Was at a dinner party last night with some of the THANK YOU FOR SMOKING people — Christopher Buckley, who wrote the book on which the film is based, is so dapper and gracious and witty and funny that he has become one of my heroes (David Sacks, the original TYFS producer before the film sold to Fox Searchlight, compared him and his equally entertaining friend Sir Harry to a time when people of the ‘leisured classes’ had nothing to do except cultivate their abilities as great conversationalists: “That’s all they did!” David said, sitting in the front seat of the cab with an unlit cigarette between his fingers, “They sat around and were witty!”). Buckley turns out to be friends with Tina Brown, who was throwing said dinner party, so there were some heavy-duty tastemaker types seated at the little tables. (Our table was right beside one of the impressive bookcases, and my gaze kept roaming over the titles — the pleasure of being in a home where people not only read, they make their living, their reputations, dependent on it). At one point Tom Wolfe drifted through my line of vision, lean and ethereal in his white suit.
Talked to a guy who had co-produced FRESH PRINCE OF BEL-AIR with Quincy Jones. “The show was inspired by his life, you know,” the guy told me. As anyone who’s read his autobiography knows, Q grew up in tough circumstances — but has been happily ensconced in Bel Air for many many years, which is where his kids were born and became acquainted with reality, or as much as that word can apply in that environment. The guy — whose name is Andy — told me how one day Q’s young daughter called from summer camp and left a message on his machine: “Daddy, the water here sucks. Please Fed-Ex me some Evian.” Andy said, “We had to laugh. We thought, ‘There has to be something we can do with this kind of material.'”
A publicist at Fox Searchlight told me about two upcoming releases he’s personally excited about. I was delighted to hear that one of them — which I’m still not allowed to blog about, so in the interest of keeping myself privy to such information I shall be good and hold off — involves my socially-conscious producer friend, whom I call Randall* in this blog (and who has put a great deal of his Internet earnings into his own film company). Randall had told me about this particular project when it was much earlier in development, and so I was delighted to hear from a completely different source that said project is good. It’s based on a gripping nonfiction book which I had read (along with many, many other people) a few years ago. I was curious about how such a book could be adapted into a feature film: “They didn’t try to fit in all of it,” the publicist told me. “They took this one particular aspect and extrapolated it into a narrative.” Wow, what a great, fascinating project for the writers. I admit to twinges of writer-envy.
The other film he’s highly psyched about is LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE, which got a great deal of attention at Sundance and which also happens to be one of the two Sundance films I am eager to see (the other is a documentary on anorexia, but for the life of me I can’t remember the title and have no idea if it got picked up or not). SUNSHINE gets released in late July. (THANK YOU FOR SMOKING hits four major cities in March, then rolls out across the country).
I’m reading an excellent book by Sigrid Nunez called THE LAST OF HER KIND. At one point the protagonist, who grew up in poor and emotionally difficult circumstances, remarks on how “middle-class people always assume that anyone else they meet must be middle-class, too.” I remember my aunt telling me something very similar when I, fresh from my own small-town, middle-class background, which was never threatened or destabilized in any way even as people around us were losing their jobs, admitted that I had reached my then-age of 17 or so “never thinking that much or being very aware of class.” In fact, the only reason I was starting to think about ‘class’ at all: I was finally learning about my mother’s life before she became my mother, how she grew up poor (“tough poor” as my father, who came from rather humble circumstances himself, once put it) in a small mining town in northern Ontario.
My aunt said gently, “That’s pretty typical of middle-class kids. Of middle-class people in general.” She, also, had not grown up that way.
I was identified early in my life as a ‘brainer’. By the time I hit junior high I was streamlined into the university-prep classes (in Canada, ‘college’ and ‘university’ are two different things, although here in the US the words seem interchangeable) where, indeed, the other kids lived pretty much the same kind of life I did. The kids from the lower classes — from the townhouses along Hilliard Street (for years the word ‘townhouse’ would mean something very different to me than the usual east coast sense of the word) and the nearby reservations had no interest in us and vice-versa. And while I knew ‘rich kids’ existed, they seemed to do so on a planet of television, movies, magazines: somehow I didn’t believe they could be real.
I went to a prestigious Canadian university which was known for its high academic standards and as a place overrun with “the private school packs”. I knew rich kids roamed the campus — just like dinosaurs had once roamed the earth — but I somehow assumed they were living in some alternate Queen’s University universe that had nothing to do with my own. Until, that is, I began overhearing comments in my own dorm, made by people who seemed otherwise perfectly normal. Kids comparing pubs and bars in European cities (at that point, I had never been to Europe, and I didn’t know many other people who had — affluent people in my hometown went to Florida, Jamaica, the Barbadoes. My own family’s biggest vacation had been a two-week vacation in a rented cottage in a different part of Ontario, which had seemed like paradise to me; Lake Huron is that beautiful). One guy said sheepishly that he had “taken a long time to learn to drive” because his family was “chauffeured everywhere”. And it was then it began to sink in: rich kids were, in fact, all around me, even in the egalitarian-seeming world of a Canadian university dorm. It was months before I felt confident and comfortable enough to go into the kind of cafe where you could order a thing like a latte, or a cappucino (still exotic terms in the early nineties). I went to Second Cup instead, a chain coffee place I knew from my hometown.
But by the end of fourth year (Canadian-speak for ‘senior year’) I was bemused to discover that rich kids were making the same assumptions about me I had once made about them — we shared a common background — and anything I said was filtered through the light of privilege. When I told them I went to Lakefield High School, I was talking about the actual public high school I’d transferred to in grade nine, a laid-back and unpretentious place in a small village outside my hometown, populated mostly by country kids bussed in from surrounding counties. It took me an absurdly long time to realize that they always, automatically assumed I meant the other school in Lakefield, the small exclusive private one Prince Andrew attended when he was a boy, and which they all knew about. I became very quick to set them straight, and found myself thrust into a different kind of narrative, a working-class heroine kind of thing in which I had elevated and transformed myself. This wasn’t right either. But I preferred the latter perception to the former — by then I was learning how outsider status could be used to advantage. Also, the latter was much more romantic.
One of the most obnoxious things I ever heard anyone say: when Nicki Hilton put forth the importance of a good work ethic because “everybody has the same amount of hours in a day” no matter their wildly varying economic backgrounds.
This is not true. The cliches about money are true — it doesn’t buy you love, doesn’t buy you happiness. But it buys you the services of personal assistants, housecleaners, cooks, nannies and babysitters and baby nurses, personal trainers who come to your home so you don’t have to deal with traffic. The one thing money can buy you is time — even if there’s never enough of it.
*He chose the pseudonym himself. He was not completely sober at the time.