Notes From the Underbelly : Reflections on Life Among Hollywood's Desperate Characters

When the assignment first came to do an article with the working title "Just How Many Actors Are Out There Anyway?," I wondered if there was enough in the concept to write anything except:

"There are 5,842,663 actors in America. The End. Thank you."

But note the results of our report on Page 4.

I didn't realize at first how this theme was stirring the pool of images, faces and fleeting impressions that had been gathering in my subconscious ever since I'd arrived in Hollywood in 1964. I had just finished an active duty stint with the Marine Corps and couldn't bear the thought of trading one hostile environment for another by going home to New York.

Southern California--specifically Los Angeles--seemed a wonderful place to thaw a militarized soul. It seemed so open, so sensual, so brightened by a beneficent sun, an American Mediterranean shore without the blood-drenched history of factional murder.

Los Angeles was not, at first, Hollywood, even though a Marine Corps buddy and I teased at the myth by taking an apartment on the Sunset Strip. He soon skipped out on the rent, my first exposure to the strange Hollywood metamorphosis that seemed to empty people out, so that Nathanael West's "Day of the Locust" became to me more a documentary than a black comedy.

There were the aging bartenders and waitresses, show-biz hopefuls, who came home drunk from work and raged at each other until dawn. There was the softly beautiful young starlet from one of the Carolinas (or was it Georgia? And did it matter?) who at first resisted her role as a professional date for sleaze-bag agents and managers and then, when she couldn't get movie or commercial work, stopped resisting.

There was the friend of a friend who invited me to dinner at a restaurant one night and bolted out the door right after dessert, leaving me with a check that I couldn't pay. My younger brother took a room in a private house near my apartment. He was a bibliophile, a fine-nerved East Coast aesthete, and was thrilled that his elderly landlady had invited my girlfriend and me to dinner. When we walked in the door, she said, "Pleasure to meet you. Where's the food?"

My most pungent whiff of the Hollywood underbelly came one night when I took a long walk along the Strip with my neighbor, that cheery overweight girl--all of 24--who kept such strange hours and turned out to be a madam. I thought I'd been around, but when she merrily listed her living Havelock Ellis catalogue of personally observed kinks, I looked around and felt my spirits sink. It was Halloween night, and the vampires and ghouls and tatty Pinafore girls trotting through the streets seemed to be dancing straight out of the mouth of hell. I'd never seen anything like that before.

That was the fringe, of course, the human fall-out from the Hollywood Dream gone permanently sour. Soon I made friends with ambitious young artists with whom I exchanged invitations for wine and cheese, which is trendy now but all we could afford then. I'd visit their court apartments; they'd visit mine at the base of the Hollywood Hills, in which the elevator shaft resounded through the apartment like a gigantic rumbling intestine.

Like the young Broadway hopefuls in Stephen Sondheim's "Follies," it was an exuberant period in which "everything was possible and nothing made sense." We all wanted to believe in ourselves and each other, but already there was an underlying edge of the provisional, of something shifty.

What seemed different from the people I knew back East was the nature of the idealism; it wasn't social or cultural or political. It was circumscribed by the ego. Everyone, it seemed, was a bit too eagerly on the make, and the desperation was becoming more and more palpable.

That pale quiet girl who hung around the musicians and nobody thought much of later became a musician herself. I saw her one night playing in a joint on Ventura Boulevard. Her face had an odd fish-belly color to it. Three months later she was dead. Drugs.

As time passed, I moved closer to the center of the entertainment industry--as a professional observer. I've been to cast parties, opening night soirees, movie and stage sets. I've met and interviewed legit stars such as Paul Newman, John Wayne and George C. Scott, as well as writers, directors, producers and designers. I've even played basketball and touch football with industry types (in football, they all want to be quarterback, and few of them know how). And I've met a few execs.

The more mature and accomplished have long ago learned to develop a smart and often charming protective coloration (asked how he keeps from running dry, George C. Scott once replied, "You don't. You just dazzle 'em with footwork"). But virtually none is ever far from some deep, corrosive misgiving that comes from the knowledge that they live and work in a powerful milieu in which there's no conviction about success besides profits, celebrity has no meaning outside of itself, and that at any time it can all come to an end--for star as well as studio head.

What I've come to recognize over the years is that mythic Hollywood, our synonym for the entertainment industry, is systematized by two things: Money and the indestructible isotope of fear. You can measure the first in box-office receipts and all manners of merchandising.

You can't measure the second, but it's epidemic. There are many people who know how to make good movies, but no one knows how to make consistently successful movies. And as the multimillion dollar stakes rise, the risk factor and imagination integral to any creative enterprise is squeezed out by the legions of corporate accountants, lawyers and agents who now dictate (no pun intended) the industry's direction.

Hollywood has always run scared. But it does appear now that the relationship between talent and achievement has never been more tenuous. Nobody knows for sure what will succeed--that's why discussion of the work is pegged on numbers instead of content (" 'Fatal Attraction' is No. 5 on the list at $76 million," the TV critic tells us cheerfully). Everyone is therefore expendable.

That's why the actor's story bothered my sleep. I realized it wasn't just the actors who are abused by the system (I have less sympathy for those who're abused by their own self-deception), it was virtually everyone, writers and directors, agents, story editors, management types--even occasionally someone at the top.

In the best of all possible worlds, or one that creates the illusion of being the best of all possible worlds, it doesn't seem to me that a whole culture can rest on such an underlying fathomless panic that diminishes and dehumanizes almost everyone. I still can't look at the industry in any analytical or even speculative way without recalling my first impressions of Hollywood, when I first realized I was staring into an abyss.

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