THE MOVIE lost me way early on. I sighed, uncrossed my legs, and stuck them in the aisle. Mark poked me. He whispered, "Stop it. Sit still."
I said, "If this tuna doesn't end soon, I'm going to shoot myself."
Mark patted my arm. I pictured the gun I kept in a closet at home, and laughed out loud.
Someone said, "Sssh!" Two people in the row ahead of us turned around.
I bit my lip and slumped down lower. The theater was packed with journalists. A new Tom Cruise movie was always an event, and the studio had put us in their largest screening room. I picked the major critics out of the crowd and tried to guess what they were thinking. Their faces were blank, of course: their jobs were too political for them to let their real feelings show. But I could guess what the feature writers were thinking. They were worried how much time they'd have with Cruise and how much space they'd get after the photo spread. They had no choice about the movie; they had to be nice. Sometimes I envied them.
I sighed again. Mark reached over and tapped my notebook with his pen. He whispered, "Write."
"Can't I please go?"
Mark pointed at my notebook. I flipped to a new page and looked up at the screen. Tom Cruise was kissing Penelope Cruz on a background of dark bedsheets. He dabbed at her mouth while the camera and music tried to make it sexy.
I stopped myself from laughing again. I'd never bought Cruise as a romantic hero. The film could be set in the nineteenth century or cyberspace; it didn't matter. He was a plastic corporate doll. He made love like a guy who'd answer to CEOs if he mixed his bodily fluid with the costar's.
I shut my notebook and started to get up. Mark looked over. I whispered, "I'll be right back."
He nodded and I walked up the aisle to the lobby. Out in the light I checked the press kit for a running time. The movie still had an hour left. I found an upholstered bench, lay down, and closed my eyes. There was the rest of this screening, then Barry's party tonight. I didn't want to go to his useless party. I wanted to be alone to think.
Something was very wrong with me. I'd been acting unprofessional and I couldn't figure out why. Over the past month I'd missed a deadline and refused to write about the fall season. I just couldn't get enthusiastic about Harry Potter-or even a new David Lynch film. It wasn't normal. The summer movies were bad, but low morale was no excuse. There'd been bad periods before and I didn't miss deadlines or fight Mark's assignments. No one had said anything at the paper yet. But there were hints that I might be in trouble.
If I was in trouble, I knew Mark would take my side. I didn't know, though, if Mark could protect me from our boss. Barry's attitude about Hollywood had changed. He'd softened up toward the studios and started to interfere in the film section; he said he wanted our coverage to be more "mainstream." Mark and I were having a hard time believing it. On every other topic, the L.A. Millennium was raucously un-mainstream: we couldn't believe that Barry Melling would cave in to Hollywood. We also knew that the pressure to cave was tremendous and that Barry wouldn't be the first or last casualty.
I'd felt the pressure myself when I moved to L.A. I knew that Hollywood was a company town, but I didn't know what that meant for me as a critic. I'd gotten the picture fast. The Millennium was a hip local weekly-close to the bottom of the clout barrel by Industry standards. Our opinion might affect the fate of an independent or foreign film, but we couldn't hope to affect the opening weekend of a studio movie. Which meant, among other things, that we weren't on the list for early Tom Cruise previews. Tonight was a total surprise. Barry had exerted himself to arrange this screening. He'd made phone calls and twisted arms and somehow gotten Mark and me in.
Mark didn't know what Barry was planning. He feared what I feared: that Barry wanted Cruise for the cover. We both thought that was impossible. The Millennium hardly ever got access to Hollywood stars, and never a star as big as Cruise. But Barry just might swing an interview, and if he did, I might be forced to contribute. I might not be in a position to refuse.
Someone touched my shoulder. I opened my eyes. Mark was standing over me. He said, "It's been fifteen minutes."
I rolled off the bench and followed him back into the theater.
This was the best job I could ever imagine. I loved movies-and all I did was see movies, think about movies, and write about movies. They let me say what I wanted and I earned decent money doing it.
But I opened my notebook, looked up at Tom Cruise, and felt profoundly tired.
BARRY'S PARTY was going full blast by the time I got home. The driveway was blocked with cars, so I left mine down the street and walked back up to the main house. The front door was standing open; voices and light came from the ground-floor windows. People stood around on the lawn, talking.
I lived in the pool house of a mansion in an old section of town called Los Feliz. Los Feliz was one of L.A.'s first movie-money enclaves. It grew up during the silent era, when most of the film companies were based between downtown and Hollywood. The mansion was a huge stucco Spanish with painted tiles and hand-carved wood everywhere. It'd been built by a fruit rancher for his mistress, a Mack Sennett bathing beauty. Now it belonged to a group of investors who rented it out for parties and film shoots. Barry was one of the investors and he'd offered me the pool house in exchange for minor caretaking. I jumped at the chance to live on a movie set in the historic Hollywood Hills. I'd never liked to do anything halfway.
I ducked through the crowd in the foyer looking for Barry. Last week the mansion had been dressed to imitate a Santa Barbara hotel. That film crew was finished and the interior had been stripped again. The walls were blank, the floors were bare, and the big front rooms were empty except for catering tables. There were two bars and a ton of hors d'oeuvres. Barry had put on a spread.
I found him in the telephone alcove at the back of the foyer. He'd just hung up the phone and he was frowning. His clothes were different for the occasion; he was wearing a blue blazer and tan slacks. At the office he wore thongs and a kimono over jeans.
Barry saw me and checked his watch. He said, "You're late. How was the flick?"
I made a face and dropped my briefcase in the corner. "Tom Cruise always has been, and always will be, a human prophylactic."
"I knew you wouldn't like it-I had Mark take you as a test."
Barry pointed at the stool. I sat down. He leaned against the wall and crossed his arms.
Barry Melling owned and ran the L.A. Millennium. He was a former hippy radical turned Wall Street investment analyst. In the '80s he took a trip to California and had yet another revelation. He sold his business, moved west, and started the Millennium with himself as editor in chief. I'd met him at a party in New York in '96. An intense little man with frizzy red hair had come up to me and started talking about his hot alternative weekly. I'd mentioned movies and we had a long argument. After the argument-which I won-he offered me a job. I'd just gotten in from Paris and was looking for work. It was an incredible stroke of luck.
Barry said, "I've been going over your recent stuff and I have to tell you, I'm not happy."
I leaned out of the alcove and waved at the people. "Aren't you the host here? Can't this wait until tomorrow?"
Barry quoted one of my lines from memory. "'Bridget Jones's Diary made me sorry to be female.'"
"Well, it did."
"Listen to yourself, Ann-'human prophylactic,' 'sorry to be f...