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American Dream Machineby Matthew Specktor
They closed down the Hamlet on Sunset last night. That old plush palace, place where Dean Martin drank himself to death on Tuesdays, where my father and his friends once had lunch every weekend and the maître d was quick to kiss my old mans hand. Like the one they called the other Hamlet” in Beverly Hills, and the regular other Hamlet” in Century City . . . all of these places now long gone. Hollywood is like that. Its forever institutions, so quick to disappear. The Hamburger Hamlet, the one on Sunset, was in a class by itself. Red leather upholstery, dark booths, the carpets patterned with a radical and problematic intaglio. Big windows flung sun in front, but farther in the interior was dim, swampy. Waitresses patrolled the tables, the recessed depths where my fathers clients, men like Stacy Keach and Arthur Hill, sat away from human scrutiny. Most often their hair was mussed and they were weeping. Or they were exultant, flashing lavish smiles and gold watches, their bands mesh grain muted by the ruinous lighting, those overhead bulbs that shone down just far enough to make the waitresses faces look like they were melting under heat lamps. And yet the things that were consummated there: divorces, deals! I saw George Clooney puking in one of the ficuses back by the mens room, one time when I was in.
Unless it was somebody else. The one thing Ive learned, growing up in Los Angeles: its always someone else. Even if it is the person you thought it was the first time. I helped him up. I laid my hand on the back of George Clooneys collar. He was wearing a blue jacket with a deeper velveteen lapel, like an expensive wedding singer. This, and white bucks.
Are you all right?”
Yeah.” He spat. They make the Manhattans here really strong.”
We were near the kitchen, too, and could smell bacon, frying meat, other delicacies—like Welsh rarebit—I would describe if they still had any meaning, if they existed any longer.
Ill buy you one and you can check it out.”
I helped him back to his table. I remember his touch was feathery. He clutched my arm like a shy bride. Clooney wasnt Clooney yet, but I, unfortunately, was myself.91? 92? The evening wound on, and on and on and on: Little Peters, the Havoc House. Eventually, Clooney and I ended up back at someones place in the Bird Streets, above Doheny.
Why are you dressed like that?” I said.
Like what?” In my mind, the smile is Clooneys exactly, but at the time all hed said was that he was an actor named Sam or Dave or (in fact I think he actually did say) George, but Ill never know. Why am I dressed like what?”
Like a fucking prom date from the retro future. Like an Italian singer who stumbled into a golf shop.” I pointed. What the hell is with those shoes?”
Hey,” he said. Check the stitching. Hand-soled.”
We were out back of this house, whosever it was, drinking tequila. Cantilevered up above the city, lolling in directors chairs. Those houses sell for a bajillion dollars nowadays, but then it was just some crappy rental where a friend of a friend was chasing a girl around a roomful of mix-and-match furniture, listening to the Afghan Whigs or the Horny Horns or the Beach Boys—my favorite band of all time, by the way—or else a bunch of people were crowded around a TV watching Beyond the Valley of the Dolls on videocassette. It didnt matter. Mr. Not-Quite-or-Not-Yet-Clooney and I were outside watching the sun come up, and we were either two guys who would someday be famous or two rudderless fuck-ups in our midtwenties. He was staring out at the holy panorama of Los Angeles at dawn, and I couldnt get my eyes off his shoes.
Why am I dressed like this?” My new friend wrung his hands together limply. I ought to sell that fact to a tabloid, to prove Clooney is gay. I was at a function,” he said.
What kind of function? A convention of Tony Bennett fans? A mob wedding?”
I dont remember what he said next. I think he said, I was in Vegas, and I asked him how much hed lost. I probably gave him a sloppy kiss. I knew it was you, Fredo! There was an empty swimming pool nearby. It mustve been February. Italian cypresses rose up in inviting cones, the scalloped houses dropped off in stages beneath us, and eventually the whole hill flattened out into that ash-colored plane, that grand and gray infinity that is Los Angeles from up above: Gods palm, checkered with twinkling lights and crossed with hot wind.
I can never remember the words to this one . . . ”
What,” I said. Its mostly moaning.”
Theyre all mostly moaning.”
George and I went digging into the old soul music catalog, to prove our masculine bona fides. None of those Motown lite, Big Chill-type classics that turdscaped so many of my fathers late eighties productions. We went for the nonsense numbers, the real obscurities. We sang Um, Um, Um, Um, Um, Um” The Whap Whap Song,” Oogum Boogum,” Lobster Betty.” A couple of those might not have been real, but we did em anyway.
Thanks,” he said. I was up for The Doors but I never got a callback.”
We spent the rest of the night drinking and singing. People blame Los Angeles for so many things, but my own view is tender, forgiving. I love LA with all of my heart. This story I have to tell doesnt have much to do with me, but it isnt about some bored actress and her existential crises, a troubled screenwriter who comes to his senses and hightails it back to Illinois. Its not about the vacuous horror of the California dream. Its something that couldve happened anywhere else in the world, but instead settled, inexplicably, here. This city, with its unfortunate rap. It deserves warmer witness than dear old Joan Didion.
Dont do that, man.” My voice echoed. I clapped my friend on the shoulder. Dont do the pleading-and-testifying thing. Youll hurt your knees!”
Im all right.”
By the time we were done, we were deep into the duos, those freaky-deaky pairs from Texas or Mississippi: Mel and Tim; Maurice and Mac; Eddie and Ernie. Those gap-toothed couples whod managed to eke out a single regional hit before fading back into their hard-won obscurity. My new friend seemed to know them all, and by the time we were finished I didnt know which of us was Mel and which Tim, which of us had died in a boarding house and which, the lucky one I presume, still gigged around Jacksonville. Him, probably. He was dressed for it.
I should get going,” he said, at last.
Right.” Not like either of us had anywhere to be at this hour, but he needed to go off and get famous and I needed to find my jacket and a mattress. A man shouldnt postpone destiny. Later.”
We embraced, and I believe he groped my groin. After that I never saw him again, not if he was not, as I am now forced to consider, George Clooney. I just watched him climb the steps out of the swimming pool, into which wed descended in order to get the correct echo, the right degree of reverb on our voices. This was what it was like inside a vocal booth at Stax, or when the Beach Boys recorded Good Vibrations” at Gold Star Studios on Santa Monica Boulevard. So we told one another, and perhaps we were right. For a moment I remained in this sunken hole in the ground that was like a grave slathered with toothpaste—it was that perfect bland turquoise color—and sang that song about the dark end of the street, how its where well always meet. But I stopped, finally. Who wants to sing alone?
This is what I remember, when I think of the Hamlet on Sunset. This, and a few dozen afternoons with my dad and half brother, the adolescent crucible in which I felt so uncomfortable, baffled by my paternity and a thousand other things. Clooneys cuffs; the faint flare of his baby-blue trousers; the mirrored aviator shades, like a cops, he slipped on before he left. It was ten thirty in the morning. I held a bottle of blanco by its neck and looked over at the pine needles, the brittle coniferous pieces that had gathered around the drain. Clooneys bucks had thick rubber soles and made a fricative sound as he crossed the patio, then went through the house and out. I heard the purr of his Honda Civic, its fading drone as he wound down the hill and left me behind with my thoughts.
A Conversation with Matthew Specktor, author of American Dream Machine
American Dream Machine is set strongly in Los Angeles. It portrays the city in a way thats incredibly vivid, it looks like LA, it feels like LA, a city that is famously hostile to writers. What role does place play in your writing?
LA seems to have suffered over the years as the object of satire, derision and hostility. In fact, with the possible exception of Chandler, its hard to think of a great writer whos treated Los Angeles without pronounced ambivalence. Less Than Zero , The Day of The Locust , Play it As it Lays , The Player , What Makes Sammy Run . These books all organize themselves around a pretty jaundiced view of LA, or certainly of Hollywood. Thats fair: theyre all great books, and I think literature isnt where you go for false optimism. At the same time, I wanted to treat Los Angeles very differently. I grew up here, and I wanted to shower as much thoughtful affection upon it as I could, the way that Philip Roth did upon Newark or Saul Bellow did upon Chicago, etc. I wanted to paint a more comprehensive picture of this place in its warmer, and more human, dimensions. To address not just glamor and disillusion, but also the more homely aspects of the movie business. Which in so many respects isnt much different from any other.
The book is about a talent agency, and the movies. To what extent did the movies influence the book?
I went to the movies a lot when I was a kid. I went to screenings and saw films when they werent especially appropriate, for instance I remember a Woody Allen double bill of Bananas and Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Sex taken in when I was seven or eight years old, and I think I saw A Clockwork Orange when I was eleven. I grew up on, in, and around the Los Angeles of Robert Altman and Hal Ashby. There was always a sense of intimate relation, because of my parents work, the people who made the movies were always around . I worked in the mailroom of Creative Artists Agency when I was thirteen (I was the second person to join what would become a tradition—the Summer Campers”), and I did coverage for their story department when I was in high school. The industry infiltrated me from a very young age. And as it is for any writer, I think, the challenge was what to do with it, with what was ultimately a very ordinary experience—the regular human stuff of adolescence. Feeling awkward and overmatched within the adult world. Feeling bored. The intermittent apparitions of glamor that appeared—coming back from a movie theater where Id snuck off to see Risky Business and immediately stepping into an elevator with Rebecca DeMornay—didnt really change any of that. It was still just . . . teenage life, with its standard distresses.
Is Beau Rosenwald, your protagonist, based on anyone in particular? Hes someone who might strike readers as not necessarily likeable,
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