The party for the Golden Globe nominees was high up in Beverly Hills. I had been invited by a woman who has lived in Los Angeles for almost 20 years and is now a noted Hollywood anthropologist. As we rounded a turn, a pair of big metal gates appeared before us. Behind them, set on the crest of a hill, was a large white house in the contemporary Californian style. In front of the gates, a dozen or so young men stood around in dark uniforms.
I thought for a moment that they were a brass band, but they turned out to be the valet parkers. I was just realizing why the Californian unemployment rate is so low when a dark Ford Windstar minivan pulled up next to us. We climbed in and were driven approximately 30 yards to the steps of the house, where we got out again. The front door was opened by yet more valets, and we were bidden inside.
The hosts, veteran studio executive Mike Medavoy and his wife, Irina, were there to greet us. Mike, a black V-neck jumper and open-necked shirt covering his ample torso, looked like he had just stepped off the 18th green. Irina, it must be said, didn’t. A striking blonde, she was wearing high heels, velvet trousers, and a black cardigan that my escort helpfully described as a “peekaboo top.” As I struggled manfully to avoid staring at her cleavage, she explained that the house had been built four years ago, and that she had redecorated it throughout.
What she didn’t say, understandably, was that the house had been built for her husband’s previous wife, Patricia Duff, who had used it to throw fund-raisers for her powerful friends in the Democratic Party. Then, Patricia left Mike and took up with Ron Perelman, the Republican-leaning financier. At about the same time that Mike lost Patricia, he also lost his job as head of TriStar Pictures. Even here, where the locals are used to ups and downs of a personal and business nature, that was considered quite a twofer.
According to my date, the real purpose of the party was to mark Medavoy’s return to the big leagues. As chairman of the suitably named Phoenix Pictures, he is once more making films, including one that might win an Oscar, The People vs. Larry Flynt. And in Irina, he has a new wife who, while she might not have his ex’s political clout, has just as much glamour and sex appeal.
If prestige in Hollywood is measured in pulling power, then Medavoy is definitely back on top. Looking around, the first person I saw was Sean Penn. He was standing alone in a corner, clad in black jeans, black T-shirt, and black leather jacket. I was thinking what a good job he was doing of playing up to his image as a brooding misfit when a bathroom door opened next to him and a 3-year-old girl walked out and jumped into his arms. He smiled broadly, mumbled fatherly nothings into his daughter’s ear, and carried her upstairs. “Hollywood’s gone baby,” my date whispered.
Moving further into the house, I felt the same sense of surprise that I always feel in the presence of movie celebrities: surprise that they look so familiar. Here was James Woods, talking a million miles a minute to Anthony Minghella, the director of The English Patient, and appearing for all the world like he was playing the manic Richard Boyle in Salvador. There was Gabriel Byrne, nursing a Heineken, every inch the handsome villain of The Usual Suspects. And here was Jeff Goldblum, angular and geeky, looking like he had just stepped out of that helicopter in Jurassic Park. He was just back from Hawaii, where he had been filming The Lost World, the sequel to that monster smash.
“What’s the plot, Jeff?” I asked, casually, as if I had known him all my life.
“It’s a big secret,” he replied.
“Oh, come on,” my date insisted.
“Well, they tempt me to go back to an island where there are more dinosaurs.”
“What sort of dinosaurs?”
“Stegosaurs–the fat ones with ripples on their back.”
T he Medavoys’ house is beautiful, with large, airy rooms and white walls covered with modern art. On virtually every surface are photographs of the Medavoys with famous people. Mike in the Oval Office with Bill Clinton. Mike with Ronald Reagan. Mike with Richard Nixon, with Nelson Mandela, with Al Gore, with Barbra Streisand, with Henry Kissinger. The only notable absentee was his former wife.
In the drawing room, we ran into another tall actor, James Cromwell, who recently appeared in The People vs. Larry Flynt. When he heard I was a writer, Cromwell told me that he had just finished writing a novel.
“What’s it about?” I asked.
“Contact,” he replied.
“Contact … the shadow … what separates us from our destiny.”
” ‘Contact.’ You mean ‘alien contact’?”
“The spaceship in the New Mexico desert and all that? You think we have been contacted by life from other planets?”
He nodded again and said:
“Yes. Regularly. Ever since 1947. You just have to look on the Internet. There are 10 or 20 sightings a month.”
Iwent outside for a drink. The stone-flagged veranda was roughly the size of a baseball diamond, and it seemed to overlook the whole of Los Angeles, which was a mosaic of orange and white lights. At the bar, I found myself next to two nondescript youths who were chugging down a couple of beers.
“You’re really popular in Europe, man,” one said to the other.
“Yeah, the English and French really like me.”
“Yeah, Japan too. I’m a big star in Japan. I’ve won lots of awards and shit over there. It’s really weird.”
My eavesdropping was interrupted by a loud cry from inside the house. When I got there, I found myself next to the hostess.
“What happened?” she asked.
“Somebody ran down the stairs on their hands,” came the answer from the crowd.
“My God, somebody ran down the stairs on their hands in my house,” she shrieked, clearly delighted.
The party was now in full swing. Belatedly, I realized that a lot of people in the house were foreigners. My date explained that this is always the case at awards parties these days. She said the Hollywood studios have largely given up producing serious movies, so they have to rely on Europeans and antipodeans to make films that won’t embarrass the industry when the Oscars come around. Unfortunately, many members of the academy have never heard of a lot of these foreign movies, so there is an event every January called the Golden Globe Awards to tell them what films to watch before they vote.
Scott Hicks, the director of Shine, is one of the beneficiaries of this shift. Having just got off a 16-hour flight from Adelaide, the longhaired Aussie seemed somewhat bemused by all the fuss. “I’m trying to figure out what it is about Shine that appeals to people so much,” he told me. “I really don’t know.” I asked Hicks whether he was planning to move to Hollywood, but he said he was wary of repeating the experiences of other young foreign directors who have tried it, such as Neil Jordan and Mike Figgis. “They tend to have a huge cock-up and leave,” Hicks said. For now, he added, he was “determined to enjoy the moment.”
So were Alan Parker, the director of Evita, and Mike Leigh, the director of Secrets and Lies. When I ran across the two Brits, they were knocking back the white wine and discussing that most English of subjects: the class system. Parker and Leigh are both self-made men and supporters of the British Labor Party, but Parker has worked primarily in Hollywood for almost two decades, whereas Leigh stayed in London to make his low-budget films. Although they admire each other’s work, this was clearly a point of some tension between them.
“Mike Leigh knows sod-all about the working class,” Parker said to me, apropos of nothing.
Fortunately, Leigh didn’t hear that slur. I asked him how much money it took to produce Secrets and Lies.
“Three million quid,” he said proudly.
By this stage, the belle of the ball had finally arrived: Courtney Love, who stars in The People vs Larry Flynt. At least, I think it was Courtney Love. To be honest, she didn’t look anything like the grunge singer I remembered from MTV. She was thinner, some of her facial features appeared to have changed shape, her blond hair was curled, and she was wearing a beautiful white maxi with a flowered pattern on it. I vaguely recalled something about her appearing in Vogue recently, but this was less a fashion makeover and more a transmogrification.
I was too frightened to approach Courtney, but Mike Leigh wasn’t. He walked around in a circle, inspecting her as if she were a prize steed.
“What’s this?” he asked, pointing to a dramatic red-and-black tattoo that covered most of her right shoulder.
“Oh, it’s from my death-rock phase,” she replied.
The rest of the evening is something of a blur to me. At some point, my date appeared and said it was time to go. It was almost midnight, which is considered late in Los Angeles. On the way out, we passed Mike Medavoy. He was sitting on the staircase with Irina on one side of him and Julia Ormond, the beautiful British actress, on the other. Way to go, Mike.