YEARS BACK, when Harry had the Two Big Pictures and was considered (there was no other way to put this) a hot young Hollywood screenwriterâ€“the interviewer at a Los Angeles radio station had asked him how and when he got his ideas. It was a nice soft pitch and Harry got some good wood on it. He said he read five newspapers in the morning, which was not only accurate but also guaranteed a “wow” or some other awed response. Harry said he also read books – a little dig here at his Hollywood colleagues, which probably didn’t register. And he built on his personal experiences.
But I only build on them,” he said, throwing in a little charming self-deprecation, “since my life isn’t all that fascinating.”
Harry then said that his best ideas – he used this as his capper – were the ones that came to him out of nowhere.
“They just land on my shoulder, like a butterfly.”
No such idea had landed on Harry’s shoulder for quite some time. He was waiting for one to land – or “alight” – he may have said “alight” – in a hotel in Miami when the call some through, offering him a small part in a movie (which he would alter refer to as a “feature film”).
The caller on an old – or make that ex-girlfriend – named Vera Landers. Harry had not heard from her in decades. Having felt rejected by New York (and possibly by Harry) Vera, who’d been the assistant editor of a magazine for the dry-cleaning trade, had moved to Los Angeles and reinvented herself as a screenwriter. Rising quickly through the ranks of what not only Charlton Heston, but Harry himself had once called “the industry,” she had recently joined Jane Campion, Penny Marshall, Nora Ephron and a handful of others as a member of that elite group of women who got tow rite and direct their own movies.
“Why me?” asked Harry, after telling Vera how delighted he was to hear from her. He saw no need to point out that there were plenty of SAG members around who could use the work. “I’m no actor.”
“You don’t have to be,” said Vera. “You just have to be yourself. You play the owner of a shop that specializes in rare books.”
Setting aside the question of whether he wanted to do any acting at all, Harry saw immediately that he would be able to handle a role of that type. And at least she had not asked him to be a burned-out screenwriter, which he sort of was. But it had never even crossed his mind to be an actor. (Although, come to think of it, Robert Duvall – or someone who looked like Robert Duvall – an attractively chiseled bald guy – had once seen Harry climb out of the pool at the Beverly Hills Hotel and told him his face was meant for the Big Screen. Of course, that was twenty years back. And it may have been a gay thing.)
“Let me talk to my `people’,” said Harry, a little levity here, since it had been some time since he had any people. He had a feeling that Vera knew that.
“Terrific,” said Vera, using that all-purpose Hollywood description for things terrific or not. “But don’t take forever. And I’ll fax you the sides.”
“What was that all about?” asked Harry’s fifteen-year-old daughter, who was spending part of her school break with him. She had been waiting to use the phone so she could tell people she had just gotten back from a school trip to Barcelona. Harry had taught Megan that the most important thing about going to places like Barcelona is that you get to tell people that you just got back from them. And she had learned her lessons well.
“Somebody offered me a part in a movie.”
“Why?” she asked, somehow managing to squeeze two syllables out of one word, in the manner of teen actresses in the sitcoms that Harry denied watching.
Harry was disappointed by the question. Wasn’t a daughter supposed to think her father could do anything? Every time Harry thought he had the hang of having a daughter, he was back at square one.
“They seem to think I’d be good at it.”
Megan picked up the phone, then checked her hair in the mirror, as if she wanted to look good for the call she was about to make.
“How big a part is it?”
“I don’t know,” said Harry. “They’re faxing me the sides.”
“Sides?” she said. “You mean that’s more than one.”
“It can be misleading. It might be just one side – and they send you the surrounding sides – so that you know what the movie is about.”
“I’ll bet it’s big,” said Megan after consideration. “And you’ve got to do it. If my friends found out you’d been offered a part in a movie and turned it down, they’d never forgive me.”
“Then I guess that settles it,” said Harry, letting the slight disjunction in logic go by.
“It’s real little,” said Megan, after a glance at the sides. She’d been reading The Mill On The Floss, a school assignment, and at the same time, keeping one eye on the fax machine. “You have three lines and one of them is `hi’.”
Before he’d even looked at the pages, Harry found himself defending the size of the role.
“There are no small parts,’ he said, quoting someone he’d heard on the Bravo channel, “only small actors.”
He could tell Megan didn’t really buy that particular wisdom, but she had the good grace to be silent.
Harry looked at the pages and saw that “Hi” was indeed one of his lines; another was “Need some help?” But he was relieved to see that his third line had to do with Pushkin and seemed to be central to the plot. Harry had never actually read Pushkin, but he knew a lot about Pushkin. He felt he could really sink his teeth into the Pushkin line.
“Maybe when they see you, they’ll think of another part you can do,” said Megan.
Harry told her it didn’t work that way.
“Besides,” he said, testing her, “I’m not sure it’s worth it to fly all the way back to Manhattan just to be an actor.”
“Dadâ€¦” said Megan, going for the bait. “How can you say that? I looked at it again, and it’s a great part. I’ll even rehearse with you.
“And I think I’ll put some blonde streaks in for the premiere.”
Before he got carried away and actually committed to the role, Harry thought he’d better run the proposal past Julie. She had given up her old job in carpentry and was now counseling troubled Hispanics in Manhattan. So she was unable to be in Miami with him. But she knew that Harry was going through a “rough patch” (her phrase, not Harry’s). It had been a while since he had gotten a call from anybody to do anything.
“Your name,” a Hollywood agent had told him, “no longer comes up on the radar screen.””
Harry had begun, with less than amusement, to look at want ads for Security Guards. And since she loved Harry and always wanted the best for him, Julie had encouraged him to forget about the money and go to Miami to “refocus” or “regroup” or whatever he said he needed to do down there. (“Ramp up” was another one, he may have told her he needed to “ramp up.”) And of course she wanted to spend some time with their daughter.
Years back, when Harry had been having what he thought of as a casual, lightly-tethered affair with Vera Landers, he had met Julie behind a police barricade at a Gay and lesbian parade in the West Village. And that was the end of that for Harry and other women – except for flirting, which he would never give up. Vera, it later dawned on him, had not been as casual as he thought about their affair – and had gone off to Hollywood at that point, possibly in a huff.
“I think you should do the part,” said Julie, “but remember, she is after you.”
“That’s ridiculous,” said Harry, who, after consideration, decided it wasn’t that ridiculous. “Didn’t I read somewhere that she had a kid with a guitar player?”
“I don’t care how many kids she’s had. She wants your bones. So watch yourself, big guy. And I love you.”
“I love you, too.”
Julie had taught him to say “I love you” at the end of all conversations, whether he felt like it or not. On automatic now, he had once said “I love you” to his accountant.
Harry was unable to reach Vera by phone, but he did get through to an assistant in Manhattan who said she was delighted – on Vera’s behalf – that he had agreed to be in the movie. After taking Harry’s measurement for Wardrobe, she gave him instructions on how to get to the set on the upper West Side. Since no mention was made of airline tickets or hotel accommodations, Harry concluded that he had been put in the category of people who were Friends of the Production and were just participating as a lark. And they were above such considerations as expenses and getting paid. Harry did not bring up any of this since he did not want to have to tell his daughter that he had blown the deal. He was still upset with himself for agreeing to send Megan away to boarding school. To compensate for that cold decision, he had virtually dedicated his life to supplying her with treats and making sure she had a trouble-free existence.
Harry arranged for an elderly Russian woman who was a year-round resident of the hotel to look in on Megan while he was away. His daughter had mentioned that a vanload of Lacrosse players from her school was going to be passing through Miami. He wanted to make sure she didn’t hop on the van.
While he was packing, it occurred to Harry – and it bothered him – that he did not have time to lose enough weight to make a significant difference in his appearance. He did what he could by having Special K and skimmed milk for breakfast, drinking a lot of water, and eating only half the portion of stuffed veal that was served on the flight. It troubled him as well that there would be no time to do anything about his hair, which had whitened up in the Miami sun. He had a feeling that if he called the Manhattan salon and said, “I have a little part in a movie,” Dennis, though far from happy about it, would squeeze him in for a cut n’ color on an emergency basis. But there wasn’t enough time. And even if there had been, it would look as if he had come directly from the salon to the set. Harry’s hair looked best when he was three days into a rinse. So he would just have to show up as a white-haired butterball.
Harry made his way through a small army of uniformly scruffy young people who were shouting into walkie-talkies. He gave his name to a woman in a tailored suit who appeared to be in authority. Barely looking up from her clipboard, she directed him to a holding area marked by a sign that said “Extras.”
“Forgive me,” said Harry, with the quiet confidence of a poker player holding a winning hand, “but I have a speaking role.”
After checking a cast roster, the woman’s attitude softened. She led him to a curbside trailer with a placard affixed to it marked “Daniel,” the name of the character Harry was scheduled to play in the movie. Harry thanked the woman and made a mental note to thank Vera as well for the courtesy. He stepped inside the trailer and saw that this costume was neatly arranged on a bunk bed; the suit was not one Harry would have picked out for himself, but he tried it on all the same. It fit nicely, causing him to rethink his feelings about earth tones. The shoes, however, presented a problem. It was not just the tassels. Though Harry did not care much for tassels, he could understand that the character he played – who lived in a small town – might very well love them. But Harry had always been a tough fit when it came to shoes – he had a wide foot – and the tassels shoes were particularly uncomfortable. He might have soldiered on with them, but he had a feeling that any discomfort he felt would creep into his performance. And no one would attribute it to the shoes. They would just conclude that he was a lousy actor. So he decided to wear his own shoes – which were as comfortable as bedroom slippers – and carry the tasseled one to the set, just in case the cinematographer felt that Harry’s shoes threw off the look of the picture.
Once Harry was fully costumed, the woman with the clipboard, who had been waiting in the street, led him off to a much larger trailer for hair and makeup. After briefly examining Harry’s hair, the stylist decided that a snip here and there was all that was required; he made a big fuss over Harry’s hair texture, calling over an assistant to share in his admiration for it.
Soon afterwards, as Harry was having his makeup applied, a pretty young actress took a set beside him. Chin in hand, she tucked her legs beneath her, as if she were about to listen to a lecture by her favorite professor. He recognized her as a star of Indie films. She said she had seen and admired one of Harry’s Two Big Pictures on cable and wondered of he would have a drink with her sometime to discuss film.
“Absolutely,” said Harry, who felt he could get such a meeting, past Julie, considering its underlying serious nature.
The clipboard lady, who had become some kind of personal assistant, led Harry to the set itself – a huge loft that had been gotten up to look like a New England bookstore. Though Harry had the Tow Big pictures and divided credits on a few adaptations, he had, surprisingly, never made an actual visit to a movie set. But he was on one now, in costume and carrying the tasseled shoes. Vera looked up from a trio of assistants and Harry thought – or imagined – he saw his and Vera’s whole affair register on her face, like a split-second movie – straight through from his moth-eaten opening line (“You don’t happen to be a model â€¦?) to her face-saving farewell salvo (“Just remember, Buddy, I’m the one who dumped you“). She didn’t seem to have aged much – she still had the legs and the great hair – maybe a little hardness around the eyes and a slight stoop to her shoulders. She came toward him with a confident stride, extending a businesslike hand. Then, as if to say “the hell with it,” she gave him a big hug and offered both her cheeks to be kissed. She glanced at Harry’s shoes – and the tasseled ones he was carrying – and before he could explain she seemed to make a quick directional decision and told him not to worry about a thing.
“You’re going to be great,” she said, with just the faintest tinge of a British accent. “And don’t worry about the lines â€¦ so long as you don’t drop any factual information.”
“They’re great lines,” said Harry, one writer to another. “Why would I want to change them.”
Vera then introduced Harry to the male star. Though the actor had been described by the hair and makeup people as a wonderful human being, he did not come across as being all that wonderful to Harry.
“You do this often?” he asked Harry, after a perfunctory handshake and the hint of a sneer. Harry had only been sneered at once or twice in his life and he remembered each occasion.
“Only when I’m asked,” said Harry, wondering what he had done to offend the man.
He then recalled that early in his career, the actor had been rejected for a part in one of Harry’s Two Big pictures. He had evidently held it against Harry, who – apart from putting in a good word for a girlfriend – had nothing to do with the casting. Harry noted with some surprise that the star seemed overweight and, frankly, quite slovenly, the type of fellow who bowls once a week for exercise. Considering the star’s attitude toward him, Harry was somewhat gratified by this. Yet moments later, when it was time for the star to do a scene – and he had slipped into a smoking jacket and had his makeup freshened – he was transformed into the trim and handsome individual the movie-going public admired. Harry was aware of cinema magic, but this was ridiculous.
Harry was scheduled to play opposite the female star who was generally cast as a pert and spunky – but not particularly sexy – type who was always challenging authority. As if to demonstrate a dimension of herself that had never been tapped, she was off in a corner of the set, doing hot Latino dance routines. Harry felt they came off as being stubbornly pert and spunky. Nonetheless, when Vera introduced Harry to the female star, he went into automatic flirt mode.
“My God,” he said, “I’m standing here with America’s sweetheart.”
“I’ve heard about you,” she said, acknowledging the flirt with a wagging finger.
When it was time for their scene, Vera called for quiet on the set. The response was immediate – a hushed and almost reverential silence. Harry wondered what might have happened if years back he had met this Vera, who commanded the respect and admiration of not only a huge cast and crew but of The Industry itself – instead of the disorganized teenager he had virtually found on 23rd Street on her way to a class at the Fashion Institute. Of course, this Vera might not have been terribly interested in Harry.
Vera showed Harry his “mark,” assuring him once again that he was going to be fabulous. After sizing up the shot, she told Harry to go straight to his Pushkin line. Then she called for action. Harry had expected to begin with “Hi” and “Need any help?” The change in sequence threw him off stride. In addition, what suddenly seemed like the enormity of the moment began to get to him as well. There was so much at stake – a part in a major movie, the huge cast and crew looking on … all those careers… the millions being spent, even though he wasn’t getting any… Though he had rehearsed the line on the plane, perhaps a bit too flamboyantly (the flight attendant had asked Harry if he was ill) his mind went blank. He was unable to bring forth a single word. Vera called for the cameras to stop rolling. She told Harry not to he upset.
“It happens all the time,” she said.
After allowing Harry a moment to compose himself, she signaled for the action to begin again. On his second go-round, Harry got the words out.
“May I interest you in Pushkin?” he heard himself ask the female star. And then, taking a chance, he added the phrase, “Russia’s greatest poet.” Though he was not entirely pleased with his delivery, he saw Vera smile. With a little roll of her hand, she encouraged him to continue. Harry relaxed a bit then. Dipping into his knowledge of nineteenth-century Russia – and with the female star looking on, a tight smile on her face – Harry began to comment on the Tsar, the Winter Palace, the gorgeous imperial uniforms and Pushkin’s financial problems. Gathering confidence, the bit firmly between his teeth, Harry gave a colorful account of Pushkin’s fatal duel with his wife’s paramour, raising the possibility that the poet’s rival, D’Anthes, might have cheated by wearing a steel vest. He described in detail Pushkin’s final moments and Nicholas II’s graciousness in not only settling the poet’s debts, but also establishing a trust fund for his family.
“Can you imagine an American President doing that for a poet?” was his rhetorical question to the stupefied actress.
“No, I can’t,” she ad-libbed flatly.
Then, as Harry paused, struggling to remember the names of
Pushkin’s survivors and the attending physician at the fatal duel, Vera signaled for the cameras to stop. She led the cast and crew in a round of applause.
“Was that a take or was that a take?” said Vera.
That led to a second round, that was even more enthusiastic.
Pulling Vera aside, Harry said: “I hope I didn’t do too much.”
“Oh, no,” said Vera, “You did just enough.”
Harry sailed through his brief remaining scene. With the Pushkin monologue in the bank, he saw no need to embellish his “Hi” and “Need some help?” dialogue. Feeling he was a genuine member of the cast now he was confident enough to ask the still photographer if she would mind taking a picture of him with the two lead actors. They agreed, the male star somewhat begrudgingly. But – always the star – he flashed a charming last-minute smile when the camera was actually pointed at him. That gave Harry a great souvenir for his daughter – and for his office wall, the main purpose of which was to impress repairmen. Not wishing to offend Vera, he asked for a picture to be taken with her as well, though he had a feeling it would not make it to the wall. With his arm draped across the director’s shoulder, he felt unaccountably protective of her, which of course was absurd. Vera was a powerful force in the industry. Harry was hanging on by his thumbs. It crossed his mind that she might throw him a screenwriting bone. When he saw that no such offer would be forthcoming, he graciously thanked Vera for thinking of him as an actor and gave her a final hug. Then he waved an overhead goodbye to the cast and crew – like Nixon – and left the set.
Back in the trailer, Harry undressed, got into his own clothes, folded his costume neatly and placed it back on the bunk bed. He considered taking the tie – as another souvenir – but decided it would be tacky of him, even though he was convinced that people like Brad Pitt and Val Kilmer took home entire wardrobes and the studio didn’t dare complain, for fear of alienating them on future projects.
And then Harry was back on the street… in the rain, no less no hairdresser, no makeup artist, no stand-in (he’d actually had an extra with his measurements and a similar costume fill in for him during one of the breaks – presumably to save Harry’s energy) just another normal person at the end of the day. He felt sad about all this and realized he was experiencing a bittersweet moment. Even though Harry was pissed off at The Industry for turning its back on him, he had to concede that movies led the way when it came to bittersweet moments. Maybe the theatre too a little bit, but mostly the movies. When all else failed, you could always have some terrific actress (and now Harry was saying terrific) biting her lip (did Clinton get that from the movies?) or some actor suddenly realizing he’d made a romantic mistake and running through the rain so he could get back to the terrific actress before she was about to get on a plane and marry an accountant – and kiss her in the rain and everyone would forget they’d spent two hours being exposed to a stunted and moronic sensibility.
“How come they let you go on and on like that?” asked Megan, who had been examining her tan in the mirror.
“It wasn’t my idea,” said Harry, who had flown back to Miami and was in high spirits once again, the bittersweet moment just a memory. “1 got my teeth into one of the lines, and the director told me to keep going.”
“So you have a huge part now,” said Megan.
“I wouldn’t call it that. ‘Substantial’ is more like it.”
“This means that we’re definitely going to the premiere.”
“Not necessarily,” said Harry, who did not want to set up his daughter for a disappointment, although he himself had wondered if an invitation was part of his deal, such as it was. “The premiere is generally a benefit for rich people to raise money for a disease. But we’ll definitely see the movie before the general public does.”
“I hope so,” said Megan, concentrating on the mirror. “And I don’t understand why my legs get tan and my face is still white.”
Harry awoke in the middle of the night with a horrible thought. He’d been sleeping lightly, playing back – and savoring – his Pushkin scene when it suddenly occurred to him that none of the cameras had been focused on him. Not that there weren’t several in evidence. But they all seemed to be positioned behind Harry and trained on the female star – so that all of the shooting was over… and past.. . his shoulder. Harry calculated that during his Pushkin monologue, an audience would only be able to make out a sliver of his profile, if that. Harry was shaken and could not get back to sleep. He kept kicking himself for not being aware of the camera; if he had, he would have been able to crane his head around and get more of himself in. It took a great deal of self-discipline for him to prepare Megan’s breakfast in the morning and not let on that something awful had happened. But later in the Lay, it occurred to Harry that perhaps there had been a camera that he had missed, a small discreetly placed one that was assigned to supporting players. And it had been trained on Harry. Or perhaps the main camera, through some technological advance – had the capability of curling around to pick up not only the female star’s performance but Harry’s as well. Only when Harry had considered these possibilities was he able to relax and to enjoy the rest of his stay in Miami.
Several months after returning to New York, Harry received an invitation for two to a screening of the movie for supporting players, hair and makeup people, cameramen, technical crew and various family members. Julie had graciously bowed out – the pressure of all her counseling. Megan had gotten a special pass from school so she could come down from Connecticut to attend the event along with Harry.
“What’s a grip?” Megan wanted to know as they took the subway uptown to the screening.
“I’m not exactly sure,” said Harry. “But grips, gaffers, they’re behind-the-scenes people who work in the trenches and really make the movie happen.”
“How come we have to go to the screening with them?” she asked
“It’s not exactly a disgrace,” said Harry, trying to be patient. ‘And you keep forgetting. I have a nice little part… but it’s not as if I took over the whole production.”
The movie, which fell under the heading of suspense/ adventure, held Harry’s attention for the first hour or so. But he could not tell if this was because it was good – or because he was in it. The story was multi-layered and the locales far-ranging. As he waited for his scenes to come up, Harry wondered how and where Vera, the kid he had virtually found on the street, had learned so much. She had never seemed the type to pore over Kurosawa films frame by frame. And yet here she was, entrusted with the fate of a big budget multi-tiered motion picture. As his admiration for her grew, Harry wondered – generally – what she would be like now as a lover. As he became older, his thoughts along that line became less specific. And then, out of loyalty to Julie, and a resistance to all the built-in complications, he put the whole business out of his mind.
“Are you enjoying it?” he asked Megan.
“Of course,” said his daughter, who enjoyed most movies and was not discriminatory as to their content so long as they were made in the Nineties. “And quiet. Everyone can hear you.”
Harry settled back in his seat, resigned to his fate, which was to spend a major part of what remained of his life trying to impress his fifteen-year-old daughter.
His first scene seemed to come out of nowhere. (Did they still call that a smash cut?) The action had been in a Brussels train station. Suddenly, there was Harry in a New England book store, greeting the leading lady. Much as he suspected, if not feared, there was very little of him to be seen, although he recognized his voice, which he’d been told, on occasion, was distinctive. Harry might have been disturbed by his fleeting appearance on the screen if he hadn’t been so fascinated by the angle at which the camera had caught him. Harry was not shy about mirrors. Julie teased him about this – saying he was unable to pass one without a quick look – but this was an ambushing and extra-dimensional look at himself that he had never seen before – and that he imagined most people never get to see of themselves. The camera, predictably, was focused on the leading lady who was far more stunning than she had seemed to be in person; obviously the camera not only favored the actress, but was also head over heels in love with her. Harry – his character, that is – said “Hi” and asked if she needed any help and she said “Not just now.” Then she strolled over to the Poetry Section, the camera lovingly following her while Harry disappeared from the frame.
“Did you see me?” Harry asked his daughter, lowering his voice this time.
“Sort of,” said Megan. “But can I please watch the movie?”
With his Pushkin scene coming up shortly, Harry was able to damp down any general annoyance he felt and to settle back and enjoy whatever turned up on the screen. However, no sooner had the leading lady reached the Poetry Section than the action switched once again, this time to a furtive drug transfer on a dock in Cap Ferrat. And there was no Pushkin scene. Harry felt that a pail of ice water had been dumped on his neck, and at the same time – the contradiction notwithstanding – he would have sworn that smoke was coming out of his ears. To steady himself, he gripped both armrests, which resulted in an impatient look from Megan. Fainting was a possibility, canceled out only by Harry’s fear of causing further embarrassment to his daughter. This is all ego, he told himself, stating the obvious. And what does it really mean in terms of a lifetime? In terms of the cosmos, for that matter? He had close friends who were writers, and had major credits on movies, much more important than Harry’s. They had died recently and already been forgotten. Did anyone care if one of them had a role in a movie (which none of them had ever gotten, incidentally) – and a scene of theirs had been eliminated?
Gathering some stability, if not confidence, Harry reminded himself that the style of the film was to jump around in time. Maybe his Pushkin monologue had been folded into the climax where it might make some kind of ironic statement and have more impact. But when the picture ended with a series of brilliantly photographed explosions, Harry had to face the fact that his Pushkin scene had been eliminated. As he and Megan left their seats and crossed the lobby in silence, he felt that every eye was on him. His arthritic leg, which he’d always looked upon as an amusing inconvenience, ached so profoundly that he had to stop and sit for a minute opposite the refreshment stand.
For his ego, Harry passed up the subway and hailed a cab to take them home; and for Megan’s sake, he kept what could only be called his humiliation in check. But as they approached the West Village, he could contain himself no longer.
“So what did you think?” he asked, bracing himself for her response.
“I thought you were great,” she said. “And can we go to more screenings? I really enjoyed sitting with the grips.”
Harry had been concerned about sending his daughter to school with all the spoiled and wealthy Connecticut Muffys and Buffys. Now he saw that in the crunch she was going to be all right. And that these were different times – and that maybe he had underestimated the Muffys and Buffys as well.
In the days that followed, Harry wondered if Vera had deliberately set out to punish him for the humiliation she’d felt when he had met and fallen in love with Julie – and begun to withdraw from Vera. (He hadn’t done it suddenly – he had graciously taken both women to a New Year’s Eve party.) But it was Julie who was surprisingly generous when Harry raised that possibility.
“Give her a break, Harry,” she said. “She’s got a lot more on her mind than embarrassing you. I’m sure you were good, but maybe the scene just didn’t work in the movie.”
And Harry realized that this was probably the case. The Pushkin scene, when he thought about it, was totally irrelevant. At one time, there had been a code named “Pushkin” but that had been dropped from the plot. So to let Harry do at least a ten-minute monologue on Pushkin – and to include it in the movie – just because he was good – would have been ridiculous. He even thought of calling Vera and telling her he understood why she had to make what was no doubt a painful decision – in case she thought he harbored some ill feeling. But whenever he tried to reach someone he knew in Hollywood, they were always in post-production (“So and So is in ‘post”) and could not come to the phone, which made him feel even more sharply that he was left out of the party. So he did not make the call.
Harry’s hurt feelings, like an old tennis injury, slowly began to disappear. The picture went into general release and Harry received a cassette from Vera’s office. He’d been so upset at the screening that he had not even stayed for the credits. But he saw now that even though his part had been cut to a line – a line and a half to be generous – he was listed as “Daniel” when the credits rolled. Soon afterward, a golf bag arrived by Fed Ex, with the title of the film embroidered on the cloth. Even though Harry hated golf, he appreciated the touch. And he was delighted when a check for $500 came along in the mail with a note from the studio accountant saying he could keep it all – since the law permitted an individual to make one picture without joining and paying dues to the Screen Actor’s Guild. And though the check did not quite cover Harry’s airline tickets and traveling expenses, he appreciated the courtesy. And didn’t actors get residuals? Once the movie turned up on television, other five hundreds might be coming along as well.
And then Harry started to get the calls. The first came from Julie’s sister, Patsy, who had seen the film in a little theatre, just down the road from her Rape Crisis Intervention Center in the deep South. She thought Harry was excellent. And then Lenny, his old college roommate, called from Nebraska. A sports announcer now in Omaha, Lenny’s great disappointment in life was that he had never cracked the networks.
“At first I heard the voice,” he said, in the dramatic announcing style that had failed to impress CBS, “and then, to my great surprise, there was my old buddy on the big screen. I’ve been telling everybody for years that you were going to make it, and I was right. I’m proud of you, Harry, and I’m sure that all of Omaha feels the same way I do.”
Half a dozen more calls followed, including one from Megan who said she had taken a group of girls from her dorm to see the movie. Not only had they enjoyed it, but they loved Harry’s acting as well. And then Harry received what he considered the ultimate compliment. He was eating alone one night in an Italian restaurant on Thompson street – which was not unusual. Julie was so wasted during the week from her counseling that she pretty much collapsed when she got home on weekdays. It was all she could do to watch an episode of Will And Grace. Harry was about to dig into his main course when an attractive man he recognized as having appeared in several episodes of the The Sopranos approached his table and said he’d seen Harry in the movie.
“I thought you did an excellent job.”
“But I went by in a flash,” said Harry.
“Never mind,” said the fellow, his voice taking on an ominous tone that Harry recognized from the hit series. “What I liked is that you didn’t try to do too much. You kept it neat. You were very professional.”
Harry could not have been more pleased. Along with so many Americans, Harry had been captivated by the television phenomenon. Julie had even worked the advisory “Don’t call during the Sopranos” into her answering machine message which delighted many of their friends. The actor who stopped at Harry’s table was not a regular – he’d had bit parts in two or three episodes – but to receive a compliment from anyone who had anything to do with the series was high praise indeed. It occurred to Harry that maybe he had been on screen a little longer than he realized – and that more of his face was recognizable than he had previously thought. He’d been so upset that he had probably never sat back and taken in the full impact of what he now thought of as his performance.
And so what began as a disaster for Harry turned out to have a surprisingly bright side. This was not an unusual development in his life. One of Harry’s casual interests was military history. A favorite episode came about in the Franco-Prussian War, when all seemed lost for the Gallic nation; and then, all of a sudden, and out of nowhere, Ricciotti Garibaldi, the foreign recruit, rose up in the Cote D’Or; with his ragtag army of francs-tireurs, he began to cut through the German lines and to show that France still had teeth. France lost the war, and for that matter, Harry might lose his war as well. But that was beside the point. Whenever Harry was down on his luck there always seemed to be a Garibaldi in his life. Acting was his new Garibaldi.
Not that he took it seriously. He had never even taken screenwriting seriously and he had done it most of his life. But just for fun, Harry began to calculate the kinds of roles he could play. Not the kind where he’d actually have to act. He wasn’t about to sign up for lessons at The Actors’ Studio. But the kind where he could just more or less show up and be himself. He could do writers, of course, and people in related professions, such as William Morris agents. He couldn’t do Mexican bandits, but he could certainly do judges. He felt confident – with his hair – that he could play the hell out of judges. So if he could get a judge part here and there and maybe a role as a teacher – he had actually taught screenwriting at a community college for a couple of weeks up in Vancouver – if he could land a few judge and teacher parts here and there and pick up some more of those five hundreds and string it all together he’d have a nice little income to go with his pension. Throw in Julie’s counseling money and maybe they could stick it out after all in financially strangulating Manhattan and not have to move to Flushing.
One thing he would not do, however, is audition. He’d move to Flushing – and the hell with what everybody thought – before he’d do that. That’s all he would need is to be standing around with a bunch of old guys, skilled old guys with real acting track records, guys who did Falstaff with the Lunts for Christ’ sakes, waiting around to try out for a judge part or a doorman. And that’s probably what they’d want him to audition for, too, a doorman role, one who was about to retire with a heart condition and all the tenants come by to tell him how much they’re going to miss him.
Let’s say a Judge part did come up – or the hell with it, let’s say it was a doorman role after all, just for argument’s sake …. He might read – just go down there and read a few lines – so that they could get a feel for his capabilities and what he would be like in the role – but only – and he was firm about this – only if he knew the director – or at least someone in the production. It wasn’t that he needed the fix to be put in. It wasn’t that at all. He just wanted to know that he wasn’t wasting his time, that he didn’t go all the way down there for nothing… that he had a pretty damned good shot at getting the part. Otherwise, if it couldn’t be set up that way, if they wouldn’t allow him to just read informally, with no commitment on anyone’s part, theirs, or Harry’s for that matter, if they couldn’t do that much for him, then forget it…. They could keep the fucking part and get somebody else to do it.
Some poor bastard who really needed the work.
(“The Thesbian” first appeared in Bruce Jay Friedman’s most recent book, Three Balconies: Stories and a Novella, published by Biblioasis, 2008.)