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Now, in his most ambitious book to date, Still Holding, the third in the Cellular Trilogy that began with I'm Losing You and I'll Let You Go, Wagner ...
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Now, in his most ambitious book to date, Still Holding, the third in the Cellular Trilogy that began with I'm Losing You and I'll Let You Go, Wagner immerses readers in post-September 11 Hollywood, revealing as much rabid ambition, rampant narcissism, and unchecked mental illness as ever. It is a scabrous, epiphanic, sometimes horrifying portrait of an entangled community of legitimate stars, delusional wanna-bes, and psychosociopaths. Wagner infiltrates the gilded life of a superstar actor/sex symbol/practicing Buddhist, the compromised world of a young actress whose big break comes when she's hired to play a corpse on Six Feet Under, and the strange parallel universe of look-alikes -- an entire industry in which struggling actors are hired out for parties and conventions to play their famous counterparts. Alternately hilarious and heartfelt, ferocious and empathetic, Still Holding is Bruce Wagner's most expertly calibrated work.
As a girl, Becca hadn't resembled Drew Barrymore at all. But now, at twenty-five, especially after gaining a few pounds, she had grown used to comments from bartenders and store clerks, and the half-startled looks from passersby.
That was funny because her mom had always gotten the Sissy Spacek tag, even if Becca thought that was mostly because of a bad nose job. Still, Sissy and Drew were worlds apart, physically. It was a subjective thing; sometimes people could see the Sissy, sometimes they couldn't. But no one ever seemed to have trouble with Becca's "Drewness." Her boyfriend Sadge, who on a good day looked like a piss-poor Jack Black, got his kicks from playing it up - like the time he booked a table at Crustacean under Drew's name. He made sure to get there first and had Becca come forty minutes later in huge sunglasses, head swathed in a knockoff Hermes scarf. They were high, and the maitre d' wasn't thrilled. (He must have been on to them from the beginning because Sadge had been ushered to the "civilian" zone.) A few diners turned their heads when Becca arrived, but she didn't have as much fun as she might have because Jordana Brewster was in the house, just on the other side of the glass partition, with a trim bald man Becca assumed to be her manager. Whenever Sadge laughed raucously or cued Becca to ham it up, the aspiring actress felt foolish, as she was certain Drew and Jordana knew each other. Jordana didn't look over once, and the whole thing kind of threw water on it for her. Suddenly Becca felt cheap, like a character in her friend Annie's favorite movie, Star 80.
That was the week she saw Drew on a Jay Leno repeat. Her divorce from Tom Green had just been announced, but there she sat, surrealistically giddy about the marriage. She gushed that her husband had sent a dozen roses and a note saying good luck on the show, and the audience sighed. Jay volunteered that it was actually a statistic that comedians stayed married longer. Drew said how great was that. It was so horrible and depressing that Becca actually got nauseated then angry that someone in programming would have been so careless as to rerun that particular show. She thought it might have been deliberately perpetrated, like when those malicious video store clerks splice porn into animated classics. Jay Leno struck her as a good and decent man, and she told Sadge - who'd laughed throughout the segment until Becca hit him - it was the kind of thing that if it was brought to NBC's attention by Drew's management (she hoped), the talk-show host would definitely apologize to her personally. Becca actually considered being the "whistle-blower," but then her own career concerns overtook her.
* * *
"That was great," said Sharon. "I think you've got the potential to be quite a comedienne."
She gave the word a Frenchified emphasis, and Becca was lost. Did she mean stand-up? She was too intimidated to ask for clarification. Maybe she meant Becca should be doing gigs at the Laugh Factory instead of wasting time trying to get movie and TV roles.
She decided she didn't care what the woman meant. She would simply persevere, perseverance being the one quality all successful actors had in common. She'd just gotten her SAG card and had finally found a commercial agent but didn't yet have the all-important "theatrical." Still, she thought of herself as a winner because only a month or so after a general meeting with Sharon Belzmerz, one of the big casting directors on the Warners lot, she had been invited back to do a taped audition for a WB pilot. Sharon's friend, Becca's acting coach, made the initial contact. What you always heard was true - it was all about personal connections.
"That was really fun!" said Becca. "Thank you so much for seeing me." She glanced at the video camera on the tripod opposite her. "Can I get a copy?"
Sharon smiled at her naivete
"Well, the director has to see it first - then we usually recycle."
"Oh! That's OK," said Becca, hiding her embarrassment.
"You're really very good. Don't worry, you'll have tape or film soon. You'll have a whole reel."
On the Boardwalk
When her father had a stroke, Lisanne took the day off.
She worked for Reggie Marck in the penthouse offices of Marck, Fitch, Saginow, Rippert, Childers, and Beiard, at Sunset near Doheny. She was thirty-seven and had been Reggie's crackerjack executive secretary for thirteen years, beginning with his stint at Kohlhorn, Kohan, Rattner, Hawkins, and Risk. When he heard the bad news, he encouraged her to get on a plane and go home. That wasn't so easy. Lisanne had a profound fear of flying (a condition long predating 9/11). After a round of phone calls to her aunt, she went to the Venice Boardwalk to clear her head.
The shoreline was windswept and absurdly pristine. Since the bike path's renovation and the rebuilding of a few burned-out boardwalk apartment houses - not to mention the arrival of Shutters and Casa del Mar - the beach had lost some of its funky grandeur. There wasn't much to be nostalgic about anymore. The shops, vendors, and performers were forced to clean up their acts, and the city hadn't sanctioned Fourth of July fireworks on the pier in years because of the gangs.
Lisanne bit the bullet and took possession of her wistful stroll; she had some serious mulling to do. There was the dilemma of her father's grave condition, plus imminent jet travel.... Still, it was diverting to take in the scene. Because it was a weekday, there weren't many people out. Interspersed with the homeless was an upscale cadre of citizens busily exercising their right to play hooky at watery world's end. They spun or sprinted past doing "cardio" or simply sat and stared at the passive ruthlessness of the sea whence one day they would return, if they were so lucky. Heads tilted, faux-contemplative, to regard the occasional chandelier of gulls.
Lisanne waited for a woman in her late forties to jog by before crossing the path. A tribe of drunks sat on the grass. One of them yelled, "You go, girl! You c'n do it! You c'n do it, girlie!" The runner pretended to ignore him, but Lisanne could tell the bum had found her prideful nerve. Later, she saw a different drunk approach a gorgeous twentysomething couple. The boy's pants slung stylishly low, and the drunk said, "Hey, your fuckin pants are fallin down your ass!" The boy, smiling and trying to be cool, decided to say, "I know," to defuse the harassment. His girlfriend was being cool too, but the drunk wouldn't have it. "Then pull 'em up! Pull 'em up!" It was like the commedias dell'arte that Lisanne had studied in school. The bums and winos were there to keep it real, to deflate the ego and remind that all was vanity.
Lisanne slunk away to avoid being heckled. She was forty pounds overweight - a perfect target.
She tried to imagine herself climbing onto a plane. As a girl, she didn't mind flying so much, though she remembered only a few trips. The 747s were so big and she was so small that somehow it was OK. But now it was different. Reggie would have to hook her up with his doctor for the big gun sleeping pills, and if she timed it right, she'd wake up as they touched down at Newark. That was the best of scenarios. Aside from the obvious fantasies of wind-shear-induced nosedives, messy hijackings, human-debris-scattered cornfield fireballs, and charismatic pilots greeting her with gin-laced coffee breath as she boarded, Lisanne considered some of her lesser concerns to be laugh-out-loud comical. What if the pills put her out so deep that her snoring became shamefully stertorous or she drooled on the passenger beside her? What if her throat closed up or she had a reaction to the pills and vomited in her sleep? No - try as she may, Lisanne couldn't see herself getting into some fucked-up cylinder and hurtling through space. She wasn't ready to play that kind of Russian roulette. In heaven or hell, the biggest bunch of losers had to be the ones who crashed while flying to be at the side of a stroked-out parent.
She would take the train.
Does a Dog Have Buddha Nature?
Kit Lightfoot was in his trailer, meditating.
He was thirty-four and had meditated at least an hour a day for nearly a dozen years without fail. Out of carefully enforced humility, he had never shared that statistic with anyone, though the urge to do so frequently came upon him. Whenever he felt the pride of a Zen valedictorian, he smiled and soldiered on, letting the feeling wash over him. Years of zazen had taught him that all manner of thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations would arise and clamor for his attention before falling away.
His career as an actor had barely been launched when a friend turned him on to Buddhism. He took up meditating and, a short while after, visited a monastery on Mount Baldy. It was freezing cold, but there was wordless beauty and a stunning quietude that pierced him to the core. That was the week, he used to say, where he got a taste of stillness. Monks and dedicated laypersons came and went like solemn, dignified cadets amidst the ritualized cadence of drums, chanting, and silence - his unthinkable siren and dangerous new friend, for silence too had a cadence. (The hard poetry of silence, his teacher once said.) He watched a man being ordained and later found out he had once been a powerful Hollywood agent. Kit grooved to that kind of convert. He loved having blundered into this magisterially abstract Shangri-la of the spirit, a flawless diamond-pointed world that might liberate him from the bonds of narcissism, the bonds of self.
He got deeper into his practice. Between theater and film gigs he traveled to far-flung countries attending monthlong sesshins, awakening at four in the morning to sit on a cushion eleven hours a day when not immersed in the meditation of food preparation, tea ceremonies, groundskeeping. He was glad to be young and strong while learning the art of sitting in stillness. Older initiates had a hard time with zazen's physical demands.
It became well-known within the show business community, and outside it too, that Kit was a serious practitioner. He rarely discussed his thoughts or beliefs with interviewers unless the venue was a magazine like Tricycle or Shambhala Sun. He didn't want to trivialize something so personal or, worse, get puffed up in the process. There were enough celebrities talking about yoga and Buddhism anyway. He gave generously to the Tibetan cause and funded clinics and ashrams through an anonymous trust. That satisfied him more than any public discourse ever could.
In those twelve years of practice, Kit Lightfoot, the celebrity, was often the People's Choice. He'd finally been snagged by James Lipton (Hoffman and Nicholson were among the remaining holdouts) and photographed in Vanity Fair's Hollywood issue with the simple caption "The Man." He even won Best Supporting for a remarkable, artfully thrown away performance in a fluky, borderline indie lark filmed just before the death of his Buddhist teacher, Gil Weiskopf Roshi. After the fact, it seemed so perfect. It was Gil who had said: Throw it all away.
* * *
It was Thanksgiving time, and a whore was at his Benedict Canyon home. That used to be his thing, but he hadn't been with a whore since the early nineties. And he'd never cheated on Viv.
They were coked up in the living room, and he laughed as she held the dog's head between her legs. It kept trying to break free, and that made the whore laugh too. "Jus' like his master," she said. "Real picky." She laughed again and released him, then stood to pee. When the whore came back, she knelt by the Buddha at the fireplace and lit a cigarette. There were flowers and incense and tiny photos of enlightened men. She asked about the altar, and Kit said reflectively that it was a gift from Stevie Nicks. Then he gave her a little flash-card intro - Zen 101. Stillness. Sitting. The Power of Now.
"You meditate every day?" she said.
"Every day. For fifteen years."
A Star Is Born
Becca was part of Metropolis, a modest theater company that leased space on Delongpre. The roof was undergoing repair, having been damaged in the rains, so the class was temporarily on Hillhurst at the home of one of its founders. Becca thought Cyrus was a wonderful teacher and a good director too. He was for sure an amazing promoter. Aside from agent and exec heavies, he always managed to get people like Meg Ryan and Tim Robbins to show up at openings.
For two weeks, she'd been working with Annie on a scene from a Strindberg play. She had never even heard of Strindberg until she met Cyrus but had to admit she loved Tennessee Williams more. She loved Tennessee's letters and poems and short stories - everything he wrote was so sad and beautiful yet filled with such tenderness. His women were at once tough and unbearably fragile, just as Becca imagined herself. She'd seen all the films made from his plays and liked This Property Is Condemned best. In real life, Natalie Wood was sad and beautiful too and just as tragic as anything. August Strindberg was brilliant and ruthlessly true to human nature, but sometimes he scared her, leaving her cold. She preferred Ibsen and Chekhov.
After rehearsal, they went to a coffee shop on Vermont.
"Did I suck?"
"No!" said Annie. "You were great. Why? Did you think you sucked?"
"I always think I suck."
"You so don't. You're always amazing. Cyrus loves what you do."
"Totally. He so totally does."
"You mean he loves the one line per play he sees fit for me to declaim."
"You'll get there," said Annie. "Anyway, do you see me majorly treading the boards? Do you, Miss Declaimerhead?"
Becca laughed. "I'm just so freaked out - about everything. Ohmygod, did I tell you Sadge might be going to Tasmania for this reality show?"
"No! What is it?"
"I don't even know."
"Where's Tasmania? Is that, like, near Transylvania?"
"I so want to go to Prague. You should go, Becca! You should go with him and use his hotel as a base. You could do absinthe. Like Marilyn Manson! It would be so rad."
"I don't think so, Annie."
"But won't it be good, though? I mean, weren't you saying you needed space?"
"Yeah. But it'll be weird suddenly being alone."
"Can't you not have a boyfriend for one minute?"
"It's pilot season, and I haven't gone up for anything."
"That's why you're freaked out," Annie said knowingly.
"But you saw that casting woman."
"It doesn't matter."
"What did she say?"
"That I could be a 'comedienne.'"
Annie scrunched her nose the way Becca loved. "What does that mean?"
"I have no idea."
Excerpted from Still Holding by Bruce Wagner Copyright © 2003 by Bruce Wagner. Excerpted by permission.
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