A map of greater Los Angeles looks like something Picasso drew while wearing a blindfold, and I lived an area where Los Angeles and Beverly Hills swap streets like the artist swapped body parts on his canvas. I lived there because I worked in the Industry. If you have to ask “which industry”, you may want to stop reading now.
I was a television writer, good but not great, and I was moderately successful for a few years. Mostly, I wrote teleplays, movies made for television. Sometimes I wrote my own stories. Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye was an original noir mystery I penned. It got made. Another original script, All Circuits Are Dead, was sold but not made; the same goes for adaptations of true stories, Rolling Stone, Razor Ribbon, and teleplays based on books, Raven Stole The Moon, to name but one. I got paid but the TV movies never got produced. The average then was one out of every seven screenplays/teleplays that was sold got made. Most people who write screenplays and TV scripts never sell any of their work.
I was halfway through my ten-year career when I pitched CBS a story about Ingrid Bergman. The beautiful and talented Swedish actress is best known for her role as the star-crossed lover in Casablanca. I wasn’t interested in a biopic of Bergman’s rise from obscurity to fame or her brush with Bogart. What interested me was the story of her love affair with Italian film director Roberto Rossellini. Scandalized, Bergman would abandon her daughter, her career in Hollywood, and her adopted country to marry Rossellini. I took the project to a classy African-American woman at CBS. I won’t mention her name. She liked it, sold it to her bosses, found a producing partner, and scheduled a meeting.
Out meeting was held on Sunset Boulevard in LA. Very little of the Industry actually happens in Hollywood, which is a tourist trap and generally seedy unless you live in the hills. It was hot that day. As I parked and made my way to the conference room I was preoccupied, but not with the heat or Hollywood. These people were paying me $85,000 to write a script and making a good impression was foremost on my mind until I entered the room and saw Salma Hayek.
You see unbelievably beautiful women on the screen all the time. The key word is unbelievable. Truth is, you can take an average looking woman off the street and give her a Hollywood makeover, and she’ll look like a star. The people that work in hair and makeup and lighting and costuming are that good. The truth is if you see these beauties in Whole Foods or grabbing coffee at Urth Café, in real life the screen goddesses usually disappoint you. On the other hand, half of the waitresses slinging burgers and beers in LA are natural beauty queens. The same can be said for Hollywood actors too, fashion model faces abound, but guys don’t figure in my fantasies. Salma Hayek did. If God has a mold for female beauty, he used it with Salma.
Somehow I didn’t stumble or drool when we were introduced. Lucky me! The CBS executive was there. Salma’s producing partner, her face and name now forgotten, was there as well. Everyone deferred to Salma anyway.
It was hard to know where to settle my eyes while looking at her: beautiful hair, beautiful face, and comic-book-fantasy chest. Ten minutes later, with my eyes ready to cross and stay that way, I realized that Salma not only is beautiful, but she also is smart, shrewd, and strong.
I performed my dog-and-pony show and everyone smiled and said the right things. These were the early days of the project, a time in Hollywood where everyone plays nice. But Hollywood isn’t about nice; it’s about illusion.
I’ve lived in New York, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles and have said to friends: New York is about money; D.C. is about power; and Los Angeles is about the illusion of money and power. I no longer remember if this analysis is original or if I borrowed it from someone. It still feels true.
Midway through our meeting I was sweating. I’m not a person who sweats unless it’s 110 degrees or I’m on the elliptical machine pumping away to Choctaw Bingo on my iPod. My vision began to cloud not long after the sweat glands bubbled. Before long, my left arm felt tight, like air was being pumped into it. It got so tight that Ringo Starr could have banged out a beat.
“Oh god!” I thought. “I’m having a heart attack because I’m staring at Salma Hayek’s breasts.”
I don’t remember the rest of the meeting. I must have remained coherent because the project went forward. But as soon as I left the meeting room I drove straight to the Bob Hope Health Center on La Brea Avenue.
My doctor saw me quickly, so you can imagine how bad I must have looked. I think my blood pressure was like 212 over you-could-die-any-minute. I answered all of his questions, but nothing was different about that month or that week or that day: I eat well and exercise and don’t smoke and drink moderately and am generally fit. The doctor concluded that my faulty genes finally had caught up with me; hypertension was literally in my blood. I didn’t mention that the trigger to activate these flawed genes had been meeting the most beautiful woman in the world. I left sometime later with a prescription for medication and instructions to give up caffeine (I did).
I would have other meetings with Salma Hayek, and before each of them, I would take a double dose of medicine to be safe. Finally, the screenplay was finished, and we met in the same conference room so that the same women could offer advice and voice concerns. They did both: does Ingrid have to leave her daughter? Well, she did. I don’t think this sounds like Ingrid, they said. Uh, actually, the dialogue is a direct quote. And so it went. They didn’t want Ingrid Bergman; they wanted the illusion of Ingrid. Salma was nice but firm in what she wanted. So was I. In Hollywood, might always beats right. A day later, I was fired. It was the only time in my career I got fired.
I never saw Salma Hayek in person again, but I’ve followed her career. Recently, I had a houseguest in Maine who came loaded down with magazines and left behind a copy of something called Style. Salma is on the cover. She looks beautiful but Barbi-doll-fake in that airbrushed magazine way. If ever a woman doesn’t need a makeover, it’s Salma Hayek. She’s far more beautiful in real life, dangerously beautiful in fact. I ought to know.