My sister, who moved down from Canada several years after I did, lives in LA and teaches little kids in the kind of school that practices “lockdown drills” in case they get caught in the middle of a gang war. They’ve been forced to be especially vigilant lately, since the school falls smack in the middle of a zone in dispute — streets that don’t really belong to one gang or the other, although both want them. Sometimes gangs take time out, arrange for peace — like the Crips and Bloods did in the early/mid nineties — although you wonder how long that can last.
E and I went to a dinner held at one of those oh-my-god mansions (just in terms of sheer size alone) in a part of the west side I didn’t even know existed*. Suffice to say, lockdown drills do not happen here. Between the gated community, the guy checking the list at the guardhouse, as well as the house’s usual security measures, the place is pretty locked down already.
The dinner was “in honor” of a dude connected with the Smithsonian**. We were the youngest people there by at least fifteen, twenty years, and you could see a few of the others trying to figure out what to make of us. It’s easy enough to slot me into the ‘failed actress hooks big fish’ brand of LA narrative, which strangers do all the time***, which can make it quite fun to debunk, but E himself presents more of an enigma. In Silicon Valley, his youthful appearance is par for the course; in old-guard LA, not so much, and the (still relatively youthful) dot.com world he comes from is not overly familiar to people who rose up through more traditional professions. We don’t often go to things like this, but as a writer and voyeur I rather like them: it’s a glimpse into an extraordinarily different world from both the one I grew up in and the one I find myself living in now.
Some good stories at my table. The man to my right was the American ambassador to the EU for many years. He required six bodyguards who went with him everywhere, which he found a pain: had to be on good behavior all the time, he said, could never “cut loose” in a bar or see a movie he didn’t want everybody else to know he was seeing****. We talked about Iraq, North Korea — “they will stand down for the right price, which is the same thing we would have done with Hussein if Hussein had allowed it” — dictators who fall under the happy influence of Western-educated sons and wives, dictators who strip and starve their countries in order to fund their own decadent lifestyles as well as those of their children who inevitably live abroad (and party like rock stars, like Kim Jong-il son), Colin Powell’s various frustrations, etc. He remarked on how amazingly civil diplomats are with each other; how you can be sitting across the table from someone you know is violently opposed to everything you stand for (and vice versa), someone you know is lying through his teeth and plotting your destruction, etc., while smiling and making chit-chat and asking please pass the salt.
For some reason the conversation turned to California wineries, which brought up “the wine movie”, the title of which neither of us could remember. One of the entertainment industry’s all-powerful Michaels was sitting across from us, so we asked him about it. Michael couldn’t remember the title either — E was the one who came out with it, ironic since he didn’t even like the movie that much — but the subject triggered Michael into a series of anecdotes about John Belushi. Towards the end of his career — and his life — Belushi wanted to make a movie about wine. It was called ‘Noble Rot’. The screenplay was terrible. The studio was already committed to it, Michael said, but desperate to get out of it, and Michael had been trying for several days to sway Belushi. Belushi would not be moved. They ate dinner together and Belushi lined up eight cheeseburgers along the counter and ate them all. (Which prompted the remark: “You sure he didn’t OD on cheeseburgers?”). Before Michael left him that night, they exchanged final words in his hotel room at the Chateau Marmont and Michael told him his phone number. Belushi took a pen and scrawled Michael’s number directly on the wall.
Michael went home, convinced he was making progress about Noble Rot and that Belushi would agree to make a project that might actually help his career (it had been five years since Animal Farm). Next day he got a phone call. It was Belushi’s agent. “He’s dead,” the agent said.
What Michael heard was, It’s dead, which Michael translated as: All chances of saving the studio from this crappy film are dead. Belushi was just jerking you along. The past few days were a total waste of time. Belushi is just as determined as ever to make this hideous film which no one finds funny but him.
“Well screw him!” Michael exploded, and went on like this for a while until the agent managed to break through his tirade and explain what he really meant.
Michael remarked again about his number on Belushi’s wall. “Here’s a dead man in a hotel room and this freshly-scrawled anonymous phone number on the wall. I kept waiting for the police to contact me about that, ask about it, and they never did. Never did. What kind of investigation is that?” One, I supposed, where the cause of death appears overwhelmingly obvious, but the man makes a point.
The conversation then moved to SNL — “It was always really spotty, hit and miss,” Michael said, “we just look back now and remember the good bits.” He recalled how Steve Martin tried out for the first season and got rejected: “He had just made a movie called The Jerk, but the studio dismissed him as too silly and unimportant.”
* I wasn’t the only one who thought this; someone else said, “I’ve lived on the west side my whole life and never knew this area was here”. It was originally zoned as a golf course, and it’s so sedate and dark and quiet you feel like you’re way the hell out there, on this strange alien planet where only extremely rich people live on these extremely huge, eerily lit properties.
** The Smithsonian has some kind of space-and-aircraft component, which is why E thinks he was invited. Plus a SpaceX event was held at the Smithsonian four or five years ago.
*** This is the kind of environment where people rarely if ever ask the wife, ‘What do you do?’, because a) they assume she does very little and so don’t want to embarrass her with the question and/or b) they really don’t care, saving time and energy for networking with the husbands instead.
**** just in case your mind has wandered in dirty directions, he was only referring to crappy lowbrow things you know are crappy but feel compelled to see anyway. I, for example, recently went to see The Number 23, and not long before that I suffered through Ghost Rider. I’d read the reviews. I have no excuse.