At the appointed hour, and since it wasn’t at the moment raining, Gil was standing at the curb in front of his apartment building when Natalie’s VW Beetle zoomed up and into a parking place right in front of him. He opened the door and slid into the now-familiar passenger seat beside her and without ceremony she zoomed out into the rush hour traffic of Alvarado Street expertly shifting her way up the gears until she reached third.
Gil shook his head. “I’m still amazed,” he commented, “as to how you do that. I mean, it seems so simple watching you do it, but I don’t think I could ever do it myself, not in a million years.”
This caused Natalie to turn her head towards him. “What, you’ve never driven a standard transmission?”
Gil shook his head again. “I’ve never even driven,” he admitted. “I don’t know how and I never got a license.”
Natalie snorted in disbelief. “You do know, don’t you, that you are in this sprawling metropolis we call the City of Angels, where the automobile is king and people routinely drive thirty miles for a burger or a carton of milk? You do know this, don’t you?”
“Yes,” he replied contritely, “I’ve been here long enough to know stuff like that. But honestly, I never learned.”
“I suppose,” said Natalie cheerfully, “that there’s a back story to this.” She was on the freeway entrance ramp now and eased her way around two slow-moving limos and slipped into the fast lane. The Beetle whined in agony as she pushed the speedometer up past seventy-five. “So,” she said, “pray tell. Why don’t you drive?”
“Well,” said Gil a little shamefacedly, “my father was a great one for cars. He got a new one just about every year when I was a kid. I was really looking forward to being just like him, you know, a macho guy with one hand on the wheel and the other elbow out the window catching the breeze. But by the time I got to be fifteen or sixteen he was drunk so much of the time that I didn’t even want to ride in the same car with him, let alone have him teach me to drive. Whenever we went someplace I always thanked the powers that be for getting us home in one piece.”
“That’s a really sad story, Gil,” she remarked without compassion. “But you’re, what, twenty-five now? We’ve got to get you some wheels. You’ve got money now, and you’ll have more pretty soon if I have anything to say about it, which I do. We’ll get you a nice little car with an automatic transmission and I’ll teach you to drive myself. You have remarked on how good a driver I am.”
“Sounds good to me,” agreed Gil.
“Good,” she said, “because if we’re going to be an item, I can’t be hauling you around the city like a piece of luggage all the time, you know?”
Gil nodded his head soberly in assent. By this time they were nearing Pasadena. Desperate to change the subject he said, “Um, Natalie, where are we eating? You didn’t have me make any reservations.”
“I took it upon myself to make reservations at a really great old Italian restaurant not too far from the theater. It’s called Scarantino’s and it’s been there for years. It’s sort of like a Pasadena institution. Great Italian food but not too expensive. This is why I’ve been in such a hurry. I made reservations for six so we can have a nice quiet dinner and then stroll over to the theater.”
“Sounds great,” said Gil, “I love Italian.” He pulled out his wallet and riffled through it. “I brought along about a hundred. Think that’s enough?”
“Easily,” she said. “And if your movie turns out to be a clunker, it’ll be enough to get us drunk afterwards.” Noticing the look on his face she added hastily, “Just kidding. I know it’ll be great.”
She was now driving down Colorado Boulevard towards Scarantino’s and the Academy Theatre. Passing Scarantino’s she pulled into a parking lot across the street, took a ticket, and parked. Without further comment they both got out of the car and walked into the restaurant.
Upon entering Gil looked around and was impressed. The interior was all muted red and gold wallpaper while spacious booths with padded red leather banquettes lined the walls. In the middle of the room were a number of tables both small and large, all covered with the traditional red-and-white checked tablecloths with wax-coated chianti bottles which served as candle holders in the center of each. Without hesitation Natalie led him over to a small podium at the back of the room near the swinging doors of the kitchen, where a tall blonde woman of indeterminate age smiled brightly at them and said, “You have a reservation?”
“Hall, party of two,” said Natalie in a businesslike voice.
Without replying, the blonde woman studied her book for a few seconds, then smiled brightly once more. “Right this way, Mr. Hall.” She led them over to a booth on the left side of the room about halfway between the entrance and the kitchen. Deftly she seated them and struck a match, lighting their candle. She then presented them with the large padded menus she carried under one arm and said, “Would you like to see the wine list?”
Gil looked at Natalie, but she looked back noncommittally. “I think just a glass of the house red for me,” he said, and Natalie replied absently, “Same here.”
“Very good,” the woman said. “I’ll tell a waiter and he will bring you your wine and then take your dinner order when you’re ready. That okay with you?”
“We may take a few minutes,” said Gil, looking through the pages of the rather extensive menu.
As the woman smiled again and left, Gil looked over his menu and then said to Natalie, “You’ve been here before. What do you recommend?”
“Oh, everything here is good,” she replied with a shrug, as if her mind were curiously elsewhere. Noticing this Gil said, “Something on your mind, Natalie?”
She closed her menu and looked directly at him for the first time since they had entered the restaurant. She was silent for a few seconds, then seemed to come to a decision. “I’ve got a surprise for you, Gil,” she said, rather too lightly. “But let’s order first and then we’ll talk about that.”
“Okay,” Gil shrugged agreeably, and they went back to reading their menus. After a few minutes the waiter arrived with their glasses of wine and said, “Are you ready to order?”
“Yes,” said Natalie, and ordered the vitello parmigiana with a side of spaghetti al’ amatriciana.
“Very good. And for you, sir?”
Not being particularly proficient in Italian, Gil stumbled over his order which after a few moments of discussion turned out to be linguini con fruiti di mare misto.
“Very good, sir,” the waited intoned neutrally. “I’ll be back in a few minutes with your salads.”
As soon as the waiter had left, Gil closed his menu and leaned over toward Natalie who was having a hard time keeping a straight face. “What did I just order?” he whispered.
She giggled a little and said, “Basically you ordered seafood on pasta. I think it comes here with baby shrimp, scallops, mussels, and clams in a white wine garlic sauce. You may,” she continued, “want to get a glass of white wine with that.”
“Thanks,” he said. “I think I’ll do that as soon as he brings our salads.”
So the salads were brought and Natalie took possession of Gil’s glass of red wine when his white arrived. There was little conversation until the main courses had arrived and they had pretty much devoured the bulk of them.
After Gil thought was a reasonable length of time he risked prompting her. “Uh…you said you had a surprise for me?”
“Right,” she said and dug into her small handbag, finally coming up with a few small newspaper clippings. “I took the liberty,” she confessed, “of kickstarting your career.”
Gil looked perplexed but waited for her to continue, but all she did was to hand him one of the newspaper clippings. “Read that,” she said.
Gil took the clipping and looked at it. It was from an issue of Variety, now about a month old. It was a column entitled “Just for Variety” by noted gossipmonger Armie Archerd. The date on it was December 16, 1974. A portion of this column had been circled in red, done so, Gil suspected, by Natalie. Skipping down to the indicated part he read:
…and finally, dear readers, word is that there might be a new young gun in town. Who was that tall slender young man dining with a female companion at Chasen’s last Friday night? Whoever he is, he certainly had the ear of one Mr. Jack Nicholson. Word on the street is that Nicholson left his table and his lady companion unbidden to walk over to the young couple’s table, where he was seen to sit down with them and engage the young man in what appeared to be serious conversation for over ten minutes before surreptitiously slipping him a business card and then returning to his table with a satisfied smile on his face. Notwithstanding the fact that his lady friend, the notorious Lee Radziwill, had been sitting there, fuming and chain-smoking during his absence. All Hollywood wants to know: Who is this young man?
There the column ended.
Gil was stunned. He looked at Natalie in disbelief. “Is—is he talking about me?” he stammered.
Natalie gave him for the first time this evening a big grin. “None other,” she replied.
Gil scratched his head thoughtfully. “So that’s what DeVille was talking about on the phone.”
“Oh?” she said innocently.
“Yeah. He just about accused me of trying to hide the fact that I was making some sort of deal with Nicholson. But I’m still confused. From this column, how did he find out it was me?”
In answer, Natalie handed him the second clipping. This one was the same column but the date read January 6, 1975. Again Gil looked down the column to the part that was circled in red.
…As frequent readers of this column are aware, a few weeks ago this columnist posed the question, Who was the mystery man at Chasen’s seen confabbing with Nicholson. Well, unbelievable as it may seem, just last Friday I received a phone call from none other than the mystery man’s dinner companion, who wishes to remain anonymous. She informed this columnist that the man in question was named Gil Hall, an up-and-coming film director fairly new to the Hollywood scene, but who had already completed a film for the eccentric Oscar DeVille, head of Stupendous Pictures, and was already hard at work on a number of very promising projects. She further stated that she had met Mr. Hall through her job as personal assistant for maverick indie filmmaker Rod Gorman. Her story was that Mr. Hall had met with Mr. Gorman on a number of occasions to discuss possible future projects and that she had liked the young man and let him take her to dinner. She refused however to give us any information about how to reach Mr. Hall, as he is reputed to be a refreshingly honest and private young man in this city where publicity is king. Please rest assured, dear readers, that I will give you more details on the activities of this intriguing young film director as they develop.
There the column ended. Gil looked up at Natalie, now more bewildered than ever. “So,” he murmured, “I don’t know what to say.”
“What you say,” she snapped, “is thank you very much. You don’t know how much you’d have to pay a publicist to impress the town’s leading gossip columnist like that.”
Gil thought about it for a moment. Then his face brightened and he leaned over and kissed her on the forehead. “Thank you very much, Natalie,” he said. “How about some pie?”
After finishing their respective pies (coconut cream for Natalie, cherry for Gil) he settled the bill and they strolled out of the restaurant in the direction of the theater, which was not too many blocks down Colorado Boulevard. The weather was reasonably good for mid-January—chilly but no rain and little wind—so it was not an unpleasant fifteen-minute walk to the Academy.
As they arrived Gil scrutinized the building. It was on the small side, set back some five or six yards from the sidewalk, but it looked well maintained and had an impressive neon sign and large V-shaped marquee in which miraculously all the bulbs seemed to be lit. The sign was simply a vertical column of neon and masonry proclaiming simply, Academy. Its only concession to artistry was a representation of a mortar board hat set jauntily atop the A. One side of the marquee read in large letters, “World Premiere—On Hollywood’s Doorstep: The Shame of the Barrio—8:00 Only.” Beneath it in much smaller letters was the additional notice, “Added attraction at 10:00—Our Friend the Sun.” On the other side of the marquee in really large red letters Gil saw “Special Midnight Show—Kiddie Katz in Lesbian Biker Chicks in Heat.” Below it in slightly smaller letters, “They’re On the Road…and On the Rampage!”
Natalie turned to Gil and said with an attempt at nonchalance, “That’s one of Gorman’s earlier efforts, I believe.”
“Wanna stay for the midnight feature?” Gil joked.
But Natalie turned to him again severely, saying, “Just because I work for the man doesn’t mean I have to like his pictures.”
“Just kidding,” said Gil, somewhat abashed.
“Don’t get me wrong,” she said hastily. “He’s a good man to work for, doesn’t expect a lot out of me. I’m mostly there to answer the phone and to look professional in case anyone wanders in off the street. But,” she continued, grabbing his hand, “let’s go in and see the film. Got the tickets?”
“Right here,” said Gil.
They walked up to the circular ticket booth just outside the theater’s entrance. Gil presented his tickets to the cashier, who looked at them briefly and then said, “Go right in, sir.”
Inside the theater was a small concession stand set back from a small lobby. There were two entrances to the auditorium, one on each side of the concession stand. Gil took note of the fact that to the left was the men’s room and on the right the ladies’.
“Want anything?” he asked Natalie, nodding toward the concessions.
“No,” she said, “not really. That was a good dinner. Maybe a Coke though.”
“Okay,” he said, “I’ll get us a couple Cokes. Why don’t you look in the theater and see how crowded it is.”
She opened one of the entrance doors, took a peek, and then reported, “No problem finding seats. Looks like it’s only about a quarter full. And—” She looked at her watch. “The film’s supposed to start in ten minutes.”
She waited by the door while Gil purchased two Cokes and then joined her. They entered the auditorium together and Gil said, “Let’s sit towards the back so we can watch the audience reaction.”
They quickly found aisle seats at the left of the center section near the back. The theater was so small that even from the back it was only, Gil estimated, maybe twenty or twenty-five feet from the screen.
Gil looked around at the audience members who were chattering animatedly to one another, some sitting in their seats, some scurrying up and down the aisles. He was not surprised to see that the vast majority of the audience seemed to be white, well-dressed, well-fed young people in their twenties and thirties, with bright and shiny fresh-scrubbed faces that had a sort of satisfied blankness about them.
“This is certainly an out-of-town tryout,” Natalie said as the lights went down.
“Let’s just watch the film, shall we?” Gil whispered a little louder, some slight irritation showing in his voice.
As they settled back in their seats the curtains parted to reveal a fairly small but well-maintained screen. Immediately there was the faint whir of a projector from somewhere behind them, and then without preliminaries the following scene was projected onto the screen: The picture was of a prosperous upper middle-class neighborhood somewhere, Gil guessed, in Hollywood or West Los Angeles. As bright snappy music played and the sun shone brightly overhead in a brilliant blue cloudless sky, well-dressed young white men and women were driving along the streets, walking along the sidewalk, generally looking like people who belonged and were knowledgeable about and satisfied with that fact. Then the scene shifted to a street filled with large mansions surrounded on all sides by huge well landscaped and maintained lawns, swimming pools, and not a few tennis courts.
By this time Gil had begun to wonder if they were showing the right film or had somehow gotten it mixed up with something else, when a smooth velvety but authoritative voice began to speak. “Welcome, ladies and gentlemen,” it purred with a somehow deceptive gentility as the music diminished to a soft but cheerful volume. “I’m Garson Wilsey,” the voiceover continued, “and the scenes you have just been watching are the scenes typical of this wonderful town we call rather generically Hollywood. When we speak of this Hollywood we include not only Hollywood proper but glamorous neighborhoods such as Bel Air, Beverly Hills, Brentwood, and or course the fabulous Hollywood Hills. This is where the people who have made their millions in the film capital of the world live and play in opulent style.”
Suddenly there was an abrupt blurring camera pan as the scene shifted to a dingy neighborhood containing small dilapidated houses, many with sagging porches, porches in disrepair, broken screen doors, and cracked windows. As the camera had panned the music had segued into a rather dirge-like depressing melody somewhat reminiscent of “The Funeral March”, whereas the sky, which had heretofore been a brilliant blue, now had somehow changed to a rather dingy gray color, which the much paler sun valiantly struggled to shine through. In front of the dilapidated houses were weed-infested postage stamp-sized yards where there could be seen children and toddlers, some dressed in nothing more than diapers, some in ragged shirts and pants with holes at the knees. Most were barefoot. As the camera moved in for a closer look, they could be seen playing in the dirt with a variety of broken toys, deflated basketballs and footballs, and some with whatever discarded junk might be lying around. After several seconds of this Wilsey’s voice continued. “But only a few miles away, from the opulent lifestyles that you have just seen is another quite different Los Angeles—East Los Angeles, or as the impoverished natives of this area call it, The Barrio.” The scene now shifted to a street corner where several teenage boys with brown skins and long black hair were milling around laughing and joking with each other. Most were dressed in sleeveless T-shirts and tight blue jeans. Many passed around bottles of wine and a few marijuana cigarettes. Some were ostentatiously cleaning their fingernails with the tips of switchblade knives. “This is the way the young men of this neighborhood amuse themselves,” Wilsey’s voice proclaimed. “They have no money, little education, and for most of them their aspirations go no farther than to become a gang leader or a drug pusher.”
At this point the screen went to black, ominous music began to play, and within a second or two the legend On Hollywood’s Doorstep: The Shame of the Barrio appeared in huge letters. The word “Hollywood” was depicted in shining gold whereas the word “Shame” was in bright crimson with orange flames shooting up from the letters, while the word “Barrio” dripped with what looked like an evil green substance. This rather lurid title was quickly replaced by “A Stupendous Pictures Production—Produced by Oscar deVille—Directed by Gil Hall, Who Also Serves as The Interviewer”.
The scene now shifted to a long shot of a supermarket parking lot where equipment trucks were setting up cameras, lights, microphone stands, et cetera, as Wilsey’s voice continued. “Who are the people that live in this poverty-stricken, neglected area of the City of Angels? And from whence did they come? Instead of merely pondering these questions over a mai-tai at some trendy West Los Angeles bar, we decided to send a camera crew to one of the shopping centers in this neighborhood and film people at random who wanted to tell their stories to the world.”
The camera moved in for a close-up shot of a smiling and incredibly boyish-looking young man who was being fitted with a headset by a darker-skinned man standing beside him. At this point Gil covered his eyes and looked away from the screen while Natalie poked him in the ribs and said in a whispered giggle, “Oooh, you’re so cute.”
“Don’t rub it in,” said Gil thickly.
Fortunately their attention was returned to the screen as Wilsey’s voice said, “For the next ninety minutes you will hear the stories of these men and women, many of them newly arrived, some of them trapped here for years. The young man you see on your screen is Mr. Gil Hall, who also ably serves as the film’s director. He will be conducting the interviews that you will see and hear. Let me take a moment to explain the interview process. Since many of these people, most in fact, have no or very little English, a bilingual translator will be located in the sound truck off-screen. As Mr. Hall asks the interviewee a question in English, it will be translated through the headset to the interviewee in Spanish. The interviewee will then respond in Spanish, while the translator gives Mr. Hall the English version. You will not hear the translator, but you will hear the responses in Spanish which will be translated as English subtitles at the bottom of your screen.”
At this point a young stocky Hispanic woman walked into the scene towards Gil and Gil handed her the headset. Without further ado the interview portion of the film commenced.
Gil couldn’t stand it. He touched Natalie’s shoulder. “Rest room,” he announced in a low voice.
“Hurry back,” said Natalie watching the screen in obvious fascination as the filmed Gil questioned the young woman.
Gil hurried out to the lobby, paced around for some minutes, checked his watch, then decided that the manly thing to do was to return to his seat and suffer in silence. He was a little more prepared for this than he had been when he watched the rushes with DeVille, but he still saw his screen persona as that of a squeaky-voiced adolescent. Pausing at the concession stand he decided to buy some popcorn and another Coke to help divert his attention. After all, he knew what was coming, and worse than that, knew how it had been engineered. Returning with his purchases he sat back down beside Natalie and silently offered her the popcorn. Without looking at him or taking her eyes off the screen she stuck a hand into the box and came away with a large handful of popcorn. “Thanks,” she mumbled.
After what seemed to Gil like hours, the last interviewee could be seen walking away from the screen from Gil back towards the stores in the shopping center. The scene then cut to several men packing up equipment, shaking Gil’s hand, and otherwise indicating that it was a wrap.
After a minute or so of this the voice of Garson Wilsey, which had been totally absent during the interviews, returned. “And there you have it, folks,” he intoned, “the story of life in the barrio. Lives so different from those of the residents of filmdom that they might well have taken place in another country, rather than just a few miles away. What’s to be done about this admittedly shocking and sordid account of the quiet lives of desperation led by these deserving residents of our city? That, ladies and gentlemen, is for you to discuss with each other and your own consciences. This is Garson Wilsey and I remain, as always, your obedient servant.”
Then came the wrap-up music while the screen briefly flashed “The End” and then took about another fifteen seconds to display the technical credits, after which the screen went dark and the curtains closed again.
As the houselights came up Natalie turned to Gil and said, “Hey, not half bad. You’re actually a pretty good interviewer.”
Gil looked around anxiously, saying, “Shhh! Not so loud! I don’t really want to attract any attention.”
“Why not?” inquired Natalie full-voiced. “You’re the star, aren’t you?”
People were now beginning to pause as they exited the theater to get a better look at the couple.
Gil grabbed Natalie’s hand, stood up, and began to hurriedly make his way to the nearest exit when he was stopped by a plump thirtyish woman in an expensive thigh-length leather jacket. She looked him up and down. “Hey!” she said. “Aren’t you the guy from the movie?”
Gil swallowed hard and in a low voice admitted that he was.
“Wow,” she continued unabashed. “That was some movie! Those poor people! Hey,” she asked him seriously, “do those people really live like that?”
Gil shrugged and said noncommittally, “That’s what they tell me.”
“Wow,” said the woman again. “That’s a shame. You know, somebody ought to do something about that.”
Natalie was frowning in disgust, then, unable to restrain herself, she put her hands on her hips and said sardonically, “Yah, somebody should.”
The woman gave her a brief puzzled look, then turned back to Gil and remarked confidentially, “Gee, you’re even cuter than you were in the movie.”
At that Natalie stepped between them. “Hands off, lady,” she said, “he’s mine.”
The woman took a step backwards, a shocked expression on her face. “Oh, sorry,” she mumbled and without further comment headed for the exit.
“Come on,” said Gil, “let’s get out of here.” They moved quickly to the other exit door and were able to get outside the theater without any more unwelcome admirers. Out on the street Gil began walking briskly up Colorado Boulevard towards the lot where Natalie had parked the car. Natalie was trotting to try to keep up with his long strides. “Hey, wait up,” she called, finally catching up with him and clutching his arm. “Don’t take it wrong,” she said, “I just get really pissed when these middle-class bitches decide they’ve found a new cause.”
Gil slowed a bit and his face softened. “Who knows?” he said. “Maybe this film will actually have a good effect on some people.”
“Ha!” Natalie spit on the sidewalk. “Fat chance. These liberals out here are all talk and no action. Tomorrow she’ll be back home watching All My Children and General Hospital and the only thing she’ll remember about this film will be the expensive dinner she had before or after.”
They had reached the parking lot by now and Natalie took the ticket off the windshield, unlocked the passenger door for Gil, and they both climbed in. They exited by the booth where Gil gladly forked over the two-dollar parking charge. They were silent for a while on the way home, then Natalie half-turned her face toward Gil and said, a serious note in her voice, “You know Gil, that actually was a good picture. Sure there was a lot of shlock in it, and I thought Wilsey was over the top as usual, but that’s the sort of film I want to make. Except,” she added hurriedly, “I want to take actors and have them portray some of those people and make up my own stories about them. What do you think?”
Gil considered this for a moment. “I think you’ve really got something there, Natalie,” he replied. “Which reminds me, remember back before the holidays when we went to that fancy restaurant?”
“Yeah, that’s right, Chasen’s. Well, remember you said that you wanted me to look at your scripts, tell you what I think. That was part of the deal, right.”
She stopped at a red light and turned to him. “Yeah,” she said warmly. “Glad you remembered. Why don’t we make a date for next weekend?”
“Sounds good to me,” said Gil.
“Fine.” The light changed and she sped away. “I’ll call you with the details when I’m gonna pick you up. You know,” she said, shaking her head, “we’ve really gotta get you some wheels. No, no, no,” she said, as Gil started to protest. “we’ll get the car, park it somewhere, and I’ll teach you how to drive. We’ll get you a nice little car, fairly new, good condition, automatic transmission. Okay?”
“Okay I guess,” Gil mumbled. “But you’re going to a whole lot of trouble, aren’t you?”
She looked back at him with a hint of her old brashness. “Not near as much trouble as having to chauffeur you around, big guy,” she said with a wink.
By this time they were on Wilshire, and a few minutes later they were pulling up in front of Gil’s apartment on Alvarado.
“Well, thanks for a lovely evening. The dinner was great and the movie wasn’t bad either.” She gave him a quick but probing kiss on the mouth, then motioned for him to get out.
“Go on,” she said, “it’s past my bedtime. Anyway, I’ve got some serious thinking to do.”
Gil looked puzzled but didn’t rise to the bait. “Okay, Natalie,” he said, “I’ll just wait for your call then. Okay?”
“Yeah,” she said, “I’ll probably call you around the middle of next week.”
Gil got out of the car, waved to her cheerfully, and then entered his small but familiar home.