Why is it that strange things happen to me every time I get off a plane at LAX? It’s almost like I start to hallucinate. I begin to see odd things, and the going gets weird. Perhaps I go crazy from the heat, but I don’t think so. I’m reminded of a quote from Mark Twain wherein he says, “It’s no wonder that truth is stranger than fiction; fiction has to make sense.” I was in LA to see the movie Secondhand Lions and interview its stars, Robert Duvall, Michael Caine and Haley Joel Osment. Sounds simple enough, but it took a turn for the weird on Saturday.
I arrived on Friday after a long day. We had a connecting flight in Dallas which added a few hours onto the usual flying time. Dallas airport is no place to get stranded. The food court doesn’t exactly look hygienic, and the young woman working at the Seattle’s Best looked at me like I was a dog with two heads when I asked what kind of teas they had. In the departure lounge I sit next to a guy with a long braided beard, cowboy hat and “straight from the hills accent” who is talking on his cell phone to his “Mama.” I now have a deeper understanding of the movie Deliverance.
The weather in LA is beautiful. It’s not my favourite city, but I do have to admit that just stepping off the plane into the sunshine put me in a pretty good mood. Ditto the hotel. We’re staying at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills, and I defy anyone to be in a bad mood while staying there. The food and service are great, and the lobby smells like orchids. I have a lovely room looking south towards the Hollywood sign and a television in the bathroom. I can shower and watch VH1 all at the same time. It’s good here.
I head down to the bar for some food and spot Robert Duvall having tea with a friend. After a quick bite (three mini burgers: one portabella, one sirloin and one turkey, $17) we head over to the Beverly Hills AMC to see the movie. The movie open until late September, so you’ll have to wait until then for a review, but I can tell you it is a family movie about an introverted boy (Osment) left on the doorstep of a pair of eccentric great-uncles (Caine and Duvall), whose murky backgrounds and exotic remembrances stir the boy’s interest and re-ignite the men’s lives.
After the movie we headed back to the hotel. On the outside patio I hear a woman tell her friend, “He’s going to have to come to grips with his childhood trauma sometime. I’ve told him what he should do is write a screenplay about it. It would be so therapeutic, and it would be totally castable.”
We also spot Tori Spelling and Tara Reid, who seem to be having the kind of fun that only young, rich girls are able to enjoy. Because I am not a young, rich girl I go to bed early and read my press notes. It’s been a long day.
SATURDAY AUGUST 9, 2003
I have a 10 am start time for my interviews. After some breakfast (fruit, scrambled eggs and a bagel) I am called away to speak to Haley Joel Osment. It’s 10:01 – things are running efficiently. As I am walking down to the room I see Osment and Michael Caine ahead. When they meet they embrace warmly, genuinely happy to see one another. I guess the chemistry I saw in the movie last night between them was real.
Once in the room with Haley Joel, I am impressed at how composed he is. He’s like a 50 year old man trapped in a 15 year old’s body. His answers are thoughtful and lucid, and he’s very articulate. He keeps a busy schedule and I asked him if he ever takes time out from being a movie star to be a kid. He told me he goes to a regular high school, has a good group of friends that don’t treat him like a Hollywood star and that he is learning to drive. I thought it was funny that after all this boy has achieved in his life that he is just learning to drive now. He seems so much older than his 15 years.
Next was Michael Caine. I interviewed him at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, and found him very easy to talk to. Before the cameras start to roll I ask him if I should call him Sir Michael (he was knighted in November 2000) or Mr. Caine. He says, “Please call me Michael.” I have a hard time with that for some reason, and end up referring to him as Mr. Michael Caine instead of one or the other. I tell him that I asked Richard Attenborough the same question a number of years ago to which he replied, “Call me Dickie!” Caine added to my story, “I’m sure he called you Darling, because he can’t remember anyone’s name.”
I asked him about the Academy Awards show of a couple of years ago when he singled out Haley Joel Osment for praise in his acceptance speech. He told me that he got two jobs out of that Oscar night. When Secondhand Lions director Tim McCanlies saw Osment and him together on the red carpet before the ceremony it gave him the idea to cast them as nephew and uncle in the film. Director Phillip Noyce was also watching that night and was inspired to cast Caine as Thomas Fowler in The Quiet American. He’s a pleasure to speak to, and you can see the whole interview on Reel to Real when it airs in late September.
Sometimes I am shocked by the level of professionalism of some of the other “reporters” on these junkets. In the hall outside of Mr. Caine’s room I spoke with a television interviewer from Miami who was going in after me. As she was opening the door she looked at me and asked, “Michael Caine, he’s British isn’t he?” “Only the one of the great British film actors,” I wanted to say, “a man who was recently voted fifth all-time greatest British actor of all time.” Instead I looked down at her and replied, “Yes, I think so…”
The last interview of the day is Robert Duvall. This would be the third time I’ve interviewed him this year, and I was determined to finally ask him about one of my favourite films of all time – Apocalypse Now. He remembers me from the last couple of interviews, but can’t remember where I am from. I tell him Toronto, and that I met him at the festival last year. He went on to praise the festival and specifically Piers Handling, the director of TIFF. We discuss Secondhand Lions and working with Caine and Osment. With just a couple of minutes left in the interview I ask him about Lt. Col. Kilgore and the famous scene on the beach where explosions are bursting all around him, yet he seems like he’s unaffected by it all, and doesn’t even blink. We’ll air his answer next season on Reel to Real in a new segment we’re planning on great movie moments.
That’s it, less than an hour after sitting with Haley Joel; I’m done for the day. I go back to my room, change and head out for a walk. Nobody walks in LA except tourists and the homeless, but it was a beautiful day and I thought I’d take in some of the sights. Left the Four Seasons at 11:45 am and walked for the next six hours. The last stop was Hollywood Boulevard and Cahuenga, a name I can’t figure out how to pronounce, but I imagine it sounds like someone sneezing. The conversation back at the hotel would go something like this:
“Where did you walk to?”
The walk started with a celebrity sighting just a couple of minutes from the hotel. Steve Martin was sitting in the patio of a restaurant called Barefoot on Third Street. Dressed in a t-shirt and shorts, he was sitting by himself making notes in a large bound book. Instead of raving at Mr. Martin about how much I liked his last book and that The Jerk is one of my favourite movies, I leave him in peace and continue walking.
From there I criss-crossed the city, meandering down from Doheny Drive in Beverly Hills to Melrose Avenue, across the little side streets lined with pink stucco houses over to Sunset Boulevard and down to the Sunset Strip. Along the way I stop to have a look at a 1920’s vintage Spanish style house on North Crescent Heights Boulevard. It is a classic small LA house, the kind of place you could imagine Raymond Chandler calling home. I looked through its 2461 square feet, three bedrooms and 2 ½ baths. Took in the Italian tile in the hallway and imagined giving dinner parties in the octagonal dining room. The sales agent, a nice fellow named Mike told me the place was on sale for one week only, reduced in price to a mere $899,500. My pipe dream of living in my own little Spanish casa near the Beverly Center evaporated as the words were coming out of his mouth. I thanked him for his kind offer and moved on.
On the Sunset Strip I take a walk to the Chateau Marmont (8221 Sunset Boulevard). It’s known as the most discreet hotel in LA – you can pull off the Sunset Strip into the hotel’s garage in a split second, and be lifted straight from the garage to your room via private elevators. Everyone in Hollywood has stayed here at some point or another. Greta Garbo lived there in the 1930s; Led Zeppelin rode motorcycles through the halls in 1968; recently Colin Farrell was seen in a heavy make-out session with Britney Spears on his penthouse balcony and before he was famous Warren Beatty was tossed out for not paying his bill. One person who never had the chance to get kicked out of the hotel for misbehaving was John Belushi, who died in one of the hotel’s bungalows. Because of the discreet nature of the place many stars have used it as a place to hide out or behave badly. Harry Cohn, founder of Columbia Pictures said, “If you must get into trouble, do it at the Chateau Marmont.”
I’m not looking for trouble, so leave the hotel and stop by Mel’s Drive In (8585 Sunset Strip) for a bite. It is a family-run chain of restaurants based in San Francisco, famous because the original Mel’s was used as the diner where the kids hang out in American Graffiti. The original is long gone, demolished shortly after the filming of the movie, but in the late nineties Mel’s son took over the business, building new restaurants all over California.
The one on the Strip is in the location of the famous Ben Frank’s Coffee Shop. Ben Frank’s was a Sunset Strip institution, becoming legendary as a hip after hours hangout in the 1960s and 1970s. The Rolling Stones and Andy Warhol used to frequent the place and apparently Louis L’Amour liked to make notes for his cowboy novels at the counter at Ben’s. Mel’s is a pale imitation of Ben’s, but the 50’s style architecture appealed to me, as did the chance to sit in air conditioning while I ate.
After a quick Cobb Salad ($8.95) and loads of iced tea I headed for Tower Records (8801 Sunset Boulevard). Axl Rose used to work here in the early days of Guns and Roses, and it has the reputation of being then best music store in town. I prefer the Virgin Megastore (8000 Sunset) for its selection and helpful staff, but the Towers does have a certain kind of dirty charm. The rocker dudes that work behind the counter aren’t particularly helpful, but they sure do look cool.
The lengthy walk continued down Sunset and over to Hollywood Boulevard. I follow the long line of Walk of Fame stars on the sidewalk to the heart of touristville. (Here’s some trivia for you: The 3000 memorialized celebrity names take up almost 5 acres of sidewalk space.) I’m fine with cheesy tourist attractions, and even stop at a store to have my photo taken in front of a pseudo Hollywood sign while posing with a cardboard cut out of John Wayne. The girls next in line after me don’t know who John Wayne is, and ask if they could have their photos taken with cut outs of the Olsen Twins. Later I see a life-size representation of John Wayne made of dryer lint at the Ripley’s Odditorium. What befits a legend most…
I’m kind of riveted by this fabulously sleazy part of LA. It’s busy, with thousands of tourists stopping to have their photo taken at the site of their favourite actor’s star, but it is also kind of bizarre down here. I see an off duty Charlie Chaplin impersonator, in full make-up, but wearing jeans and a t-shirt, yelling at a younger boy. “You have got to be careful young man,” he said, looking the spitting image of the gentle tramp character, “or your life is going to swirl down the toilet bowl.” It’s a surreal moment in Hollyweird.
Just a few feet away someone dressed as Crocodile Dundee gives me a coupon for discounted cheesecake at a nearby restaurant. His friend, a man in a Jedi robe, assures me that the cheesecake is “the best in the galaxy.” I wonder if these guys, who I assume are out of work actors, ever imagined when they moved to LA that they would become cheesecake shills instead of movie stars.
I duck into the Frederick’s of Hollywood. The famous purple and pink lingerie store has been a fixture on the Boulevard since 1947 when its owner Frederick Mellinger became an overnight star and earned the gratitude of millions by inventing the push-up bra (originally known as the “Rising Star”). Such is Frederick’s contribution to Hollywood that November 8, 1989 was declared Frederick’s of Hollywood Day by Mayor Tom Bradley. To mark the occasion Frederick said, with tongue in cheek, “Frederick’s has always been a strong supporter of the community.” Over the decades Fredericks has kept abreast of the latest trends, and continues to dress major stars so that they may look good when they undress.
I’m here to have a look at the fabled Lingerie Museum located at the back of the store. Many exhibits were lost in the 1992 LA riots when looters ransacked the place, but there is still lots to see. It is a crash course in the history of underwear, beginning with a Missiles and Snowcones display, featuring 1951’s Pointette, described as “stitched four section cups designed for projection and separation.” Think Madonna in her pointy bra phase.
There are amusing slogans, like “Flats fixed here,” and “Beauty and the Bust,” from Frederick’s famous lingerie catalogue sprinkled throughout the displays, which feature bras with names like the Daring Deceiver (“Utilizes all possible cleavage!”) and Double Exposure.
Of course this is Hollywood, so no display would be complete with out a selection of celebrity undergarments. In the Lingerie Hall of Fame one can marvel at Milton Berle’s padded bra and sequined gown from his television show; an unusual bra used by Phyllis Diller that resembles nothing more than a strip of material marked with the instructions “This side up;” and a selection of undergarments worn by the likes of Judy Garland, Cher, Mamie Van Doren and Zsa Zsa Gabor. I left the store with a new appreciation of nipple pads and falsies.
I try and imagine 50 years ago when this was a glamorous part of town, when the showbiz elite would pop down to The Musso & Frank Grill (6667 Hollywood Boulevard) for shrimp cocktails and champagne. The Musso & Frank Grill is still here, but the only stars you’ll see are embedded in the sidewalk.
I see Bennett Cerf’s star in front of a store that sells Eminem bobble head dolls. I wonder if in 30 years the name Eminem will be as forgotten as Cerf’s. (FYI: Bennett Cerf was a humorist who was one of the founding editors of Random House.) I see the star for Zasu Pitts, the silent screen actress and inspiration for the animated character of Olive Oyl in the Popeye series, in front of a store that sells ridiculously high platform shoes with clear plastic heels. I go in and ask the girl working the counter if she knows who Zasu Pitts is. She ignores me and I leave. At least one older star hasn’t been forgotten. Elvis Presley’s star had fresh cut flowers on it.
Robert Vaughn’s star is located at the choice corner of Cherokee and Hollywood Boulevard. Just a few yards away, Charlie Chaplin’s star is covered with construction hoarding and I thought this was a might unfair. In the last decade Vaughn’s major contribution to the world of cinema has been a supporting role in Pootie Tang and those dreadful “Have you been injured in an accident,” commercials for Mark E. Salemone, and yet his star is much more accessible than Chaplin’s, the first great genius of the cinema. It doesn’t seem right, but then on the other hand, both Chaplin and Zasu Pitts have been immortalized on stamps, and I don’t think Robert Vaughn will ever be so honoured.
In fact, images of Chaplin are everywhere, second only to murals and images of Marilyn Monroe. Want a Marilyn keychain? No problem. How about a bottle of Norma Jean Merlot for fourteen dollars? If you’re a big spender you can pick up the name brand wine, the Marilyn Merlot for thirty bucks. How about a Marilyn license plate? Only $15. You can buy all that stuff that seems like a good idea at the time, but then ends up in the back of your closet after the vacation is over.
It’s getting late in the day, and I have just one more stop on my quick LA day trip – Grauman’s Chinese Theatre (6925 Hollywood Boulevard). Filled with exotic art from China and covered with a 90 foot high jade-green bronze roof, it is probably the most famous movie theatre in the world. In front of the theatre is the famous “Forecourt of the Stars.” The official story about this Hollywood landmark is that silent screen actress Norma Talmadge slipped into some wet cement in front of the newly built movie palace in 1927. Owner Sid Grauman recognized a good bit of publicity when he saw it, and left the footprint enshrined in cement, beginning a Hollywood tradition that over the next few decades saw over 200 stars leaving their imprints in front of the theatre.
The actual origins of the famous forecourt are a little less glamorous. Jean W. Klossner is the man who built Grauman’s. According to him nobody “slipped” or “fell” into wet cement there was no wet cement to fall into. It was all a carefully planned out publicity stunt.
The footprint and hand print idea came from Mr. Klossner’s family in the early 1800’s. As three generations of Klossners completed work on the Notre Dame Cathedral, they signed their work by pressing their hands in the fresh cement. Jean Klossner brought this idea over with him from Europe and used it on all the buildings he completed with the Meyer-Holler Construction Co. in Los Angeles. When it was time to finish Grauman’s, Mr. Klossner pressed his hand in the fresh cement out front of the theater’s right-hand poster frame, where it remains today, almost 80 years later. When Sid Grauman saw him do this, the two developed the idea to embellish the otherwise plain forecourt.
It’s packed at the Forecourt, but I still manage to wedge myself in and stand in Jack Nicholson’s footprints. I’m guessing he wears a size 10 as his feet were much smaller than mine. I hang around and watch the other tourists for a while, before grabbing a cab and heading back to the Four Seasons.
We have reservations for 8 o’clock on the patio of the Four Seasons, and after my six hour walk I need to chill for a few minutes.
At dinner I discover that the rest of the Canadians spent the day hanging around the pool. When I hear that Rosanna Arquette was also at the pool I regret not popping by to say hello. It’s nice up there, the waiters bring frozen grapes and fruit smoothies to keep you cool, and there is generally some pretty good star gazing.
It’s a beautiful Southern California night, and we have a choice table for people watching. We see an older man dressed like Elvis pull up in a $500,000 car, many Rolls Royces and Gary Busey. Remember earlier when I said that strange things always happen to me when I come to LA? Well, tonight would be no exception, and it would be my second strange encounter with Mr. Busey. (Caution! Dropping names ahead.)
On a hot June evening in 1992 I had dinner at a Wolfgang Puck restaurant in Malibu called Granita. We scored a great table on the patio, and were seated between Johnny Carson, who had just retired, and Gary Busey, who was celebrating his birthday. The meal was relatively peaceful until Busey started opening his gifts. He insisted on showing us each of his presents, which was fine, but he had a lot of presents, and we were trying to eat. Eventually we stopped commenting on the gifts and tried to enjoy our meal. It was then that I felt a bread roll hit me in the back of the head.
“Hey! Tell Wolfgang we’re having a food fight,” Busey hollered as he winged another roll in my direction.
I didn’t know what to do, and didn’t really want to get involved, but the rolls kept coming, so eventually I threw one back at him, hitting him in the chest. I’m sure Mr. Carson was impressed with my aim. Thankfully someone at the table (I think it was his mother) got him to stop, and we never progressed past the rolls into throwing hot entrees at one another.
I didn’t see Busey for another eleven years, and much has happened in the intervening years. He has worked steadily, mostly in straight to video movies that earn a “Terrible,” or “Appalling” user rating on IMBD; he had a plum sized tumour removed from his sinus cavity, has been arrested and become a born-again Christian. Most recently he has been starring in I’m With Busey, a reality show a la The Osbournes. I think the show’s tagline says it all: “Somewhere, between reality and insanity, Is Busey.”
He is sitting inside with a group of people, including a friend of mine from Toronto. At one point Busey decides that he wants to smoke one of his large Cuban cigars, and comes outside to our table. Actually he looms over the table, sitting on a ledge above us, with his feet resting on one of the chairs. Introductions are made. I tell him I am from Toronto.
“I have made ten movies in Toronto. Ten in Vancouver and three in Montreal,” he says loudly.
“I must have missed those,” I’m thinking, but say nothing.
When I don’t take the bait he starts spouting Buseyisms, which are basically acronyms of his invention which contain his philosophy on life.
“Do you know what FEAR stands for?” he asks me.
Not sure where this conversation is going, I say no.
“FEAR… False Evidence Appearing Real,” he says. “F-E-A-R.”
“Do you know what LIGHT stands for?” he hollers.
Before I have a chance to answer, he says, “LIGHT! Living In God’s Heavenly Thoughts… L-I-G-H-T.”
I have a feeling this is going to go on for a while, so I order another drink.
They came in quick succession… GOAT! Get Over Adulterous Tendencies! BIBLE! Beautiful Instructions Before Leaving Earth!
Then, to make a peculiar scene even more bizarre we were joined by one of Busey’s friends, Sal Pacino. No, that’s not a typo, I said Sal Pacino, father of Al. Sal is in his eighties, but has a strong resemblance to his famous son. He was wearing a very cool belt with the letter “S” on the buckle, and didn’t say much. He didn’t have much of a chance to, as Busey holding court, sucking up all the air on the patio.
I wondered if it was just me who didn’t really know what Busey was on about, but later read a quote from his son Jake, who said, “He’s always telling stories about monkeys and toads and rockets… I can never understand what he’s talking about.” Good, even his blood relatives can’t comprehend him. I think if I could identify with what he was saying then I would have something to worry about.
Anyway, as quickly as he joined us, he was gone, leaving nothing but perplexed looks and a cloud of cigar smoke. It was definitely the oddest celebrity encounter I have ever had.
Strange as he was, Busey was entertaining, and after he left the party seemed a little less interesting. With my head full of Buseyisms I went to bed, no wiser, but a little more amused than when I woke up today.
SUNDAY AUGUST 10, 2003
Up early to head to LAX. I hate to leave, and as I walk past the patio I half expect to see Busey still there, preaching to a new group of people.
I arrive two hours before my flight only to find huge line-ups. The line to check in started outside and wormed its way through the terminal. Forty-five minutes later I get my boarding pass, only to have to go outside again and get in another line to have my bags X-Rayed and go through security. Time is ticking, and I want to get on this flight because it is the only direct flight to Toronto today. If I miss this one, I’ll have to fly through Chicago and won’t get home until almost midnight.
With just a couple of minutes to spare I sprint through security, grab a bagel at Starbucks and make it on the plane. Four-and-a-half uneventful hours later I am in a Toronto cab on the way to my house. It’s good to be home. The little pink bungalow on North Crescent Heights Boulevard will just have to wait…