When a notable director’s movie bombs, he expects his estranged family to console him. 2,756 words. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
For most of the ride home, Harry Lewiston and his daughter chose to ignore the annoying truth perched in the back seat and breathing down their necks. The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds filled the uneasy void as they coursed from Hollywood to Brentwood.
They’d put in an obligatory appearance at the premiere after-party at the Hollywood Roosevelt, and done a credible impression of appearing buoyant. Harry had even pretended to be relieved by the sparse attendance. “Sometimes these things get overcrowded and claustrophobic,” he’d told the small gaggle of loyal producers and agents gathered around him for support, as if they expected him to collapse at any moment and were prepared to administer CPR.
Rather than play “who’s kidding who?” and feigning effusiveness, they’d greeted him with measured praise (“You did it again, you ol’ bastard,” “Every dollar was up there on the screen,” and the loaded “An incredibly professional job.”). They’d all been there, endured the numbness in the air as the film unreeled to an audience that grew increasingly fidgety, coughing and shifting in their seats; listened to the faint polite applause at the end; watched as the invitees exchanged raised eyebrows and darted for the exits. The truth was Harry was probably a stronger director now than he had ever been. But good material didn’t come his way as often. He knew he’d fallen out of fashion, wasn’t anybody’s first choice any more. They usually came to him after others had passed. These days he took what he could get, hoping that one project would come along and click and he’d move back up a few notches.
“We’re going to head out early,” Harry said after twenty minutes of dutiful chit-chat. “My baby here’s got school in the morning,” he added, giving his daughter Johanna’s shoulder a little squeeze. His pals didn’t even pretend to be disappointed by his hasty departure. It would give them a perfect excuse to amscray the moment Harry was out of sight.
“It stunk, didn’t it?” Harry said, addressing the windshield.
“If only,” Johanna replied.
Harry turned off the music. “Meaning what, exactly?”
“A really bad movie can be fun – usually for all the wrong reasons. This one just sat there like a… like a slow moving glacier. Pretty to look at but just kind of… I don’t know, inert.”
Harry grabbed a hank of his hair and yanked it in frustration.
“Don’t do that,” Johanna chided, slapping away his hand.
“I just can’t imagine what went wrong,” he fretted.
“How about we start with the script,” his daughter suggested.
“What? The agency said the writer was the next Aaron Sorkin.”
“And we all know that the packaging agents had only your best interests at heart.”
Harry gasped. “Pretty cynical for a seventeen-year-old.”
“Sorry, Dad. But you can’t tell me that script leapt up off the page when you read it.”
“The thing is, I honestly don’t know anymore. I think maybe I’m losing touch.”
“You did the best you could with what you had, I’m sure,” she said, softening. “But did you ever bother to ask yourself, who is the audience for this movie?”
“I assume eighteen to twenty-five year-olds, like almost everything else.”
“Why? None of my friends goes to the movies much. And we live in Hollywood. And most of our folks work in the business.”
“Wish you’d told me this beforehand,” he said.
She threw him that “you didn’t ask” shrug.
“That’s what happens when you surround yourself with ‘yes’ people,” she remarked.
Harry had heard these words before, almost verbatim, from his ex-wife Sandra.
“And don’t blame Mom,” Johanna said, apparently able to read his thoughts as well as gauge his mood. “It was Ross who said it.”
“Never to me,” Harry said, incredulous. His first-born Ross had remained largely neutral through the divorce, the upshot of his middle-aged-crazy infidelity. At the same time, Ross had distanced himself, hiding behind the demands of a rigorous academic schedule at Princeton for the past three years. He no longer visited the sets of Harry’s movies or stood behind him at the video monitor, eager to offer input after every take. The kid had strong creative instincts. Why was Ross thinking of going to law school after college?
“But Ross is right,” Johanna continued. “Your work has been off from before when you had Mom to run interference and play devil’s advocate.” Though his daughter spoke the words without inflection, Harry heard the hurt behind them.
“How’s your brother doing? Do you hear from him?”
“Oh yeah, we face-timed just before you picked me up.”
“What did he say?”
“It’s private,” she said, shrinking in her seat.
“That bad, huh?” Harry was beginning to sweat. He rolled down the window and was hit with a blast of particle-filled Santa Ana air.
“No,” she said, dragging out the word. “We barely talked about you. Or the movie.”
“He must have said something.”
“Roquefort. He said Roquefort.”
Harry was familiar with the code word. “But the film hasn’t even opened yet.”
“The trailers, Dad. The test screenings. You could smell it coming.”
“You said it didn’t stink.”
“Maybe Roquefort is too strong,” Johanna conceded. “Camembert? Brie? Is that better?
“You’re both still angry and using this to get back at me.”
“No. My shrink has helped me separate Dad The Director from Dad The Father. I don’t want to see you fail. Your career is all you’ve got left.”
“And you. And Ross,” he insisted.
“Ross has been gone for three years and I’m headed off to college in the fall.”
“Have you decided?” Harry asked, drumming his fingers on the steering wheel. He needed to stop talking about the movie – and quick.
“Barnard, if it I get in,” she replied, decisively.
“New York? You’re going to move all the way to New York?”
“Yeah. I desperately need to get out of the Brentwood bubble.”
“Brentwood bubble?” Harry scoffed. “That’s definitely Ross speaking.”
“He’s right. The most adventurous thing I do is ride Uber. It’s time to mix it up, commute by subway, share an apartment with neurotic roommates, experience real weather.”
“I grew up in real weather. It gets tedious,” he snarled.
“I plan to get a part-time job, in a diner or a coffee shop. Be around different kinds of people — people who don’t reek of privilege.”
“What you’re describing sounds suspiciously like an episode of Girls,” Harry added, seguing from a sneer into mild panic. How did Brian Williams endure seeing his daughter on screen like that, he thought, recalling a particularly vivid sex scene that excited and repulsed him in equal measure.
“That’s Brooklyn. This is uptown Manhattan.”
“Aren’t you afraid of being pushed in front of a train? Of guys putting roofies in your drink? There’s a heroin epidemic in New York.”
“If I wanted to do heroin, I can easily access it in Brentwood.”
“From who?” Harry said, his voice rising. “I want names.”
“Cut it out. Look, I promise to stand in the middle of the subway platform and not date Charlie Sheen,” she said, wryly. “I’m not a fool, Dad. I had at least one full-time parent and she did a pretty good job.”
“And I didn’t?”
“You were there when you were there. Relax. I don’t drink booze, mainly because it’s fattening. And I don’t do drugs except for grass.”
“When did you start smoking grass?” he said, so alarmed he slammed on the brakes halfway up Bundy Drive. Fortunately, there were no cars behind them.
“Mom helped me get a prescription. I have asthma, remember?”
“Ridiculous. I will talk to Sandra about that. And about Barnard…”
“If I get in. And don’t worry about boys. I have an IUD. Also Mom’s idea.”
This time, Harry almost drove through a red light.
“It might come in handy,” she said, in an offhanded manner, “but it hasn’t yet. Okay?”
He breathed a slight sigh.
“Besides, right now I’m more interested in experimenting. I just have to find the right girl.”
“Are you trying to tell me that you’re a lesbian? Because if so, I love you no matter what.”
“Gee, Dad. How wonderfully PC of you. Make sure to share that with Hillary or Bernie at Jeffrey Katzenberg’s next fundraiser. And I’m pretty sure I’m not a lesbian. Which doesn’t mean I’m not curious.”
“You don’t have to scratch every itch,” he said, that stern parental tone creeping into his voice.
Johanna’s eyes widened and she pursed her lips. He felt cowed. That accusing look seemed to have been transmitted genetically from his ex-wife. His daughter’s facial expressions, her acerbic wit, her provocative comments, all imprinted on her by Sandra – though Johanna would deny it and continue to deny it until that day sometime in middle age when she glances at her image in the mirror and sees her mother glaring back at her.
Sandra’s house, formerly their house, was a hundred yards ahead, and thank goodness. He was afraid that he might break down in front of his daughter, further diminishing himself in her eyes.
“You are not to decide on college until we all sit down together. Promise me.”
Johanna offered a tepid nod.
“And we should also have a sex talk.”
“What do you want to know?” she said coyly and then laughed. “I’m kidding. I barely have a sex life, except for the occasional…”
“Please, not now,” he said, perhaps too insistently as the car pulled up the driveway and came to a halt.
He reached across the seat and stroked her hair, his eyes filled with melancholy. Johanna rolled her eyes. “Dad, you’re being maudlin,” she said. “I need to get away from this homogenized life. And it wouldn’t do you any harm, either. Maybe if you made friends with people who lived in a completely different world, you’d…”
“Make better pictures?” he said, finishing the sentence for her.
“At least regain your perspective,” she said, and again he heard Sandra’s voice.
“It’s not that simple,” he bemoaned.
“Or you could reinvent yourself,” she suggested. “That’s what Mom says anyway.”
Harry nodded and turned at the sound of rapping on his window. Sandra. He rolled down the window.
“Reinvent myself? You said that?”
Sandra stared at him, clear-eyed and unapologetic.
“You still think you know me better than I know myself,” he said, accusingly.
She was about to answer when Johanna cut her off. “I’ll let you two snipe at each other in peace. I’m going inside,” she said and kissed Harry on the cheek. “Buck up, Dad. And don’t read the reviews. And if you do, I’ll come over and hold your hand.”
“Hey, missy, I’m still the parent here,” he said, in a mock-stern-tone.
“I’m just saying,” she smiled and shot out of the car and disappeared into the house.
“Why Barnard?” he said, turning back to Sandra. “What’s wrong with UCLA or worst case scenario, Berkeley? And don’t say Brentwood bubble or I’ll lose my shit.”
“She hasn’t been accepted to Barnard yet, but with her grades she just might. It’s a great school. I would have killed to go there. I got pregnant instead. And became a Hollywood wife,” she added with a shiver.
“Tonight was a disaster,” he moaned, in desperate need of a shoulder to cry on.
“A disappointment, not a disaster,” she corrected him.
“How do you know? You weren’t there.”
“Jojo called me from the ladies room after the screening. Said the movie was flat. You’ll live.”
“I’m getting older and less resilient.”
“So take a break. You have the money.”
“Do you have any idea what my monthly nut is?”
“I have a pretty good guess. Remember, I supervised our accounts for almost twenty years.”
“Well, add alimony and child support… and college,” he said. “It’s quite a burden. I have to keep money coming in.”
“Not if you sell the ranch in Ojai. It’s worth three times what you paid for it. The upkeep alone… And you’ve spent, what, twenty days there in the past five years? Even after taxes, you can live on what you net for the rest of your life — if you’re willing to scale back.”
“The ranch? That was where we were supposed to retire.”
Sandra did not reply. She simply sighed in exasperation.
“Sell it,” he pondered. “That’s a big step.”
“Just so you know. I’m thinking of putting this place on the market. With the kids in school, it’s just too big. I might even join them back East, move to Connecticut near my sister.”
“So you’re all going to abandon me?”
“Come again?” she said, wrinkling her nose.
“The East Coast is big enough for all of us,” she added.
“And what do I do then? I can’t just take a break. You never recover from a break. Once you’re out of the conversation, it’s almost impossible to get back in.”
“Then start a new career. Teach. Write novels. Go into politics. You’re all chummy with the Dems. They like you. You’re a smart man, and I don’t mean Hollywood smart. You’re actually intelligent. Well read, intuitive.”
“I feel like a dope,” he said, hanging his head in that self-pitying manner that had long been a bone of contention between them.
“And unlike most men, you own up to your mistakes, and sometimes even learn from them. Why am I giving you a pep talk? Have Noreen bolster your ego, and if that doesn’t work, give you a blow job. I assume she gives head. I mean, you wouldn’t be dumb enough to leave someone who does for someone who doesn’t just because she’s fifteen years younger.”
“That’s vulgar, Sandra. I’ve never heard you be vulgar before,” he said, perching on a high horse and grabbing the reins.
“I’m still pissed at you for being predictable.”
“Noreen’s bored with me. I’m bored with her.”
Sandra let out a gush of air. “Sorry. But that’s even more predictable,” she said, though there was no rancor in her voice.
“How’s Phil? Is that his name, Phil?”
“Don’t even try that. Phil is fine. It’s not serious. I’m not looking for serious right now. He’s a place holder. We’re both clear on that.”
“Do you mean you’re still holding out hope for…”
Sandra shuttled her index finger back and forth between them and shook her head. “No, that chapter’s closed. I’ve started a new one, though I’m not sure what it will be yet or whether it will involve a relationship.”
“Could I stay here tonight?” he asked, trying not to whimper.
“No, you cannot,” she said. “Now good night.” She kissed him on the forehead and he acquiesced. As he backed out of the driveway, she waved and mouthed “drive carefully,” then turned and went back into the house. He was seized by a moment of nostalgia which, surprisingly, passed as quickly as it came.
Harry pressed the speed dial on his dashboard. A sleepy voice answered on the third ring. “Dad?” his son said. “Something wrong?”
“Everything, so what else is new?” he said, trying to affect a jocular tone. “Roquefort, really?”
Ross was silent for a moment, obviously processing the fact that his sister had blabbed. “Gee, Dad. When did you become so touchy?”
“When I put eighteen months of my life into something, a year and a half that I’ll never get back, and it’s D.O.A.”
“We all go through bad patches,” Ross said.
“When did you ever have a bad patch? Your life has been charmed. You have the looks, the smarts, the background…”
“I just completed my adolescence, Dad. It was a living hell. Do you not remember being a teenager?”
“Vaguely,” Harry said as if he was trying to summon up the dead. “Hey, would it be okay if I paid you a visit?”
“You mean come to Princeton?”
“It’s because you’re bummed that your movie’s going to tank.”
“Partly. But tell me something — when did both my children become such smart asses?”
“When you weren’t looking,” Ross said.
“Well, your sister says I need to get out of Dodge and make new friends who aren’t invested in blowing smoke up my ass. You’re not in the business, at least not yet.”
“You can’t be my friend. You’re my father,” Ross said, impatiently.
“That’ll do for now,” Harry conceded. “Is next week too soon? Find me a nice hotel. I’ll book a flight as soon as I get home and send you an email with the details.”