A sampling of my brutal introduction to Hollywood journalism:
"Really, Jennifer, I'm harmless. All I want to do is ask Mr. Cruise a few questions about his mountain bike. You know, whether he prefers dual- or single-suspension, a carbon-fiber or aluminum frame, and where he likes to ride ... that sort of stuff. I have no intentions of dissing Scientology, 'Eyes Wide Shut' or his lovely wife, Nicole. Really."
"Steve Martin doesn't talk about his personal life? Inline skating is considered 'personal'? What, does he wipe out a lot or something?"
"So, are you positive Kate is booked for the next five months? Can't she squeeze me in between Vanity Fair and InStyle? I just want to ask her one simple question: Is she planning to exercise any time soon? And will she be incorporating a sea kayak into her workout?"
After three months, hundreds of phone calls, dozens of faxes and pleading messages left with almost every assistant to the assistant at CAA, ICM, PMK and William Morris, I've finally come to the sad realization that Hollywood doesn't like me. I'm trying not to take it personally, but it's hard. Especially since my journalistic mission was so ... harmless.
All I needed were a few pithy quotes from America's favorite billboard humans on the benign-as-hell subject of sports gear for a well-known national publication. The magazine has collected more than its share of National Magazine Award "Ellies," the publishing world's version of the Oscars, but given the way I was treated by Hollywood's handlers, I might as well have introduced myself as a reporter for Human Waste Management Quarterly.
In all my years gum-shoeing around for memorable lines, I've developed a semi-obsessive need to either get a quote or, failing that, closure. And, like most quip-mongers, I don't take a "no" or an unreturned phone call lightly.
I've tracked down many an impossible-to-reach individual, racking up heinous phone bills in the search for truth, seeking out questionably sane scientists in the jungles of Borneo, Russian-speaking Kamchatkan bureaucrats and drug-busted former world-record-holding sprinters. Most of these characters were in no frame of mind to spew forth the golden nuggets that make a story dance on the page, but at least they played the cat-and-mouse game that is journalism.
And while I may be naive to the unspoken tricks of the Hollywood writer trade, I'm no stranger to controversy: I once angered the owner of the world's largest pumpkin so thoroughly that he screamed obscenities into the phone for a full 15 minutes, ultimately threatening to kill me.
But these minor tribulations pale in comparison to the apathetic responses I received from America's A-, B-, C- and D-list actors and their respective entourages. Maybe it was the sheer horror of returning a call to my decidedly non-sexy 612 area code. Three months into what was supposed to be a month-long assignment, I finally lost it when Chris Rock's personal assistant blew me off with yet another weak excuse from her cell phone somewhere at a movie set atop the Canadian Rockies. What the hell were they shooting, anyway? a Rock-ian version of "Grizzly Adams"?
As with all the slippery handlers I'd so far encountered, Rock's person never actually rejected my request, she just led me on with one excuse after another, her contempt for me increasing with every call. Tired of hunting the obscenity-slinging funny guy like a slobbering barracuda, I hung up on his assistant mid-apology.
Weak with rejection, self-loathing and a vertiginous sense of my own smallness, I sought out the only therapy that promised to heal: war stories from other journalists who had not only survived the trenches of the kisses-and-cupcakes code of Hollywood suck-up journalism, but occasionally managed to subvert the system.
Esquire writer Tom Junod, who tried to out "American Beauty" star Kevin Spacey in his article "Kevin Spacey Has a Secret," soothed me with these sage words: "Hey, they look at quotes as coin. That's just the way it works. It's a weird world."
"It's out of control," adds Andrew Corsello, a GQ senior writer who penned a less-than-flattering profile of Mira Sorvino back in 1997, causing such a Hollywood hoo-haw that he has taken a temporary hiatus from planet celluloid. "It's a whole industry of silly parasitic people whose job it is to fuck you up as a journalist."
"It wasn't always that way," muses the 65-year-old doyen of celebrity photography, Douglas Kirkland, whose career at Life and Look gave him access to a revolving door of Hollywood starlets including Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, Judy Garland, Sophia Loren and, more recently, Kim Basinger, Kate Winslett and Nicole Kidman. "It used to be that I'd essentially live with a celebrity. But being a movie star these days is like being your own industry. There are people who surround, protect and guard you. [You] are treated like royalty."
Well, God save Tom Cruise the next time he endos over the handlebars on his assumingly custom-designed, carbon-fiber mountain bike. Now that I'm in month four of celebrity stalking, I can't decide which part of the assignment turns my stomach more: Americans' eagerness to elevate mere mortals to golden-calf status or my own increasing obsession with busting through the bureaucracy just for the sake of hearing Harrison Ford wax poetic about his favorite windproof shell. Either way, I've already developed a stomach ulcer.
I just long for the old days when I was blissfully ignorant of the whole racket. And now, by choice and the sheer stupidity of publicly airing my grievances with people who gross more than the national debt of Mexico with every new movie, I'm pretty sure that I'll never be speaking to anyone in Hollywood again.
But then again, I never spoke to anyone in the first place.