Cold Open, a tale of modern Hollywood by Cantara Christopher // Chapter 5. The Star Maker

13 min read

When Nina got home that evening she waited until she had made and enjoyed a light supper and slipped into her pajamas before phoning Teddy. She had been given a lot to think about in the last couple of days that she needed to sift through. There was the thrill of being recognized again, but there was also that awful message on the internet about Dennie. Was it just the usual online bad behavior, the kind that Bunny had referred to, or was there really something to it?

And then, of course, there was seeing Teddy again after all these years. All right, he was still irritating, obtuse, and completely ego-driven. He had been like that at twenty-seven — but at twenty-seven he had also been one of Hollywood’s most promising young directors. What in heaven had happened to him? And what in heaven had happened to his career? And why did she find herself caring?

It had started to rain when she got into bed, making it feel all the cozier. Then she picked up the phone on the night table and pressed his number.

She heard his phone being picked up on the first ring. “Hello, Teddy — ” she began.

“Hello, who is this?” said a stern yet cautious voice.

She paused for a second. “Teddy, it’s me, Nina.”

“Nina!” exclaimed Teddy. “Do you know who I just got off the phone with?”

“Um…no.”

“Leslie!” Nina, completely nonplussed, didn’t reply to this. “Braverman!” he continued.

Hearing the name of her former and formidable producer brought a smile of recognition to her face, and Nina nestled further into the bed covers. “Oh, Leslie! It’s been years. How is the old dear?”

“You don’t understand!” said Teddy loudly. “He’s canceling my picture! That turdmeister is pulling the plug on my picture!”

“Teddy, what are you talking about, your picture?”

“You know, the one I told you about! The one I said was practically a done deal! I tell you, this thing with Dennie is making my name shit all over town. Do you realize how many calls I’ve been getting since yesterday?”

“I can’t imagine.”

“Hundreds! Well, a lot. I had no idea Dennie had so many friends. And they’re all ready to string me up.”

“That’s what I wanted to call you about, the murder. Okay, look, first of all I want to tell you I dropped off the money like you asked — ”

“What money?”

Nina paused, then sighed. It was becoming just like old times again. Patiently she reminded Teddy all that he had instructed her to do in his apartment only the day before.

“Oh, yeeaah,” he said, “that’s right. Well, forget about that. I’m in major major trouble. You know the police think I killed Dennie.”

“But they let you go.”

“Yeah, but only because they couldn’t positively prove that I fired the gun. But they told me I’m still their number-one suspect and ordered me not to leave town. You know what that means, don’t you?” Nina said she didn’t. “It means I can’t be in Portsmouth, Virginia next week to shoot the series finale of Naval Maneuvers starring Maura Kilburn! It’s a great honor, you know. Oh hell, I need the money. Okay, so it’s a great honor and I need the money!”

“Teddy, calm down. About the murder — I think I can help. I may have a suspect.”

“Yeah? I’ve got a few suspects too. While all those people were calling I was writing my own list. Want to see it? I can fax it to you.”

“Just tell me over the phone.”

“Well, right at the top is Ruth Woolley. Of course you’ve heard of The Woolley Agency.” Nina reminded him that she’d been retired for a quarter of a century. “She’s a fire-breathing dragon!” said Teddy. “The most powerful lesbian in Hollywood! Lesbians terrify me. My first wife was a lesbian. And get this — she was Dennie’s agent. Who knows how she felt about Dennie? She could have been driven mad with jealousy.”

“Teddy, you can’t mean that she came to the house in the middle of the night and killed Dennie in — what? Some sort of jealous rage?”

“Hey, remember, I was there. One look at a man in Dennie’s bed and — bam! Happens all the time.”

“Um, look…there’s another possibility.” She told him about the website she’d seen and the message on it.

“Wow,” said Teddy. “You think it might be this Maiden, what’s her first name?”

Nina explained that it was probably a pseudonym.

He went on. “Well, if this Maiden had anything to do with Dennie’s show, Ruth will probably know about it if we can get her to talk.”

“We?”

“Well, yeah, you’re coming with me tomorrow, aren’t you? Baby, I need you by my side. The whole town’s against me! You’re the only friend I have left.”

Nina sighed. She had heard words to that effect before. It seemed like only yesterday — but wait a minute, it was. Less than thirty hours ago she had promised him a favor that had taken up most of today. Now here she was, on the brink of doing him yet another favor and spending another day on Teddy Sunnegaard’s wild goose chase.

“Look, if she’s such a hotshot agent, what makes you think she’ll see you in the first place?”

Her mild disparagement was lost on Teddy. “She’s been trying to get me on her client list for years! She’ll see me.”

Does she know you’re terrified of lesbians? wondered Nina, but kept it to herself. “All right,” she said at last, “I’ll go with you. But you’ve got to pick me up at my place.”

“I’ll be there at ten.”

“No, not so early. I have a yoga class at ten.”

“Oh, you take yoga?”

“No, I teach it,” she reminded him. They agreed on noon, and Nina gave him her address, adding, “The street is only two blocks long and my house is right across from a gigantic angel topiary. You can’t possibly miss it.”

They said their goodbyes and hung up. Then without another thought to the next day’s adventure, Nina picked up her half-finished paperback novel from the night table and snuggled under the covers.

//

The next day Teddy picked up Nina in his fifteen-year-old black BMW forty-five minutes late. Still, an hour later, it being early afternoon, they were able to pull up into an open space in front of the building in Beverly Hills that housed Ruth’s office. It was a three-story white granite building. A sign to the right of the front door proclaimed “The Woolley Agency, Third Floor”.

As Teddy pressed the appropriate button the door clicked and unlocked, allowing them to enter. Immediately to the right of the entrance was an open elevator. Upon entering it, he pressed the button marked three and within a few seconds they were stepping out into Ruth’s small but elegantly furnished reception area. Behind the simple maple desk on which stood a phone, the latest model desktop Mac and a stack of folders, sat a humorless-looking young woman, obviously Ruth’s assistant, dressed in fashionable beige silk and wearing a slim headset.

Teddy was in a plaid shirt with rolled-up sleeves that revealed his long undershirt, khaki Dockers, and his usual eyewear, aviator glasses that had gone out of style in the late 80s. Nina, by contrast, had dressed impeccably for the occasion. She was wearing her favorite classic Halston teal blue two-piece, perfectly accessorized with a clutch purse and matching sling-back pumps. She had purchased the ensemble in Hong Kong during her short-lived marriage to a high-powered businessman.

Teddy strode up to the desk. “Tell Ruth I’m here,” he said.

The assistant looked him up and down for a moment, then said in a rather icy tone, “And you are…?”

He stepped back and spread his arms wide. “Teddy Sunnegaard.” She blinked. “The director.” She blinked again.

Then a look of recognition came over her face. “Ohhh, yes. You’re the one who killed Dennie Dearman. Yes, I believe Ms Woolley will want to see you.”

Teddy paled visibly and began to stammer his objections, but the assistant was already speaking into her headset.

“Ms Woolley, you’ll never guess who’s here. Teddy Sunnegaard.” There was a pause as she listened. “Yes, yes. I’ll show him right in.” She looked up. “Ms Woolley will see you now. The door’s on your left.”

With Nina right behind him, Teddy opened wide the door and nervously entered the dragon lady’s lair. After Teddy’s somewhat fevered description of Ruth, Nina was surprised to see an ordinary-looking, middle-aged woman dressed in a trim saffron-colored tailored business suit and pearls, seated calmly behind her desk.

“Please have a seat,” she said in a tone of utmost mildness and composure. Nina and Teddy sat on large, clubby leather chairs facing Ruth. She turned to Nina. “And you are…?”

“My associate, Nina Lee,” said Teddy.

Ruth nodded slightly toward Nina, then leaned forward, folded her hands on her desk, and peered intently at him. “And so, Mister Sunnegaard, what may I do for you?”

Responding to her unsettling stare, Teddy again began to splutter, managing to blurt out at last, “It’s my associate here! She has a few questions for you.”

Nina raised her eyebrows in astonishment. Ruth turned her attention back to her with a not unfriendly smile. “Well, Miss Lee, what have you got to say to me?”

Nina paused, collecting her thoughts. Finally she spoke. “It’s just that we were wondering…Teddy and I…if you might have any further information that could clear Teddy’s name of this terrible crime. It’s been quite a strain for him, you see.”

“For him! You do realize, of course, that Dennie was my client and my friend — and a sweet, sweet girl,” she added in a quieter tone. “She didn’t deserve to die like that.” It appeared that moment as if Ruth’s composure was about to crack.

“I’m sorry,” said Nina softly. “But, you know, Ms Woolley, Teddy didn’t kill her.”

Ruth regained her equilibrium. “Oh, I’m perfectly satisfied that technically he didn’t. No one I know actually thinks that he pulled the trigger himself.” She turned to Teddy and glared at him. “But that doesn’t mean he entirely escapes culpability. What you were doing with Dennie in the middle of the night, completely passed out on drink and drugs, would be only your business if the girl weren’t dead.”

Teddy pressed his lips together, then said, “I think I’ve been punished enough. You know, it was only this morning my agent all but threatened to dump me if this thing wasn’t settled soon.”

“Your agent?” said Ruth. “And who happens to be your agent?”

“Bill Sykes at WMA.”

“Ha! And they were never heard from again,” Ruth quipped. She drummed her fingers on the desk for a moment as she muttered, “Well, there is a certain value in notoriety…”

Teddy sat up, suddenly interested. “Are you saying you’ll take me on?”

“Perhaps,” said Ruth. “We can always use another director in our stable. Are you working on anything right now?”

“I’m shooting the series finale of Naval Maneuvers next week,” he said, pride in his voice.

“That was a nice little show,” Ruth remarked. “I must remember to give Maura a call.” She reached over to her inbox and picked up a script bound in pink. “The producers of this feature just sold it to Lifetime but they’re still looking for a director with your…qualities.”

“A feature, you say,” said Teddy, who began gripping the arms of his chair with excitement.

“It’s a biopic, with the working title The Passion of Aimee Semple McPherson.”

“Sounds great! Great subject!” enthused Teddy, having no idea who Aimee Semple McPherson was.

Ruth went on. “They’ve already cast the major roles. In fact they were extremely lucky to get for the lead that wonderful, wonderful veteran actress Tawny Lockheed.”

At this, Teddy leaped from his seat. “Tawny Lockheed? I vowed never to work with that woman again! She’s insane!”

“Sit down and calm down,” ordered Ruth. “All right, Mister Sunnegaard, if that’s not your cup of tea, I’m sure Bill over at William Morris is quite able to find you suitable assignments.”

There was a staring match between Ruth and Teddy that lasted several seconds. Finally, with as much dignity as he could muster, Teddy announced, “I have to pee.”

“Outside to your right,” instructed Ruth.

Without another word Teddy turned and left the room.

Once he had left, Ruth stood up, came around from behind the desk, and extended her hand to Nina. “Miss Lee,” she said, “You’ve been away far too long.”

Surprised at this, Nina shook her hand. “You remember me?”

Ruth went back to her desk. “Of course. Setting Sun was one of the biggest grossers of the early eighties and a truly great film. Not to mention that you’re the only Asian-American actress to have been nominated for an Oscar since Miyoshi Umeki in 1958. And, may I say, you’re as lovely as you were twenty-five years ago.”

“What can I say? I’m terribly flattered.”

“I suppose I should get right to the question that’s now hanging in the air,” said Ruth. “Are you seeking representation?”

Completely taken aback, Nina stammered, “What! Me? No! Well — ”

“Here,” offered Ruth, “take my card.”

Nina took it. “I don’t suppose it’ll do much good. I still don’t see a lot of Asian-American actresses on the screen today. Nothing seems to have changed much since the eighties.”

“You’d be surprised,” said Ruth mysteriously.

“Well, thank you anyway,” said Nina, slipping the card into her purse. “I’ll definitely consider it. You know, Ms Woolley — ”

“Call me Ruth.”

“Ruth, you know that Teddy was also nominated for Setting Sun, for Best Director.”

“Um-hm,” she nodded tentatively.

“And you know this case is going to make it difficult for him to find work.”

“I don’t see anything I can do about that.”

“Well, there is something. Yesterday I was at an internet café when I happened to see a web site dedicated to Dennie. It was filled with her fan’s messages of grief and condolences… You know, the normal things people say…”

“Go on.”

“But there was also one message filled with quite a lot of rage and venom. It went something like, ‘I’m glad the bitch is dead. She screwed me out of a part on Melody Evergreen.’”

“Oh my goodness,” murmured Ruth.

“And it was signed, ‘Highland Maiden’.”

Ruth sank back into her chair. “Well! Of course there’s a lot of enmity in this business. How can you avoid it? Feelings get hurt all the time.” She suddenly sat up again. “But now that you mention it, I do remember one particular girl who might have written that message. She came to my office a few weeks ago, new in town and looking for an agent. For various and sundry reasons I won’t go into, I didn’t sign her. I gave her five minutes of my time and when I refused to give her more she became very indignant and said she’d go to the producers of Melody Evergreen and get an audition herself, then come back and throw it in my face that she got the part.”

“What’s her name? Do you know how we can find her?”

“Wait, don’t you think if this girl is involved you ought to tell the police?”

“And we will, we will. Only if it turns out to be nothing, why bother them? Besides, I’ll bet it would be easy for Teddy and me to approach her if she thought it was about an acting job.”

Ruth thought a moment, then said, “All right. I’ll see if we still have her resumé. That should have her name and address on it.” She pressed the intercom button. “Dear, have you done the monthly shredding yet?”

“I’ll get to it! I’ll get to it!” came the shrill answer.

“No, no,” said Ruth, “hold off for a bit. Bring me in all the resumés we received in January, would you? Have you still got them?” Her assistant replied yes, and less than a minute later walked in with a stack of 8×10 glossy photographs, on the backs of which were the credits and contact information of their subjects. She laid them on Ruth’s desk and exited.

Ruth thumbed through the photographs and pulled one out. “Here she is,” she said, handing the photo-resume to Nina.

Nina took the photo and scrutinized it intently. It was a headshot of a very young woman with fluffy blonde hair and most of her baby fat still showing in her cheeks. Her eyes were slightly crossed, giving her a somewhat vapid look. On the back was her name and address, which Nina read aloud, “Lana Lanton, Highland Gardens, Highland and Franklin, Hollywood.”

Ruth laughed. “That’s what jogged my memory, that pretentious way of listing her address. Highland Gardens does have some permanent residents, but it also seems to be the temporary home of all the new talent in town during open casting time. My guess is she arrived in January for pilot season when the new network shows do their open calls. I can’t guarantee she’s still there, though.”

“Well, we can try,” said Nina. “Thanks for the information.”

Just as Nina was handing Ruth back the photo Teddy walked in. It was obvious that he’d combed his hair and had spent some considerable time splashing cold water on his face, as the tiny droplets still clinging to his cheeks clearly showed.

“Problems all taken care of, Mister Sunnegaard?” asked Ruth.

As he silently nodded his head and resumed his seat his manner was contrite. “I was wondering, Ms Woolley, if we could start those negotiations again.”

Nina shot a pleading glance at Ruth.

“Very well, Mister Sunnegaard, here’s my card. Call me in a week or two when you’re free and we’ll have lunch.”

Teddy jumped up and pumped his fist in the air, exclaiming loudly, “Yeah!” Noticing the startled expressions on the two women’s faces, he quickly sat down again, took the card, and said more calmly, “Excuse me. I mean, that would be fine.”

And on that note, Nina said a quick goodbye to Ruth, mouthing “thank you”, then rose from her chair and led a suddenly jubilant Teddy out of the office.

© Cantara Christopher 2012, 2022

TO BE CONTINUED EVERY FRIDAY 13 MAY — 12 AUGUST 2022

NEXT: CHAPTER 6. THE SMORGASBORD

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