Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays by Zadie Smith

  It’s oddly oppressive to set off on a journey into a place so thoroughly imagined by other people. I have already in my dress bag the very picture of someone else’s Hollywood dream, having made the mistake of telling the women in Bond Street that I am on a journalistic assignment to the Oscars. It is single strapped and red; a huge bow sits on its hip; it has a bustle, a train. It is a dress that misunderstands Hollywood, its complex tiers of power and display, its careful politics and manners, which feel at times as intricate as any eighteenth-century France had to offer. On the plane my airplane steward approves, folding the bag carefully over his arm (“I can tell by the weight—it’s fabulous”) and hanging it reverentially in the little closet for which it is too long by a foot and a half.


  A New Yorker cartoon: a delighted man in a bathtub is proclaiming “It’s Oscar time—there’s that special tingle in the air!” Meanwhile his wife is ironing in the kitchen, surrounded by cats. As you land in Hollywood, a strange inverse relation takes hold between involvement and anticipation: the more degrees removed a person is from the Oscars themselves, the more excited he or she is. Oscar-nominated directors sigh and speak wistfully of going instead to a ball game. The boys who valet park are putting bets on best actor. In the cab to the hotel the driver has this to say: “You gotta understand: when you can imagine that everyone around you has the same goal, one focus, that’s a shared spirituality. It’s beautiful!” My driver, like many in Hollywood, is a screenwriter. He has two scripts at the moment. The first is described as “a shoot-’em-up for the Xbox generation.” The second concerns itself with a hypothetical meeting between the comedian Harpo Marx and the millionaire Armand Hammer. He has done his research and can prove that both men were in Hamburg in September of 1933.

  “And you? You here for work?” Well, I’m assigned to write this piece and there is some, mild, talk of turning a book of mine into a screenplay. This is dismissed out of hand, correctly—the article is not yet written, the film is not made. This is not work. My driver can speak with real pity of some of the most famous actors in Hollywood for the simple reason that he or she has had no film releases so far this year. Success is success and is not mistaken for anything else. The town is bigger than any individual, even the superstars, and in that it is the exact opposite of vulgarity.


  Friday afternoon at the Mondrian Hotel on Sunset Boulevard. The Mondrian is a true fantasy Hollywood hotel and this is evinced by the fact that few people in the industry choose to stay there. The front door crawls with photographers; the pool is surrounded by bougainvillea and blond bathing beauties; just below my room in the hotel’s precipitous “sky bar”—from which you can look out over the whole of Hollywood—a DJ starts the party at six and keeps on going till three in the morning. The music is gangsta rap, played for a mostly white crowd who see in the “pimp” the model of smart business practice. The rooms are white, as are all the fittings; every sheet and chair and table and pillowcase, every vase, every flower in each vase. Actors screw up their faces in displeasure at the mention of the Mondrian: “It’s a little bit too . . . much somehow.”

  Hollywood has many tiers. Sitting by the pool are hot girls in bikinis and their jock guys, ordering twenty-dollar cocktails and lobster maki rolls, watching the dreamy water of the Hockney pool lap at the edges of the terra-cotta tile surround. Nobody swims. A young black couple, dressed in the Versace knockoffs they believe appropriate to this scene, pose in a lounger and get a waitress to photograph them, living the dream. This is repeated several times that afternoon, by Italians, English, Australians. Everybody speaks of the Oscars, loudly. It’s the only conversation in town. The hot girls check their watches and turn over. These girls create a Hollywood frisson by the pool, but they are quite different from actresses. Hot girls are perfect—actresses are not. Actresses are too short; their faces are lopsided, their noses askew. Actresses are charming. They are not tanned to a brown crisp; they do not wear sarongs with Gucci symbols on them. Their breasts are real, or else the work they have had done is of a tremendous subtlety. There is a depressing disconnect between these girls who wish to be actresses and what a successful Hollywood actress actually is. It is the strangest thing to sit by a fabulous L.A. pool in a fabulous hotel and understand that as far as Hollywood is concerned, these are the have-nots.


  Friday night brings a private party in the hills. The house is in the prairie style of Frank Lloyd Wright; wide, low and elegantly extended. At the end of a wide vista of lawn lies a dimly lit swimming pool, a long thin rectangle cut out of plain white stone. Steam rises off the water. The many connecting doors are wide open: you can stand outside the bathroom and see right through the building to the garden, two hundred feet away. Freshly cut purple poppies are in their simple stone vases. Saul Steinberg is on the walls. Everyone is cold—even for the desert, this is a chilly night. People gather under heat lamps and squeeze four to a bench, keeping close for warmth. It is an effort to be continually amazed; these are humans, after all, and in a celebrity party without any press, the celebrity aspect fades, having nothing to contrast with. After passing through the shock of their normal human scale and all that Photoshop obscures—smallness, wrinkles, slightly smeared mascara—you are left with something like a golden wedding anniversary party at which no one can identify the happy couple. The young actors goof off, tease their elders, threaten to play the piano. Elder statesmen greet one another with respectful formality, listing one another’s achievements, discussing future projects. The nominees are, by now, battle-scarred companions—they’ve been through half a dozen award shows since January. People drink little and eat less. Music plays and an infamous wild-child starlet tries to encourage dancing but gets no takers. The atmosphere is civilized to the point of suffocation. In two aspects it is reminiscent of a party in a university town. First, it is entirely self-referential. People talk about Hollywood in Hollywood as they speak of Harvard at Harvard. Second, there is a great fear of the ridiculous. People take care not to say anything that might make them look foolish. This fear manifests itself in a strange impulse to narrate events as they happen and thereby hold fast to a shared understanding of their meaning. Jokes are met not with laughter but with the statement “That’s hilarious. That is so funny.” Interesting or risqué anecdotes are neutralized by saying “That is darling. She’s completely darling.” People are friendly, polite, but never frivolous. Joan Didion, a West Coast believer but a Hollywood skeptic, has the last word on such events: “Flirtations between men and women, like drinks after dinner, remain largely the luxury of character actors out from New York, one-shot-writers . . . and others who do not understand the mise of the local scene.”


  At about one in the morning, the young waiters, who have worked discreetly all night, now begin to approach: “I just wanted to say, I really dig your work. I think you’re totally amazing. Good luck on Sunday!” The actors, caught midway through conversations about their families, their dogs, a book they’ve read, a good restaurant in New York, now have to put their game face back on and become whoever it is the waiter thinks they are. They do this, for the most part, graciously. Confronted with such an embarrassment of riches, each waiter has chosen his virtual intimate to harass—that special actor who made him cry in the cinema, the singer whose tunes he plays when he clocks off work.

  Outside the party the paparazzi have arrived. They do not have to chase anybody—there is nowhere to run. We are on a dark hillside in the middle of night. “And what would happen,” asks a rueful young director, “If an actor just stood out there all night? Took a photo from every possible angle, naked, told them every last thing they wanted to know. Would that be it? Would they be finished then?” It’s a long process; the huddle under heat lamps, the wait for cars. The actors themselves are relaxed about both the wait and the photographers outside; it’s their drivers who are anxious and defensive, projecting desires onto their charges that don’t seem t
o be there: “Can I get this guy out of the way for you? Shall I move him out of your face?” An actor goes out into the scrum and then comes back a minute later. “They don’t recognize me—I got fat for a role and now they don’t recognize me. I’m fasting now. Eight days so far.” To which comes the reply, “Me too! I just did five. Isn’t it great!”


  A few of the nominees adjourn to Canter’s, a sprawling Jewish diner where you can get good chicken soup at two in the morning. I order one such soup with a matzo ball the size of my fist swimming in the center. The nominees order a plate of pickles and corned beef sandwiches; they drink beer and joke with a gang of teenage girls behind them. They talk about an actor’s distant family correction to the poet Wordsworth, about Hollywood, the house prices in Brooklyn and who has the largest fry on their plate. How to explain the fact that the same kinds of kids who on Sunday will scream their lungs out on the bleachers outside the Kodak Theatre are, right now, at two in the morning in Canter’s, sitting perfectly calmly while several globally famous actors eat home fries in the booth right next to them?


  On morning TV, some of the human beings from the night before are being described in Olympian terms by a pretty girl with a microphone. The detail is obsessive and alienating: what they might wear, eat and drink this coming Sunday is carefully itemized and salivated over; how they exercise, what they think about, whom they kiss, how they speak, where they go. The answers to these questions are all different, but one truth reigns: they are other. In relation to them, the only correct position is incomprehending awe. One cannot imagine their world, their ways.

  I take my laptop out in an attempt to work by the water. A hot girl is loudly telling another hot girl that “Brokeback is so fucking awesome,” which is the consensus of the town, though little satisfaction can be drawn from this. That Brokeback, Capote and Crash are fucking awesome is neither here nor there for Hollywood: these films were all privately funded. This pool, like every pool in town, is now more frequently visited by excited young writers with laptops who have been cheered by the year’s “maverick” wave. This is the time for telling the world how Harpo Marx met Armand Hammer. Up in the hills the mood is less joyous. Strung up all over town are giant posters for Paramount’s new romantic comedy Failure To Launch, which is exactly the kind of underperforming, studio-made film that is causing the problem. These posters, with their airbrushed, smiling stars, flutter above the highway like the standards of a king who has been deposed, at least for this weekend.


  Brunch with the nominated writers. Like everybody else, I have my Hollywood fantasy, and this it: a 1920s Spanish-style villa with original Mexican red and blue tiles in the fountain, with a living room Jimmy Stewart may have sat in once. It’s next to a golf course; every few years a ball breaks a window. The weather is darling: eggs and bacon and omelets are served in the courtyard. Being with writers instead of actors is like sitting in the pits instead of in the gods—one can speak freely, without fear. This is not their lives, but only an interlude. They make sure to tell you how they have kept their Manhattan apartments. Occasionally you meet a delusional Hollywood screenwriter who believes that without people like him there would be no movie business at all. Factually, of course, this is true—but it is delusional to draw any real conclusions from it. Scripts will be written, if need be, by fifteen people and the producer, or one million monkeys and a typewriter. Most screenwriters understand this and are wry about their Hollywood interludes. They are full of warnings and horror stories. “Do a first draft, but don’t touch it after that—unless you want your heart broken.” Or, alternatively, “Do the final polish, but that’s it. You’ll never write another novel if you get in too deep.” One writer nods and smiles encouragingly as some structural plans are outlined. “That’s very nice. But it doesn’t mean shit once an actor gets hold of it.” There is a campy relish for the Hollywood experience among the writers that is inaccessible to the “front-of-house” actors, who must live every day with the fantasies that are pressed upon them. “I weigh myself four times daily!” a man screeches, laughing as he says it. His companion wants to know if he has ever found that he weighs something different by the end of the day than he did at the start.



  Oscar morning arrives and it is impossible not to succumb to the thrill of the thing. A man comes to do my makeup. Here is his assessment of my dress: “If you were collecting the all-time queen of Hollywood lifetime achievement award, you would be overdressed.” A cocktail dress is substituted. At four o’clock in the afternoon, I get in a car and pick up two writers who are writing a film that actually has a shot at getting made. We are going to the Vanity Fair dinner at Morton’s to watch the ceremony on video screens, eat some great tuna and then wait for everybody to leave the Kodak Theatre and join us. The Oscar ceremony most resembles Christmas in its sense of anticlimax. Everyone was so excited earlier; now they are subdued, and grow more subdued as prizes are won and the potential web of alternative futures gets smaller and smaller, until there are only the people who won and everyone else who didn’t. There is a chorus of “Well, that’s just hilarious” from every table as the Oscar host makes his jokes, although few people actually laugh, and everyone is made tense by occasional jibes against individuals, studios or Hollywood itself. When it is over people seem relieved. The consensus is that it wasn’t as bad as it might have been. One girl text messages through the entire event.

  And then they come. We are told to vacate our tables and walk forward, where we will find Morton’s magically extended by the addition of a huge tarpaulin tent. At the mouth of the tent, the same TV girl with the microphone interviews the stars as they appear. Her MO is extreme naïveté: “What goes on in there?” she keeps asking, although she is as famous as many of the people inside and will soon join the party. “Can you just give us some idea of what kind of thing happens at a party like this?” Most of the invitees are at a loss to answer this question. An action star thinks about it and then indulges her: “It’s like Vegas: what goes on in there stays in there.” But “in there” there is only a charming, if tame, cocktail party, with a good deal of free booze and stilted conversation and a Porta-Potty. Everywhere people are trying to get introduced to other people, and feel glad when they are. These are melancholy victories, though. At a normal party we befriend people with the hope of seeing them again, of having a friendship, even a love affair. A “celebrity” encounter is more like a badge to be collected and then shown to other people. A whole night of collecting such badges grows demoralizing. You begin to understand the angry people you meet in Hollywood, who by choice or necessity regularly submit themselves to these one-way charm offensives, speaking with other human beings whom the world believes to be more than that. Yet there are people who seem to enjoy it; who work the room collecting all the badges and have no time to waste. At this party, a very short man who had been talking to a star and then, through a subtle shift in the circle, got stuck with me, actually asked to be released from his bondage. “Is it okay if I talk to someone else over there?”

  This party is fun, all are beautiful, except for the old men who are powerful. People are drinking, finally, and the room is full of indiscreet conversation, much of it about where people will go next. Are you following the rappers with the thirty-thousand-dollar grills on their teeth and their newest accessory—a gold statuette in the palm? Or are you following the Frenchmen holding plush toy penguins above their heads? Committed badge collectors follow the whisper of the hope of an invitation up into the Hollywood Hills, in someone else’s car, with no clear idea of how they will get home.

  Outside Morton’s, waiting for my car back to the hotel, I meet an old actor, a favorite of the late John Cassavetes, smoking a cigar and explaining how things are with him. “He chose me, you see?” he says of Cassevetes. “Me. It was a thing to be chosen by him, I can tell you that.” He is full of soul, and his eyes are rheumy
and beautiful. “This town’s treated me well. I was never a star, no one knows my name, but I always worked, and now it’s given me a retirement plan. I’m the old dude in any movie you care to mention. Make nine or ten a year.” He smiled joyfully. We stood together on the forecourt with a lot of other people less joyful: losing nominees, yesterday’s news, TV stars, hungry models and people so famous they couldn’t get to their car without causing a riot. Of all the fantasies and dreams people have of a life in Hollywood, it seemed odd that no one had thought to dream a career like the one just described.


  The next day I woke at eight. In the name of research I watched an hour of fantasy television about the Oscars that in no way described the evening I had just had. I went back to sleep and woke at eleven. I checked out and dragged my hangover and my laptop down to the pool. It was empty. I ordered a quesadilla, but the speedy service that had been in place only yesterday had vanished. It took half an hour to get some Tabasco sauce. And then it began to rain, softly at first and then dramatically. I moved in under the glass roof and thought of nearby San Fernando Valley, where the American porn industry—a fantasy industry even larger and more remunerative than Hollywood—is located. The pool boys packed up the loungers around me. The rain drummed the surface of the pool and forced water over its edge, soaking the feet of the waitresses as they cleared the tables.

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