The velvet curtains parted, and Maddy watched Steven Weller step into the room, his girlfriend on his arm. Gracefully, he began to move through the crowd, laughing, clapping backs, kissing women. He was trim, though not tall, and blessed with a full and apparently natural hairline envied by millions of middle-aged men.
As she watched him glad-hand, she was surprised to feel her cheeks grow warm. In her job as a restaurant hostess in New York, she was never starstruck by the actors and baseball players who came in to eat, priding herself on being able to keep her cool. But here at the Mile’s End Film Festival, not thirty feet from Steven Weller, she felt jumpy and wowed.
“I thought the new one was Venezuelan,” said Sharoz, Maddy’s producer. “She doesn’t look Venezuelan.” The girlfriend, who had a few inches on Steven, stood just behind him, nodding faintly. She didn’t appear to be participating in the conversations so much as endorsing them.
“That was the last one,” Maddy said. “The real estate agent he met on a plane. This one is the Vegas cocktail waitress.”
“Cady Pearce,” said Maddy’s boyfriend, Dan, from her other side.
“You know her name?” Maddy said, planting a hand on his chest. An NYU film school graduate and theory nerd, he never read the trades. “Since when do you follow Hollywood gossip?”
“My barber gets People.”
“Did you guys notice that he never stays with any woman more than a year?” Sharoz asked. “And usually only from one awards season to the next. The man is so gay.”
“Just because a guy is single in his mid-forties doesn’t mean he’s gay,”
Maddy said. “Maybe he just hasn’t met the right person.” For years there had been rumors of Weller’s homosexuality, but Maddy felt they were a sign of the entertainment industry’s increasing puritanism, its tendency to fetishize marriage and domesticity.
Her costar Kira was coming over, unmistakable in her white-blond buzz cut, sleeveless orange jumper, and knee-high moon boots, looking like the catalog model she was. Unlike the others, she had skipped the opening-night selection, Weller’s new vehicle The Widower, to meet an old friend for drinks. “Is that the new one?” Kira asked, tossing her head in Weller’s direction. She spoke in a hoarse voice that resulted from childhood nodules on her vocal cords. “She’s even taller than the real estate agent.”
“I heard he has a longtime boyfriend,” Sharoz said. “They’ve been together fifteen years.”
“You mean Terry McCarthy?” Maddy asked. McCarthy, an actor turned screenwriter, had been Weller’s friend since they were both struggling young actors in L.A.
“Not Terry McCarthy,” Sharoz said. “A Korean-American flight attendant for United.”
“How do you know?”
“This guy I grew up with went to Hobart with the sister of the flight attendant’s best friend,” Sharoz answered. Sharoz, a striking, long-haired girl from Tehrangeles, had been Dan’s classmate at NYU and was one of those detail-oriented people who never seemed harried even in the midst of crises, like the dozens they’d had on I Used to Know Her.
Maddy noticed Kira holding one hand in front of her eyes and squinting at Weller. “What are you doing?” Maddy asked.
“You can always tell by the mouth,” Kira said. “Yep, yep. Definite gay mouth.” She moved her hand in front of Maddy’s field of vision so it blocked Weller’s forehead and eyes.
Maddy watched his mouth move, unsure what she was looking for. He had a thin lower lip that veered slightly off to the side. “What makes a mouth gay?” she asked.
“The palsy. Gay men have slightly palsied lips.”
“I hate to disappoint you, Kira, but I think he’s straight,” Dan said. “He was married, after all.”
“And we all know why Julia Hanson left him,” Sharoz said.
A middle-aged actress who was now experiencing a mid-career comeback with a cable procedural, Hanson had been married to Weller for a few years during the 1980s. She had never spoken publicly about the marriage, but in recent months there had been chatter, in the tabloids and on the Internet, that they had divorced because he was gay.
“Even if he is . . . with men,” Maddy said, “who cares? It’s his business.”
“That is so heteronormative,” Kira said. “He has an obligation to come out. By staying in the closet, he’s doing a disservice to young gay men and women. It’s disingenuous.” Kira had become a women’s studies major at Hampshire College on the heels of a bad breakup from a Northampton Wiccan.
“Everyone in Hollywood is disingenuous,” Dan said. “They do drugs, they cheat on their spouses, they have illegitimate children. If I were him, I would never come out. He would lose all the macho roles. The guy wants to work.”
“He would work,” Kira said. “He’s successful enough that it wouldn’t hurt. His female fans would still fantasize about him.”
“Just—with another guy in bed at the same time,” Sharoz said, and the women giggled.
Across the room, Cady Pearce said something, and Steven Weller laughed so loudly that they could hear it. She was either the funniest cocktail waitress in all of Las Vegas or Steven Weller was very easily amused.
A server passed by with a tray. Not caring how it looked to anyone else, Maddy grabbed four pigs in blankets. The others clustered around, too, double-fisting food. After flying into Salt Lake City, they’d barely had time to change clothes at the condos before rushing off to The Widower. Mile’s End, the festival, was not all that different from a Mile’s End film: You were always cold, hungry, and short on time.
The party was in a private room on the third level of the Entertainer, a lodge/club on Mountain Way, and it was hosted by the studio that was distributing The Widower. Guest-list-only, it was much more intimate than the official Mile’s End–hosted, post-Widower party raging two levels below. This crowd was older, with white teeth, tan skin, and cashmere sweaters.
“How did you get us in here, anyway?” Maddy asked Sharoz. “Had to be some kind of mistake.”
“It was Ed. He owns Mile’s End.” Ed Handy was their producer’s rep, and Sharoz’s words were not hyperbole; the New York Times Arts section had recently run a front-page profile entitled “Ed Handy Owns Mile’s End.”
“Do you think those guys downstairs chasing cheddar with sponsored vodka know what they’re missing?” Maddy asked.
“Of course,” said Sharoz. “That’s what this festival is about, varying levels of access.”
Both Sharoz and Dan had been to Mile’s End once before, with a short about a gamine subway busker who falls for a conductor. Maddy, who hadn’t known Dan then, had never been. She had never even been to Utah. Ever since they got accepted, Dan had been calling her “a virgin to the festival.” She understood that his smugness was a cover for his anxiety—I Used to Know Her was about to premiere at the biggest independent festival in the country—but she still didn’t like it. She wanted to feel that they were all the same, united by what had brought them together in the first place: the desire to make good work.
“So what did you guys think of The Widower?” Kira asked.
“Not one true moment in the entire eighty-five minutes,” Dan said. “Mile’s End has become like Lifetime television.” This was a frequent complaint of Dan’s: that the festival had become less edgy now that it was entering its twenty-fifth year. But Maddy took it with a grain of salt, because if he really hated the festival, he never would have submitted.
Like all opening-night selections, The Widower had been chosen for maximum audience appeal. It wasn’t in competition, and its Mile’s End screenings were publicity for a spring theatrical release by Apollo Classics, the mini-major division of Apollo Pictures. Weller played an aging dad in Reno trying to remake his life. It was the latest in his independent-film phase, in which he played unglamorous roles that showcased his gravitas and graying sideburns.
“I thought it was moving,” Sharoz told Kira. “I got choked up when he took the dad hiking.”
“Come on,” Dan said. “The guy has no process.” In one of Weller’s recent “small” films, Beirut Nights, which had been nominated for a slew of awards, he had played an over-the-hill CIA operative. The critics had
made much of a moment when he found a small boy’s body in the middle of the road, pushed a lock of hair from the boy’s face, and cried a single tear. Weller had been still and very contained, without the histrionics that most actors used when they cried, but there was a cut just before the tear fell out, and after they saw the film, Dan told Maddy that he must have used glycerin drops.
Steven Weller was best known for having played Stan Gerber, a libidinous divorce attorney, on the hit NBC drama Briefs during the ’90s. He did seven seasons, winning women’s hearts across America. Maddy was fourteen when Briefs came on the air, and she thought he was so sexy, she had a poster of him from Tiger Beat on the wall next to her bed. She would kiss it every night before she went to sleep. After Briefs, he ventured into big-budget, high-profile action films and romantic comedies, his quote said to have climbed to $8 million per film. There had been a bump or two along the way—his biggest flop, Bombs Away, was about hostage negotiators who fall in love—but since then he had gotten choosier about his roles and was now considered one of the top ten actors over forty.
In interviews, he was quick to mock himself and his success, pointing to the element of luck in his career. Maddy didn’t know if his disbelief at his fame was real or an act designed to make him more likable. Several years ago he had bought a palazzo in Venice and spent a few months there in the spring and summer, entertaining luminaries. He was an anti-scenester, or so it was said.
“I think he has process,” Maddy said. “He’s just not very showy.”
Though she found some of the writing twee, Maddy had enjoyed The Widower. Weller wasn’t genius—her best friend in grad school, Irina, called him a “hack-tor”—but Maddy found herself responding to his less important scenes. In one, he kissed a woman too eagerly at the end of a date, and the woman recoiled, and Maddy felt that his posture as he walked away showed everything about his character.
“The only reason people think he can act is because he’s a handsome guy who makes himself look less handsome in his films,” Dan said. “Which is ultimately kind of offensive.”
“I don’t understand,” Sharoz said.
“Weller’s attractive but takes these unattractive roles,” Kira said, “so it seems like he’s transforming himself, except the whole time the audience knows it’s really him, so they want to sleep with the character even though he’s a sad sack, which makes them feel deep and generous instead of totally shallow and looksist.”
Ed Handy was approaching, cell phone in one hand and a tumbler in the other. A paunchy bald man in his early fifties, he carried himself like a male model. “Welcome to Mile’s End,” Ed said. “It used to be all prostitution and saloons. Now we service a different kind of whore.”
“How many times have you used that line?” Dan asked.
“Hundreds. You have to understand, every conversation here has been spoken.”
“Does that bother you?” Maddy asked.
“Not at all. Repetition relaxes me.”
A middle-aged woman, maybe late fifties, with shiny brown hair, blue eyes, and perfectly aligned teeth, came over and kissed Ed on both cheeks. Maddy had noticed her earlier, circulating gracefully. She wore dark jeans tucked into riding boots and an off-white sweater that hugged her boosted breasts. To her left was an extremely short young man with intense light blue eyes.
“This is Bridget Ostrow,” Ed said. Steven’s longtime manager-producer, Bridget Ostrow was one of the most powerful women in entertainment. “Bridget produced The Widower.”
“Congratulations,” Dan said, smiling widely. “Loved it. Loved it.”
When Maddy glanced at him, he didn’t make eye contact. She hadn’t expected him to be rude but was surprised to see him being so phony. “And this is Bridget’s son, Zack,” Ed said. “Zack’s at the Bentley Howard Agency in New York.” Bentley Howard, which had offices on both coasts, was one of the top five entertainment agencies. Ed turned to the Know Her crew. “These guys made I Used to Know Her. Dan Ellenberg here’s the director. A New York dancer goes home to Vermont to try to prevent her best friend’s wedding to this total sleazeball—I identified with him the most—and realizes they’ve grown in different directions. Maddy helped write it, it’s based on her hometown. Bridge, these two girls, Maddy Freed and Kira Birzin, are brilliant. First screening is Saturday at ten.”
“A.M.?” Zack asked.
“Yes,” Ed said. “If you guys are up, it would be fantastic if you came.” Maddy glanced anxiously at Dan. He had been furious when he first got the screening schedule. On Friday night, Bentley Howard was throwing a party for Rap Sheet, a film about a car thief turned rapper, at Mountain Way Pub and Grill. This meant that at ten the next morning, most Mile’s Enders would be sleeping off hangovers, not seeing films. Dan was convinced the bad timing would harm their chances of distribution.
“I had already made a note to see it,” Zack said.
“I’ll be there, too,” Bridget said, glancing over Dan’s shoulder at another face in the crowd.
“Your film has great buzz,” Zack said, clapping Dan on the back.
“Everything has buzz here,” said Dan. “It’s like the old man who told his friend his knee surgeon was the best, and the friend said, ‘They’re all the best.’ ” Zack laughed and rubbed his palm against his nose. Maddy didn’t know if it was a nervous tic or a sign of drug addiction.
Dan turned to Bridget. “I’m a big admirer of your movies. I loved Frogs.” Frogs was an ensemble retelling of the Exodus story set in the adult entertainment industry. Weller had played a porn director who blows out his brains.
“Interesting that you used the word ‘movies,’ ” Bridget said. Her voice was melodious and pleasing, with the trace of an outer-borough accent. “Steven likes to say we have to make the movies to keep making the films.”
Maddy caught Zack rolling his eyes. What was it like to be Bridget Ostrow’s son, trying to carve out your own niche as an agent? Clearly, mother and son were not in perfect harmony—but if he didn’t admire her on some level, he wouldn’t have gone into representation.
“It was so wonderful meeting you all,” Bridget said abruptly, glancing at Steven and Cady across the room.
Zack gave out business cards to the foursome. “I’ll see you Saturday morning if not before,” he said. As they left, Ed beside them, Maddy noticed that mother and son had the same gait, pigeon-like, the heads bobbing, the bodies undulating slightly, as they moved.
“How come you were sucking up to Bridget when you didn’t like her movie?” Maddy asked Dan.
“We’re here to network,” he said testily. “Her client is one of a dozen actors who can get a project made by attaching himself. If she remem
bers me a couple years down the line, I could wind up directing Steven Weller.”
“But you hated his performance.”
“I could get better work out of him.”
In New York, Maddy was used to being the social one, going out with fellow New School alums to plays and movies, while Dan preferred staying inside or seeing foreign films with Maddy and no one else. She always tried to get him to come with her—he might meet actors for his films, producers—but he said he didn’t believe in networking. He’d trot out some line he attributed to Hunter S. Thompson: “An artist must have a strong sense of revulsion for the banalities of everyday socializing.” Now all his high-art soliloquies seemed a handy way of casting an unwilling lack of success as a willing one.
Steven Weller was holding court in the center of the room. Bridget’s eyes were on him, but her body was turned slightly away. She looked like a Secret Service agent scanning the room for danger.
It occurred to Maddy that Bridget Ostrow probably knew things about Steven Weller that no one else did, even Cady Pearce. Over the years she must have seen his insecurity, fear, anger, everything a celebrity had to hide from the rest of the world. A manager couldn’t yell at her star client or act jealous when he got all the attention. She couldn’t cross him (or let him find out if she did), and when she disagreed, she had to do so gently, respectfully. Maddy wasn’t sure which one had the real power—Weller, with his fame, or Bridget, who had made the fame possible.
Dan said he wanted another drink, and Maddy followed him to the bar. As he tried to get the bartender’s attention, she leaned back to face the room. She closed her eyes and tilted her head, the din thrumming in her ears, phrases like “entire ecosystem” and “digging deep.”
There was a skylight, and through it she could see the moon. She wanted to call her father on her cell and tell him she was at an elite party, a stone’s throw from a movie star, and then she remembered that she couldn’t. She sighed and lowered her chin. Her gaze fell on the group huddled around Steven Weller. Everyone was zeroed in on him, but he was staring, unblinkingly, at her.