The following is from Edward J. Delaney’s The Acrobat. Delaney is an award-winning author, journalist, and filmmaker. His books include the novels Follow the Sun, Broken Irish, and Warp & Weft, and the short story collection The Drowning and Other Stories. His short fiction has also been published in The Atlantic and Best American Short Stories. Among other honors, he has received the PEN/New England Award, O. Henry Prize, and a NEA Fellowship.
All is Not Well in the Kingdom
The scripts come one after another. They pile up on the table in his bungalow on the studio lot, the endless gamble of his time and talents, a future that can rest on these choices. Hes learned to spot within ten pages whether its a role he can see himself in; some he reads to the end even when hes determined he either shouldnt do the picture or cant do it.
But the reading is the reading. Theres no romance to it, unless youre Marilyn Monroe, who is constantly photographed reading scripts in various sexy poses, as if the fact of her reading was a surprise. But hed worked with her in Monkey Business and he knew what she brought to the table; the dumb-blonde act was as much an act as his highborn man. She was constantly recommending books to him that hed never heard of and never had time to read. But there she was in the magazines, lingering over a script as if this was oxymoronic. Hed said to her, People are surprised how little education I actually have. She had said, People seem surprised I have any at all. They both had to make up for that lack of schooling, but the difference was hed chosen to quit the minute he could. The fact that shed gotten further than he before dropping out didnt mean shed wanted to. She read and read; she went to the Actors Studio to study the Method but never seemed to use it in her pictures. Now shes married to Arthur Miller, and he cant imagine those high-minded conversations. Hes heard some whispers that Millers been writing a big screenplay for her that will change her life.
He, a man with the nom de cinema of Cary Grant, with his truncated education and limited patience, believes he reads a picture the way someone in the audience would watch it: with a need for things to happen. On he reads, dividing the piles on his desk into In and Out piles in which the In pile seems taller every time he walks into the room.
Hes already committed to two new pictures after this year; hes looking at 1963 at the earliest.
Then after that, hell be sixty.
The script at hand is set in Paris, and its clear it would be filmed on location. Not so bad, then. In it, he would play a charming man of mysterious means who in the story seems to take on many identities. Right up his alley. And the love interest would be a charming young woman he must help escape a group of murderous men whod been in cahoots with her recently murdered husband. And there he worries. The character of the girl, Regina, tracks young. And hed heard through channels that they have Audrey Hepburn in mind. An age difference of twenty-five years. Thats becoming more problematic. She was in Funny Face with Fred Astaire a couple of years ago and
hed felt a pang of worry about their scripted attraction. Did people really believe it anymore?
On the set again, he sees Scotty smoking a cigarette outside the stage door. Scotty holds out the pack and the Acrobat takes one, then accepts Scottys lighter.
Thought you were quitting these things, Scotty says. Im just getting into character.
Your character smokes in a submarine? Only off-camera.
I didnt realize you ever got out of character.
Well, I did back in fifty-two. Retired for a few months and was beside myself with boredom. Funny, most people in this business would rather die with their makeup on.
How did you ever find yourself here, Scotty? Working in the pictures.
I grew up over in Yorba Linda, back when that was all just orange groves and celery fields. My family had just come from Nova Scotia. I guess I was going to be a farmhand, but then the war started.
You fought in the Great War? Didnt everybody?
I suppose they did, if they were old enough.
So when I got back here, the pictures were just really starting up. They were looking for strong boys who could carry heavy things. It sounded harder than farming, but it paid better. In time, they taught me carpentry, then electrical. I picked it all up pretty quickly. There was always demand for workers. Pretty soon, pictures were the biggest thing in this damned town. And thats the story.
I take it youve been dealing with people like me for a long time.
Oh, Ive been around people like you forever. Youre not such a bad lot. Once I understand how busted-up needy you all are, I stopped being resentful. Actors are actors, with all the warts you cant bear people seeing. Ive had problems with very few stars.
Who were the few you did have problems with?
Besides yourself? The only one I really had friction with was Buster Keaton. Why, what did Keaton ever do to you?
He was loony, Boss. Hed make us rework the set ten times over until it satisfied him. I was the foreman, so I had to speak up. Hed work us to the bone for nothing, trying to get it right. He was drinking heavy then, though. He knew he was losing it, and it was making him crazy. The doctors tried putting him in a straitjacket, but Houdini had taught him how to escape one, so he kept getting away.
Drinking gets the best of them, doesnt it?
Let me tell you, John Gilbert used to breathe fire. But what killed him was that nasal voice of his. When the silent pictures ended, so did he. Dead by his midthirties.
Youve known them all, havent you? No, but Ive known an awful lot.
And will I just be another story for you to tell? Nah, Boss, Ill just be one for you to tell. Thats true.
They both finish their cigarettes, and then Scotty says, I better get back to it.
Scotty, do you ever form an opinion of the pictures youre working on, watching them being shot?
Sometimes you can tell, Boss, but sometimes you cant. I worked on Public Enemy, and that was something. Everybody knew it. And the cowboy picturesyou almost cant go wrong. But the ones that werent so good, you probably wouldnt remember.
This picture is pretty awful, isnt it?
Ive been wrong before, Boss, so Ill keep my opinion to myself. But its interesting that youre asking me.
Maybe its time for me to get out of the business.
Interesting that youre thinking that, too. But the difference between you and me is, youre rich enough to have a choice.
Hes stopped by the bungalow on the studio lot to check his phone messages. James, the publicist from Key West, has left an urgent message. Hes suggested theres a problem developing. The Acrobats lawyer, Stanley, is now holding on the line.
Stanley, is everything all right?
The New York Herald Tribune is going to run Joe Hyamss series about you, starting in the morning, Stanley says. Apparently you went on at some length about this drug use of yours. Sounds as if it wasnt just a slip of the tongue.
First of all, its a prescribed treatment. And you need to stop that from happening, Stanley. I never told him he could use that.
Hes saying you let Lionel Crane at the London Daily Mirror use the material, and that its fair game now.
I hardly think so! I have no idea whats being printed in London. And nobody reads the Daily Mirror anyway! I also dont want this published in America. That series needs to be stopped.
Why did you even talk to reporters about this? It was on my mind. So I did.
Hitch is very concerned, Stanley says. North by Northwest opens in seven weeks. Can you get Hyams on the phone for me?
Im not sure thats a good idea.
I insist. Ill get this squared away.
All right, then, Stanley said, and none too enthused.
But inside of an hour later, the phone rings and its Hyams.
Well, Joe, you need to pull this series Im just now hearing about.
I cant see that happening, sir. Theyll be running the presses in a few hours. Its six oclock back east. Everything is already Linotyped.
I told you Id let you know when you could publish this.
Ive already been scooped by the London paper, so its all fair game now. Im sorry. But you simply must pull that series!
Hyams pauses, then says, You probably have no idea what it would cost the Herald Tribune to reset the pages on deadline. Im not going to ask them to do that.
Ill get back to you, the Acrobat says, hanging up. He redials Stanley and says, Im going to deny I ever spoke to him.
Now its Stanley pausing. Im not sure if thats a good idea.
Not only did I not give him permission, but Look magazine has now offered a hefty price to me to relate my story. I could choose to talk about it there. If Im going to discuss the Treatment, why would I give it away to the Herald Tribune for nothing?
Stanley remains silent.
Stanley, heres what to do. Release a statement from me denying I ever spoke to the man. Maybe think about that for a little bit, Stanley said.
Please, Stanley, I insist. This is the best way to handle things. The last thing I want is this fellow thinking he can speak for me.
I doubt hes going to like that.
And why should I be remotely concerned with what a reporter does and doesnt like?
I dont know what to tell you what to do, Stanley says. I dont know why you ever talked to the press about this at all. Psychiatric treatments. Hallucinatory drugs! Its probably going to sink the picture. And if it sinks this picture, it will sink the next one, and its all going to end up costing you . . .
He paces in his bungalow office at the studio lot, awaiting Joe Hyamss arrival. The journalist has arranged this after much negotiation, and the moment draws near. The Acrobat does some breathing exercises. This is a focused attempt to get into character, to get into the role called upon right now, which is a man relaxed and mostly amused.
The fallout from the Herald Tribune series has stunned him. After the release of his statement denying having ever spoken to Hyams, the reporter has now sued for defamation. Unheard of, really. In different times, that would have been career suicideand may still be. The people who cover the movie business have been presumed to not want to alienate the studios, at any cost. One would have presumed Hyams would have quietly receded.
Instead, Hyams has filed a lawsuit for a half million dollars.
Does he really believe that was the amount of the damage? the Acrobat says on the phone to Stanley. It feels like some kind of stunt, and its all over the newspapers. Everyone is going to find out if this means the end of the mans career.
Everyone is also going to find out if this will cost you half a million, Stanley says. I wish youd taken my advice.
Its not as if Im actually being caught in a lie, Stanley. I know I lied, and pretty much everyone else does. Thats beside the point. Or it possibly is the point: Its the way it works.
Its the way its always worked, I agree with that.
Louella Parsons has just written about all this. Listen to this: When I was a girl, things were different in the newspaper business.
Yes, the studio arranged that, Stanley says.
But in the deposition, Stanley says, Hyams has produced the tape recording and a photo taken of them on the deck of the pink submarine, apparently by the studios own set photographer. It was all so much bolder than one might expect of a journalist who depends on stars to give him the time of day. Meanwhile, poor James, the studio public relations man, has disappeared from the face of the earth, apparently avoiding a deposition of his own.
Well, we need to make this go away, Stanley says, with a curl of gloom on his voice. Like we always make these things go away.
FromThe AcrobatbyEdwardJ.Delaney. Used with permission of the publisher, Turtle Point Press. Copyright 2022 by EdwardJ.Delaney.