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When I was an infant, my mother held me by the ankles and dipped me in the river Competence, bestowing upon my person the glow of professionalism. Let’s let Ruby handle this. If we put Ruby in charge, then the rest of us can be flakes. It began in preschool, at the end of coloring time. I was the one who gathered all the crayons, and the only ones I missed were those that had been ingested.
Myth number one about being an artist. You can only be creative if you’re flaky. Truth is, flaky artists are only flaky because they know they can get away with it. It’s very convenient, and it even adds to the aura. As far as the actual artistic product, it makes not one iota of difference – other than pissing off all the artists who have to work with you.
Competence was a trap, but I had no choice. I was a good Jewish girl, progeny of solid-minded intellectuals – the kind of girl who uses progeny in a sentence. The kind of girl who takes pride in her competence, who enjoys being a leader, and thus lacks the capacity to see the trap for what it is.
When I went for my theater arts degree at Florida State, I had one minor role in Lysistrata and then whammo! the director’s chair, ever after. Directing is another trap, because it allows you to be creative and in control at the same time. Even the most detailed of playscripts are just blueprints. Shakespeare’s are thumbnail sketches, filled up with perfect words. The director stands before a stage-wide canvas, equipped with a palette of movements, an assortment of brushes she calls actors, and has at it. The level of responsibility and respect is intoxicating; you begin to understand why so many generals turn into dictators.
I directed a dozen shows: Godot, West Side Story, Lear, Earnest, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Equus. By the time I graduated, I had the resume of a 30-year-old man, and magna cum laude, and all that other impressive crap. A month later, I got an interview at a film studio. I got it because of my dad – old college pal, that sort of thing – but when I got the job, that was different. Competent daughter of a competent father; the guy was hedging his bets, playing the DNA exacta. And he was right, I was so bloody competent.
The job was assistant to a casting director. Riding herd on extras, filing head shots – pretty mundane stuff, but every once in a while the casting director, Stacey, would turn to me and say, “So what do you think of our Mr. Davenport? Does he have the right mojo for Second Waiter?” Stacey called me Little Miss Binary, because I always answered yes or no. I had memorized the script, and I knew exactly the paintbrush we were looking for.
Within a year, I began to see my name in the credits of major motion pictures. Movies that were based on best-sellers, with stars that you didn’t have to describe as “the guy on that doctor show.” The kind of names you were sorely tempted to whip out at cocktail parties – but you never did, because you were too fond of being the consummate professional. I had college classmates who might work their entire lives, might give incredible, heart-rending performances – but who will never find the letters of their names mingling in such lofty constellations.
Three years into my personal Xanadu, my father came out west for a business trip and took me out to dinner. It was a ritzy new Italian place – Stelle, which means “stars.” In case you didn’t get the translation, there were stars everywhere: floating glass stars in the fountain, star-shaped napkin holders, whole galaxies etched into the plasterwork.
All through the meal, we could hear piano music in the lounge. Afterwards, we walked in to check it out, and found an old-fashioned piano bar – a massive grand piano with a counter around the edge for drinks. Daddy grabbed a couple of seats, ordered two champagne sours, then leaned over and said, “I think if a father buys his daughter dinner, the least she can do is sing him a song.”
Not that I needed much persuasion. I flipped through the little book on the piano and found the song I sang at my high school graduation party: “It Could Happen To You.” Sinatra recorded it. Also Robert Palmer, the rock singer.
So I waited my turn, finished my drink. It was different than karaoke; the singer had to provide the pianist with actual musical info: a key, a tempo. You could tell that some of them had been coming for years, working up their small repertoires. I had spent so much of the previous three years attached to a clipboard, I was actually a little nervous.
When I got up there, though, it was like firing up this alternate circuitry that I’d forgotten was there. I checked in with the pianist – this hip-looking grandfather type, wearing an old tuxedo with burgundy lapels – and asked him to play it slow and moody, so I could stretch out that fetching melody. It’s a restless old tune; each line is like a snaky staircase that winds around the next, you never know where you’re steppin’.
I didn’t expect much from the audience; they were Angelenos, after all, accustomed to world-class talents on every streetcorner. But they began to hush down as I sculpted the first verse – especially the older ones, who probably knew the song but hadn’t heard it for years. I, too, was busy with remembering -–that sense of attention and connection, the liquid light going out through my mouth, in through my fingertips. All those years ago, before I became a child genius. Heroin has nothing on a good stage buzz.
I got a huge applause, and was surprised when Daddy handed me my coat and led me out to the parking lot.
I laughed. “Are you in a rush, Mr. Cohen?”
“It’s always best to beat your applause to the door.”
“Ha! I thought I was the theater major.”
“I use the same principle for business meetings.”
A few miles later, as I drove him to his hotel near the airport, he said, “Honey, I still marvel that a product of my DNA can sing a song the way you do.”
“I’d almost forgotten I could.”
“Which makes me wonder. Are you happy out here? Are you happy doing what you’re doing?”
Just then, we were passing one of those monster billboards, the kind you only see in Los Angeles or Times Square. It was for a movie that I had worked on.
“I’m living out a dream, Daddy. I’m in Wonderland.”
“But are you Alice?”
His persistence made me laugh. Once Daddy landed on a notion, he was like a labrador with a rawhide chew.
“Mr. Cohen, why do you ask such silly questions?”
“Why are you crying?”
We pulled up to a red light. I put a finger to my cheek, and found that it was wet.
Photo by MJV