The moon peeked over the Los Angeles horizon by the time my car pulled up onto Cascade Boulevard and into the humble driveway. Their games took place near the poolside cabana behind the “Copperfield Abode”.
Derrick Copperfield and I met at an Oscar Party many years ago, before he grew two chins and a Napoleon complex. A big producer and actor, friends outside of work? No one knew what to think of it because no one really cared. We used to play cards in fancy clubs and bars, oblivious to the world around them. Cards were our escape, and we had bonded over our mutual obliviousness to the dog eat dog world around us. We thought it more as a dog-squeeze-money-from-dog-until-dog-gets-better-hand world.
“-That line has been used to death, to be totally honest. I usually say that ‘whatever happens in Vegas, will be known by millions by the time you get home’.”
These guys were a motley crew of Hollywood, found by each other in green rooms, parties, awards shows, and even directors’ Strikes. A hodgepodge of producers, directors, actors, composers, and friends. They welcome me in with a collective cry of “HEEEEEEEY!” that I haven’t heard in quite some time.
“We missed you, old Chap!” Derrick jumped from his big, round, wooden chair to shake my hand. I saw Jonathan Baxter raise an eyebrow from my periphery.
“Frankly I couldn’t believe you responded back. Hell, you became the front-runner for this game!”
“He’s absolutely right, you know,” Baxter replied, in his Welsh tongue. “I wouldn’t have come except for you.”
“You flatter me, Jonathan,” I said as I shook my head. “I’m not that special.”
“No, really. I can attest to that.”
Rebecca DuVernay put down her hand and folded her tattooed arms. “He seriously wanted to go to the premiere of the new Nduduzu Adisa flick.”
“I just needed something better to do.” Jonathan slumped back in his chair, listening to our chuckles and breathing in the soft fragrance of oranges growing on the trees outside.
“It’s that bad, huh?” Martin Valera chimed in from the other side of our makeshift gambling table, his long neck craning to hear an expected answer.
I heard bad things about the flick, but hearing them come from the king of cynical film-watching sounded hilarious.
“I had a bad feeling about watching a film adaptation of I Will Marry When I Want when it was filmed on a shoestring budget, without any help from the producers, with an untalented cast and a half-assed script by this man’s grandmother. It reminds me of when Uganda gave us gems like Who Killed Captain Alex, except now we know who did, and it was Tony McVale.”
(For background information, Tony McVale was a producer who pushed foreign films only recently, when Uganda became its own cinematic powerhouse- he basically ruined the foreign movie business by hiring film crews who barely had an inkling about movie business, throwing little to no money at them, and watching their movies rake in money just because of location mentions alone: “Tony McVale presents- a film from the heart of Uganda, the soul of Africa.“)
“At least Tony had some hits,” Joanne Smith swooned in. “I actually composed a few leitmotifs for some of his films.”
Jonathan rolled his eyes. “Sprinkle frosting on shit and it is still shit, Joanne.”
We laughed again. I needed this meetup a long time ago.
I sat down and put my entrance fee down by Derrick’s arm.
“You still play Hold ’Em, Derrick?”
“Only the best way, Mike. I’ll deal you in next round with Rebecca, Martin, Joanna, and Jonny. Here are the fifteen starting chips.” A pile of red, blue, and grey chips slid to my space. One person suspiciously has no chips or cards.
“What about Marcus over there?”
“He left his wallet at home.”
Marcus Gandhi sits at the far end of the table, arms crossed the moment his alibi is heard again.
“I swear, the one time I forget it at home is the one where I’m feeling lucky.”
“Apparently you’re not so lucky if you forget your wallet. Shit, it might be even luckier for you, since you might have lost money tonight, like last week.”
Marcus shakes his head and shoulders in silent agreement.
“So, how’s Bollywood, Marcus?”
He leans forward, his acumen of his hometown flowing to his conscious mind.
“Can’t tell, though word is that there are more people watching films during the week than ever before.”
My ears perk up. “I spoke to someone about this same thing this morning. What’s the newest statistics about that?”
“About 38% watch on weekdays. That grew from about 23.”
“Do you think it was because of the Marvel flick?”
“Could be, because it was about Chakra again. That could bring out the Indian pride, and their butts into the seats. It could also be due to the modernizing revolution and its effects on movie-watching”
Maybe the Inquirer was right, I thought.
“So did it bomb in India?”
“Did it bomb,” Marcus repeated the question in a loud, shocked tone.
“No, of course not. Thursday brought the total to 500K, but it got over 12 million alone over the first weekend. It will be fine. Chakra won’t be going anywhere anytime soon.”
“Geez, Marcus, you’d think these movies would get people sick already.”
Jonny raised 10, swiftly bringing one grey chip into the pile.
“See that’s the thing, fellas,” Marcus raised his opinion aloud. “People don’t care if it’s a comic book or not. They only care about great stories. It’s the way we like it, just that people don’t like the kind of stories we do.”
Rebecca strolled into that comment. “You say what you want, but I’m totally fine with those stories. I raise 10.”
“Okay,” Joanna folded her cards as she spoke. “But why do you like them so much?”
Rebecca turned to the woman next to her. “Because they play it safe. We get comforted by the fact that everything will be okay, if not at the end of this movie, then we’ll get it in the sequel. If more people like films with happy endings instead of, like, watching a film about real-life problems and death, then that’s the market we have to deal with.”
“Exactly. But is it always a good idea to show happy endings, especially in movies where the consequences seem real and long-lasting?”
Rebecca shrugged her shoulders. I got up to the nearby bar to fill myself a drink.
“I think that optimism is warranted,” Martin threw in a new grey chip and took a sip of whiskey. “When George Melies first operated a camera, he didn’t point it at the ground and show the dirt; he pointed to the sky and showed us flying to the Moon. It was always about fantasy and going to uncharted places. These stories are meant to be good because the world isn’t.”
“But how can people only like the happy, funny or ridiculous,” I returned, with a Glenlivet on ice.
“That amount of sweetness could make anyone sick. That’s like seeing ‘Christmas Cheer’ all year long. If we get sick of something from the moment it begins after Thanksgiving, how could we handle it all year long?”
“You’re all forgetting something.” After upping the ante, Jonny leaned into the oval with a lit cigarette and widening eyes.
“There’s a reason why people hate ‘The Magic of Christmas’ crap people always shoved in each other’s faces. It’s because it’s an immature idea pushed onto us the same way Disney had people wishing their dreams came true and such bullshit. It’s an immature message that never changes with a growing audience and is forced onto every generation.
“Movie cheer is more subtle. Villains rarely turn good in the end or even die for that matter. Good people succeed in the face of despair. It’s not spelled out as much as others might think. It’s a soft message people tend to catch on and root for, because who doesn’t want to be the good guy?”
Rebecca raised her hand in a cheeky manner.
Jonathan stared at her across the table. “I was being rhetorical...”
“But I’ve always wanted to play the villain. It’s harder because not only do you have to play the part, but you also have to get the audience to either hate you or love you. Hell, Maury Jr. knows how I’ve gotten 3.5 million people to hate me on “live” TV. Derrick, your move.”
“Check. Here’s the flop.”
He pulls three cards and places them so everyone can see: Eight of Diamonds, five of Hearts, and King of Hearts.
A brief silence brought the players to a strategic glance with each other.
“So anyway, Mike, I heard you blew up at a TMZ reporter today.”
When Martin has heard about it, that means everyone knows about it. I shuffle in my chair like it became the hot seat, while Martin adds another chip to the pot.
“Well, you know, it was some little reporter vying for their first story, probably-”
“It wasn’t. That person was a senior reporter.”
I pause mid-sentence. The glass is forced down to the table.
“He was a senior reporter?! Then why the fuck was he there?!”
He shrugged his shoulders amidst laughter, waving his arms in surrender.
“All I know is that they typically use the Laramont for business meetings. He must have seen you leave and leaped to make a story out of you.”
The group surrounded themselves with chuckles, almost like it was a sort of prank or something.
“That’s the difference between them and, like, everyone else,” Rebecca deduces, raising two more chips to the pot. “Everyone else chases their stories, while TMZ makes their own.”
Joanna jumped in, with a fold. “I hadn’t heard about this. What happened?”
Marcus informed her, “He was grilled by the reporter about his thoughts on Yakovich’s snubbing of fans outside the Concorde.”
“Well, you didn’t get as much attention, though,” Jonny snorted, matching the previous bid. “They think you’re old Hollywood now.”
My nostrils flared up, unconsciously taking that statement personally.
“I’m ‘old Hollywood’ now? Tell them that I remember Hollywood when people gave a damn and when movies were about theaters and 3D instead of gimmicky HDR! When-”
“It’s no point, Mike,” Marcus interrupted this time, his head turning to reveal his greying hair. “They don’t listen to us anymore. We are getting old, after all.”
“Speak for yourself, Marco,” Rebecca snapped, eyes squarely on her cards. “I’ve barely made it in this town to be considered ‘old’.”
“So then why do you stay with us ‘old folks’, then,” Joanna playfully asked.
Rebecca raised an eyebrow, sensing the sarcasm. “Networking.”
The two women laugh while the others chuckled. Jonny silently places two chips down.
“I raise, and here’s the turn. Has your PR guy called you about this?”
“He did,” I sighed, not wanting any more stupid controversy.
“He must have laced it into you, you poor bastard.”
Derrick had gone through a messy divorce too-two of them- while becoming tabloid news after they discovered his infidelity. The group that came to his poker games was the only group that seemed to forgive him. He couldn’t work in Hollywood again unless he somehow built his reputation back up again.
“Thanks, Derrick. He just told me not to tell anyone anything
“At least the story didn’t mention the divorce, right?”
Rebecca chimed in somberly.
"Rundi ka bacha! Why the hell did they do that?!”
“For SEO- if they tag divorce to it, more eyes interested in divorce would see it.” It felt like Rebecca didn’t even want to say that. “Sick bastards.”
“Tell us something we don’t know, Martin,” Jonny knew the game they played.
“You’d think we could sue them,” Joanna suggested, “but then again, we’d have set loose the most air-headed, soulless reporters the world had ever seen. It would become an epidemic.”
“We’d call it the ‘Harvey Levin’ Syndrome...”
“The only cure?... There IS no cure!”
“Jonathan, maybe after your string of biblical films and mini-series, you could produce a series about the epidemic of poor journalism.”
Playing to the game, Jonathan gave an ultimatum:
“I’d rather be on a one-night stand with Tony McVale, after eating the cuisine from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, then fighting a brown bear while armed with a live salmon and then castrating myself with a spoon.”
We all shared a laugh as the next round of the game was played. Martin folded, so Jonny, Rebecca, and Derrick were left with a pile of about 15 chips amounting to 1500 dollars.
After lending Marcus three hundred to deal in and have some fun, the cards go round again. Derrick has gotten better at shuffling and dealing out cards, better than I’ve seen him before. Maybe he’s picked this up as his next hobby...
He pulls a 10 diamonds, 4 spades, 3 diamonds, 10 clubs, Queen of spades.
I look at my Five of Diamonds, Ten of Hearts, Two of Spades, King of Clubs and Four of Spades.
After the flop goes out, the crowd was silent but for Derrick’s proud announcement.
“Okay, the dealer goes first to call, then counter-clockwise. I raise a ten.”
He plops a grey chip into the center again, the first guest to the pool party. Marcus takes a long time to make a decision.
“Damn cards, messing with my luck again.” He slips his cards face down onto the table and slides them away, with Derrick looking on in disbelief.
“No luck this time, eh Marcus?”
The crowd immediately breaks the silence in laughter.
“Talk about your textbook case of hubris, Derrick. These cards are cursed.”
The dealer snickered in his direction, his chins quivering with joy. “At least you knew to fold instead of trying your luck.”
“Although I wish you did again,” Rebecca taunted. “I paid my rent with the earnings from that round.”
Marcus leaned back, snickering at the time. “I guess I’m not feeling generous today, Ms. DuVernay.”
She swung her hand in a downward snap, mouthing the words “Well, shucks.”
The rest of the group, including me, all raised greys before the turn was revealed: Jack of Clubs.
“By the way,” Derrick leaned forward.
“Rebecca, when are you going to get yourself out of Maury Jr?”
She looked up away from her cards, letting her eyes give off the emotions for her.
“Soon. They actually forced me to do a few more Skype calls into the studio with the baby I’m supposedly the mother of. Once those video shoots go live, I’ll forever be known as the woman who’s tested the most guys on the show ever, only to find out the father of “Josephine”, my baby, and give her to him on live TV at their studio in Stamford in a few weeks.”
Even Derrick raised his eyebrows.
“Wow, they’re making you out to being a...well...”
“A bitch?” Rebecca lowered her cards in a slow huff. “Yeah, pretty much. Now when Cosmo interviews me on the red carpet, they’ll lambast me for not taking care of my ‘baby’. I swear guys, I’m gonna be the death of Maury Jr.” She toasts that with a sip of her vodka and orange juice, leaving a perfect circle on the green felt.
“Sure sounds like it,” I grumbled out, folding my cards. I was going through my troubles, but at least mine wouldn’t be involved with the destruction of a 70-year daytime empire. Maury Sr. wouldn’t have let her leave the show.
Derrick sets out the river: Ace of Hearts. Martin, Rebecca, Joanne, Johnny, and Derrick were the only ones in.
Milky white Russians have seeped into my night routine; shower, change into pajamas, take my medications with a mostly milk White Russian, then off to bed for some Star Trek reruns and late-night Amazon shopping.
I turned off the TV early that night. My eyes were used to the bright lights so the memories of the day flashed in front of my eyes.
I must be getting old. Days like these used to be exciting. I'd stay up in anticipation for what the next day might bring me.
I was going to travel the world on a globe-hopping quest to find Carmen Sandiego.
I was filming a film twice because I was playing twins.
I would be playing alongside Madalyn, the girl I fell in love with and had recently engaged.
I was going to play James Dean.
I was going to star in an ensemble comedy.
I was going to fly to Monte Carlo to receive a Cannes Lion.
I was going to Paris as a guest of honor to the Paris fashion show.
A studio wanted me to play a badass villain.
I was going on a trip with some old buddies of mine, just to shoot the shit and have a great time.
They used to scare the sheep away, with eagerness and hope. Now it's uncertainty and curiosity. What will that new director- what was his name again?- make me do? Will I even need to be there, just to make a composite of my face?
I thought back to what the studio lot had looked like. Everything was an ad. You couldn't turn a corner without the studio trying to sell things, even to their own workers. Celebrities were incentivized to stay on the lot for photos and conversations. We had to keep selling Paramount to our fans, and I'm sure Disney, Warner Brothers, Universal, Lionsgate, and A24 are doing the same things in their own lots. Everyone's looking for the next quick buck. The heart of filming seems to have left along with the doubts that cinema was a sideshow trick like the bearded lady and the Siamese twins.
Then something someone said that night stuck out in my brain...
"When George Melies first operated a camera, he didn’t point it at the ground and show the dirt; he pointed to the sky and showed us flying to the Moon..."
This new director is young blood. He might be thinking the same things I am, just with a younger body, more grit and a helluva lot more stamina. Maybe I'll leave it to the young guns this time around, as soon...as I...show them what...to do...