Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Ghost of Oscars Past

Astrologers tell us that birthdays are hard, usually a little depressing, because of the Solar Return, or some such nonsense, the planets all aligning the way they were at our birth, and not because we are getting older, as, in my opinion, older is a privilege to be able to become. For me the Oscars is a hard time, because for so much of my life I was in love with movies and movie stars, and at the time of my breakthrough success with 'The Pretenders,' I was invited to everything in Hollywood, because (I hope you're sitting down) the town is just a little bullshitty, and success is the currency. So it was that Don and I, still young and pretty and sure the world was fair, with our two beautiful little children, Robert, 2, in white jacket and black bow tie, and Madeleine 4, in a taffeta and velvet gown, gave a Black Tie party to watch the event on TV. We were the first to dare to mock, and it was in the words of the great journalist who covered it for Time Magazine, an 'anti-Oscar party.' And everybody came.

Sandra Burton was the one who covered it:she had heard through our mutual hairdresser, Dusty, that he was going to a great party, and she called me to ask if she could come. I of course was nearly overcome with rapture, as caught up as I was in my temporary fame, with a publicist who never stopped longing for more press, Time was at the time as close as you could get to publicity Valhalla. I had been cooking for days--caught up in ephemera though I was, I was still a Ballabusta, if that's how it's spelled, loving to feed friends and family with my own recipes. So I made wontons and those South American things I don't remember the name of,--oh, empanadas-- to be passed on trays, with a Sabrett stand(imported from New York) serving hot dogs in the back yard. We had a red carpet outside the walkway to our house, a klieg light at the curb, an usher's uniform from the Roxy on a friend's son who showed everyone in with a flashlight. Don tended bar and did a Jackie Gleason impression,wiping the bar and singing "My Wild Irish Rose'--(he was a GREAT bartender and did terrible impressions) The house had three rooms for watching: Orthodox(no talking, reverential) Conservative(Talking and watching) and Reformed (talktalktalk and yell back at the set.) It was 1970, and there was Vietnam, and everybody hated Bob Hope and John Wayne."Oh, shut up, John Wayne," yelled Shirley MacLaine, the only thing she said that night that Sandy actually quoted, which was truly generous of her as Shirley was stoned and never stopped spewing invective about Mike Frankovitch who was still, as I recall, the head of Columbia. Shirley was to attack me when the article came out, saying "I thought I was at a private party!" But Sandy had stood in front of her with conspicuous pad and pencil and thrice, as Tommy Thompson might have said, told her she was there for Time Magazine, as I did, too. I spent many years trying to make it up to Shirley who told me I had to make it up to her, but never did, except for offering her my musical, which she said she would do only five performances a week in and wanted to own. When the Awards broadcast was over, she sat staring at the TV on which Sandor Vanocur was, sound off, as she was at the time having an affair with Sandor VAnocur. I do not consider this a tale told out of school, as there are few interesting men whom Shirley has known with whom she did not have an affair. ('Did you know Rod Gurney?" I asked her once, speaking of the psychiatrist stepson of my mentor,Yip Harburg, who had collaborated with Jay Gorney on 'Brother Can You Spare a Dime,' and then made off with his wife. "I had an affair with him," Shirley said.}

That was the first time I met Sandy, who was to become a lifelong friend, though her life was not long enough, ending five years ago when, after a career of dangerous adventures, including being with Aquino on his return to Manila and recording his murder when they wouldn't let her follow him off the plane, Beijing during Tiannammen Square, an elephant stampede, a daring interview with the Nobel prize winner Shu under house arrest in Burma, she retired to the peace and quiet of Bali where she was brutally murdered in her bathroom. So this day sits heavy on my soul, as I loved her as much as any friend I ever had, she had more clarity than anyone I have ever known except for Jack my Jewru(it really amused her that my guru was named 'Jack,') and there are not a lot of people I can go to whom I admire that much and say 'What shall I do?' and trust that the answer will be the one I should listen to. I miss her all the time, and resent with a passion her life being so cruelly cut short, though I realize in my more rational moments that it was harder on her than me, Still, though, I wonder from time to time whether death isn't harder on those left behind.

Anyway, back to the party: the 42nd Annual Academy Awards, so you know how Ago it was, tonight's being the 81st. The invitations were engraved, 'The Mitchell Academy of Arts and Games,' they read, and like I said, everybody came. Ruth Berle, wife of Milton, the dowager doyenne of Beverly Hills, a tough, dear woman who had been a sergeant in the army and did jiu-jitsu on a man nastily tryimg to cut into a line waiting to hear Sinatra, a special friend of hers,had accepted, so everyone else did, too.(Sandy called her the 'Bellweather of Beverly Hills society.') Lee Marvin was there, having won Best Actor the year before, with Michelle who was shortly to become semi-infamous for 'Palimony,' and most of the gifted and beautiful and funny and sometimes surprisingly bright celebs we knew. Everybody brought a prize, and the big winner of the evening for accurate picks was the super-talented and slick-haired Jack Cassidy, whose prize was what Ruth Berle had brought: an autographed picture of Ruth Roman. It was a glorious evening, with endless reverberations as everybody who hadn't been invited was mad about those who were, as,-- if you're still sitting down,-- there's a lot of jealousy and venom in that town. At least there was when there were, as Rex Reed noted in his terrific article about the Oscars in this week's Observer, REAL STARS.

So this night for me is especially painful, because Sandy is gone and her death is unavenged, and there is no justice in Bali if you have money to pay off the police. Also, they don't have too many really good movies anymore as a rule, I don't care how they pretend or market or raise the prices in a Depression because people are so desperate to be distracted, they will pay $12.50 for dross, to put it poetically. I really miss Cary Grant. I really miss Sandy.