I knew that I bragged too much – “I had to tell people…I got into Kessler’s poetry class.” For sure, I boasted to the pages of my diary. I doubt anyone ever paid me a compliment I didn’t promptly record, verbatim. I’m probably bragging right now, by reprinting this particular diary entry. (“Look how great I used to be!”) That said, if I’m ever going to correct my character flaw of vanity – or is it pride? – I need to own it, so here goes – I’m conceited.
It’s not very Norwegian. My parents raised me not to “sing my own praises.” (On the other hand, there is that parable about not hiding your light under a bushel but I’m not sure that exonerates me.) I always dislike myself after I “toot my own horn” – just not enough to stop doing it.
Obviously, my braggadocio stems from a pervasive sense of inadequacy. Einstein didn’t announce he was a genius. Garbo didn’t brag that she was a famous movie star. Brilliant, talented people don’t need to tell the world how smart and exceptional they are. It’s obvious. It’s equally obvious when they are not. And no amount of self-promotion can turn mediocrity into greatness.
I didn’t know it at the time but this was my last day of employment as a secretary and the start of a major transition. Although it wasn’t officially confirmed I was pregnant, I strongly suspected I was and I was right. Since quitting my job meant relinquishing our health insurance, my timing was terrible.
In addition to impending parenthood, I faced an extremely uncertain future as a film and television writer – as illustrated by my conversation with my UCLA writing professor and mentor Bill Froug. Not only did I learn the unhappy story of another writing professor’s life, I realized it might take Froug – my champion – an unspecified “while” to read my outline. If the man who most believed in me wasn’t eager to read my latest, how could I hope to interest the powers-that-be in Hollywood?
At the time of this entry, I hadn’t earned a dime writing, John was in his second year of law school and our first baby was on the way. I should’ve been petrified but for some reason I wasn’t. To be sure, there were some hard times ahead – it would be four years before I’d see any success as a writer – but I believed we’d be all right – and we were.
It was totally in character for the late Bill Bowers to treat fledging writers to lunch – he was legendary for his warmth and generosity. In his drinking days, he churned out three or four scripts a year. Sober, he slowed but not much. He wrote a whopping 39 movies including “The Gunfighter,” for which he received an Oscar nomination. On the Zoetrope lot in 1980, Bowers occupied one of two offices upstairs from where I wrote a Cindy Williams MOW project.
My UCLA screenwriting professor Bill Froug interviewed Bowers for his first book – the Screenwriter looks at the Screenwriter – so I understood what a privilege it was to spend time with Bowers. He regaled us with stories about old Hollywood, each one better than the last. I wish I’d had the presence of mind to write them all down.
The other upstairs office belonged to Martha Coolidge, a rising young director. We formed a friendship that outlasted Zoetrope.
One of my most satisfying moments as a writer occurred when Martha and I shared a room at the Oaks, a health spa in Ojai.
She’d read and liked my spec script “At 17” but re-read it at the Oaks. From across the room, I scrutinized her face for clues – did she like it as much on her second read? What was she laughing at? Was it meant to be funny? It was hopeless, I couldn’t gauge her reaction — until she turned the last page, tears streaming down her face. Genuine tears! Does it get any better than that? I’ve never felt so validated. (I cried my eyes out when I saw “Rambling Rose”. A true karmic partnership.)
Recently, Martha suffered a serious fall from a horse that left her hospitalized for weeks. In true Martha fashion, she amazed doctors by her incredibly rapid recovery. It was less surprising to friends like me because I’m well aware Martha was born to break down barriers, exceed expectations and amaze the experts.
Imagine that. My first paid writing job, and I got Bill Bowers and Martha Coolidge as office-mates – how lucky can one girl get?
It’s embarrassing to look back at the mistakes I made – to realize how much I didn’t know. First – and possibly most important – I had no idea how lucky I was. Fresh out of school with one spec screenplay to my credit, thanks to a recommendation from my mentor Bill Froug, I signed with Bob Bookman, a hot up and coming agent at IFA.
I still pitched terrible ideas to Bill. Lucky for me, he didn’t sugar-coat the truth. He didn’t hesitate to tell me something I wrote was boring or hopeless. I hated to hear it at the time, but today I’m grateful. His blunt honesty spared me from wasting an incredible amount of time.
My most egregious error, though, was what I said to Bookman. “That’s your job, isn’t it?” As I came to discover, no, it isn’t. No agent wants to represent a writer who expects the agent to do all the work. As a novice, I should have been generating spec scripts when I wasn’t networking or forging connections. Bookman was more than capable of doing a great job representing me, but I needed to give him something to work with. I didn’t and within a year, he dropped me as a client.
Signing legal papers officially releasing Bookman and IFA from representing me was one of the low points of my career. At the time, I was deluded enough to be angry with him but now I know better. I failed to honor my part of the unspoken contract and he was right to cut me loose. The fact that I didn’t fully understand that contract is no excuse. I should have.
If there’s one thing I did right, it was maintaining my friendship with Bill. Four years later, my relationship with him gave me a second chance.
I met Walter Hill in 1973 at a dinner party hosted by my screenwriting professor, Bill Froug.
Walter and David Giler were the only two other guests I remember by name. I was in awe of their talent and success as writers. Finding myself a guest at the same dinner party made me feel like anything was possible. My life could be as big as my dreams.
Walter and I dated for a few months. I was living in San Diego and commuting to LA for meetings so a serious relationship never developed – well, certainly not from his point of view. I was wildly infatuated with Walter; I thought I was in love.
In retrospect, I didn’t know him well enough be in love although there wasn’t anything not to like. He was witty, confident, talented, brilliant and kind. He introduced me to Randy Newman’s music. The problem – aside from the fact that he wasn’t looking for a long-term relationship then – was I didn’t know who I was. I didn’t really want to marry Walter so much as I wanted to be Walter. I wanted to absorb his talent, his confidence, his success, his work ethic.
Maybe he sensed I was a predator, out to steal his soul. Maybe he just liked someone else better. I’m pretty sure I scared him away. I did write one ill-advised insane letter I deeply regret mailing but that’s another story. He made the right decision when he cut me loose.
When we ran into each other again a year later, he was the nice, confident, talented witty guy I remembered. I’m grateful he forgave and forgot how close I came to being his stalker.
It was exciting to see his star rise over the years. I felt proud – and lucky – that I’d met him. By then, I understood that dating a famous writer couldn’t transfer his talent or confidence to me. Even marriage couldn’t have accomplished that. I was forever stuck with being myself.
It still astounds me that in 1978, five years after I graduated, my former UCLA professor Bill Froug did something so extraordinary. It’s not like I hadn’t let him down before. In 1973, he helped me sign with a hot agent and almost produced my spec script but it didn’t pan out. A year later, Hot Shot Agent dropped me because I “hadn’t been as productive as hoped.” There’s nothing like signing a contract releasing an agent from any further obligation to represent you to remind you that you’re a loser.
I felt depressed and defeated. I got married and had a baby. In October, 1978, I was a writer who washed up before I got my feet wet, the harried mother of a 2 year old and the most inept housewife in the greater Los Angeles area. My conversation with Bill that night reminded me that once upon a time I felt special.
I wasn’t sure how seriously to take his offer to get another agent to read my script. I didn’t deserve it, having burned through one agent and flamed out. My confidence – my motivation to even try – was so low I couldn’t imagine following through even if he placed the call.
I’d attempted to hide my depression (who wants to look pathetic?) but he saw through me. Even so, he could’ve left me to sink or swim on my own. Instead, he found the time – despite his hectic schedule – to call Susan Holoff and pitch a total unknown. He committed me to drop off a script that afternoon. Only after he’d done everything in his power to force me into action did he call and issue my marching orders. Get the script to Susan no later than 4 PM today.
Froug’s unprecedented and generous gesture changed my life. Nothing anyone has done for me before or since rivals the impact of his show of faith. He raised me from the dead and opened a door to the career of my dreams. Gratitude is insufficient; the only way to pay it forward is to do the same for another fledgling writer. I don’t have Froug’s connections or clout but I’m going to do my best.
I don’t know where, when or even if Jack Nicholson made that comment but plenty of people relate. Consider all of the rock and pop songs about the anguish of running into your ex – Walk on By, I Go to Pieces, I Go Crazy and When We Were Young to name a few. The gut-crunching misery of realizing the heel who broke your heart is living la vida loca without you is timeless and universal.
When I find out an ex is getting married, my higher self wishes them well. My lower narcissistic self prefers they pine for me forever. If that sounds heartless, consider this. How happy does the dude who shattered you deserve to be?
IMHO, the vengeful narcissist inside all of us roots for the bastard who dumped us to crash and burn in an epic fail. Anybody who acts overjoyed when their ex’s success far eclipses their own is a liar.
My own encounters with exes occurred in or around Melnitz Hall at UCLA where our film major brought us together. Since leaving college, I rarely run into anyone I know, not even casual acquaintances. That’s life in the big city.
However, a motivated ex can beat those odds with an assist from Google and FB. The downside is the risk of being labeled a stalker and served with a restraining order.
I’m a crying fool for movies (Splendor in the Grass, The Way We Were, Wild Horses) in which ex-lovers encounter each other long after their breakup. It kills me how they make awkward chit chat to hide the depth of their true feelings. Does it work this way in real life? Sometimes, probably.
What gets to me is the message that even though it’s over – their great passion is gone and it’s never coming back – the remnants of love remain in a new shape. It might manifest as love from a distance or devotion to a memory. It could come in the form of compassion, affection, concern or the deep camaraderie of people who know each other to the core. It might not be the love we’re looking for or the love we want but a little love is better than nothing.
Something about that always makes me cry.
 In the interest of full disclosure, even when I was the heartbreaker, I wanted them to pine for me forever.
To put this in context – I’d just learned that my spec script, which had been optioned by Steve Friedman’s Kings Road Productions to be a feature film, was going to be re-written by another writer. Bill Froug was my screenwriting professor and mentor at UCLA.
My agent and my mentor were correct. Having your work rewritten by someone else is part of a writer’s life in the film business (less so in television but it still happens). I ended up rewriting many more scripts by other people than having my own scripts rewritten which ought to make me feel better but it doesn’t. The fact is, it always sucks to be told you’re off the project – especially when it’s your own original spec script.
I suspect other professionals would react the same way if this was routine practice in their business. Imagine a surgeon being told that a new surgeon in town had been hired to remove the heart he’s just transplanted in order to insert a better one – or an interior decorator who gives her best only to learn all of her work is off to Goodwill and a new interior decorator will start from scratch. It hurts to be replaced. And it never got easier, although I did get better at hiding my emotions. (Hint: It is considered bad form to cry like a baby when – not if – this happens to you.)
I understand why it sometimes has to be done. Sometimes it even works out for the best. It’s easy for a writer to get tunnel vision and see only one way to solve a problem. New eyes spot new solutions. Given the fortunes and executive jobs attached to the success or failure of a film, no wonder so many execs play it safe and bet on the flavor of the month instead of a newbie. If the “hot” writer tanks, at least they had a reasonable basis to believe he’d succeed.
If and when it happens to you, remember it’s not personal. It’s only business. And then cry your eyes out in solitude.