COMMENTARY:Decline and Fall: Tales from Hollywood

by Noell Claybourne

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Jerry was an agent who contacted me from time to time. He works in Hollywood, running about facilitating "deals" and instigating fortuitous meetings between "talent", like a bee going from flower to flower. He called me and asked me to lunch, at one of the more upscale Los Angeles restaurants with pneumatically pristine air.

"Read this," he said, before I could barely make myself accustomed to my chair at the table he was at. "There's a part in there for you that could be terrific."

"What is it?" "It's new. It's the second novel by Sophie Marceau."

"There was a first?"

I took the pages he handed me, which were not script pages but galley proofs, meaning that the novel was not yet between covers. Jerry, in reply to my query, simply bobbed his head, in a way that was meant to not influence my decision one way or another. My eyes had barely become accustomed to the interior lighting when they fell upon a sentence which read, "He left her, cold and moldering."

What was this? Wait, my spectacles, hurriedly retrieved from my inside pocket, were on crooked. I made the necessary adjustments. "He left her, cold and smoldering." I was even worse. "Jerry, why are you wasting my time like this? I had a bloody awful time getting over here, and there's no room on the Concorde because everyone is flying to Paris to see Yves St. Laurent retire."

"Wait a minute, the pretty little thing has just walked in who asked for you...."

He waved his hand like a semaphore flag, and a tall, thin, young creature with long blond hair and lots of teeth came walking over to the table where we were seated. She was the star of an American television program, and she had dressed for the occasion in a way which was both intended to impress and was modeled, several times removed, upon Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly in "Breakfast at Tiffany's".

"Mr. Claybourne, I'm so glad to meet you!" she burbled, loudly, the pocketbook which hung from one shoulder on a long chain swinging, back and forth, lethally. "I saw 'Just Before Dinner' last night on video and I really loved it!"

"Yes, it's comforting to know when one's work in available to the masses in little boxes."

"I saw this on a disc. It's supposed to be better than VHS. The picture quality is the same as if you were in a theater."

"Well, it isn't a current release."

"Have you seen any pictures while you were here?"

"I've seen billboards, that's the closest I've come to seeing moving pictures."

"Mr. Claybourne, you're so brilliant!" said the T.V. star, giggling. "That's what Marilyn said." "Marilyn MONROE? I LOVE her!" "What is your favorite film?" "Oh, 'Let's Make Love', of course!" I winced. This was not going to go well.

"What did you think of the part of Rolf?" the T.V. star continued.

"My producer and I both saw 'The Night Porter', and we think you'd be perfect for the part! Sophie wants to direct!"

I reeled. "My dear, I was not, not was ever intended to be, in 'The Night Porter'. Dirk Bogarde was in 'The Night Porter', and Sir Dirk is no longer in the land of the living."

The T.V. star made her eyes big. "Oops! I guess we made a mistake!" she said, jocularly, looking over at Jerry, who was trying to make the best of it.

"What did you think of the novel?"

"It is a horror," I replied, categorically. "Jerry, I'm late for another engagement, as it is."

"Take the novel with you," Jerry said, pushing the pages into my hands. The T.V. star made goo-goo eyes at me as I rose from the table to depart. Outside, the California sun seared into my flesh as soon as I left the artificial interior environment. It always happened, sooner or later. Once I set foot in southern California, things began to go awry. The tenuous foundation upon which reality sits begins to tilt, logic and reason distort, perception melts like wax dripping down a burning taper. I remember riding in a chauffeured car one night past a raging wildfire on the side of a highway, the flames stretching for miles, while, behind them, a huge billboard, several hundred feet tall and made to look like a wagon wheel reaching upwards into infinity, advertised vacancies for a motel in Oxnard.

On another occasion, there was a stop in the middle of nowhere, desert land stretching flat and arid for miles around, save for a snack bar and gas station built to the specifications of a Dutch windmill. I would later find out, in fact, that the proof pages which I stuffed into my briefcase in my limousine were not for a novel by Sophie Marceau, but for a novel written by David Duchovny. Why he should be writing under the name of a French actress is but another indication that Los Angeles has pleasantly remained the same through all the many years that I have had the occasion to visit it. Not very many things will draw me back to it. Save one: a funeral. And this was for a hound.

The deceased belonged to Nicky and Tully, who live in a house on Mulholland Drive, high in the Hollywood hills, a street recently immortalized in a twitchy film by David Lynch. Nicky and Tully have lived there for years, despite the fact that one of the recurring problems with living in the area is the fact that the land on the hill keeps shifting, occasionally causing houses to tumble downwards onto the unsuspecting inhabitants below. On the outdoor terrace where they have their swimming pool, a crack runs from one side of the level cement surface, across to the edge of the pool, and then curves downward into it, where it stops, just above the water's edge, either intimidated by the water itself or scotched by some ingenious technician who had been brought in, at great expense, to impede its progress.

An outdoor wake was being held on Nicky and Tully's terrace when I arrived, the upper-class of Los Angeles society in attendance to drink Tully's liquor and to make appropriate gestures of remorse. Tully is a lawyer who helped me out of a sticky jam I had gotten myself into some years before, and I have been grateful ever since. He and Nicky had never had children (or, at least, none that I know of), and they are generous to those whom they consider to be their closest friends---many have tried to be, and few succeeded. I joined this elite club some twenty or so years back. I have also rarely, if ever, seen Nicky and Tully without sunglasses on. They own many pairs, in separate closets. Today was no exception.

"Would you like a drink?" Tully asked me when he first approached, wearing dark glasses, a Brioli suit, and hand-made Italian shoes.

"Water," I replied.

"What's up?" Tully asked.

I gave him a brief summation of events since I arrived, including the triptych at the restaurant with the T.V. actress.

"Blech!" Tully responded. "You know, she's famous for kissing an actress."

"And how are you and Nicky getting along?"

"Fabulously, as usual," Nicky replied, coming up behind Tully and laying one splendidly sculpted arm upon his right shoulder.

Both Nicky and he were wearing their hair, short, slicked back from the forehead. She had a short, black dress on, strapless, and high-heeled shoes on which she balanced flawlessly.

"Tully still strikes me vigorously, every night. With splendid avidity."

Since I failed to mention it, I will take a moment to do so, now: both Nicky and Tully are avid paddling enthusiasts. I daresay it has been one of things that has kept their marriage together longer than most anyone I know.

"S-and-M has gone out of fashion, though," Tully added, "since the 'war on terrorism' began."

"I still ask for it every night," Nicky chimed in. "I have to, anyway." "I miss Woofums," Tully said, referring to the recently-departed.

"How did it happen?" I asked. "Well, he was very old," Nicky said, "and he couldn't see a thing, lately. He was laying out here, in the sunshine, and he rolled over and fell into the pool. I suppose he forgot where he was. I was distraught, but by the time we got help, he was too far gone to bring back, so we let him go on to his just reward."

"He had been a good little trooper for seventeen years," Tully said, "especially when his health began to decline."

I should add that Nicky and Tully are both fervently committed towards the health and well-being of animals, and they pour thousands into various causes and organizations every year.

"End of an era," Nicky said. "Well, you could always adopt a new one," I said.

"I don't know," Nicky said. "There are certainly plenty out there to adopt, and you would hate to see them end up with some owner who would mistreat them and leave them tied-up out someplace with no decent food or water or shelter." She related to me a story of how someone, in the Oregon area, had subjected gross maltreatment upon a St. Bernard, which had been rescued and barely nursed back to health.

"Do you still carry a gun, Tully?" I looked, but could not see the tell-tale fault in the line of the suit. Tully patted the left side of his jacket, where he, inevitably, kept his revolver. "There are certain things you should never leave home without," Tully replied. "Speaking of which, Noell, have you met Aaron Alan Breakwater?" Nicky said. "He's Robert's son." Robert Michael Breakwater was the current president and owner of Halcyon Studios, the last privately-controlled film studio in Hollywood. Robert Michael had inherited both the studio and its control from his father, William Arthur, who inherited it, in turn, from his father, Thomas Aden, who had established it at a time when Hollywood was still mostly made up of orange groves.

The studio has never been out of the Breakwater family name. The film star Emma Eberley made her first series of successful films, there, as did, recently, the actress Spanish Fields. Aaron Alan Breakwater was tall, svelte, dark-haired like his father, with a more aquiline nose but yet with eyes whose gaze, like his father, could break an opponent in-two if they so wished. Aaron Alan was with a young female creature who was in a designer outfit that was barely on her form, and her eyes had the narcotized-deer look of Milla Jovovich. She was attempting to bring her martini glass to her lips for sips of libation, without much success.

"What I wanna do," Aaron Alan said, as the sun began dipping into the west and the outdoor lights quietly began to turn on, "is do an all-star picture about the survivors of the 'Titanic'. Not after they were picked-up---before then, while they were still in the water! No clue, nothing, in advance to tell people what it's about, just who's starring in it and some hint that it has to do with the 'Titanic'. Only AFTER people have bought their tickets and got sat-down in the theater would they find out that the whole thing is set IN THE BOATS! For TWO HOURS! They're watching this movie with the biggest stars in the world in it, man! And there's nothing to make the audience suspect what kind of a movie they're in for!"

"I should think it would be awfully inexpensive to make," I commented. "I think up stuff like this all the time, just to blow my father's mind at the breakfast table," Aaron Alan said. "You should see how he reacts!"

"I don't think you've seen the new Gerhard Richter," Nicky said, taking my shoulder and guiding me in the direction of the house. As we passed through the doorway, she said, in a low voice, to me, "Don't underestimate him. That kid's sharper than a tack. He'll surprise us all." In the living room, the new Richter turned out to be an abstract, not one of his photorealist studies. Nicky and Tully had one of those, too, hanging in one of the other rooms. There were many artists about the house: Jasper Johns, Hockney, a Renoir, a Picasso which had been given to Nicky by the artist himself when she was young.

The new Richter had flecks of brightly coloured paint thrown against a muddy grey background. "I don't know if I like it...." Nicky said, as we looked at the painting.

"What did you do during the war, Noell?"

"Which one?"

"The Second World War." I answered, as if by rote, because I had been asked this question so many times, and I could hear myself answering it by rote, like a robot, or George in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" when he recounts the story of his automobile accident.

"I couldn't get into the military, so I wrote and directed a stage show, 'The Adventure of the Three Buttons', which we put on for the public and for the troops. I played Sherlock Holmes, Katharine Summerall played Irene Adler, and Michael Redgrave was supposed to play Watson, but he got lucky, he got into the military, but the show was a raging success. Why do you ask?" Nicky paused, smiling to herself. "I always like it when you tell it."

I looked back at the painting, and for some reason I was reminded of Marlene Dietrich's musical saw. She performed on it during her U.S.O. shows, and she went everywhere, all over Europe, during the war, anywhere where there was an audience of servicemen who would respond wildly as she produced the instrument, sat down, placed it between her famous legs, and then proceeded to play it with a string instrument bow.

She passed through London, once---in fact, landed on the front doorstep of the townhouse where I was residing, with a retinue that was badly in need of some place to sleep for the night, there being no room at any of the more conventional inns. Dietrich would be up before I was the next morning, in the kitchen, making scrambled eggs for everybody. Shuffling in the direction of the lavatory, I noticed her kit and the famous musical saw, peeking out of where it had been packed. It was like receiving a glimpse of a secret "cadeau", or something in Ali Baba's cave, enticing yet exalted. Dietrich and I almost made a movie together, entitled "Bandersnatch", but at the last minute it was called off, but I was a recipient of several of her phone calls during the last, hermetic years she spent in Paris.

"I think we're the last of a dying breed," Nicky said while standing next to me. She was still staring at the painting, not really looking at it. I turned around, and could see Tully, outside, moving his head while Aaron Alan told him, "....But I definitely want to do 'The Trial', with Ben Berneche..." And then the girl who was with Aaron Alan fell into the swimming pool.

"Kids like Aaron Alan," Nicky continued, "they're going to obliterate us like blasts from a neutron gun. Tully and I have been living in this town for over thirty years, but we've just started talking about whether or not we should move."

"Nicky, you're sounding nostalgic." This didn't agree with her. "Just look at the painting," she said. Then she went to get herself another drink, and the girl fell into the swimming pool, again.

(Noell Claybourne currently works and resides in London.)