Summertime in Los Angeles to the just transplanted 22-year-old: sparkling, translucent, savory. The paradise left me dazed, by random, but magical, run-ins with celebrities; eclectic, yet elegant mansions on famous, winding avenues; the infinite array of exotic, effortlessly attractive women. The difference between visiting Los Angeles and living there, however, amounted to a contrast in empathy: the former allowed you to admire the wealthy, while the latter reminded you of your distance from them. So by the fall, the cost of living had already diminished the city's luster, and I decided that it was time to get a regular job. All the prime film industry gigs I had applied for were slow to respond, and my newborn California bank account was beginning to resemble a dying plant.
A brief, but memorable assignment took place downtown, at a spacious investment firm adjacent to the main library. We were paid $18 an hour to fold and assemble company brochures. Thankfully, we were an extroverted, relaxed group, and spent our abundance of down time discussing our various pop culture likes and dislikes.
The only other black person there was the tall, busty Barbie doll who sat directly across from me. She introduced herself to the group as Monika -- "With a 'K'", she proudly announced -- and claimed to have graduated magna cum laude from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Physically, she looked too good to be true, and if I had learned nothing else in my first few months in the City of Actors, it was that most things that appeared too good to be true probably were. Whether they were spelled with a K or not.
On the second day, while we folded and passed, we discussed our favorite movies. My co-workers were a predictable, conventional bunch: there were plenty of Forrest Gumps and Titanics and E.T.s to go around. But when Monika stated that her absolute favorite -- if she had to pick just one -- was Midnight Cowboy, I nearly fell out of my chair. Really, what were the odds that she, too, would claim as her favorite film a depressing drama about a dimwitted male prostitute who befriends a lowlife hustler? I sensed a connection, and took her to lunch that day.
"So what brought you to L.A.?" I said, after I wolfed down my cheeseburger.
"I'm an actress," she said, while she picked at her salad.
"Really? I'm a director."
"That is so cool. Who are your favorites?"
"I'm kinda general old school," I said. "Everyone from Truffaut to Scorsese to Orson Welles to George Stevens."
"George Stevens?" she said. "Did you see A Place in the Sun?"
"Yeah, like fifteen times."
"Wasn't it brilliant? Montgomery Clift was such an amazing actor. I hope to have his depth someday. Did you know he passed on Sunset Boulevard and East of Eden? He would've been bigger than Brando."
I saw none of this coming. I had already come to expect so little from pretty faces, assuming almost immediately that no beautiful woman with a strong D cup could possibly hold her own in a discussion about the Rwandan genocide, let alone the flawless mise-en-scene of Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin. Though I had indefinitely sworn off dating sometime during my senior year of college, I believed I had found a muse.
We exchanged phone numbers the next day, which was the last day of the temp assignment. When I finally called her I was amazed again by how easy she was to talk to. And yet every conversation that Monika and I had -- no matter how refreshing -- ended abruptly at nine because, as she always put it, "My girl just got here and we're 'bout to go get our party on." Monika lived in a two-bedroom apartment near Sunset Boulevard and frequented gaudy clubs on the Strip each night. I wondered how someone so devoted to her craft could party so habitually while still new to the business. But there is no surefire road to Hollywood acclaim. I assumed she was out networking. And as time progressed, I began to wonder if I shouldn't have been hitting the clubs myself.
We both wanted to see the film American Beauty. Monika offered to pick me up and we settled on a theater in the San Fernando Valley, not too far from where I lived with my cousin. To my surprise, she arrived driving a shiny, black Lexus with customized "MONIKA" license plates. On the way to the theater, I wondered aloud how a single, allegedly struggling actress could afford such transportation.
"These payments are killing me," she said. Then she laughed. "But that's how we live out here. Everyone has to look good in L.A., you know?"
I tried to ignore her. It seemed far better just to enjoy the moment: A voluptuous woman was chauffeuring me to an acclaimed movie in an expensive car. This had never happened before growing up in Toledo or in college in Pittsburgh. Still, it felt too easy. Such was the dichotomy of life in Southern California -- though surrounded by unfathomable beauty, every step towards prosperity seemed to come with some awful attachment.
That night, after the movie, as we cruised through yawning Northridge streets, I inquired about her theatrical training. I figured we were just talking shop.
"I'm sure you were acting all the time at Carolina," I said. "What were you? A theater major?"
"No, I majored in French."
"So, you auditioning yet?"
She shook her head. "No. I'm not auditioning."
"Taking any acting classes?"
"I thought about it, but no, I'm not."
"So then, what are you doing?"
"I'll figure something out."
She didn't sound irritated, but more as though her unstoppable career plans couldn't be bothered by such trivial things as classes or auditions. I dropped the questions, and we rode in silence.
One night, after she called me and initiated another lively conversation, Monika told me that she was on her way to a well-known musician's after party on Sunset.
"But its really strange," she said, "this feeling I've had lately."
"What kind of feeling?" I asked.
"I don't know," she said. "I thought about what you asked me the other night, about taking classes and stuff, and I'm starting to look at my life. All this partying I do, it can't be healthy. Why do I have to go out every night? I mean, sure, I'm being seen, but that can come back to haunt you. You don't want to be known as the party girl. And honestly, it's not even about my career. I think I go out because I'm looking for something. It's like there's this emptiness in my life, some kind of void that I'm trying to fill. It's like I'm missing something."
Throughout the course of my life, different people had expressed similar sentiments at various occasions. And I -- in spite of every carnal action recorded thus far -- believe resolutely that Jesus Christ is the Savior of the world. So as a Christian, there was really only one thing for me to say.
"Is it possible that what you're looking for is God?" I asked. "You know, having a closer relationship with Him?"
Monika went silent for several seconds. Then, like a volcano, she erupted.
"What do you mean I need to get closer to God? Who are you to be telling me what I need to do? I try to confide in you and that's how you want to act?"
"Wait, but you just said -- "
"Don't tell me what I said. Who the hell do you think you are? You ain't in no position to be questioning my relationship with God. You ain't no God expert! I know God, motherfucker. I ain't no devil. I know God."
"Monika, all I said was -- "
"I have to go straighten my hair. Good-bye."
I called her a week later, in search of closure. She was grumpy and responded to all my questions and statements with one-word answers. Apparently, my open-ended inquiry had struck a nerve. The nerve in question had burst, and now resentment flowed like oil from a gushing well. After she applied her last touch of makeup, she cut our short conversation even shorter.
"I have to go," she said. "My girl just got here and we're 'bout to go get our party on."
"Monika," I said, "you don't have to be afraid."
I thought she was going to explode again ("Afraid? You ain't no afraid expert! Who is you to be telling me I don't have to be afraid?") but instead, she spoke in a throaty, measured whisper.
"I know," she said, "but I have to go."
It was the last time we ever spoke.
A couple years later, Monika went on to co-star in some mindless Black comedy (it had some stupid title like The Swap Meet or Lil Ray Rays Block Party) cast as a rapper's ditzy, slutty girlfriend. She did look the part -- attired each scene in killer red stilettos and sexy halter-tops -- yet the casting was still uninspired. She responded poorly in her scenes, made movements inconsistent with her character, and delivered all her lines in an irritating monotone. While her connections (and Lord knows what else) had gotten her the part, her lack of preparation was evident.
"Is that the girl you used to know?" my boy Eddie asked me, as we watched the movie at his North Hollywood apartment.
"Yeah, that's her."
He laughed. "She can't act worth a damn."
"I know. Welcome to Hollywood."
"She is fine though."
"And despite her lack of talent," Eddie said, "she got one more film credit than you do."
"I know," I said. "Welcome to Hollywood."
Eddie's comment didn't really hit me until the next morning, while I was en route to my hectic gofer job at a TV movie production company. The day was foggy and overcast, and even though it was breakfast time, headlights were plentiful. I realized then that I wasn't envious of Monika at all. Just being in some pointless movie was one thing; I was trying to change the world. Simultaneously, in my own meetings with producers, I had been exposed to the disproportion of the playing field: that trends were embraced before truth, connections were more valued than creativity. Still, I made a pact with myself to soldier on, surpassing the inevitable slights and slashes one endures when they try to do things that have never been done before. That morning, though we were all driving on the same freeway, at the same time, and stuck in the same glut of traffic, in the end, it was clear that we would all arrive at different destinations.
Jason Gilmore is a film director, screenwriter, novelist and unrepentant Detroit Pistons fan. Track him down on Facebook.
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1.11.10 @ 8:36a
One of the really sad things about this narrative, aside from Monika's generally vapid and empty life, is that YOU MISSED YOUR CHANCE to suggest that what she needed was a cool. hip dude like you in her life. I think it would have been worth a shot, if, of course, you wanted more of her in YOUR life. If not, well, it doesn't really matter, does it?
I hope you will let us know when there's a Jason Gilmore film to see. I, for one, really want to see it (them?).