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By Joel Achenbach
Sunday, September 18, 2005

During my trip to California I spent some time in Hollywood, which is not really a place, but an industry, a concept and, specifically, an illness. It is a contagion of diabolical virulence. Suddenly I have the urge to cut deals, take out options, write treatments and mention famous actors by their first names. It's like going to the tropics and catching malaria, or visiting Texas and coming back with a belt buckle the size of a Frisbee and a mustache that looks like a small mammal on your upper lip.

The fever kicked in big time when I met some actor friends at a restaurant in Malibu. Walking toward my table, everyone looked at me, scanning my face to see if I was somebody. Their eyes flitted away with disappointment. I would have taken offense, but I was doing the same thing to them, even more egregiously, my head on a swivel, sweeping the room like a machine gun trying to take out as many faces as possible. Nobody, nobody, nobody -- the place was empty. I'd have settled for an anonymous character actor, a soap star, someone from a game show. There were a few folks who, by dint of chin structure, swept-back hair or glamorous aviator glasses dangling on their chest, might conceivably have represented a hit in a room of misses, and I spent the rest of the evening fighting the urge to go up to these people and say, "You look like you might be, or at least might once have been, somebody."

At dinner we talked a lot about Brando (or "Marlon," as I call him). There was a consensus that flags should have flown at half-mast when Brando died, and major sporting events postponed.

"He was a genius."

"He wouldn't memorize his lines because he wanted to be surprised when he said them."

"For 'The Godfather,' he went to the zoo and studied an old gorilla. He wanted to see an alpha male past his prime."

Go watch "The Godfather" again, and you'll see it's true: Brando's Academy Award-winning performance is just a gorilla impersonation.

(Apparently many actors imagine themselves as animals when they perform. A prominent exception is Johnny Depp, who, in "Pirates of the Caribbean," impersonated Keith Richards. But that's arguably the same thing.)

One day I went for a hike in the Hollywood Hills, near the famous "Hollywood" sign, with my filmmaker friend Wayne. Wayne will be a mogul someday and do all his business poolside with a cell phone the size of a Cheez-It. As we examined the sign -- remarkably simple, unglamorous, just white letters propped up on a scrubby brown slope -- a shirtless man jogged by, with excellent facial bone structure and movie-star hair, his body bronzed by the sun, his pace determined, eyes hidden by expensive sunglasses. He was perhaps three pounds heavier than he'd like to be. "Fat!" Wayne said. Hollywood is cruel. The runner's agent surely told him: Start jogging, and don't stop until we can see your ribs.

The movie talk got me thinking about the s-word. I could write a screenplay, which would enable me to say, at parties, "I'm a screenwriter." To write a screenplay I'd need only a topic, a plot, a guide to screenplay punctuation and formatting, and perhaps an agent with a name like Swifty. Right now I see George Clooney in the title role, but that's as far as I've gotten, creative-wise.

I could stick to journalism, but a symptom of Hollywooditis is the belief that all pieces of writing, all ideas for that matter, only have meaning to the degree that they wind up on film. True example: Years ago, a very talented reporter at a California newspaper wrote a great series of stories about a metropolitan police force. He ran into a Hollywood person at a party. The person complimented the newspaper series and then asked the journalist: "Are you going to do anything with that?" Just being on the front page of a newspaper didn't count! No, that's just notes. That's just raw material that might someday ascend to the lofty status of film. (And guess what? He didn't do anything with it.)

For the record, this column can be optioned for a very modest sum. Just pay me a reasonably staggering amount of money, offer an "executive producer" credit and, if you don't mind, throw in a decent pair of shades.

Read Joel Achenbach weekdays at washingtonpost.com/achenblog.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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