Sixty-seven-year-old Michael Kent Whittaker made a life for himself acting in front of a camera for over forty-five years. His age and wisdom could not prepare him for the biggest sacrifice he'll ever make- embracing such a massive change in cinema that main characters are as obsolete as silent filmmaking.
Like a Buyer
The color of the whiskey swirling in my glass matched the sunrise.
It’s a crappy label, one of those impulse buys after spending long nights scrolling through Amazon’s deals list. My wife would have an issue with me doing this, but she’s harvesting Zs at Marvin’s place.
The patio chair felt chilly only for the first half-hour. The LA sun sure is fierce, like a young naive starlet on her first red carpet. They both used to fill me with hope and joy, but that magic has long passed and our relationships sank into platonic.
The sun peeked over the horizon, and my phone was buzzing. I could feel it on my wrist. It’s probably him again. I drag my hand over to my other wrist and press the button embedded on my skin.
“Talk to me, Mark.”
“Hey Mr. Whittaker, Mark here. Can you hear me?”
“Yes, I can hear you, you greedy bastard. What can I do for you this time?”
“Well, you know that Civil War flick you were interested in-”
My nose flares up. “That’s not what I said-”
“Whatever, Mr. Whittaker. That flick just switched directors. I think if you want to headline that flick, I think now’s the time to reach out to Tommy and Dick.”
“Mark, those producers were the ones who disliked me. They were the ones called me out, you moron. It wasn’t the director.”
“Oh…Okay, but what if I told you they were willing to sign you anyway.”
I got up from my chair. I can’t sit while hearing bad news.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, and bare with me here, I think you might change your mind.”
“What are you talking about?!”
“Whittaker, let’s not get crazy here.”
“CRAZY?! You stupid prick, you’re so much dumber than Walter. At least he spoke to me with respect, unlike your condescending tone, you dumb naive son of a bitch!”
“Okay- you want to hear the news-”
A slight pause filled the room. We didn’t hear each other clear our throats. I ran out of the will to brace for bad news a long time ago.
“I pitched you and they said yes.”
“What’s wrong? What’s the big deal with getting this part?”
“What’s wrong?! WHAT’S WRONG?! Those producers are the bane of my existence. They’re the smarmy Hollywood that I’ve grown to hate! I remember the good old days when directors and actors made what they wanted. They all worked like friends, with producers arranging them like arranged marriages. There used to be chemistry between everyone involved in the flick because it was a passion. It was an art form, not a factory. I remember when it didn’t even matter who won an Oscar-”
“A what, sir?”
“An Oscar. Y’know from the academy?”
“Right. Would you like to continue the rant or do you want me to start crunching numbers? We’ll meet today for lunch. Sound good? Great. See you in six hours, Mr. Whittaker. May I call you Michael?”
I got back in my chair, finished my whiskey and walked back inside.
I used to love hearing casting news. Hell, back in the day I’d call up Thomas, Kenny, Johnny, Patricia, and Niall and we’d celebrate with a night of partying so hard that I’d wear sunglasses at the script readings.
It used to be fun, but then the marketing teams got a seat at the boardroom meetings. Now I just want to find some young blood with a twinkle in their eye, star in their small movie as the headliner, make that poor kid some money and sign some contract that I will invest in his ventures as an EP if he never touches a cinematic universe. Or a war flick- that is unless you want to film about both sides.
Yet I still call Maddalyn. She’s been there through the hangovers, the cheap drugs and expensive mattresses, the one-room studio growing to a mansion overlooking the hills. I at least owe it to her. She gives the expected response.
“AGAIN?! Jesus Christ, Michael. What were you thinking?!”
“I wasn’t,” I cracked out as my voice gave way. I few coughs brought it back.
“My agent did.”
“The young sonovabitch, I’ll lace it into him. The last time you were in a war movie you almost died!-”
“Not true,” I surrender but the words rushed out.
“Yes, it is! You fell off stupid-ass scaffolding, cracked ribs, and your collarbone, and now this prick wants to sign you for ANOTHER ONE?! He must be out of his fucking mind.”
“He wasn’t there for that one. That was on Walter, and it got him fired. No one had mentioned that I would have to do my own stunts.” (I have to admit, that wasn’t the smartest idea, but the divorce was keeping me inside and I needed to do SOMETHING, so technically it was her fault, but I digress.)
“I don’t care. Don’t show up to the meeting, Michael. You’re too old for these sort of things.”
“Maddy, it’s the civil war, not another fucking Point Break remake. Jesus, you’re making me feel like I’m too old to sit at a damn desk playing a Captain of some sort. I certainly wouldn’t be an infantryman or a fighter of any kind, you know.”
I felt her breath on the receiver.
“When you show up for lunch, eat like a buyer.”
“Yeah, yeah. You tell me that every time.”
An awkward pause, delicate and unnerving. For a second, we went through our entire marriage; worry, heartbreak, yearning.
“Have a nice day, Mikey.”
“You too, Maddy.”
She hung up first.
My driver arrives late. The black sedan rolls up to the driveway, crunching the gravel and rolling over the concrete. I watched from a window with a post-11 bourbon and a cigarette, both finished the moment the driver pulls up. Yet it isn’t his fault that he’s late; that was my decision.
After my bodyguard alerts the driver, the passenger door folds and slides open into a gullwing. I missed the satisfaction of opening and slamming a car door- one of those things I only get with pre-owned joints.
“Good morning, Michael.”
The driver leaned back casually. He’s an old friend- been with me since after I won the Oscar for convincingly playing James Dean for 75 minutes.
“Not really. Got a gig this morning.”
“That’s not great news anymore?”
“Not anymore. Not when you have producers that would likely put you in a porno if it would pay for their mansions.”
“You sound angry.”
“Angry isn’t the right word. It’s a mix of furious, repulsed and condescending. I'm fuming between the ears. You received the coordinates?”
“Yeah. Mark sent them to me.”
“Then let’s get this over with.”
As he pulls away, as usual as he would any other day, I look behind to the house. It was her idea to remake the facade in brick and wooden accents. It looks so good that I continue to lie to myself that it's not worth it to change it. Vines overtook the east wing, carefully maintained to look like some monster took a hold of my house and was dragging it into the abyss.
"You remember when Directors would come over and ask me to help write stories?”
“No, because I have a home to go to.”
“Right. Anyways, I used to have big name directors come to my door; Wilkins, Aster, Johnson-Roiland, Stallard, Lorelei before he directed "Abraham and the Four Kings". They’d bring big ideas and we’d hash them out over coffee, cigarettes, and whiskey. They’d leave with a fantastic script, and I wouldn’t star in most of them. Not because they didn’t want to make money, but because I didn’t fit the vision they were looking for. If their producer forced them to bring me on board, they’d stop the whole fuckin project because, why? Because a director has a vision in all of the colors of the fucking rainbow. These producers? They see only green.”
“You keep bringing up that story, Mike. Jeez, you sound like the world is changing, and not for the better.”
"It IS changing. That's what I'm saying. It's changing faster than I thought."
I sat back in my chair, surrendering to the conversation.
"Since movies built themselves around franchises. Not just in toy aisles but now in theater aisles. It used to be about the toys, hell that's why the PG-13 rating exists. But they completely jumped the middle-man and just started making enough movies to satisfy the craving, while toys, knapsacks, and tablet covers cleaned up the extra cash."
"Is that bad?"
This had become a conversation piece that actually changed when a poker mate told me their opinion about this. But I wasn't convinced.
"No. But it's not good, either..."
The highway flowed nicely, like blood in a clean vein. I insisted that my driver stay in the seat and take control when we passed 65. I can't trust a computer hive-mind to get me to work in one piece. Maybe in another lifetime, I'll be a programmer or something.
"You hear about my Dodgers last night?"
"Nah. I've always been a Brewers fan, Judd. You knew that. What did they do for you this time?"
"Blew out the Pirates again. I tell ya, these teams get so lop-sided. You get a bad draft pick and BAM, it's over for another year."
"That hasn't changed much."
"Sports has always been so competitive. They traded in gladiator spears for bats. At least not as many people die."
"Anyways, so what's the role they got you?"
"No idea, Judd. That's why they asked me to come into the city for lunch. All I know is that it's for the Civil War. They say it's something big, Oscar-worthy."
"Did they tell you that or do you hope so?"
I spread myself out on the cool leather seat, a stupid grin on my face.
"I kind of hope so. There's something tribal about hearing your name be announced and seeing your name in lights. I especially like it when they put my name on the posters. It feels like I'm selling the movie for them."
"I dunno, Mike. Movies aren't selling like hot-cakes anymore. There aren't many films that break $15 Billion at the box office, especially those that play in cinemas. You saw the numbers for the latest Marvel flick?"
"Yeah, I saw them. It's the only thing I look for in the paper anymore. It bombed in Japan, as far as I've seen."
"Worse. They're saying it bombed in India, too."
"The Cinema Inquirer."
"Bunch of bullshit artists, Judd. Don't trust them. They get their numbers too early and call them for the weekend. BoxNumbers gave them 2nd place in the Box office behind the new Jabwad flick, with 10.2 million. Lemme guess, they called 500K?"
"Yeah. How did you know?"
"The majority of Indians don't watch movies during the week. Friday, Saturday, and Sunday are the key. Only the modern ones watch during the week. The reason they said such low numbers is because their CEO is on a crusade to ruin any of those big cinema franchises, especially the Cinematic Universe Marvel has been cooking for over 61 years. Disney will never let it die, not until the last bit of webbing has been squeezed out of Spiderman's wrists."
The smooth drive slowed down as it turned off the 101 to exit 7. The limo turned down Santa Monica as a vibration could be felt on my wrist.
"That's probably Mark, asking where I am. Hmph, like he really is in a rush to eat. "
"Well, the Larchmont does have full reservations almost every hour of every day."
"Doesn't matter. If they knew it was me, they'd save a whole wing for me."
"Would they really? Even now?"
"I've always gone there when I've done a Paramount joint. They have a big picture of me on their wall. Hell, I even have a usual there. Maybe I'll order five courses, really get his forehead sweating."
"Go for it, man. I'm sick of late-night Chinese food adventures." Judd chuckled again as the car turned on North Gower Street. The cemetery to our left grew over the fences, as if death itself reached out to everyone, waiting to eventually catch some passerby in its cold, icy grip.
Nostalgia hit me like a tidal wave as we turned onto Melrose Avenue. The Paramount Arch, newly redesigned, stood proudly in its place. I've done my fair share of joints with various movie studios- hell, I've even done voice acting in my later years, with small trips to Boradway- but this was the place where I got my big break; this was where Josie Willtemberg and Marty Guttierez convinced Mack Barrie and Jacek Davidson that I could play a mean James Dean; where Steven Spielberg gave me advice while sitting across from George Lucas at a luncheon; Where Patricia Wright and I shared a bottle of gin and the taste of lemon between our lips the night our movie hit number one at the box office. It was through that hallowed arch that Mariner Sparks told me that Disney may make dreams come true, but Paramount's where they begin. I wonder where they all are right now. Half of them must have been grabbed by a cemetery tree by this point...
A twinkle hits my eyes as I see the familiar arch pass by my window. Yet a thought in the back of his mind wondered if it wasn't proud, rather predatory- like a lighthouse attracting ships to crash into it.