A former film production exec runs into her detestable Hollywood doppelganger. 3,544 words. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
Angela was dropping off a passenger in lower Laurel Canyon near Hollywood Boulevard when her cell flashed; a request for an airport run. The address on North Curson was familiar. She hadn’t driven past her old condo complex since being forced into foreclosure. And since becoming an Uber driver, she’d generally avoided accepting fares in town just on the off chance of picking up a familiar industry face.
Nothing to be gained from looking in the rearview mirror. She had a back-up camera for that.
Out of curiosity, she decided to accept the fare. Who knows, it might be the very person who’d bought her apartment – at well below market, no doubt. So effing unfair, she thought, and took a deep breath.
Let it go, Angela, let it go.
The woman’s face was not visible when Angela pulled up, only the passenger’s Longchamp hard shell wheelie and three inch heels, one foot tapping nervously. Angela recognized the designer shoes and could still feel them pinching her toes. Pragmatism dictated that heels be kept in a carry-on and sneakers or flip-flops worn to navigate the airline terminal and gateway. For professional women, however, such down-time was an unaffordable luxury.
Even in transit, Angela had been painstaking about her appearance, lest she run into a business colleague – an agent, a manager, a producer. So she endured the discomfort and the very real possibility of slipping or twisting an ankle on her way to the gate. Not to mention trying to get the shoes back on after the flight when her feet had swollen to twice their normal size. Even if she kept them on the whole time, they expanded anyway, like poppin’ fresh dough.
Angela unlatched the rear cargo door and got out the driver’s side.
“What took you so long?” the woman said, flashing the area map on her large-sized phone. “When I put in the request, it said two minutes; and it’s been like, I don’t know, seven or eight minutes at least.”
Their eyes met and Angela suppressed a gasp as best she could. Momentarily frozen, the only response she could muster was a roll of the shoulders that said, “Sorry, ma’am, it couldn’t be helped.” Evasion was the best tack with customers, especially right before they were scheduled to spend several hours cocooned in a metal cylinder thousands of feet above the earth. The woman’s cell rang and she slid it under her ironed-straight hair. Feigning enthusiasm, she chirped, “Marta, honey! I’m just getting into a cab. I’ve been waiting for-eeever.”
The woman had abandoned the Longchamp at the curb and Angela tried to hoist it but the bag was heavy and slick and she briefly lost control of it. The woman had over-packed, a common mistake among young overachiever types.
“Be careful with that,” the woman mouthed, holding the cell against her chest. “Honestly…” she complained into the phone.
Get it together, Angela. It’s all in your head. Like an acid flashback; or in your case, a Xanax flashback.
As she got behind the wheel, curiosity ate at Angela and she turned around for a closer look. The woman’s features were pointed from a steady salad diet (“Dressing on the side, please,”). During Angela’s first week as an assistant at Agnus Productions, a female superior had counseled her to “shed a few, particularly around your bottom,” if she was serious about advancement. She recommended a foolproof diet and a Pilates regimen, which Angela had followed to the letter. After achieving her target weight though, she found it impossible to resume normal consumption. If she ate so much as an extra grape, she gained a pound.
Another almost clone-like similarity: the woman’s barely concealed stress marks. The long days of interoffice mud-wrestling, schmooze-filled business dinners, and reading scripts until well past midnight, all came rushing back to Angela as she studied the woman’s attempts to soften the lines and creases with maquillage, which only served to underline the obvious. The look was a strange amalgam of Goth and Kabuki; blanched-out skin contrasted with severe drama around the mouth, the lips carefully outlined in reddish brown, the color of dried blood.
Fresh from UCLA film school and before that suburban Azusa, Angela’s Plan A had been to become the next Donna Langley or Stacey Snider or Kathleen Kennedy or Sue Kroll. She survived the early trials as an assistant, maintaining her composure whenever she was upbraided by her bosses or screamed at for petty offenses, real or perceived. She endured the endless and useless meetings during which the simplest decision was second-guessed into oblivion. She adeptly dodged the knives aimed at her back, while managing to score a few counter thrusts in the interim.
How easily Angela had osmosed the faux camaraderie and relentless drive of her peers as she leapt to better desks and, eventually, her own office and a starter title as Junior Creative Director. By then, her once supple frame had rigidified, as if in perpetual anticipation of attack. The soft curls around her face had turned limp and her mouth twisted into a constipated grin. More than once, she was accused of being wound too tight. Yet, she realized that if she tried to uncoil, the ricochet might devastate.
The woman, mindlessly yakking away, caught Angela staring and mouthed “Go,” pointing forward with an impeccably sculpted index finger. The nails were long and painted Eternal Cerise. Angela missed mani/pedis. How long had it been since her last one?
Turning forward, she pushed the ignition button on her Prius and, as she pulled away from the curb, shifted into bemusement.
“Hold on a second, Marta,” the woman said into the phone before leaning forward. She took one look at the Dunkin Donuts bag on the seat beside Angela and her face contorted into a mixture of disgust and lust. “It’s better if you take Crescent Heights for as long as you can. La Cienega is a parking lot at this hour.”
Textbook. If Angela had read those words in a spec script, she would have commented, “That kind of dialogue went out with Broadcast News” – and been met with the usual blank stares. Except for sci-fi blockbusters or action movies, many of her colleagues couldn’t reference any title prior to the millennium. And, sadly, neither could the screenwriters whom the know-nothing agents sent her way. If these were the clients they accepted, imagine the rejects.
As she made a right turn onto Crescent Heights, over her shoulder Angela snatched another glance at the woman, this time at the Helmut Lang suit in steel blue. Angela had maxed out her Visa card on one. But it was so worth it. The outfit seemed to be invested with power like Iron Man’s outer shell.
The ensemble was a gift to herself for having aced out Richard Morgenthau for the Director of Development position – a pitched battle she won by a strange case of default. Soon after her promotion, at a Women In Film luncheon, Angela confessed to another female exec that the deciding factor in her getting the job had been pressure from the higher-ups to advance more women. She lamented that she felt cheated. She’d wanted to advance on her own merits; to which the exec shot back, “Merit my ass. Being a woman has worked against us for decades. So when the tide turns in your favor this once, just shut up and enjoy it.”
But Angela had already left enjoyment behind. Every small victory had been too hard fought and each laurel spiked with thorns. Before deciding on whether to champion a particular script, she had to measure how much of a struggle she was willing to endure. Every exec would want to piss on it, and what emerged would be a pale remnant of the original.
“I have to put you on hold, Marta,” the woman told her caller. “It’s my office on the other line.”
“Ethan? What?” she said, sharply. “No, that is not what I said. You clearly weren’t paying attention.”
She huffed in frustration. Paying attention? How funny that she’d use those words. Angela had her own Ethan. His name was Joel and she hired him because at the job interview he’d struck the perfect balance of enthusiasm and obeisance. He appeared bright enough to follow orders, but not so astute as to pose a significant threat. But, back then, Angela could only see text, never subtext. Otherwise, she would have noticed when Joel set his sights on Gerald Richie’s Senior VP of Programming desk. He spent a good part of his days cozying up to Richie’s current assistant, Ellie, who was two months pregnant and preparing to decamp to full-time motherhood. (“I see no future in becoming brittle like some people around here,” she’d told him, her eyes drifting toward Angela’s office.)
Joel wasn’t particularly circumspect about any of this and Angela would have realized that if she wasn’t so preoccupied strategizing her next move. She suffered from that classic syndrome of always looking upward and never down. While she busily polished every senior executive’s apple, she overlooked the stratagems of her underlings.
“Please do not make me repeat myself again,” the woman warned Ethan before clicking back to Marta. “This is why I should never be allowed to own a gun,” she chortled and continued chit-chatting until Marta took another call.
Though it was a common enough name, Angela wondered whether the woman was talking to the same Marta she had befriended. Her Marta had volunteered as a mentor. Angela admired Marta’s facility for appearing obsequious and in command at the same time. Marta had a gift for getting people to open up, thus taking measure of their vulnerabilities, which she stowed in a lock box for future use. Her biggest coup, however, was marrying a top producer on the rebound from a humiliating divorce. Marta’s bosses fell all over themselves with praise and wedding gifts in the hopes of luring the new husband to sign an exclusive production deal with them. Which he did. Which became a major plume in Marta’s bonnet.
For all her offers of guidance, however, Marta was strictly a receiver and not a giver. The first time Angela asked for a favor – and not even a big one – storm clouds passed over Marta’s eyes, and the temperature in the restaurant plummeted twenty degrees. For all her faults, Angela had extended the occasional hand. The appearance of generosity was good PR; but only if you had no skin in the game.
At the foot of Crescent Heights, Angela made her way to the La Cienega crawl. “God, why me?” the woman in the back seat growled to the heavens as if the traffic snarl had been conceived as a personal affront.
“What time’s your flight?” Angela asked.
“What? Oh, uh, at ten,” the woman replied, flipping distractedly through the apps on her phone.
“It’s only eight fifteen. You have plenty of time. I assume you have priority boarding.”
“Damn straight,” the woman quipped. “Worth every penny, too. Hey, do you like your Prius? I’ve been thinking about…”
“Reliable,” Angela replied, though she’d only purchased the vehicle so as not to be left out of the office hybridization conversation: Teslas, Volts, Leafs, BMW i3s. While it got good mileage, the car had all the charm of a futuristic tin can.
Another phone call. “What’s up, bitch?” the woman cackled and, after listening to the caller’s spiel for a moment, replied, “Well, I could have told you he was a pig. The other day, in the middle of a meeting, he ran his hand up my skirt. Then he laughed it off as if it was all in fun. No, dear, it’s only sexual harassment if he doesn’t give me Richard’s job when that bozo gets bounced, which should be any minute now.”
The woman was blind, deaf and dumb. Every office had at least one bozo who prospered in defiance of all odds. In her case it had been George Gardener, for whom Angela had been an assistant for six months before inching into a better slot. Though he’d been cordial with her, Angela found it hard to contain her contempt at his cluelessness. Yet, while she and her cohorts waited for the boom to fall on him, he kept rising through the ranks.
George was the office equivalent of the puppy dog college roommate who follows two steps behind his alpha cohorts and is always eager to run out and buy beer for them or order in pizza. He didn’t need to kiss ass since he was already occupied licking face. You could never do too much of either in this business. And subtlety was not a requirement.
But George also had an ace neatly tucked up his shirtsleeve. A secret. He and Keith Hardison, Agnus Productions’ President of Production, had spent a lost weekend together in Las Vegas during which George secured his future. After Keith almost OD’ed on Oxycodone, George used his blackjack winnings to bribe the hotel house-doctor into pumping Keith’s stomach and not reporting the incident to the police.
George’s business acumen might have been dull, but he was sharp in the ways that mattered. Keith promoted him once, then twice.And the closer the two men became, the more George could help his boss cover his tracks and, if malicious tongues were to be believed, occasionally drive down to Tijuana when doctors balked at refilling Keith’s prescriptions.
“Surely you must know a shortcut,” the woman asked Angela accusingly, snapping her back to the present. “Don’t they teach you these things in training?”
The third-degree was interrupted by another phone call. “What is it now?” the passenger snarled into the mouthpiece.
Probably Ethan again, Angela guessed. Dumping on one’s assistant after having been treated like garbage as a minion was as time-honored an industry ritual as fraternity hazing. Only George had treated Angela fairly and, because she thought he had no future, she had been ungracious. Which cost her in the long run.
George’s behind-the-scenes efforts to protect his boss might never have come to light if Keith hadn’t, perhaps inevitably, wrapped his Mercedes around a lamp post speeding down Coldwater Canyon. Since, in the reign of social media, the living enjoy less privacy, the dead have none at all. Normally, the peccadillos of a production executive are of minimal interest to the scandal vultures. But Keith was a celebrity by extension, the husband of a former Victoria’s Secret model who herself had a cocaine-related rap sheet.
George somehow got credit for keeping a lid on the unflattering publicity and, after a suitable period of mourning, was moved into Keith’s old office, albeit with a slightly less fancy title and a lot less money. All part of the company’s restructuring. Eager to solidify his position and show himself to be fiscally responsible, he’d immediately sent the guillotine out for sharpening. He was not fooled by Angela’s sudden U-turn from hiding veiled distaste to being his biggest cheerleader.
“Nothing personal,” George emphasized when he informed Angela that her contract would not be renewed and her position eliminated.
If the phrase “Nothing personal, just business,” is not the industry’s biggest bold-faced lie, it comes pretty close. Any number of less accomplished mid-level personnel at Angus Productions could have been, and should have been, let go instead of Angela. As if to underline how personal it was, George transferred her duties to Joel, Angela’s former assistant, albeit at half her salary and on an “at will” basis. “At will” is shorthand for no contract, no job security, no profit sharing, and nothing but two weeks’ severance should management suddenly get bored with you. Which they would, as soon as the next round of austerity commenced.
Most of Angela’s industry BFFs stopped returning her calls. The only thing they’d had in common was being employed and on an upward trajectory. The few who kept in contact promised to keep an ear to the ground but only a couple followed through. Angela soon discovered that the ranks of unemployed middle-level development execs was greater than the population of Wyoming.
After fifteen months and only four unpromising interviews, Angela ran out of money. She lost the condo but, thankfully, the Prius was paid off. After the unemployment checks ceased, she tapped her father for the occasional loan, signed up to be an Uber driver and managed to eke out the rent money for a one-bedroom in Eagle Rock in a rickety architectural outrage that was unlikely to withstand the next quake.
“Thank god,” the woman exhorted as Angela finally pulled up in front of the United Airlines terminal.
At the curb, Angela handed the woman her valise and their eyes met again. “What? I hope you’re not expecting a tip. I mean, isn’t it all included?”
Angela nodded. “Yes it is. Safe flight,” she said. “And be careful in those heels, Angela. The floors inside are slippery.”
The woman turned and looked at her quizzically. “That’s not my name. You’re mistaken,” the woman said bristling. “We don’t know each other.”
“Right you are,” Angela said as she got back into the Prius and headed out to Century Boulevard.
She considered calling it a day so she might have time digesting, which was her favorite pastime now. She’d spent the better part of her twenties ingesting, which produced terrible stomach aches. Back then, reflection terrified her. She would do almost anything to avoid it, since she’d always been good at lying, but never to herself. And in the industry, the latter is as important as the former.
Another request popped up. American Airlines arrivals. She was only half a mile away, so she doubled back and returned to the airport.
“The Ritz Carlton downtown, please,” the white-haired WASP senior executive in the back seat said.
“Any preferences on the route?”
“You decide,” he said. Then he cracked open his laptop and was silent for the rest of the journey. In the driveway of the hotel, the man thanked her and dropped some much appreciated cash into her palm. “A little extra. You look tired. You should get some sleep,” he advised in a paternal tone.
Angela wanted to say that she was weary but not tired. Her best laid Plan A may have hit a dead end, but a few weeks ago, a potential Plan B surfaced. She got a bite from a start-up production company funded by a Southern Christian consortium. An underserved market, and if she was interested in developing films geared to a God-fearing audience, the job was hers. It was low-profile and the pay was five figures not six. But she had to start again somewhere.
Start again. The words hit her like a sharp jab to the ribs. Angela was only thirty-four but felt like she was fifty-four. In the job interview, she’d tried to summon up the enthusiasm and affection for movies that had come so easily to her when she applied for a position at Agnus Productions at age twenty-two. But that was a million years ago.
The Christian company was dunning her for an answer. She’d picked up the phone several times, prepared to say yes. But after punching in the numbers, she’d hung up. Apart from having her livelihood snatched away, she harbored little nostalgia for her bygone profession and its sang froid purveyors. The first time around, with each promotion, she’d felt less — not more — secure, like a clever thief who lived in constant terror of getting caught. Was she really ready to go back to the land of be-careful-what-you-wish-for?
Another request. This time a private caller, Chip, a regular who skipped the middle-man and paid her a flat rate in cash. Angela could tell he was sweet on her. He once commented that he liked women with a little meat on their bones and obviously considered it to be a compliment. One of these days Chip would ask her on a date and she’d be stuck. If she turned him down, he probably wouldn’t call again. Sure, he was well behaved and kind of charming, but then wasn’t that how serial killers lured their unsuspecting prey?
Chip lived near La Brea and San Vicente. Midday traffic was still light and she could probably get there in fifteen minutes if she hopped the freeway. Idling near the entrance to the 10 West, she flirted with the idea of making a right instead of a left. Maybe drive as far as Colorado. She’d enjoyed Denver the two days she’d spent there on either end of the Telluride Film Festival. She could be an Uber driver in Denver as easily as in L.A.
Maybe in the crisp clean air of the mile-high city, she’d finally be able to think clearly about her future. Surely her skills were applicable somewhere else. Insurance? Real estate? Corporate PR? But from the few acquaintances who had segued into other professions she’d received a terse evaluation: Same assholes, less appealing end product.
Ah well, it was worth a try. And if things didn’t work out in Denver, she could continue to drive farther up into the snow-capped Rockies where, with any luck, she might run into an avalanche.