The Beautiful People
~ Josh Rountree
The Academy Awards ceremony was held at the old Pantages theater in April of 1960 and that venerable venue never hosted anything again for obvious reasons. These were the awards given for achievements in 1959. Afterward, we pillaged the debris to uncover the envelopes containing the names of the would-be winners. Ben Hur would have won Best Picture, had the evening been allowed to proceed to its conclusion. Why were so many of us inclined to search for those envelopes? The simple answer is we were curious. In spite of everything, most of us still loved the movies.
What do I remember from that night?
First was the scent of Audrey Hepburn’s Chanel No5 as she passed within just a few feet of me on the red carpet. My sight was fading by then, so she passed by in a chiffon blur. But the smell of her was unmistakable. I would have called the whole thing off for a chance to follow that scent past the marquis and into the red satin confines of the theater; I might have given up everything for one chance to float in that sea of beauty and grace.
The snap-flash of cameras stirred those assembled into a frenzy. Stars advanced through that gauntlet of light, drawing all of us in with the gravity of their smiles. We weren’t supposed to be there, of course, but our disguises granted us access. Hats were in fashion and the cool night gave no one reason to question our bulky overcoats. The NBC television cameras captured it all, and some of us can be seen in that old video, haunting the sharp edges of a dream world.
The cameramen shouldered closer to the fray, shouting to be heard over the brass band ponding out another refrain of “Hooray for Hollywood.”
“Mr. Wilder! Say, do you think you’ll win forSome Like it Hot, or is Wyler gonna take it this year?”
“George! George! Is Anatomy of a Murder gonna run the table?”
“Doris! Hey, why don’t you look this way?”
And when one of those forever faces turned and smiled the effect was every bit as mesmerizing as you’d hope it to be. I was in love with every one of them.
They were the soaring angels of an age, but they wanted more. They all craved eternity.
And we gave it to them.
Have you seen the 1951 classic, Strangers on a Train? It’s one of my favorites. One of Hitchcock’s best and that’s saying something. Farley Granger was memorable as Guy Haines, but the standout in that film was the doomed Robert Walker, on loan from MGM to Warner, in the role of Bruno Antony. Walker reached deep inside and summoned up a perfectly charming psychopath, and in a better world that role would have granted him immortality.
But Walker was already a broken man by the time that picture was filmed. His movie star wife, Jennifer Jones, had left him for director David O. Selznick, and he didn’t recover. He started drinking. Living like a man with nothing to lose. No matter their circumstances, some people just can’t bear the weight of their humanity.
Robert Walker was dead before Strangers on a Train ever made it to the big screen.
One of my kith mates was, of course, intimately linked to Walker, and he spent considerable effort absorbing the poor man’s misery. Giving the troubled actor, in return, that elusive something that made people special. My kith mate did his best.
But not everyone gets the Hollywood ending.
Ushers drew velvet ropes across the entrance to the Pantages, sealing the Hollywood elite inside the building. They left behind them a void in the Los Angeles night, a hollow space that could not be filled.
Tired reporters lodged freshly lit cigarettes in their lips and gathered around a bank of payphones. Automobiles idled up and down the boulevard, and those few fans who’d been allowed to watch the proceedings from hastily constructed bleachers engaged in an orderly exit, autograph books clutched in their hands, already feeling the memory of those beautiful faces beginning to soften and distort in their memories. A few of them lingered, taking a seat on the curb and casting occasional looks at the closed theater doors, but most crept off to nurse their sudden longing alone.
My kith mates and I gathered in the glow of the marquis, forming a loose semicircle as we linked hands, facing the theater. We could feel our charges inside, pulling at us, alive with laughter. In our minds they were creatures of brilliant white light. They would never darken, never burn out.
A few police officers encouraged us to scatter, but it was easy enough to change their minds, elevate their night with pleasant thoughts and the desire to be somewhere else.
Even in those final moments, we poured what remained of ourselves into our charges. We clung to one another, our spines coiled, our faces grown flat and fissured. Those of us who had not entirely lost our sight felt darkness closing around us. Bones crackled and tendons groaned. Those of us who still had teeth felt them blacken and break.
Our beauty and our souls are our treasures.
But we have always given them away willingly.
There had been a film script making the rounds for a while in the forties. A grand tapestry of Los Angeles glamour and human ambition threaded with secret societies and dark bargains that had been the fabric of this place since Hollywood and Vine were still known as Prospect and Weyse.
The script was called The Beautiful People and it would have been a blockbuster if it had ever been made. Might even have given Ben Hur a run for its money.
Here’s the pitch: A producer with a struggling film studio finds an ancient book—because there is always an ancient book in those kinds of films—and he summons a race of immortal beings from the belly of the earth to feed his actors and actresses their grace and beauty. The stars call these beings Brutes, and the Brutes do not mind this service. It’s their reason for being. And every star simply must have at least one. But you can’t help but feel bad for the Brutes. They don’t just give away their grace like the fallen angels they are. They absorb the misery and the human failings of their charges, and the weight of it twists them into monsters.
There was even a romantic subplot where an actor falls in love with one of the hideous Brutes; this is a ridiculous notion, but Carey Grant was supposedly attached to the project and I’m sure he could have sold it.
Like a lot of scripts, this one never made it to production. Hollywood keeps some stories for itself.
I read a draft of that script at some point and it came to mind as we stood there before the Pantages whispering prayers to the Beating Heart who bled every one of us into existence. The scriptwriter took a lot of license with the details but he got most of the important parts right.
The ending though? He got that all wrong.
Another of my favorites is The Thin Man from 1934. William Powell and Myrna Loy are pure perfection as Nick and Nora Charles. That sounds like I’m reading from a studio ad, but you just can’t oversell this movie. It’s whip-smart and joyous, and it’s all due to the sheer presence of those two on screen together. They’re so alive and invested in their roles that even as I laugh at their antics, I can’t help but feel a touch of melancholy. Humans can never really be that perfect, can they?
My two kith mates who’d attached to Powell and Loy were practically dust at the end. They gave all of themselves to lift their charges to such heights, but neither of them had regrets. This is our reason for being. We weather the crippling empathy, but we’re repaid with flashes of euphoria. Powell and Loy were brilliant without us. But with our help they were able to connect with that spark of the divine that lives in all humans. And through our charges, we caught a brief glimpse of that which we’ve been forever denied.
We love our charges, but we are not entirely selfless.
William Powell and Myna Loy were two of our greatest success stories, but even they have been forgotten by so many.
We give our charges everything. We love them unreservedly.
But it never seems to be enough.
The Beating Heart heard our whispers.
The belly of the world groaned and shifted, reminding us of our own bloody, rebellious births. Every one of us felt the acute homesickness of the runaway, even though most of us had decided long years before that we never wanted to go home again.
Beneath our feet, the earth yawned so suddenly that the reporters at their payphones had no time to scatter. The Beating Heart raised up his hands, grasped at the folds of the world and pulled them apart.
Fires erupted from the sudden starburst of fissures; I cannot say whether this was from broken gas lines or a manifestation of our father’s anger at being summoned. The earth was hungry, swallowing police cars and stoplights and tourists with the cameras still strapped around their necks. The fire found the Pantages with supernatural alacrity, and the building became a bonfire.
Screams and howls rode the smoke, and The Beating Heart silenced them with a sudden clenching of his fist. The walls of the Pantages caved inward with terrible speed, and the building tumbled into the opening earth.
My kith mates and I hovered over the void, nearly faltering beneath the weight of all that pain. We had cast those souls into a charnel pit, confident that the fire would render them truly timeless. Forever young. Forever beautiful.
Modern day myths.
We joined in the intimacy of their death throes. We watched through their eyes as they gazed on the divine.
And for the briefest second, the divine gazed back.
Next time you watch Casablanca, look for me in the background. During the scene in Rick’s Café Américain, when Victor Laszlo leads the defiant chorus of La Marseillaise, you can see me hunched over one of the tables, raising my drink and my voice with the other extras. I had given away very little of myself at that point and could easily pass for a weathered but still able-bodied human.
It was the love of film that compelled me to sneak onto Michael Curtiz’s set and claim that tiny portion of history, but it was vanity too. Is there not a part inside all of us that craves to be in the picture? A part that desperately wants to be noticed?
I’ve served my purpose. I’m bent and blind and monstrous. There lives inside me a constant ache to give away what little grace I have left, but it’s hard to find any takers these days. I’ve become what the movies would make of me, a nightmare demon, summoned from the pit to exchange souls for earthly glory.
And I miss my charges so very much.
There’s no home for me in the belly of the world any longer. My kith mates have all been consumed and bled back into a new existence, but I can’t seem to let go of this place even though it no longer wants me. I can’t shake the black and white lure of Hollywood dreams or the Technicolor memory of that day in 1960 when we turned women and men into legends and our actions caught the eye of God.
I want that eye to notice me again.
Josh Rountree writes fantasy, horror, science fiction, and a lot of weird nonsense. His short fiction has appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies, including Beneath Ceaseless Skies,Realms of Fantasy, and A Punk Rock Future.
A new collection of his short fiction, Fantastic Americana: Stories, is available from Fairwood Press.
Josh lives in Texas and tweets about movies, books, and guitars @josh_rountree.