkness of movie theatres, in this shop where sunlight wasn’t allowed to penetrate, And, of course there is nothing so very unusual about choosing self-punishment.
Another assistant, a younger man, sat behind the shop’s counter. He too wore sunglasses, this time of the inscrutable wraparound sort, and for all the activity he displayed he might have been a waxwork.
The man from the ladder said, only partly for my benefit it seemed, “I’ve just had to move Catherine Zeta-Jones down a couple of places. I couldn’t really tell you why. She’s lovely, but I guess I’m just not in a very CZJ mood today. Whereas I’m suddenly feeling very, very upbeat about Sally Kellerman, so she’s moving up into the lower reaches of the top twenty. With a bullet.”
I hate people who make lists of the best movie stars even more than I hate people who make lists of the best movies.
“But I’m still having trouble with my top three,” he said. “I don’t know why but today I just feel like moving Rita Hayworth up into the number one spot, even though that would obviously mean moving Marilyn down. What do you think?”
“Rita Hayworth’s one of my favorite actresses,” I said in what I thought was a non-committal way.
“Well, that’s good enough for me,” he said, and he made a camp little moue that I chose not to interpret. Either way he didn’t get back up the ladder to make any further adjustments.
“So what are you looking for?” he asked.
“Well, I’m just looking,” I replied.
“Mmm,” he said, “not very fond of customers who just look.”
The temptation to say, “Well sod you and I hope you go out of business very quickly indeed” was strong and yet I thought I could have more fun with him than that.
“How about a photograph of Peg Entwistle?” I asked.
“Before or after she jumped?”
“How about while she was falling?”
His features gave a shimmy of appreciation. Perhaps I was a man he could do business with after all.
“How about Jayne Mansfield’s dog?” I asked.
“Alive or dead?”
“How about stuffed?” I suggested
“Now that would be a collector’s item.”
You probably know that Peg Entwistle was the woman who committed suicide by throwing herself off the Hollywood sign. You perhaps ‘know’ that Jayne Mansfield’s dog was decapitated in the car crash that killed her, though I’d never been sure that this was actually the case. Peg Entwistle and Jayne Mansfield’s dog weren’t the most obscure names in movie history but apparently my interest in them was enough to convince the man in the Beauty Vault that I was someone worth talking to.
“My name’s Perry Martin,” he said. “Welcome to my world. And this is Duane.”
“Charmed, I’m sure,” said the assistant in the wraparound shades.
I’ve never understood what it is that goes on with gay men and female movie actresses. I know that whole library sections have been filled with books on the subject, but I’ve still never quite understood it. No doubt it has something to do with genuine admiration, a shared desire to be sexually attractive to men, along with a touch of misogyny (sublimated or not) and no doubt some unresolved feelings about their mothers; yet quite why these things should turn an otherwise sane person into a fan of Liza Minelli, still escapes me.
At that moment the phone started to ring.
“Well, you can look around,” Perry Martin said, “but … Oh well, whatever.”
So, for a while, I looked around the Beauty Vault, at the books and posters and lobby cards, at film scripts and press packs, at framed autographs and signed photographs. In the vitrine at the far end there were objects; props and small personal items that claimed to have been owned or used or at least touched by movie stars.
Perry Martin finished his phone call and I half expected him to come over and tell me I’d already had enough browsing time, but as he put the receiver down the other assistant, Duane, said, “Actually Jayne Mansfield had four dogs. Two survived the crash, two died. Emerald and Precious Jewel went with mommy. The survivors were called Cow and Dorothy.”
I thought Dorothy was a most inappropriate name for a dog.
“I didn’t know that,” I said.
“It’s forgivable,” said Duane. “They were Chihuahuas.”
There seemed no answer to that.
“Now, what can I tempt you with?’ Perry Martin said. ‘Are you by any chance in the market for a little Doris Day memorabilia?”
“I don’t think so,: I said.
“You know,” Perry Martin said, “I’m a pretty good judge of character, and although you say you’re not looking for anything in particular I think that’s wrong. I think you are looking for something, something very specific, but perhaps you don’t know what it is yet.”
I grunted at this display of amorphous intuition, suspecting it was just a sales pitch.
“When you know, then you should come back again. I may have something for you. I don’t touch porno, but there’s plenty of very intriguing stuff that isn’t porno.”
He nodded towards a door in a rear corner of the store. It was covered in green baize. I wasn’t sure I’d ever previously seen an actual green baize door outside of a movie. He seemed to imply that anything I was looking for might be found behind the door, if only I could name it. But, of course I couldn’t. At that moment I didn’t think I was looking for anything at all.
Dorothy was already waiting for me when I arrived at the coffee shop.
She was nursing a cup of black coffee and a glass of iced water.
“How long have you been here? I asked.
“About an hour.”
I thought we must have done something stupid, arrived at the wrong time, the wrong day, the wrong address.
“They sacked Bob fucking Samuelson first thing this morning,” Dorothy explained. “It was one of those, ‘You’ve got five minutes to clear your desk’ numbers apparently.”
“That’s terrible. So what happened? They told you to go away?”
"Not immediately. Samuelson’s boss agreed to see me since I’d come all this fucking way.”
“Well, that’s good.”
“No, not so good actually. According to Samuelson’s boss, I’m fat, my hair is mousy, my teeth are yellow and I have the kind of broad wholesome English face the camera is never going to love. Apparently I should go back to England and spare myself a lot of grief.”
“I’ve a good mind to go in there and punch the bastard on the nose,” I said.
“Bob Samuelson’s boss is a woman,” Dorothy said.
“Oh,” I said, sounding disappointed, though I don’t suppose I’d have actually gone and punched Bob Samuelson’s boss even if it had been a man.
“Poor baby. What shall we do?”
“I don’t know what you’re going to do, Dad, but I’m going to go back to the hotel and weep hysterically for the next twenty-four hours or so.”
So I spent my Friday evening alone in Los Angeles, while Dorothy spent hers in her room. No doubt a man alone might get up to all sorts of California mischief in such circumstances but I settled for an early dinner, a browse in a book shop and I was back at the hotel well before any conceivable bewitching hour. I walked past my daughter’s room where the Do Not Disturb sign was in place. I knew better than to knock. Dorothy’s sulking and weeping had always had an heroic grandeur to them, and I knew that a premature attempt at consolation would only make things much worse.
I returned to my room where I attacked the minibar. I lay on the bed swigging from tiny bottles of wine, delving deep into a tub of cashews, while watching TV, flipping restlessly through the channels, hoping to find a suitable movie. Watching a Hollywood product while actually in Hollywood had its appeal, but I couldn’t concentrate. Even the porn channel offered nothing. I watched five minutes of a bizarrely disagreeable movie called Age Gap, in which a man of very much my age and build had sex with two very young and pretty girls. I supposed it was designed to appeal to men like me, but I found it powerfully unerotic. In fact the channel that turned out to have most appeal for me was a local station showing end to end ads for a real estate company.
It wasn’t exactly sophisticated marketing, just an endless series of still photographs of Los Angeles houses and apartments, while a female voice-over extolled their virtues in vague but enticing terms. There was much mention of designer dream homes, gourmet kitchens, spas, sunken living areas, media rooms, sunset views, and yet the pictures on the screen, the faces that these properties showed to the world, looked surprisingly modest. There would be a palm tree here, a Spanish arch there, a swimming pool perhaps, but in general there seemed to be very little that justified the million dollar prices that were frequently attached. Yet for some reason I found it all rather compelling, and it seemed to me that this might reveal far more about the city and its values than any guide book ever could.
It also seemed, however, that the woman doing the voice-overs was trying far too hard, sounding overdramatic and needlessly poetic, but I wondered if perhaps in Los Angeles people were always auditioning. Perhaps doing voiceovers could be considered a showcase. You never knew who might be listening so you had to give it all you’d got. I wondered if this was how Dorothy might end up. I could certainly imagine worse fates for a failed actress.
Early Saturday morning the phone rang in my hotel room and it was Dorothy. Her weeping had lasted less than the promised twenty-four hours and she sounded surprisingly cheerful. She was now commanding me to get up and meet her in the lobby. I went down and there she was, posing languidly by a fake plaster column, examining her image in one of the lobby’s many mirrors.
She didn’t appear to be much enjoying what she saw.
Before I could say hello and ask her how she was feeling, she said, “I’ve been thinking. I know what I’m going to do. I’m going to go on a crash diet, get a new haircut, buy some tooth whitener, rent a fancy convertible, and then grab this fucking town by its balls.”
From THE HOLLYWOOD DODO: A NOVEL by Geoff Nicholson. Copyright © 2004 by Geoff Nicholson. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc. All rights reserved.