One day Ann Beattie and I were taking the Metroliner to New York, and Ann volunteered to go to the snack bar for something to eat. I told her I wanted some Cheese Munchees. When she returned, she said apologetically that the man didn't have any Cheese Munchees and that the man in fact had never heard of Cheese Munchees.
With an unashamedly huge haw-haw, I told Ann that of course he had never heard of them because there was no such thing. I had made it up as a practical joke to embarrass her.
Six years later, a box of Cheese Munchees arrived in the mail.
Ann had found them at an imported foods store in Connecticut.
But now Ann was more than a friend with a fiendish memory. She was a famous writer, with more than a dozen short stoies printed in The New yorker -- yes, The New Yorker -- two published collections of stories ("Distortions" and "Secrets and Surprises"), and a novel, Chilly Scences of Winter," that has been made into the motion picture "Head Over Heels." It opens in Ann's home town, Washington, tomorrow.
Ann gives readings all over the country. Ann's picture was on the cover of the SoHo Weekly News. Ann gets mail from men in prison who have read her stories and fallen in love with her. And a Boston paper even referred to the people she writes about, usually disenchanted orphans of Affluenza, as The Beattie Generation.
It is hard to define The Beattie Generation except to say that most of its members came crawling out of the '60s with all systems overloaded and now spend much of their time in dentist' chairs, doctors' offices and at the pharmacies where they pick up their Valium.
Since they do not know what they want out of life, nor exactly what they don't want, they are easily fixated. In "Head Over Heels," a young man name Charles is obsessed with a young woman named Laura. He spends the whole movie, and spent the whole novel, trying to get her, because to him she represents the rarest thing in the world, a constant.
Beattie has written of dwarfs and mad boys and obsessive-compulsives in profusion, and while not all her characters are fugitives from the decade in which she came of age, most are people who do not know which way to turn. Not knowing which way to turn, she takes as a sign of worldly wisdom; it's the people who always know which way to turn that you have to watch out for.
In college, when not off on drunken binges induced by a single beer, she could sometimes be seen lurking around in mopey poses like Snoopy hanging over the edge of his doghouse roof. And then she could brighten into spectacular giggles. She laughed merrily through all the sad parts of "The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds." Told of an erudite albino whom she simply had to meet, she recently shrieked something to the effect of not wanting to know a single additional odd person.
Of course that was a fake, because the next odd person she meets could well find his way into a story, tragicomically or comitragically. She writes Diane Arbus pictures, and naturally, this a kind of writing that doesn't interest Hollywood in the least. The San Fernando Valley, because Ann has been given a cameo role as a waitress in the film by its three bright young producers, Mark Metcalf, Amy Robinson and Griffin Dunne.
"How do you like my bazoongas?" asks Ann because what she calls "huge falsies" -- from what I call the special effects department -- have substantially enlarged her breasts, except that now and then one or the other will slip down and turn her all lopsided, which amuses her no end.
Her hair has been piled into a killer beehive "with 17 pins," she boasts and she looks much older than her 31 years. She stands with a prop coffee pot inside Harry's Cafe, which seems definitively a dump but which still has a swimming-pool-cleaner-for-hire ad on its bulletin board. After all, this is southern California, although in the movie it's supposed to be Utah.
"They won't let me speak," Ann complains before shooting begins. "If they do, they have to pay me $225." But the star of the film, John Heard, conspires to get her four more seconds of screen time; "I could bump into you on my way out," he suggests. Eventually she does get to stammer a few uh-uh's, but only gets paid $26, in cash.
Ann is wearing an apron which has been smeared with tabasco sauce and griddle grease by the folks in wardrobe, "but they felt my jeans and boots couldn't be improved upon," Ann says, so these remain under the apron. "I tried to get a heart necklace to wear, but they said they didn't have one," she mopes.
The big Panavision camera has been mounted on the counter. Ann gets to hold the clapboard that says, "52a -1, Chilly Scenes of Winter," which makes her exclaim in a mock-southern gush, "Oh my goodness!" and flash a gosh-a-mighty grin.But between takes, as she stands waiting under a jillion-watt light with the coffee pot in her hands, she looks like a little girl who has run away from home and hit the skids.
Joan Micklin Silver, the author of the screenplay (which Ann loves) and also the director, does not appear to be a joy to work with. She is wearing jeans about five years too small and they force her to walk like a llama. She throws one of several tantrums because I have been allowed on the set, but when I talk to her face-to-face, she puts on the big grinny friendly act.
"I think I have to work with Ann a little on motivation," she jokes. "We gave her a choice of roles and she said she wanted to play the waitress. She picked! She picked!"
"It's my nightmare vision of myself," Ann explains.
Ann can rest between takes in one small room of a large trailer parked near Harry's Cafe. It isn't very glamorous because the doors to the toilet are sealed with tape and a big sign says "Out of Order," prompting Ann to recite her favorite line from "Bonnie and Clyde," which is, "The accommodations ain't particularly de-luxe."
Here she will go through the motions of being interviewed by a reporter from a Los Angeles paper. "Do you think the story translates well to film? he asks. "Yes," she replies. Later she complains of reporters, "All most of them ever ask me about is my idea of marriage and what kind of dishes I eat off of anyway."
One reporter asked her if she were getting psychiatric therapy and then began to berate her when she said she wasn't.
But then Ann has always attracted peculiar or forlorn people -- not exclusively, of course, but in abundance, from the millionaire transvestite she once knew to the furtive young woman who pursued her all over the University of Connecticut with potted violets. In Hollywood, she claims to have been chased through town, first on foot and then on bus, by a boy purporting to be a rabbinical student.
She was saved from his clutches by, of all people, Joan Micklin Silver, who Ann happened to run into in West Hollywood just as the student was closing in.
One cab driver told her he was a Reichian therapist and offered her a free chiropractic treatment. Another, she insists, was "stoned," drove "two miles an hour," charged her $23 for a trip in from Santa Monica, and then told her after a long conversation, "I don't think you really brought me out, you know?"
United Artists, distributor of her movie, was not sure whether "Chilly Scenes of Winter" made a very commercial title. Of course anyone could have told them that it wouldn't, but they chose to give a consulting firm, Ann learns, $25,000 to research the title and see if it will work. After a few weeks the consulting firm replies that yes, it will.
One month before the picture is released, the title is suddenly changed to the horrendous "Head Over heels," and it is decided not to open it, after all, with the Percy Sledge recording of "When a Man Loves a Woman," which Ann had loved. "All the bad decisions they made about the movie they made at the last minute," she grumbles.
Ann hangs around in Hollywood for longer than she thought she would, even though her fee of appearing in the film doen't even make a dent in her plane fare from Connecticut suburb where she and her husband, David, and their sickly and neurotic dog Rufus, who takes 12 pills a day, now live.
She buys herself a pair f gaudy yellow running shoes with racing stripes and a bright red Chinese silk jacket. She also buys a Lone Ranger pin and several photographs of complete strangers that were on sale at a local junk shop. She spreads the old pictures -- of God-knows-whose uncles, aunts and cousins -- out on the table in her beachfront hotel room and marvels at how "wonderful" they are.
Then producers Amy and Griffin pick her up for a trip up the coast to a horrible seafood restaurant where the lobsters are alive and swimming in tanks and you can hear them scream when they are boiled. Although the restaurant is only a few hundred feet from the Pacific Ocean, a big deal is made out of the fact that the lobsters were flown in from the Atlantic.
In the back of Griffin's car is the shooting script for the film, which includes several pages of warnings from the United Artists television department. All movies now made are made with eventual TV sale in mind, and so there is a kind of advance censorship to keep them as televisable as possible without a lot of added editing.
The advisories are neatly typed and numbered and refer to various pages and scenes of the script: "delete 'Christ,'" "delete 'bastard, "delete 'christ,'" and "delete 'rubs yogurt into her nipples.'" There is also a caution not to shoot too low when Charles is sitting in his bathtub.
Ann goes to Hollywood parties. Ann meets Joseph Heller. Ann has dinner at La Scala with Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne. Ann, who has terrible taste in movies (she loved "Play It as It Lays" and "Fellini's Casanova"), says of the movie business after all this exposure to it, "It's just a different thing from writing books. I don't look down n it. I don't think it's a lesser form.
"What impresses me most about making movies is how boring it is. They spend so much time just sitting around. We stood in a parking lot for 4 1/2 hours one night while they tried to make it rain with hoses and sprinklers. But the food is good. We had fillet mignon for lunch one day. And everyone was very nice to me."
And now here we all are in New York for an invitational screening of what will always be to some of us "Ann's movie." The audience, highly partisan, enjoys the picture to pieces, but Ann is embarrassed that her screen credit, and the screen credit for the young producers, get big ovations from the crowd, while Joan Micklin Silver's name only elicits little pockets of pitty-pats.
"I still think the thing is incredibly good. I couldn't stop laughing," Ann says as she comes out of the theater after the film. Then she gets on a bus with other guests and our old and dear mutual friend. Mister B, who once weighted 350 pounds, lost 125 pounds, and gained back about 150 pounds.
"Oh, Mister B!" Ann gushes as she had gushed a thousand times before, even though she is almost crushed sitting next to Mister B in the tiny bus seats. We arrived at a Madison Avenue hotel for a party.
Ann is in her glory as people come forth to congratulate and hobnob; there are a few people from her past, like old encouraging professors and editors, and some who are just plain fans. The best news of all as far as she is concerned is that the producers loved her so much as the waitress that they want to cast her in another movie. As a waitress.
She'd cancel a vacation, an operation or a speech to a joint session of Congress in order to do it. One of Ann's many charms it that she is not in the least conceited but she is incredibly, incredibly vain.
I have always told Ann that fame and fortune posed no real dangers to her psyche because she has been spoiled all her life. Her parents, who still live in Washington, have always doted on her. Everyone dotes on her. She's very, very doteable. One of the impressive things about "Chilly Scenes of Winter" is that she was able to write it from the point of view of the doter rather than the dotee.
As I got off the bus for the party, I thought of the day I read the first Beattie story to be published in The New Yorker, her big break from the artsy intellectual journals into the literary mainstream. I was sitting in the back of a G-2 bus on the way to Georgetown. It had just reached Wisconsin Avenue, where years earlier Ann had driven me up and down in her '65 Mustang while we drank cheap champagne from plastic glasses and waved at loitering hippies. There were hippies then.
I read the last line of the story, and then I read it again, and then I read the name "Ann Beattie" as it appeared in the magazine's austere and authoritative typeface. And then like a stupid fool I sort of started to choke up -- not a big blubbery wail, really, just some wayward mistiness. Other people on the G-2 probably thought it was bus fumes.
I think what hit me was that the little flirt in the Mustang, the faithful college drinking buddy, the beleaguered, one-term Harvard prof, the waif who tramped out to her mailbox time after time for only the reward of a rejection slip, had made it, really made it, made it at last. You feel proud and warmed and encouraged when a gifted friend finds success, but you cannot help thinking you have lost something, too.
In Ann's movie, Charles is asked if he is happy. "What's 'happy?" he replies.
Later, Laura is asked if she is happy. "I don't deserve to be happy," she says.