Most mythology is predicated upon an idea which, if examined, becomes patently absurd. For the myth that talented people come to Hollywood and get discovered to be true, there would have be people in Hollywood waiting around to discover other people. Those people do not exist.
I hadn’t thought it through that far, though. So I moved here. I was twenty-three years old and I showed up at the table imagining that I had already proven myself so talented that surely someone would have saved me a seat. My father, a professor of English and theatre, had taught me that the key to a career in the arts is just to do your work and keep your head down. If you’re any good, he said, people will notice.
I had a Xeroxed screenplay and a tight twenty minutes of well-honed stand-up material. In my film-fed fame and punchline fantasy, that meant I had an all-expense paid ticket upslope to the thrill-a-minute black diamond run of household name and paparazzi dazzle. I had gotten here and having done so thought I’d certainly arrived.
We know the entertainment industry is all about multi-coloured shadows cast oversized on white walls, sequential snapshots given life only by our insistent persistence of vision, two dimensional images endowed with depth by our imaginations. We know these things, but we forget. We forget that glamour is the work of witches and wizards, designed to send the noble and chivalrous hero off course, not the actual object of the quest. We forget the lesson of the fairytales, the underlying lesson every one of them points to, but none specifically articulates. We forget that nobody finds the heart’s desire, nobody gets to occupy the castle on the hill, nobody gets to live happily ever after until all the illusions are shattered and everyone is disenchanted.
I remember being at the edge of a party, hoping for a hit of pot, a line of blow, anything to make me feel a part of the action. Huddled, clutching to my aching lonely chest the knowledge of my tight twenty minutes, nothing but set up and punch line, I hoped for a chance to show them all how funny I could be. Opportunities fell away as, stammering, screenplay stuck to the roof of my mouth, I pitched hard against the tide of my own rising potential. Stumbling toward a fantasy, I allowed my clumsy, lumbering shadow to obscure the truth. This was my plight. This was my youth. This was my shame.
I watched people laughing lightly, confident and casual while I made mental leaps that took me always deeper into the underbrush of my dense psychic bramble. I lived embarrassed in the theatrical darkness and dreamt of standing proud in the cinematic light.
I recently went to a Hollywood party at which I wholly belonged. This was one of those Los Angeles affairs at which people who have been friends for years sniff cautiously at one another for recent changes in status.
The celebration poured into the night, boozing and schmoozing. Stars shook hands and traded compliments and greeted fans. I straddled both worlds fairly comfortably. Some fans approached me and gushed a little awkwardly. I approached some celebrities of whom I am a fan, and did my best not to gush awkwardly. It was a party at which I had every right to be. Whoopi punched me in the arm and called me “hon” like a waitress at a Georgia diner. It was that kind of party.
I found myself, very late in the evening, sipping scotch on the rocks through a hollow plastic stir-stick, watching the milling crowd. I stood against the wall observing the behaviour of the partiers in a quiet spiral of Roskolnikov self-absorption, taking in the sub-textual details of observed conversations from behind a safe, warm lens of amber liquid.
After a while, a young woman came and stood against the wall near me. She was old enough to have moved to Los Angeles chasing a dream, young enough that I could imagine charming her, teasing out any daddy issues I might exploit. Then she said, “What are you doing over here?”
I thought about it for a moment and then said, “I’m writing a story for you.”
Some people nearby heard me and began to shift toward us. Perhaps some of them recognised my voice from Public Radio appearances. Perhaps some of them knew who I was and thought it would be interesting to hear what it was like when I stood at the side of a room writing a story for a young woman. Perhaps the scotch had led me to blurt out a little too loudly an impromptu announcement that I was about to perform inappropriately at a party.
She said, “A story for me?”
I knew, as we became a small focal point in the celebration-scape, that I could have asked her name, given her a chance to talk about herself while we had focus, turned over the spotlight to this hopeful, attractive young woman. But I’m not that guy.
I said, “Yes. A story for you. It’s about how we all have to strive to be the opposite of the Highlander.”
That had her. It had all the listeners. It was just too odd a premise to leave hanging.
I remember hanging out in the green room at the Central before it became the Viper Room doing lines of cocaine off the black glass coffee table with Bobby Pastorelli. Stumbling out onto Sunset at sunrise with nothing to show for our night’s endeavours but red eyes and tense jaws. I remember him telling me that all he needed was one good role to prove himself and nothing could stop him. Then he got cast on Murphy Brown and he stopped taking my calls and then he was gone.
And Sam Kinnison kept going on stage on blow and kept trying to find a way to come down until he went off the road outside Needles. And Mitch Hedberg and Bill Hicks are gone and Greg Giraldi and Richard Jeni and Drake Sather, who I resented for years because I perceived him as having stolen my career, called his wife and let her listen over the phone as he pulled the trigger. And Joe Bodolai and Alan Kirschenbaum and . . . . and . . . . and there is a litany of loss to which I rock myself to sleep at night. Talented, funny people all, who chased their dreams and then, awakened by the kiss of fair fortune found themselves dissatisfied with the glamour; heartbroken by the insubstantial nature of their own accomplishments.“Right now, it’s a little bit wooly,” I told her. “I’m just starting to pull the fibers together into something but here’s the thing.”
I paused for a moment, hoping she would say, “There’s a thing?” and then I could say, “There’s a thing,” and it would sound for a moment as though we were scripted by Aaron Sorkin. She didn’t, so I went on.
When I was in college I wore a sword around the Sarah Lawrence College campus as a fashion accessory. I imagined that it made me look very heroic and dashing and not at all stupid. Apparently, I felt the tee shirt that said, “I have phallic insecurity” was a little over the top.
It was during that time that I met Ted Impellizerri. He was a year younger than I, a talented opera singer. We met on a grassy lawn. Moments after we had been introduced, he and I began to wrestle in slow motion. It was a theatrical act of bonding and male-dominance and status play, but it was also wholly controlled.
We worked through arm bars and take-downs and reversals all in perfectly executed cooperative improvisation, supporting one another’s weight when necessary and amazing the mutual friends who had introduced us. We were immediately as close as any two young men can be and we spent all of our time together through my years in college until I moved to Los Angeles and he got married and moved to Colorado and had a kid. He was a Basso Profundo but I had no idea just how low he could get until news came to me that, disappointed with the places life had taken him, he threw himself off a cliff.
It’s occurred to me, at last that the notion that there can be only one is an adolescent fantasy of solitary achievement. The truth is, there is room for so many more than we imagine. We do NOT draw strength from the loss of our colleagues and our friends. Art is not a zero sum game and we gain strength when we lend it. When we support one another, we add to the whole; when we recognize and acknowledge and express our own weakness, we stand a chance of gaining support when and where we need it.
“It is my hope,” I told the girl at the party, “that if I can write the story that points to that truth, if I can shatter some of the romantic illusions you carry with you maybe, just maybe, you can walk into your career with the strength and the joy of the disenchanted and you won’t ever have to die of disappointment.”
The group about us had begun to shift uncertainly because this diatribe was not the light entertainment they had hoped for when they gathered to hear my story. This was not the bright yarn they had expected me to spin but something much heavier. The girl was not aware of that, though. She did not have my experience reading a crowd, feeling their rhythm and their mood. All she knew was that my focus was on her and the small crowd’s focus was on me and maybe that meant that I was someone up to whom she should suck. So she said, “What’s your name?”
I thought about the time I had spent toiling away in my office, building up a shelf of screenplays and pilots. I thought about my tight five-hours of material, nothing but set-up and punchline. I said, “Rumplestiltskin.”
Trying to banter well above her weight class, she said “Aren’t you supposed to keep your name a secret?”
I said, “Not in this town, kid.” The people around us laughed lightly relieved that I had found my way to a punchline. Frankly, I was relieved too. I didn’t let it show, though. Not then. Not at that party. I heard the laughter, looked down casually into my drink, spun my straw, and I was golden.