The Case of the Desperate Leading Man
He walked into my office like he knew he was trouble.
“Name’s Hartnett,” he said. “I’m looking for my career.”
“I don’t do that kinda work, kid,” I told him. “Too risky. You want your heart broken?”
“It’s already broken,” he said.
He told me a sob story about being from Iowa or some damn place where it’s all barn dances and happily-ever-afters, the kind of place they should keep their kids and not let them run away to places like Hollywood that’ll only crush them. He told me about dreaming a dream and following his bliss, and I told him I’ve seen a hundred, a thousand dumb guys just like him, who think a pretty face and tight abs are all they need in this lousy town, who think that’ll get ’em past more than a couple, three slasher flicks, anonymous meat for the grinder.
“I was desperate,” he protested. “I’ve been on the straight and narrow ever since!”
And he’d been trying, at least. More than a couple little independent jobs, nice and respectable. But the lure of the big bucks — and worse, the big fame — was too much for him to resist, like it always is for these dumb guys. He’d joined the army a couple times, did pretty well at the battle of Mogadishu, not so well at Pearl Harbor. And that’s when he lost his way, he told me. Dumb comedies, dumb thrillers. Dumb moves. Dumb movies.
“I just don’t know where else to turn,” he cried.
He seemed like a sweet kid, so I told him I’d take a look at the evidence. “I get five hundred bucks a day,” I told him. “Popcorn’s on you.”
I’d heard of De Palma, sure. Who hadn’t? He’d started out in the rough trades, working for a guy named Corman, then gone legit for a while, ironically working with gangsters and killers. But he was up to his old tricks again, if what Hartnett was showing me was any indication. Sloppy stuff. No, more than that: indiscriminate. All shouting, all the time. Guy named Ellroy’d brought him — De Palma, that is — a story about a dead girl, another sweet kid chewed up by this lousy town, and maybe it’d had a spark of something truly bitter and ironic on the page, before De Palma got his mitts on it. Now, it was all subplots and sidetracks, and they got shouted as loud as the real important stuff. There was a lot of style there, sure, but hell: anyone can do style. But it’s just more pretty faces and tight abs and no brains and no heart.
“I don’t know what happened,” he said. “I thought I was on the right track lately with this kind of job.”
I didn’t say anything, but I knew more than I had let on. I knew who the kid was, had seen him strut his stuff, knew that, yeah, going hardboiled hadn’t been a bad choice for him. He’d done that cop flick that was all black-and-white and red, the funny book gone serious, and just recently a real twisty one about a guy name of Slevin gets caught up in a real mess. But I didn’t say anything. Didn’t want to get his hopes up. I could see that he might have the right moves, that he had a spark of something classy and classic in this De Palma disaster, too, but he just wasn’t man enough yet to finagle the disaster around to his own benefit. This Hartnett kid, he let himself play the victim, walked right into a slaughterhouse of bad, seduced by the De Palma name, maybe, did okay for a bit before the knives came out at the laugh riot of the ending — where the shouting ramps up even more and De Palma goes nuts — and he got chewed up and spit out.
“Did you read the script, kid?” I asked him.
“Well, sure,” he said.
“But did you read it?”
He stared at me like the white light coming out of a projector with the tail end of celluloid on the reel flapping around.
“Okay, look: you know that dead Dahlia girl?” I said.
“Sure,” he said.
“You get how it’s supposed to be sad that she was so desperate for fame and fortune that she’d do anything?” I said.
“Sure,” he said. And then the paparazzi bulb flashed over his head. “Oh.”
I waived my fee. He seemed like a nice kid. But I made him buy me another popcorn on the way out.