Eighteen years later…
On a beautiful mid-June morning, cloudless and warm with the merest hint of an ocean breeze, a now middle-aged Gil Hall emerged from the front entrance of his sixteen-room mansion on Mulholland Drive near Nichols Canyon. He was much the same Gil Hall that he had been in the 70s; of course his once boyish-looking sandy hair that had been allowed to grow fashionably long was now much shorter and sparser, though this sparseness was to a degree concealed by his expensive haircut. He was clean-shaven and there were the beginnings of worry lines around his eyes and the beginnings of jowls where before had been only flat smooth cheeks. He was dressed casually but expensively in light-blue linen trousers, a thin open-at-the-collar Hawaiian shirt covered by a light linen jacket that matched the trousers. On his feet were tasseled oxblood loafers without benefit of socks.
It was his habit when he left his dwelling place to walk around the spacious grounds for a bit as he took great comfort in constantly reminding himself of its opulence—the opulence that he and Natalie had owned for several years now. Glancing at his Rolex he saw with satisfaction that it was not yet 10:00, so that he could allow himself a ten- or fifteen-minute ramble around the grounds, smelling the flowers, listening to the birds, and frantically trying to assure himself that all was right with the world—or at least his little corner of it.
He carried in his left hand a thin briefcase made of soft calfskin which Natalie had given him for Christmas some years ago, he couldn’t remember exactly when. Why he felt the necessity of assuring himself in this manner was the presence inside the briefcase of Natalie’s latest film script, one that he hadn’t yet been able to work up the nerve to read.
As he rounded the flagstone walkway and headed toward the swimming pool, he spied immediately the ever-present Hector Alvarez, their pool boy. He was as usual dressed only in skin-tight faded and, in Gil’s opinion, way too short Levi cutoffs. Gil sometimes wondered if he had any other clothing. Hector was engaged in his usual preoccupation, sitting at the edge of the pool, his smooth brown legs dangling in the pool moving lazily from side to side, with a dreamy expression on his face as if he were absorbed in some internal Latin rhythm. His smooth brown torso gleamed in the morning sun which also put lustrous highlights in his luxurious mop of sleek black hair.
Looking up, Hector noticed Gil and gave him a wide grin with those always-perfect white teeth. “Buenas dias, Señor Hall,” he exclaimed deferentially. “I make pool muy bueno, sí?”
Gil for his part felt obliged to respond with the customary “Sí Hector, make pool muy bueno.”
Seemingly satisfied, Hector went back to dreamily dangling his legs in the pool, every now and then desultorily swiping at a passing fallen leaf or twig with a large net and scooping it out of the pool. This, Gil reflected, was pretty much how Hector seemed to spend most of his days between May and November when the pool was full. Once again Gil looked at that sleek brown body, lustrous hair, and unself-conscious expression. I’ll bet you make Señora Hall muy bueno too, he thought. He really didn’t care. Though he and Natalie were still for the most part on good terms, their love had somehow cooled to a sort of routine satisfaction rather than the passionate ardor they once both enjoyed. As Gil was now in his mid-forties and Natalie over fifty, he no longer felt the combination of lust and sexual possessiveness that had driven him in the 70s. Besides, he admitted to himself, why shouldn’t she have her fun? He had more than once succumbed to the temptation of the casting couch and taken his pleasures when and where he could.
There seemed to be no end of beautiful young women who passed through their studio doors on a regular basis, seemingly willing to do anything and everything for even a small part in a legitimate Hollywood movie. He was fortunate that Natalie, while maintaining iron control over much of their production company, FineHall Productions, allowed him the opportunity to cast supporting roles while she went out and nailed down the leads.
He was now entering the large area out back that served as Natalie’s flower garden, her pride and joy, and of course, back bent with hoe digging industriously in the rich soil, was the inevitable Luis Vargas, their talented and hardworking gardener. Unlike Hector, Luis was a man at least ten years Gil’s senior with a perpetually soiled work shirt and jeans that ended in sturdy work boots. His gnarled and knotted bare arms ended in heavily calloused hands with stubby square fingers that seemed disproportionately large for his short and stocky frame. Doffing his battered straw hat he greeted Gil as usual, “Buenas dias, Señor Hall. You go to make more movies?” Every time Gil left the house Vargas wanted to know if he were on his way to make another movie. He had learned long ago that it was simpler not to have to describe to Vargas what a pre-production meeting was and simply responded with, “Sí, I go to make more movies.”
“Ah,” returned Vargas, “more movies about unhappy families, yes?” This, Gil reflected, was more on the money than Vargas knew. Vargas, an avid moviegoer, had seen all of FineHall Productions’s previous epics and had come away from them nodding sagely and telling Gil, “Sí, your families in your movies, they are very unhappy, no?” Once again Gil had to admit that this was the case, at least as long as Natalie was writing the scripts. He nodded pleasantly to Vargas, then made his way around the carriage house which they had remodeled solely for their live-in employees. Gil had to constantly remember to call them employees rather than servants or hired help, as these words were not in Natalie’s politically correct vocabulary.
The carriage house was divided into two floors, the upstairs consisting of two small rooms, one occupied by Hector in the six summer months he was needed, and the other by Vargas, who worked all year round. The more spacious first floor they had turned into a comfortable apartment for their invaluable housekeeper and cook Mrs. Sibolboro.
She was a marvelous cook, expert in at least half a dozen cuisines besides her native Philippine. She was only in her forties but already a widow and her three children were grown and on their own, so she was perfectly happy to fuss about the sixteen rooms that comprised the FineHall manse. Her only complaint was that she too rarely was able to show off her culinary expertise, as Natalie and Gil were apt to eat out much of the time, either privately or at some industry dinner or other. They had been afraid that they were going to lose her so Natalie had come up with the idea of giving lavish dinner parties at least once or twice a month, to which they invited usually six or eight people. This gave Mrs. Sibolboro ample opportunity to display her cooking skills. The house was certainly equipped for it, with a formal dining room that contained a massive carved oak dining table that easily seated twelve, and an industrial kitchen with an eight-burner cast iron stove with double ovens, a large detached freezer, two refrigerators, one for food, the other beverages, an immense four-rack dishwasher, and two separate deep sinks, plus all the counter and cabinet space one could desire.
Gil now headed toward the four-car garage, pressed the button on his remote, and watched as the door quietly raised itself and ascended into the ceiling. Inside were a Lincoln Town Car, an all-terrain Mercedes SUV, a Honda Accord, and Gil’s pride and joy, a fully restored vintage cherry red 1956 Ford Thunderbird convertible. As the weather was all the residents of Southern California could ask for, Gil climbed in, put the top down, and backed out of the garage, the door automatically closing as he exited.
Slowly he turned the car around and then leisurely made his way down the several hundred yards of flagstone driveway to the entrance of the estate. The entire grounds were surrounded by a high stone wall, its expanse broken only by the presence of double black iron gates at the end of the driveway. These gates were almost always left open during the daytime, and Gil passed through them and onto Mulholland Drive without giving them any thought at all.
This forbidding-looking wall with its massive high gates was a frequent topic of conversation for first-time visitors to Chez FineHall. Lest they be accused of upper-middle-class paranoia, the Halls were quick to point out that the aforementioned wall had been there when they purchased the property and it would have cost them a fortune to have it torn down and hauled away. Nonetheless they were secretly relieved by the security device that their home protection agency had installed, a box near their front door which contained a switch that would not only automatically close and lock the gates, but activate a burglar alarm that would sound if anyone tried to tamper with them. Thus they made a regular ceremony when they were home together of throwing the switch and watching the comforting little red light come on.
As Gil eased his easily maneuverable little T-bird down the Mulholland Drive hill he remembered, as he often did, the early times in Los Angeles when Natalie was just teaching him how to drive. He never failed to laugh at this remembrance, for driving now was as natural for him and came as easily as where to put his feet when he was walking down the street. Those had been really good times though, he began to reminisce, as the sun shone brightly upon him and the light breeze ruffled his hair. He remembered Natalie’s combination of pride and fierce defiance as they had formed their fledgling company FineHall Productions. Gil had set about gathering a skeleton crew of about a half-dozen important technical people, to whom he delegated the task of hiring the people they would need for each particular production. These important department heads they had wisely put on retainer so that they would be available whenever FineHall decided to do another movie. In fact, these were the people he was going to meet with this morning for their—he counted on his fingers—first pre-production meeting for a film that (he realized with a mixture of embarrassment and procrastination) he still didn’t know the name of. He had removed the stylish and trendy briefcase which contained the potentially offending script to the small area behind his two front seats. But he fancied he could still feel its baleful rays penetrating his mind and body.
He quickly focused his mind on more pleasant memories: their first production, a slight reworking of the first script Natalie had ever shown him, the one she had entitled Rosens Are Red. They had reworked the script together to make it more dramatic, with more intrigue and some violence, and had changed the title to make it the more provocative Who Killed the Rosenbergs? This film, released in 1978, earned Natalie a solid following among old lefties, leftover Communists, and a smattering of old Jewish socialist labor people who even then constituted a dying breed. Nonetheless the film earned decent reviews and even some notice in the major trade papers. And they seemed to be on their way.
After that, however, for the next decade that saw them produce only four major efforts, Natalie seemed to be returning to her experiences as a social worker in New York City in the early 60s. They were for the most part films—some period, some contemporary—which set out to explore the continuing urban social problems in modern America. These four films, while not particularly well-received, seemed to fit in well with the concurrent years of President Ronnie Reagan’s rather simplistic rosy-hued view of the American family. As a result of these efforts, Natalie quickly became known as the Queen of the Dysfunctional Family. The time was certainly right for such films in the wake of such afternoon television programs as Donahue, Jerry Springer, and the Queen of Them All, Oprah. She also managed to attract a solid core audience composed mostly of middle-class women, whose other outlets for their social consciousness included the network soaps, both afternoon and the new prime-times, the then-new Lifetime cable channel, and various other forms of what used to be called two-hankie entertainment.
This was all well and good, for it established their reputation as a leading independent film production company and made them not inconsiderable profits. The films were all reasonably low-budget—usually 5 million or less, and almost always at least doubled their budget in profits. But even as they were doing well, both in the trade papers and at the bank, Gil was becoming increasingly bored and restless with the (to him) confining nature of the films themselves from a directorial standpoint. He constantly hounded Natalie to, as he put it, “Put in some goddamn action for a change, won’t you?” She rarely did, however, but they compromised with some highly gratuitous sex scenes that Natalie approved of as long as they were in context and, in her words, “tastefully done.” This technique they soon found out provided slightly more meaty fodder for the punters and the barely post-adolescents who were looking for something more in a film than to assuage their social consciences.
This however abruptly changed. After the aforementioned decade, Natalie unaccountably reached all the way back to her Columbia roots, seemingly rediscovering the political consciousness which had inspired such films of the 60s and early 70s as The Strawberry Statement. In 1988, the final year of the triumphant Reagan regime, they released their most ambitious effort yet, a film called Running Against the Wind. Helped by a first for FineHall Productions—a striking rock and roll score by that famous rock/blue-eyed soul band, Robbie Reges and Fool’s Gold—the film centered on two squeaky-clean former student radicals who, fifteen years previously, had apparently blown up a building which resulted in the death of a security guard. They had been on the run ever since, traveling from place to place in America, raising two absolutely adorable now-teenaged sons and staying one step ahead of the mean ol’ FBI. Gil was happy because it was the first film he had managed to do in multiple locations. They used 8 million dollars to film scenes of the figures driving down country roads in the picturesque Rocky Mountains, through the deserts of Arizona and Southern California, with even a few picturesque New England fishing villages thrown in. By the time the Academy Awards rolled around in 1989, the film had garnered three nominations, one for Best Song, which was captured by Fool’s Gold and immediately transformed into a bestselling soundtrack album, which gave the movie even more publicity and therefore profits. Natalie was nominated for Best Original Screenplay and Gil for Best Direction. Neither of them won but as the saying goes in sports, they were happy just to be there. It also gave them automatic eligibility for membership in the Motion Picture Academy, which they took full advantage of.
The success of this film pushed FineHall Productions to the unquestioned forefront of contemporary independent film production companies. Their coffers now stood at around fifty million and by the summer of ’89, they decided to buy the property in which they now lived.
Gil considered this, basking in the heady memories as he maneuvered his T-bird onto Outpost Drive, then turned on Franklin heading east for Highland. He shivered slightly even in the hot sun as he recalled that their glory was to be short-lived.
The next screenplay that Natalie churned out was a far cry from the measured and stately cadence of their previously award-nominated film. In it she seemed to be reliving all of the anger she had built up in her brief but unhappy marriage and the familial abuse she had seen during her time as a New York City social worker. It was called An Unpredictable Woman and concerned an abused woman who finally decides to turn the tables on her loutish husband by playing a series of morbid tricks on him—everything from slow poisoning to nicking his razor blades so that he cut his cheek to ribbons while shaving, and many other little jests. At the end of the film she finally goes too far and poisons him to death. In the final frenzied scene she goes through her dead husband’s clothing and papers, extracting his billfold, credit cards, money, and also his car keys. As “The End” flashes across the screen we see her driving away in a convertible at high speed, laughing her head off. Needless to say, many critics and not a few audience members were a bit puzzled at such heavy-handedness. Gil for his part was mortified but at least, unlike in most of Natalie’s films, there was some drama and action to play with so he was partially mollified.
Gil had now turned left on Hollywood Boulevard at Highland and was heading back toward Vine. Unwillingly but inevitably, this led him to reconsider his loving wife’s latest cinematic offering which had been released a little over two years ago. This one indicated clearly to Gil that she had pretty much run out of ideas at least for the time being. The film was called Wasp Season and it concerned the daughter of a nice old and suitably lovable Jewish couple who falls in love with the blandest goy that God ever made. She brings the offending but inoffensive young man to meet her parents and therein ensues perhaps the longest string of both Jewish and WASP jokes in recorded cinematic history. Some of the kinder critics termed it a rather interesting remake of the old Tracy-Hepburn film of the 60s in which the African-American actor Sidney Poitier was the offending suitor. Others however played up the Yiddish aspect of the film to the hilt, calling it “You Should Only Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner Already.” This latest film offering, on which unfortunately Gil was required to put his name, left him shaking his head in disbelief. The most mortifying part, however, was the fact that Natalie had undoubtedly, intentionally, cast in the role of the young goy a kid who looked almost exactly as Gil had when he was doing his interview documentary all those years ago.
It was no wonder that he had put off reading Natalie’s latest offering—the one that was the subject of this pre-production meeting.
Passing Vine, he soon turned right on Wilcox and headed down to Sunset. There, crossing the street, he turned into the parking lot of the massive glass and steel office building 6565 Sunset which stood at the corner of Wilcox and Sunset. FineHall Productions had leased the entire tenth floor of this building and remodeled it to suit their particular needs. So all that was left was for Gil to pull into his private parking place right under the wooden sign that read “Reserved for Gil Hall, Vice President, FineHall Productions.” This sign always reassured Gil as to his place in the world, even if Natalie often failed to. Slapping a club on his steering wheel (for Gil didn’t want to take any chances with his baby, even in a private parking lot) and exiting the car, he took a few deep breaths, swallowed hard, and strode briskly toward the building’s entrance to face his troops.