Sunset Boulevard

It was the shove that got me thinking. This was no just-passingby accidental bump—it was a swift and vicious push clearly meant to get me out of the way. More interesting than the shove, though, was its source: a ponytailed action star who was supposedly some kind of lama incarnate. I must have been blocking his path to enlightenment, because when I politely told him that he had more guests than we could accommodate, his only response was to hit and run. One quick shove and I was gone, all five feet of me, reeling backward in my heels as he dashed down the red carpet with his gang. Only the obscene thickness of that carpet kept me vertical; otherwise, I would have landed on my butt. Still recovering from my brush with greatness, I heard my earpiece squeal.
“Karen, Jesus, what are you doing up there? He’s got too many people—why did you let them in?” It was Vivian Henry, the executive vice president of publicity at Glorious Pictures. Not my boss, directly, but one of the twenty-five or so people who had attained a position in the Glorious hierarchy that entitled them to yell at me.
“Vivian, I tried. He just shoved me and they all ran past!” I said.
“Forget it. Forget it. You’re useless,” she snapped. “I’ll take care of it on my end.”
I turned and peered at the entrance. Vivian was “taking care of it” by enthusiastically ushering my assailant and his flock inside. He tossed off a dismissive wave in my direction with one of his gigantic hands before ducking through the mosquito net covering the doorway. My heart still pounding from the shock of the encounter, I tried to slow down my pulse to its normal rate and concentrate on greeting the other, less violent celebrity guests as they arrived at our gala. After an arduous Oscar campaign—ordered by Phil and Tony Waxman, the fraternal twin brothers who’d founded Glorious Pictures, and carried out by everyone who worked at the company—we’d achieved our goal: The Foreign Pilot had won the Academy Award for Best Picture.
The Foreign Pilot had all the ingredients of a Glorious Pictures legend from the start. Rescued from the trash heap of a major studio, it starred marvelously talented (though previously unknown) European actors and had been adapted from a novel by a literary genius who’d escaped his country’s brutally oppressive regime with the manuscript stuffed inside his shoes. As Phil had said nearly a year earlier in a meeting with the entire publicity department, “If that’s not enough of a story for you people to work with, you might as well shoot yourselves in the head.” This was Phil’s characteristically subtle way of letting his staff know that The Foreign Pilot had better be a big picture. A Best Picture. Or else. That meeting took place about nine months before my arrival at Glorious, but it had been recounted by my colleagues so often and in such detail that I felt as if I’d actually been there. By the time I started in the publicity department in February, saying the place was exceptionally tense would have won Best Understatement.

And so I’d stumbled like a toddler on unsteady legs into a world of bleary midnights and head-splitting sunrises spent in the service of The Foreign Pilot’s corps. We’d made thousands of phone calls to Academy members, cheerily asking them if they’d enjoyed The Foreign Pilot.We’d dialed until our fingers cramped. We’d stayed up all night to reach voters in every single time zone. We’d manned those phones with the fervor of televangelists offering Heaven for just three easy payments. How skilled the leading actor’s performance! How deft the direction! How breathtaking the scenery! The score! The costumes! We’d brayed our praises at the members who deigned to take our calls and then, because so many of them were elderly and hard of hearing, we’d brayed even louder. We’d meticulously executed a brilliant awards campaign that mimicked the tactical plans of the nation’s finest political strategists. (We knew this to be true because when the president’s congratulatory telegram arrived at the party, he told us so himself.) Now it was ten o’clock, the ceremonies were over, the Glorious party was in full swing, and we were awaiting the arrival of our victorious leaders.

In L.A. for five days and awake for most of the past three, I’d helped to mount our assault from the elegant confines of the Four Seasons, and my experience of Hollywood so far had proved both glamorous and humiliating. My room was beautiful but I hadn’t had time to enjoy its amenities, most noticeably the multipillowed, elegantly duveted chariot of sleep for which this hotel was famous. For the right price, those beds could be shipped directly to one’s home, high-thread-count shams and all, and rumor had it they were responsible for more than a few celebrity spawn. Now, as I choked down a room-service breakfast, I eyed mine wistfully, noticing that I’d barely made a dent in the dainty white coverlet during my three-hour snooze after our all-night party-logistics meeting. My Frosted Flakes had arrived with all the pomp and circumstance of a grand feast, surrounded by silver bowls of berries, yogurt, and bananas, but I had no time to contemplate the views from the flower-bedecked balcony on which the table had been set—I had an eight o’clock appointment at the Glorious hair and makeup suite. Lapping up the last drops of sweetened milk and taking a few gulps from my third cup of coffee, I grabbed my loaned designer gown and headed down to the second floor.
I stepped inside and immediately felt a hand on my back. The hand belonged to Marlene MacFarlane, the senior vice president of publicity, who had been placed in charge of the department’s “look” for the event. She propelled me toward the hairdressers’ room, noting, “Your hair will certainly be the most labor-intensive.” There was no denying that most of the time my hair defied all styling products and betrayed a casual disregard for the laws of gravity. Still, this remark stung coming from Marlene, who wore her usual unflattering pageboy, although she’d stuck on some kind of glittery headband in deference to the day. I was seated in a salon chair specially installed for the occasion, while two stylists tag-teamed me. Gradually, I saw a glossy light brown mane evolving in the mirror. Glancing from side to side, trying not to move my head, I could see that we were all becoming shinier, sharper, more polished versions of ourselves: it was like that scene in The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy and her fellow travelers get spruced up before they go to meet the wizard.
Next up was the dressmaker, who pinned and basted and then swapped me a robe for my gown, so that she could make the needed alterations. While I waited for the dress, a makeup artist applied multiple layers of cosmetics to my face. “Now, I gif you new undervear,” the seamstress said, in a vaguely Baltic accent. She handed me two paper ovals that looked alarmingly like mailing labels, right down to their peel-off backings. Seeing my confusion, she said, “It ees the bra. You steeck it on. Panties you leaf here.” After maneuvering the stickers into place, taking care to create some cleavage, I stepped into the gown, marveling at its perfect fit and lack of distracting lines. I might be a little chilly tonight, but it would be worth it. She put a tiny vial of liquid in my hand. “For later. Eet dissolves zee glue.” I tucked it into my evening bag. Looking in the mirror again, I barely recognized myself. My hair gleamed, my skin looked bronzed and healthy, I had a curvy figure, and everything about me glowed, sparkled, shone, or did these things in combination. I felt like I was starring in the E! True Hollywood Story of my own life, the good part, where the narrator’s voice would contain just a hint of warning as to the downfall sure to follow the commercial.