When I am inside a character, that is the only time I know who I am. Costumes help, too. When you look in the mirror and see the ruff around your neck, velvet corset and gold tassel, you know that you’re Queen Elizabeth. When you see the blood on the side of your face, the bruises that have taken hours to paint and sculpt for the hi-def cameras, you know you’ve been hurt.
This scene I’m in, right now. I’ve been getting shot for the last 4 hours. If you know my movies, you’ll know I’m not talking about a hypodermic, either. The squib guys have already plastered my shoulder with white hospital tape, the hydrolic charger covered in a thin layer of fake skin. The makeup lady did a good job. I don’t remember her name. I don’t have that kind of time.
“Again,” is all the director says. Marty Killenbeck is his name. My agent has reminded me at least half a dozen times already. I get into place. The makeup lady reworks the false skin and the tech guys resets the squib. I have never worked with him before, but the whole crew has that doggy slouch that comes from working with assholes. My skin prickles. I’m just too old to deal with shit anymore.
The magazines might tell you that 50 is the new 40, but it sure as hell isn’t. In Hollywood, if you haven’t been to one of Nicholson’s parties or slept with James Cameron by the time you’re 40, there is no fucking way you are going to make something big after 50. You’re the mother, the mother-in-law, the funny aunt, the woman who is killed in the first act.
If you’re lucky, you get to be the Queen. Even then, where do you go from there?
The critics called my Elizabeth “wooden, yet over-dramatic,” like I was fucking Pinnochio in a burlesque show. What can I say? I want to tell you that I don’t care what they think, them or the magazines. I want to tell you that the face on the magazine cover is just as cold as it seems. But, when I’m alone, I drink and cry on my own pictures.
“Again.” The voice from the darkness.
I gotta keep my mind in this one. I spend too much time lately, wandering through the old hallways, opening up the locked doors. Faces I can almost forget when I am working. When I am someone else.
Run towards camera 4, stop at the x, slow pan up to my face, the closeup goes here and we already shot it, breath heavy, bite my lip, unclip the gun
bring the gun to my chin, steel near my eye
emphasis on any it’s different from last time, maybe that’s what he wants, Jesus my head hurts
scan through the mist in the distant trees ignore the sounds of the fans and pretend you’re in the jungle instead of behind the Universal lot near the place where the shark from Jaws is being ogled by tourists from China, remember to say the line this time, shouldn’t have drunk that tequila
“I’m from the DEA.”
pull the badge which looks like a toy close up from your pocket and flash it then he says
“Put down the gun and we’ll talk.”
Think. Stop and think. What is your past? What do you believe? Why are you here? Who are you?
Who am I?
I bring the gun down slowly. My character has made the decision to trust. Today, I am that person. And I am wrong.
The squib detonates as the other actor pulls the trigger on his plastic Colt 45. I fall, arm pitches backward. There is a little pain where the device explodes above my breast, and I can image that I have truly been hit. I fall, the gun knocks from my hand. My eyes go soft and I can see that the perfect golden light is fading fast. We’ll have to wrap this up soon so that the continuity guys don’t pitch a cat.
There is audible swearing from behind the camera. The director walks out. He’s short and skinny. One of the new Hollywood elite. He just came off of another superhero sequel, at least that’s what my agent told me. He is pissed and sweating. I wonder if he directs better on heroin or if he just always looks this stringy. He is shaking his head at me, and I suddenly feel very thirsty.
“Lexi, honey, what are you doing?” He kneels down next to me. Prop guys are resetting the boxes I have fallen into, one presses my gun back into my hand. Jerry, the effects guy is pulling the patch off my arm, his face as red as an Irish drunk.
The AD shouts for a five and all the union junkies grumble about time. I push myself up and dust off the black pants. Costuming panics and rushes me.
Marty offers a hand to help, and I brush it away.
“Maybe if I knew why we were doing this scene a fucking billion times, I would get it right.” The costume and makeup crew is on me like a flock of aging whores, wiping, rubbing, fanning, teasing. Marty catches the AD’s eye, and the squirrely freckled face swoops in and shuffles them away towards the food service table.
Killenbeck, The Director of 14 Summer Blockbusters Including Time Stopper and Mr. Bones, crosses his arms and touches one finger to his lip. Like he’s figuring out how to explain electricity to a 5-year-old. The silence kills me, it really does. I want a cigarette so bad. And a fifth of Jack.
“Well? What am I doing wrong?”
“Listen, maybe we should take a little break. We are almost out of light. Besides,” he is mentally patting me on the head and telling me its time for bed, “I’m not sure you’re in the right frame of mind for constructive criticism.”
“Constructive criticism? Fuck yes! Any criticism would be fine. I’ve been working these same two lines to death for the last 4 hours. Anything that’s not a one-word command would be great.” Now, I am pissed, too. Serves him right. No one has ever treated me like this, not in the 30 years I’ve been making hack movies. Without really thinking, I have mirrored his body language almost exactly. Shit. I sit down in one of the canvas chairs, legs crossed in true ice-queen style.
The AD jogs towards us. I can’t help but think he reminds me of a red-headed Topher Grace. Cute kid, dumb as a windowpane. “Um, Mr. Killenbeck? We’re ready whenever you are.”
Marty Killenbeck, The Director With Revolutionary Soul, puts a hand through a curly crop of black and says, “Tell them we’re cutting it for tonight.”
“Are you sure you want to do that? I mean, we’ve been working on this one all day. I think everybody would like to get it over with.”
“Hey.” He turns to the squirrely AD and his freckly mouth snaps closed like a trapdoor: click. “Tell them we’re going to save it for tomorrow.”
The AD mumbles assent and stalks off, the rod back in his ass. He starts shouting, “Okay, everyone. We’re gonna give it a fresh coat of paint tomorrow.”
The crew mutters and I see my co-star chatting with one of the makeup girls. They laugh. Probably about me. I light a Winston and turn towards the trailer. Head Costume gives me a dirty look. I imagine what her hair would look like if it was on fire.
Killenbeck shouts at me. “Hey, we’re not finished yet.”
“I didn’t know that we’d started.”
“No hard feelings, okay. We just want to get this right.” He is so young, I wonder if I’m the same age as his mother. He’s giving me this weird look, like a combination of wanting to fuck me and wanting to fight me. I raise an eyebrow and blow smoke.
“Where are you going to eat tonight?”
This surprises him, and it sounds like he chokes on his answer.
“A little Chinese place out on Camden. I…uh, do you want to go?” I am turning the ice-blues on him like jet engines. He’s not going to survive the landing.
“I don’t get out much. If you want to talk to me, you can come by my room at the Harlow. 342.”
I weigh the options and flick my ashes. He doesn’t look like a perv, and it might mean a free dinner. Plus, I have found that going with the flow is much better than being a stick in the ass.
“Sure. I guess that makes sense.”
“Great, I’ll bring some Chinese up to your room around 8. Does that work?”
By the time he arrives, I am halfway through my first bottle. It sits on the silver cart next to the widescreen, and just starting to look liquid in the low lights.
“Sorry I’m late,” he drops the bags on the table and places himself in the slingback chair. I can see him sizing up my room: clothes on the bed, ashtrays full, the stale smell of old alcohol. Marty doesn’t acknowledge any of it. “Egg roll?”
I’m on the bed, warm and floating. Cigarette in one hand, flipping channels in the other. “No.”
He shrugs and pulls the food out. It does smell good, but I don’t want to give him the satisfaction of seeing me eat. I’d rather let him see me do a titty-tassel dance than eat in front of him. He asks if I’m hungry, I ignore him.
“What do you want, Max?”
“Marty. Whatever. Why are you here?” I stub out the cigarette and turn the cold eye on him.
He puts the white box on the table, chopsticks balanced careful on top.
“So much for small-talk, huh? Listen…” He takes off his tailored leather jacket and lays it over the back of his chair, props his foot up on the other slingback. “I’m not the enemy.”
“I didn’t know we were at war.”
He smirks, his hands over his skinny stomach. I should probably let him eat. It looks like he could use the calories.
“I saw Magnetic Rising when I was in high school. It was one of my favorite movies. In fact, it was the reason I decided to go into film.”
The bottle is looking good again. My throat is aching for it, but I’ll wait till he leaves.
“Thanks. It was a long time ago. Better not let the big shots hear you say it, either. It wasn’t considered a financial success.”
That was being generous, in most people’s opinions. Variety called it “a bomb of nuclear proportions.” Besides the string-fine budget which meant that wardrobe requested we bring our own street-clothes if possible, the effects looked like they had been made by a 9-year-old with a hard-on for firecrackers. If you ever see AMC’s Worst Films Ever, we usually make the top 15 or top 20. Last year, they specifically called me out. “Lexington Cross breaks the all-time record for bad acting decisions, starring in eight of the top 50 worst movies of all time, including her most well-known role as Brigitte in Magnetic Rising.”
Fuck. Even now, they’re ragging me. It’s not my fault I was a stupid actress with a shitty agent husband. Who knew he was siphoning off the top into his private get-out-of-dodge stash. By the time he was gone, I was much smarter and a shitload poorer.
All-time record. Bad decisions.
The silence is making Marty squirm. Good. Maybe he’ll finally say what the hell he’s been trying to say. I take a drink from my sweaty tumbler and then pour another. I must be staggering just a little, the room is getting woozy.
His face puckers. I decide to share and pour him a swallow. He eyes it carefully. Fine black dust floats down to the bottom of the glass.
“It’s broken Scotch,” I say. “That’s just charred wood from the barrel, it’s not gonna kill you.” He takes a drink and shudders, puts the glass on the table. I’ll finish it later. I prod him with a wave of my hand.
“Go on. You were saying how much you love shitty B-movies from the 70s. Keep going.”
“Actually, I’ve been following your career for a really long time. You know, I thought Magnetic Rising was one of the best movies I had ever seen.” I almost laugh, but I realize that he is serious as a tomb.
“You’d be the only one. Hell, I don’t even like the movie.” It’s true. Every time I see one of my other pictures on AMC or TCM, I’ll at least watch a little before turning it off. Sometimes I’ll watch all the way through, shouting increasingly drunken lines at the screen while the upstairs neighbor pounds on her floor. Bitch. Let a woman mourn in peace.
I don’t watch Magnetic Rising. That one hurts no matter how much I drink.
Marty shoots the rest of his firewater down, winces and fumbles through the pockets of his coat. He pulls out the movie, and I don’t even need to see the cover to know what he’s brought me. The groan comes out of my throat and I cope only by pouring the rest of the bottle into my glass.
“Do you always carry old movies around in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?”
He smiles. “You know why I love this movie? I know that the sets are bad and the writing is God-awful, and, generally-speaking, the acting is an abomination. But, there is this one scene…”
I don’t even need to hear this. I know what he’s talking about. I want to stop it like a man wants to stop a freighter that is about to turn him into train-track pulp. My mouth is still so dry, no matter how much I drink. I drain my cup and search the bottom. Marty’s eyes my glass.
“I know the scene you’re talking about. With…uh, the gurrl…and her…uh, mother.” The room sways, and I try to sit down on the edge of my bed. Somehow, I miss, and end up ass on the floor. And she sticks the landing! I giggle.
“Whoah there, Lexi. I think you’ve had a little too much…”
“I’m fine. Don’t nee’ help…”
He shakes his head, his face kind.
“Jesus, Lexi. Get your shit together. I remember who you used to be. Yeah, you got screwed by your douchey ex, I get it. You’ve gotta stop selling out who you used to be, who you could be. I believe that this person is still inside of you.” He shakes the DVD case at me like a preacher with a bible.
“Tha’ perssonn was never in sida mee…” Words are coming out funny now. Oh, god. I am shitting drunk. So much for appearances. I struggle to stand and the room swirls.
He stands, puts on the jacket. “If you want to keep your job, come to work sober tomorrow. I’m in your corner, but I’m not stupid.”
“Then why’d you let ‘em pu’ in dis Goddamn movie?”
He bends down, his face in mine. “I’m the one who wanted you in this movie, Lexi. No one else. Everyone told me it was a bad idea. Even now, the producers are on my ass about falling behind schedule. If we have another day like today…” He zips up his jacket, and heads to the door. I can hardly see him, my eyes are bleary, the room is falling all around me.
“Wai’…” I stumble after him. “Wai’….I’ll be read’ to go ‘morrow…I promise. I’ll do an’thing…” I want to believe this. I want to believe this so much.
He is halfway down the hall when he turns back. “You want to do something? Remind yourself of how good you can be.”
I’m in the hall, my nightgown is hiked up around my hips, but I hardly notice.
“This is your one more chance, Lexi. I suggest you take it.”
Next thing I know, I’m on the floor, and I am not sure how I got here. I’ve had too much to drink, even for me. I want to throw up, but I’m crying too hard to stand. I don’t know when I started crying. I hope it was after he left.
Stupid bitch, why are you always fucking your life up?
I make it to the bathroom almost in time. Instead, I manage to puke all over the pretty yellow rug in front of the toilet. I stagger forward, hoping to get some of it in the bowl. I slip in a puddle of watery vomit instead, pulling the shower curtain and rod down on my head. My hand is bleeding and covered in yellowish bile. I strip down, covering the mess with my sweats, and turn up the water so hot it turns my skin red.
When I leave the shower, I feel better, cleaner. The bathroom isn’t doing so good. The floor is covered in water, vomit, clothes and a broken shower curtain. I just close the door and pretend it’s not there. Maid service is going to be pissed tomorrow.
The room is still whirling, so I sit before I can get sick again. One look at the cold Chinese tells me I was lucky I didn’t eat before. Still, I am starving. I grab the nearest unopened box and dig into orange chicken. My stomach lurches, and I put the box down. That bottle is looking awful empty.
I could have room service bring up some itzy-bitzy bottles of booze and I could just fill it back up. This sounds like a stellar idea. Concierge has just picked up my call when I realize that Marty Killenbeck, Obnoxious Director of I’m Ruining Your Life and The Past Will Eat Your Soul, left that fucking movie on my table.
“Hello…Ms. Cross? Did you need something?”
“For people to leaf me allone!” I scream this into the receiver. Now maid service will have company. Lexington Cross leaves her mark: broken hearts and broken bottles.
The cover has been redone in psychedelic colors. My 22-year-old face stares back at me, fresh, with wide blue eyes and clear skin. Kelvin Dooneray looks at me in lust and fear as the Lobster Creature rises behind us in the darkness. Small UFOs (paper plates spraypainted silver and hung on fishing wire) hang in the sky. The tag is still on the video. Walmart, five dollars.
Magnetic Rising (1984). In this first production by director Harold Schwartzman, Chuck Williams (Kelvin Dooneray), along with his wife Jennifer (Margot Kiddman) and Special Science Officer Rick McElheney (Rod Snyder), they learn of a secret government project to create a diabolical creature. When they discover that their only hope lies in finding a pureblood Amazon warrior to kill the creature, they enlist the help of the stunning Brigitte (Lexington Cross), who has learned special magnetic powers for both men and beasts that can either save or destroy the world.
It was so long ago. I remember that costume. It was formed plastic with metallic spraypaint, hot as hell in the California sun. We hadn’t shot on a lot, they had gone down the coast between LA and San Deigo and filmed most of my scenes there. The girl on the cover is strong, young. Margot had been so mad she wasn’t on the cover, she had thrown a hair-dryer at one of the producers. It was in Movie Style two weeks later, “Enraged actress blows her chances at another Paramount picture.”
I haven’t seen this movie in years. Maybe not since it premiered so many years ago. I had walked out of the theater after that scene, talking about needing some air. Instead, I went to the bottle service and had a tall, cool glass. Just forgetting was good enough.
My fingers tingle as I put it in the DVD player. I skip the previews and get to the movie. I decide that I am going to make it into a game. I walk into the bathroom and pull out the bottle of blue pills. They’re called Amartex, and I got them to help me sleep better. Usually, I only take a couple. When you’re drunk, they make you feel like you’re flying out of your skin, like your whole body is just a costume that you can take off and on when you want to.
Tonight, I just lay them out on the table. They are little blue foot soldiers in a row. I swallow one dry and it gets stuck in my throat for a second. I will it into my stomach.
I think of calling again about the booze, but decide against it. This should be enough. I don’t want those poor people to feel responsible. Marty will get his share of guilt, but eventually he’ll see that this was a long time coming. I have been making this bed for almost 30 years. Time to finally rest.
The picture begins, and it’s the wide sweeping angles that Harold was so well known for. Credits roll by, mimicking the endless trail of the car that is being followed. You don’t do this anymore, it bores the audience to tears. If you ever watch that Mystery Science Theater stuff, they always pick some name and joke about it, just to fill the time. The screen is filled with makeup designers, boom boys, effects guys. We’re on the first handful of slides, Margot and Kelvin and Rod and I. I want to skip it all, but I don’t. I take a blue pill and wash it down with a throatful of water.
By the time I’m introduced, the Lobster monster has already killed most of the national guard and Science Officer Rick McElheny. This is a real blow to the audience, right? Because he is supposed to be the only guy who can control the monster. He has this huge computer panel, back when the idea of a personal computer was unimaginable, and he uses it to send sonar signals to tell the monster when to go back to its lair. Lobster Boy goes beserk, crushes the entire science station in its huge claw (animation that looks like it’s been done by my 7-year-old niece), taking Science Officer Rick McElheny out with him. No skin off my nose. I was just glad I didn’t have to do any scenes with him. He was the kind of guy who would compliment your costume with his hands.
They pull his body from the wreckage, although Margot looks as if she would rather touch a snake and Kelvin is obviously searching for his mark. Science Officer Rick McElheney tells Chuck Williams that he got his research from an ancient Amazonian book (which he conveniently has in his shirt, believability be damned) and that there might be a way to stop the monster through an incantation.
I’m feeling itchy. My throat, my scalp. Like my skin is about to fall off.
I call downstairs and have the front desk boy bring up a bottle of Bailey’s. While I wait, the Lobster monster ravages a tiny cardboard New York and steals Margot. Kelvin is trying to bring some pathos to his character, but only manages to scream for about 5 minutes straight. When the kid shows up a few minutes later, I tip him $20 and drink straight from the bottle.
I put the movie on pause, and take another blue pill. I’m not really sure how many I put on the table to begin with, but there aren’t many left. I’m not feeling sleepy, just tired. Those old doors, the ones I don’t want to open, characters are breaking through from the other side. My ex-husband screams at me from the grass of our Malibu home, demanding keys to get in. A litany of friends, concerned, questioning me about my drinking, my acting. The papers that have been merciless, condemning me, mocking me. “Lexi Cross Gains Pounds, Loses Grip.” “A Skinny Lexi Cross? Friends Say Bulemia’s to Blame.” “Lesbian Love Affair: One Movie Extra Tells All.”
Always the pictures. Pictures that tell a million stories in an instant, all of which are untrue, or are close enough to truth for it to immediately be so.
Just one more blue pill. Another drink.
My head is buzzing, the blood rushing in my ears. I have water on my cheeks. It’s salty in my mouth, and it makes me think of eating taffy at the ocean. When I was young and life was still an adventure.
I turn the movie on, the tears flowing silently, mixing with the chocolaty drink. The me with the bright blue eyes comes into the screen, fearless, dangerous. Bright like a penny, blonde hair dancing against the rough chop of the waves. I can’t help but think of her as a different person, as just another character. But, that’s not true, and I know it now more than I ever have.
(taken aback, enamored of the Amazonian woman with the flashing blue eyes. He is bold, but a little frightened)
I need your help. I’m Chuck Williams, a member of the National Science Experiment on Warfare. Do you know anything about this?
(he lifts the book, I take it from his hands, can still smell the leather, can still see the blank pages as I thumb through the prop. Just open it to the middle, they said, that’s the only place we wrote anything)
Yes. I know of the abomination that your kind has created. I can smell blood on its claws.
(the spear is covered in feathers and seaweed, almost like a Venus that has been born from this dark water. My stomach is flat beneath the silvery chest piece. Trickles of sweat between my breasts, down my thighs still smooth)
(cut in close to his eyes, searching)
Will you help us?
How can I help a people so bent on destruction as you? You care not for that which you have, so you can’t be trusted to have more. You steal knowledge that is not yours and twist it for your own purposes. You destroy and defile, and you wish an accomplice to save you from the fate you have devised. No. I cannot help you.
My heart is in my throat. For a moment, the tears have stopped, the bottle frozen in my hand. This is what I feared most, this woman from my past. It is not only the words that make my breath stop, it is her eyes. Those blue eyes that convict me, that reach through the screen, through time and waste and see me. They sum up all that I have done, all that I have been, and they crush it with a word.
“No. I cannot help you.” I am whispering.
(his eyes are soft. for a moment, I can believe he is a real person)
Please. I can’t change the mistakes I have already made. But, with your help, I can change the future.
The future holds only death. The only difference we make is how we reach that destination. I choose to do so in honor.
How can it be honorable to allow destruction when you could stop it? How can it be honorable if you turn away from the people who need you most?
(he takes her by the hand, their faces inches from each other. Her eyes are cold blue, steely-strong eyes, without remorse and without regret. But, then…)
Everything changed. Because, in that moment, I truly learned the words I spoke. We didn’t do another take, there was no need. When Kelvin shouted “Cut!” it was little more than a whisper. There were tears on set, quiet, like the ones that I am crying now.
Perhaps there is a space for forgiveness. Perhaps it is big enough that I can forgive myself.
(there is softness in these words, the icy voice gentle and kind. It was looking into myself that made the difference, an epiphany in ten words. It was a strange, solemn moment, and I brushed it aside with drinks and laughter later, at the after-party. I forgot on purpose, so that I’d never have to face the words again, knowing that the task was impossible, knowing that, even then, I had made too many mistakes to ever earn forgiveness from myself)
I stumble into the bathroom, knocking the towel aside, brushing the makeup from the countertops, bottles crashing to the floor. I can see hazily, the pills adding up, counting down the wasted days and hours in heartbeats. The blue eyes blink back at me. I search for a trace of that softness, the forgiveness that was captured accidently in a character that was only me for a few moments.
“Where are you?” I scream at the mirror, pounding against the counter, fingers white. “I know you’re in there, you lying bitch…Come out where I can see you!”
I sob and hitch, the world pitching slightly like the sea. I look down into the sink, the bottle of Amtrex is empty. My hand is shaky when picking it up, although I am calm inside. The woman in the mirror looks back at me.
“Perhaps…” she says softly. “Perhaps there is a space for forgiveness. Maybe it is finally big enough for you to forgive yourself.”
When they find me tomorrow, they will never know. They will only see the empty bottles, the blue pills. They won’t be able to see the soft eyes that look at me from the mirror, hear the gentle breath of rest that escapes my mouth as I fall to the floor. They will never know that I have been playing a character all this time. If it took me this long to see her, how long will it take the magazines?