People say that movie stars are really just like us.
They get up in the morning, go to the toilet, pull on their pants one leg at a time… but after that it’s all different.
The 65th Academy Awards,
Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Los Angeles,
29 March 1993
The heat of the lights is as oppressive as the thick cloak of insecurity and desperation that shrouds the audience.
Billy Crystal steps to the podium, his laconic grin a teasing, gentle rebuke to a collection of egos teetering on the edge of explosion.
His fourth time in the role, Crystal introduces the presenter of the next category with an ease born of confidence and familiarity. Romcom queen, Lana Delasso, glides onto the stage, blonde hair an homage to her namesake and idol, Lana Turner. Her nomination in the category of Best Supporting Actress will be decided later and she’s done everything possible to win. Everything. In her fifties now, the best surgeons have ensured that she doesn’t look a day over thirty-five, her white, cobweb Versace gown, defying the rule that you should never show cleavage and legs at the same time. The physical reactions in the audience are instant and visceral: tight smiles of envy on bejewelled women coincide with ferocious erections under some of the $1,000 tuxedos sitting next to them.
Her words are white noise until they reach the point: ‘…. Best Original Screenplay.’
Behind her, on a thirty-foot screen, the nominations roll.
Husbands and Wives by Woody Allen. A smattering of applause, hesitations fuelled by the desire to come down on the right side of the moral judgement on Allen’s affair with Mia Farrow’s daughter. In Hollywood, picking sides has little to do with principles and everything to do with career enhancement.
Lorenzo’s Oil by George Miller and Nick Enright. More applause. Camera zooms to a row in which the suits are overshadowed by Susan Sarandon’s uncommon beauty.
Passion Fish by John Sayles. A movie that was released in only two theatres, grossing only a few tickets over $36,000 before its nomination.
Unforgiven by David Peoples. A crowd-pleaser. Directed and produced by Clint Eastwood, the audience of stars greets it with a show of worship reserved for work that has been touched by a deity.
The Brutal Circle by Davie Johnston, Zander Leith and Mirren McLean. An outsider. A harrowing story of a life born in violence, lived in violence, cut short by violence.
The big screen spans several seats, but all eyes are on the ebullient form of the producer, Wes Lomax, legendary head of Lomax Films, the studio responsible for more million-dollar-grossing movies in the last decade than any other.
The image returns to Lana Delasso, revelling in her moment. The same fingers that caressed a very married studio mogul only an hour before, now slide delicately along the folds of the gold envelope.
‘And the winner is…’
‘The Brutal Circle by…’
Sycophantic cheers drown out the names; stars rise to their feet, determined to ensure that when Wes Lomax watches the playback, he will see them heralding his triumph.
In the chaos, the director in the gallery is a fraction late in switching to the three bodies that move towards the stage, all of them almost as unrecognizable as the extras hired to fill the seats vacated by stars drawn to the restrooms by the call of nature or the need for a line snorted off the top of a toilet. When the zoom lens on Camera 5 finally catches up with the winners, they are ascending the stairs to the stage.
Davie Johnston, at twenty-two the youngest winner of an award in that category in Academy history, strides forward with the surety of a man with an unblinking eye on his destination – the spotlight of an Academy award winner and membership of one of the most exalted, exclusive clubs in the world.
Behind him, Mirren McLean, in the only haute-couture dress she has ever touched, her wild mane of Titian curls tamed to match the elegance of the midnight-blue Dior gown. Unaccustomed to heels, she steps with care, her expression a mix of concentration and disbelief.
Finally, with a demeanour that suggests reluctance, Zander Leith. For every woman who tried to ignore her partner’s sexual interest in Lana Delasso, here is six feet two inches of payback. Wide shoulders, his square jaw set in a brooding grimace, he could be heading to a wake, not the spotlight of a winner.
When only a few feet separate them, Lana’s eyes meet his and she instinctively flinches as he responds to the flirtatious flutter of her lashes with almost visceral scorn, his disdain barely masked by his own thick, black lashes. Rebuffed.
While the outside remains a movie goddess, on the inside she is twelve again: the odd kid at school that even the trailer-park waifs avoid. The one that turned into the most beautiful woman in Hollywood, but still felt she had to respond to the summons to Wes Lomax’s yacht and service his lust and his ego to get his support for her own nomination.
Davie Johnston takes the Oscar and moves forward to the microphone.
‘I just want to say thank you—’
More applause. Most of the audience know of this trio, despite the fact that they are barely out of their teens. Wes Lomax has ensured that their story has saturated the Hollywood press in recent months. All three are credited as writers on the script, but Mirren steered the story behind the scenes, while the two men played leading roles in a movie that had blown up at the box office. The success was due, in part, to a publicity and distribution campaign usually reserved for A-list releases, and, in part, to the fact that it was a damn fine piece of cinema. It was a raw, hardcore two hours of urban menace that had a generation of American teens queuing for their Saturday-night thriller kicks. It hit $15 million on the balance sheets after the first month, then word of mouth set it on fire. It was now well on the way to Lomax’s $100million target.
This was the kind of American dream, the triumph of the underdog, the discovery of wonder that this city loved. Three childhood friends from Scotland, pals from a run-down housing estate who’d stuck together in poverty and disfunction, before going on to be the creative talents behind an outstanding script discovered by Wes Lomax when he took his annual golfing trip to the UK. It was beyond surprising that these kids had managed to get their work in front of Lomax. Even more so that he’d taken enough time off from screwing high-class escorts in the presidential suites of the best hotels in the UK to read it.
Now the audience in the red velvet chairs furrow their brows as they try to decipher Davie Johnston’s accent. This isn’t the Scottish burr of Sean Connery. Nor does it come close to the accents they heard from Davie and Zander in the movie. It is harder. More guttural. Like bullets being sprayed from a gun in a scene from Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino’s big hit of the previous year.
‘Thank you to the Academy. Thank you to all of you for letting us be part of this incredible world. And most of all, thank you to the brilliant Wes Lomax. We owe him everything.’
Camera 3 zooms in on Lomax and millions of people watch him nod, eyes glistening, a godfather acknowledging gratitude from his chosen family.
Davie bows to signal the end of his speech, then punches the Oscar into the air. Neither Mirren nor Zander step forward. Recovered from the sting of Zander’s rejection, Lana sweeps them off stage right into the unbridled chaos of runners, technicians, gophers and make-up artists brandishing thick brushes at agitated stars.
They are propelled into a press room, cameras flashing, journos screeching questions, all of which they answer with naive honesty. Barely a few years ago they were hanging out in cafés, pooling their money to buy chips. Now they are on Hollywood’s biggest stage and Davie Johnston isn’t even going to pretend for a second that he’s not loving it.
How are they enjoying Hollywood? Fine. Great. Aye, it’s, erm, amazing.
Are they here to stay? Dunno yet. It depends. Nothing decided.
Is their next project already underway? No plans yet. Nothing concrete. Just ideas.
Davie answers most of the questions, with an occasional contribution from Mirren.
Lou Cole, a young, sparky journalist on the LA Times, changes the pattern.
‘So, Zander, how does it feel to be called the new Hollywood heart-throb?’
His bashful grin is automatic, and conceals the fact that for the second time that night his eyes flicker with pure contempt.
‘I don’t think Tom Cruise has anything to worry about.’
Oblivious to the underlying sentiment, the press pack laugh, as Paula Leno, Lomax Films’ hard-ass head of publicity, sweetly but firmly calls an end to the photocall, determined to minimize the risk of a fuck-up and all too aware that the next winners will soon be arriving on the conveyor belt of achievement.
Finally alone, there is a pause as each of them absorbs the last ten incredible minutes of their lives. Davie is the first to react, throwing his arms around Mirren and squeezing her.
‘We did it. Shit, I don’t believe it.’ As always, his enthusiasm oozes from under his skin. It has been that way all their lives. Davie is the life force, the driven one, the chancer. Mirren is the voice of reason, the one with emotional intelligence, always in touch with how everyone else is feeling. And she knows there’s a problem here.
Over Davie’s shoulder her gaze has locked with Zander’s, dispelling all notion of celebration. She can see the storm that’s been brewing for far too long is about to roar with thunder. Davie doesn’t get the memo. His first burst of excitement over, he turns to the new Hollywood heart-throb. His lifelong friend, bonded as youngsters by a shared recognition that no one really gave a fuck, their symbiotic pairing paying no heed to the reality that in the gene pool of life, Zander got height and physical perfection, while Davie got the kind of non-threatening appeal that made women want to ruffle his hair and tell him about their last broken heart.
‘C’mon, man, that was incredible! Did you hear them? That was for us. That has to make everything worth it. C’mon, man…’
The desperate repetition isn’t lost on any of them. Mirren’s teeth clench together as she raises her chin in defiance. She knows there is no point looking for resolution and rapprochement with Zander, and she refuses to show weakness by trying.
Her instincts are right.
For the last photograph, Zander was asked to hold the Oscar to give the picture editors a range of different images to choose from. Now he tosses it to Davie like it is a can of Bud pulled from the fridge to wash down a burger.
Davie’s reflexes are just quick enough to save it from the floor.
‘You got what you wanted.’ Zander’s words are barely louder than a whisper, yet drown out all other sounds. ‘Now both of you can fuck off, and if I ever see you again, walk the other way.’
‘Young Americans’ – David Bowie
Twenty Years Later
Beverly Wilshire Hotel, 2013
By the pool of the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, made famous by a cinda-fucking-rella movie about a hooker saved by a rich man, Davie Johnston has taken three cabanas – one for him, one on either side so he doesn’t get overheard or interrupted. He’s wearing linen trousers and shirt, open just low enough to reveal every perfect contour of his lasered torso. Clothes pale blue. Every time he wears blue, someone mentions that it brings out the colour in his eyes. Every time he replies, ‘Oh really? I didn’t realize.’ Then he goes home and orders ten more shirts, same shade.
As always, he’s combining business and pleasure, taking pitch meetings for the next big reality show. He already produces three of the top five in the ratings. He chose the Beverly Wilshire because it kills two birds with one stone. If a meeting goes exceptionally well, he’s only an elevator away from a California-king-size bed.
A couple sit down for the three-o’clock slot. It’s the first interview after lunch and he’s had two glasses of Pinot Noir. In this postcode that qualifies him for AA.
She’s a supermodel; he’s an ageing rock god, best hits behind him. They pitch the show. Fly on the wall. Beauty and the Beats. Great premise, shit title. They tell Davie every network has expressed interest in this show, but they want him to produce it because he’s ‘The Man’. They’re not lying about the second part.
The meeting goes well, like every other meeting in the industry. Both sides flatter the other. Both sides claim interest. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, one side refuses to take the next call.
Davie listens. Definitely has potential. They shake hands; he tells them he’ll be in touch. He will. His secretary will call on Monday and arrange a follow-up meeting. Only the supermodel. Room 567. With the California-king-size bed.
On the ground floor of the hotel, at Wolfgang Puck’s restaurant, CUT, Mirren McLean is oblivious to her childhood friend’s presence upstairs. She is at her usual table, with her husband of nineteen years, producer-director Jack Gore, and their teenage children, Chloe and Logan.
If anyone added up the value of the diners in the room, it would hit the billions. People have no problem paying $150 for a Japanese 100 per cent Wagyu steak because this place is regarded as the best. And in Beverly Hills, it’s only the best that matters.
Jack has been on location for a few weeks, so Mirren is thrilled he’s back. Even happier because both her children are there. This is what life is about – family. Right now, she’s a mum and a wife, and that’s all she wants to be. Just a mum and a wife.
Paul Bonetti, the legendary producer, approaches her table. Shakes hands. She’s polite because she has manners, but she wants him gone so she can get back to her family. She likes to keep the two separate, but in this town, there’s no forgetting about business.
Bonetti smiles, like he’s her best friend. ‘I couldn’t be more pleased for you – still number one at the box office after three weeks,’ he says, attempting jovial and sincere, achieving latent fury and crippling envy. His leading men could act; he couldn’t. ‘Just hope I’m up against you next time around – make it a fair fight.’
‘Oh, I’m sure you’ll take the top spot next time. It must be your turn,’ she says, wide grin, while the words ‘over my dead body’ explode in her head. She makes a mental note to bring forward the release date for the next Clansman movie to ensure it clashes with whatever action killfest he has coming out. Time to put him back in his place. If he wants to play that game, she’ll take the challenge.
She’ll win. Because she’s one of the biggest and ballsiest players in Hollywood.
And everyone in the room knows it.
* * *
On the seventh floor, room 731, Zander Leith is sitting in a solid-mahogany high-back seat. He’s already refused the director-style chair left by the company who organized the press junket, as this one forces him to sit up straight. It’s all about the angles.
His new movie, the sixth in the Dunhill franchise, playing a man who is a suave, deadly cross between a Bond and a Reacher, hits the cinemas in three weeks’ time. He’s now been in this airless room for seven hours, answering the same questions from TV and print journalists who all look different but act equally inane. Cute young women asking flirtatious questions. The enthusiastic newbies who want to be his best mate. The older, jaded ones who try to catch him out and twist his words.
Very occasionally, there’s someone who has well-researched questions that actually make him think – they’re the only ones that hit the pause button on the eradication of his will to live.
Next door, his hair and make-up team, publicist and manager sit ready to pounce when they are required.
One of them is required now. The journo in front of him, wearing the shortest of skirts, is giving him a glimpse of her Victoria’s Secret underwear. He knows the brand because he slept with a model who was wearing it on the catwalk only a month before.
The interview is coming to a close. Once upon a time, he would get someone else to do his bidding. Now, he just cuts to the quick. It’s speed-dating, movie-star 101.
He leans towards her. ‘Warren Beatty Suite. Seven p.m.?’ It’s a question to which they both know the answer.
She leaves satisfied that she got everything she came for. His publicist enters the room, turns to the sound guy.
‘Make sure that last exchange is deleted?’
Of course he does.
Because no one ever says no in Hollywood.