Sunday, February 28, 2010

Salieri vs Mozart 2/28/10

Reader, I met him.

Finally, after months – no, years – of suspecting that Matthew Rhys was a hologram that would never materialise in my life, I got to meet him. And not just once, but twice.

The first time was at the King’s Head in Santa Monica on Friday, where all the Welsh gathered to watch our national side against France in the Six Nations rugby.

The second time was on Saturday, where even more Welsh were gathered in West Hollywood, to celebrate St David’s Day.

And yes, he is every bit as handsome, charming, funny and delightful as everyone had led me to believe. If I were ten years younger . . . (Oh, come on, this is the Cougar capital of the world).

I didn’t think I was going to make the party, as I fell off my shoes on Friday and have been in agony with a bad back as a result. Weird as it sounds, falling off my Jimmy Choos is something I regularly do. Unlike Victoria Beckham, who negotiates five-inch heels with seeming ease and grace, I have always been someone who, in high heels, bears a closer resemblance to the leaning tower of Pisa – a leaning tower of Pisa trying not to spill a pint of lager, to boot.

Sometime between Wales almost getting back into the game and subsequently losing, I slipped and did my back in. It was probably the excitement of meeting Matthew that sent me flying, but the result was that I spent the whole of Saturday laid up, watching wall to wall Law and Order, in the hope that I would be well enough for the party.

It was by far the best night I have had here so far. I’d been a bit emotional on Friday, as I always am when there is rugby happening in Cardiff and all my friends keep texting me to tell me what a great time they are having. But on Saturday, it was a home from home at the Palihouse Hotel.

Paul McKenna, who has lived in LA for two years, was there. Then Stephen Fry turned up, with an enormous leek in his jacket. I also met Luke Macfarlane, who plays Scotty in Brothers and Sisters, along with Dave Annable, who plays Justin. Lovely, lovely men, both incredibly funny, delightful company, and they each told me what a joy Matthew is to work with.

Many Brits are doing very well in LA, and every week it seems as if there are more of them here. But here’s the interesting thing: the ones who are doing really well can’t do enough to help their countrymen; the mediocrities can’t do enough to hold newcomers back.

I call it the Salieri Complex. Lacking the gifts they recognise all too fully in others, their lives here operate in a circus of paranoia and insecurity.

Their ears are constantly twitching for news of a meeting with X, Y or Z, that they have been trying for years to accomplish, without success; they clock up failures as “networking”, and harbour resentments at others’ successes by bad-mouthing them behind their backs. Just like at home, really – only worse.

In the working environment, it is very much a sheep and goats mentality. The real successes – Simon Cowell, Paul McKenna, Matthew Rhys, Ioan Gruffydd, Hugh Laurie, Catherine Zeta Jones (I could go on) – have nothing to prove. They have all achieved success through incredibly hard work, together with a fair degree of talent, and made their respective marks in the toughest of cities. And what they also have, that the Salieris don’t quite get, is individuality.

Nothing succeeds here more than being different. We Brits are instantly attractive because of our accents – they really, really love our accents and think we are all related to the Queen; we also have a quick-wittedness that the Americans really do understand (forget what they say about them not understanding irony – it simply isn’t true), but can’t quite match in terms of speed.

For every funny thing you say, you have to allow for a two second delay while the Americans wait for the dime to drop. Then, they stare in open-mouthed wonder at the brilliance of your delivery and proceed to tell all their friends that you are the funniest person in the world.

And then there is that something that just sets one person apart - the X Factor. You've either got it or you haven't. Mozart. Salieri.

The influx of Brits has been huge the past few weeks, as we are in the middle of “pilot season” here, and actors come looking for that one big series that might make their name.

But for every Matthew or Hugh, there are dozens of non-starters, and most will return to the UK with more of the shattered dreams that are so much part of the backdrop in this extraordinary, bizarre place.

The Mozarts will rise to the top; they always do. They have the talent, but also the drive, enthusiasm, passion and positivity.

The Salieris might reckon it is all down to luck; but as Samuel Goldwyn said: “The harder I work, the luckier I get.”

The Salieris of this world would do well to remember that.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

And The Award For Bullshit Goes to . . . 2/23/10

Before I visited LA in November 2008 and subsequently moved here in April last year, I had visited the city just once, over 20 years ago.

A national newspaper, which subsequently went bust (not, I hasten to add, as a result of my expenses), sent me there to cover a pre-Oscars party, and I was more excited than I had ever been about covering any other story in my early career.

Certainly a great deal more excited than when the London Evening Standard dispatched me to Hampstead to dress up for a human chess game and made a little girl cry when she was made to hand over her pawn outfit to me.

And certainly more excited than when I had my hair bleached white blonde and ended up looking like Myra Hindley’s less attractive sister.

I said yes to everything in those days. New to London and living off chicken drumsticks stolen from functions I gate-crashed and smuggled into my handbag, I was desperate for work.

I once sobbed to my dear friend, the late Keith Waterhouse, that I really didn’t want to do some godawful piece I had been commissioned to write about dogs.

“How much are they paying you?” he asked. “£200,” I wailed.

He whipped out his cheque book: “Then I will pay you £200 NOT to write the article!”
The uncashed cheque still sits in my drawer, a salutary reminder not to say yes to things you hate.

The newspaper put me up in Burbank’s Holiday Inn, a hotel without a hairdryer and miles from Hollywood, where the party was to take place.

When Warner Brothers heard that a member of the press was being treated in this way, they moved me to a suite at the five-star Beverly Wilshire at the bottom of Rodeo Drive, and there I stayed for four days, a reluctant evictee every afternoon at 4pm, when management begged me to let the cleaners in.

I did some interviews from the red carpet, including one with Joel Grey, who in 1972 had won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his portrayal of the Emcee in Cabaret.

At the do itself, I sat next to Tom Hulce, who had played Mozart in the Oscar-winning Amadeus, but in 1985 lost out in the Best Actor category to F. Murray Abraham, who played the musician’s rival, Salieri.

I was new to London, new to Fleet Street, new to Hollywood, and I loved it.

As the city prepares for the 82nd Academy Awards on March 7th, I am reminded more than ever of the industry that is the heart of this place.

Will it be Sandra Bullock or Meryl Street for Best Actress? Will Katherine Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker triumph over ex-husband James Cameron’s Avatar, and will Bigelow become the first woman ever to win Best Director? Will co-hosts Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin pull it off? What will everyone be wearing?

At the moment, there is talk of little else, and at the pre-Oscars nominees’ lunch at the Beverly Hilton last week, everyone put on a smiling face while clearly spitting blood about their rivals.

The Bullock/Streep rivalry is barely out of the news, with Bullock joking about tripping up her rival if she beats her to the podium. Streep is maintaining a dignified silence.

Bullock did not reveal what she will be wearing on the big night, unlike Victoria Beckham who, we have learned, will be wearing a sophisticated flowing gown of her own creation. Our own Piers Morgan and Amanda Holden will also be there, reporting from the red carpet.

So far, I have just one invitation to a pre-Oscars party. It’s from my old friends, the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, who on Wednesday are holding a poolside event of “treatments, consultations and amazing gifts” from their own spa and associated companies, “to get you ready for the red carpet”.

Naturally, I will be there, among the Moet and Chandon and Sprinkles Cupcakes that the invitation has promised, and although I am not going to the actual ceremony, I already feel part of what is undoubtedly Hollywood’s biggest event of the year.

It’s hard not to be caught up in it, but in the big build-up it’s also easy to forget what I have so far learned about the movie industry in my brief time here.

It’s tough. Incredibly tough. For actors, producers, directors, writers. Especially writers. It’s cut-throat. Ruthless. It’s an industry in which bullshit invariably triumphs over talent.

The movie-making process is a long and laborious one, a money-making machine that chews people up, spits them out, and moves onto the next course without so much as a backward, guilty glance.

But it’s still Hollywood.

And hey, as bullshit goes, it’s still the best bullshit in the world.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

The Only White One On The Bus 2/20/10

There has never been a moment in my life when I thought that “the only white person on the bus” would be a sentence in my repertoire.

But returning from Santa Monica late on Friday night, I really was the only white person on the bus.

Blacks, Hispanics, Chinese, Japanese, and a few aliens that looked as if they had been out on day release – I felt as if I was travelling on the United Nations tour bus.

Yes, I have still resisted getting a car, not least because the buses here are incredibly cheap, efficient, and run all night.

The real price you pay is that you sometimes feel as if you have inadvertently wandered onto the set of Fraggle Rock, albeit a Fraggle Rock in which, my nervous friends with cars inform me, half the residents are probably armed.

Take Friday. I was off to the coast to meet a friend in the bar at the top of the Huntley Hotel and got on a number 4 bus that goes from outside the Hilton Hotel near my apartment.

You have to choose who you sit next to very carefully on these buses, especially when going to Santa Monica, which is a place that attracts people stuck in 1963.

By “stuck”, I mean that they have failed to relinquish their hippy lifestyle, still seem stoned out of their minds, and can’t remember what a bar of soap looks like.

I chose to sit next to a lady at the front, who appeared to be travelling with the contents of her house, complete with cat. She was the best option. The seat was also the furthest I could get from the screaming woman further up the aisle.

Accompanied by two children, she was in the middle of informing the entire bus that the boy and girl were twins, the girl was autistic, the government were doing nothing to help her, she didn’t take drugs, she didn’t drink, her husband had walked out because he couldn’t handle a special needs child, and she had been forced to get off the previous bus because people were being mean to her. You don't say.

It was way more information than I needed. It was certainly way more information than the poor woman whose ear the mother was bending needed. She indicated that she couldn’t understand a word, at which Mom launched into the same version of events, but in Spanish.

“Get away from her, she’ll freak!” she then yelled at the boy. Next: “AAAAAAAAAAAGHHHHH!”

We quickly learned that he had smacked his sister. “You’re lucky I didn’t smack you right back,” said Mom. “I don’t know how many mommies wouldn’t smack you right back. I can’t be proud of you today.”

I learned from the lady with the travelling house, whose name turned out to be Mercy (which, ironically, I had been praying for), that Mom had, in fact, been beating the hell out of her kids before I got on. Now that the boy was screaming at a pitch even above Mom’s own shouting, she adopted a new strategy: “Shut yer goddam mouth!” she bellowed. He yelled some more.

Dad has the kids just once a week, and, we learned, had left them because he “couldn’t step up to the plate” to deal with his daughter’s disability. Call me psychic, but my guess would be that Dad left because he couldn’t deal with Mom.

The need to share every aspect of your personal life is quite common here, and especially so on the buses. I suspect that the real reason everyone gets a car isn’t because they need one to get around, but because it is the only guaranteed means of avoiding the all too colourful locals.

Mercy turned out to live up to her name, and kept me calm as the rather terrifying hysteria mounted mid-bus. “D’you have grandkids?” asked Mom, selecting a new target a bit too close for comfort, when target one got off, clearly having reached breaking point.

When Mom gathered up the troops to get off at her stop, she struggled with the leash to which her kids were attached, as the daughter fell to the ground. Passengers held their breath as she whacked the pair like a pair of shuttlecocks towards the exit.

“Try talking to them, rather than at them,” suggested Mercy, calling after the trio.

Oh, dear God. Mercy. Mom turned around with a look that couldn’t so much kill as assassinate.

“D’you have special needs kids?” she fumed. Oh no, we’re all going to die. She didn’t mean it. Please, please don’t shoot.

My nerves managed to calm themselves throughout a very pleasant evening at the Huntley’s penthouse bar, which has the most spectacular views over the city; but after my earlier experience, I was a bit apprehensive about the journey home.

In the end, it was an event-free trip back to the safety of Beverly Hills.

Even being the only white person on the bus, I felt a damned sight less conspicuous than I had starring in Honey, I Killed the Kids.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Friends, Romans, Countrywelshmen 2/15/10

Does Matthew Rhys actually exist?

It’s the question I’ve been asking for almost a year now, as I continue to chase the shadow of the Welsh actor who has made it big in Hollywood.

Matthew is one of the stars of my favourite TV show, Brothers and Sisters, in which he plays gay lawyer, Kevin Walker.

Good looking, charismatic, and an actor of extraordinary range and depth, he also manages one of the most convincing American accents of any non-American actor on the screen.

Despite my living in what most would regard as the acting capital of the world, Matthew remains one of the few actors I have a burning desire to meet. Matthew, you see, in addition to being a great talent, is (in case you haven’t worked it out) Welsh.

I was told when I came here that there were dozens of Welsh people in LA. I have yet to meet one. At a Brits in LA lunch, I met a Scot, loads of English, a couple of Australians and Americans, but none of my kinsfolk.

Downtown, there is a Welsh church, they tell me, but when the words downtown and church appear in one sentence, I am guaranteed to run for cover.

But I still want to meet my compatriots. The Welsh are very tribal, and wherever we go in the world, we try to hunt down our own kind. I like the self-deprecating humour, the easy conversation, the warmth in the comradeship.

They aren’t characteristics common to all Welsh people, of course, but they are noticeable enough to call them national traits.

So when I return home to Cardiff, I am questioned not about Hollywood celebrities born and bred in the US, but about the Welsh “community” my friends imagine lurks somewhere beneath the Hollywood sign.

“Have you bumped in Catherine?” they ask. “Have you seen Ioan’s house?” “Have you been to Andrew’s for Sunday roast?”

That’s Catherine Zeta Jones, Ioan Gruffydd and Andrew Howard, for those of you not quite up on modern Welsh thespianism.

But most of all they say: “How’s Matthew?”

I wish I could tell them. I wish I could say: “Well, I was only saying to Matthew, when we worked out . . . “ Or: “Matthew mixes a mean Martini”. To be honest, I’d be happy enough being able to say: “I saw Matthew waving to me from afar”, but I can’t, because, quite simply, I haven’t had so much as a sniff of his whereabouts.

When I returned home at Christmas, I explained my dilemma to some friends in Boomerang Television. “Oh, he was filming with us,” they said. “We know his sister. We’ll get you an introduction.” They didn’t.

“Ah, you want to go to The Plough in Whitchurch on Christmas Eve; he’s always there,” said a radio producer.

Ha! This was more like it: date, time, venue.

Had I remembered the name of the pub correctly, I wouldn’t have spent the night in the Fox and Hounds, nursing a pair of binoculars.

“Yes, he was in the Plough,” said the producer, the next time I saw him. “He was there Christmas morning, too.”

With the start of the Six Nations at the weekend, and Matthew being a rugby fan, I thought I was pretty much guaranteed a meeting. “All the Welsh actors go to Santa Monica to watch the games,” said my Boomerang friends. “We’ve filmed them there.”

Great. Another date, time, place.

This is the first Six Nations I will have spent in LA, and for Saturday’s game against Scotland, if it meant getting to the pub for the 6.00am kick-off to bump into Matthew, then that’s what I was going to do.

I had heard that the lads go to the Britannia or the King’s Head to watch the Wales games. Alas, I slept late and only made it down to the King’s Head for the France/Ireland game, by which time all the Welsh had left.

It transpired, though, that there weren’t many Welsh out anyway. BBC America is, for the first time, showing the games live, so everyone can now stay at home in their dressing gowns.

Everyone tells me that Matthew is a delight to be with, both personally and professionally, and he still feels his roots very strongly, not least because Welsh is his first language.

I am therefore brushing up on my Welsh in readiness for St David’s Day, when I have been assured there is a big Welsh event at which Matthew will most definitely be.

I can already hear the words “You’ve just missed him,” ringing in my ears.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Is There Anybody Out There - And Does Anybody Care? 2/9/10

Dead never means dead in Hollywood, which, I have discovered, is the Lazarus town of the west.

The promise of connecting with loved ones on the Other Side is ever alive, and an enormous volume of programming is devoted to it.

They don’t say the word “dead” here, though. Ever. It is too dramatic a sounding syllable; too final. They say “passed over”, which is more in the spirit of “Just nipped into the kitchen to put the kettle on”.

And, when you want to contact a loved one in said kitchen, you only have to talk to the right people – any number of psychics, whose speciality is conveying messages from the next room in order to comfort those left behind.

If you want to experience how the more glamorous corners of the other side operate, Psychic Hollywood is the show to watch and leads the field in its ability to contact the star-studded heavens.

Take Farrah Fawcett’s best mate, Alana Stewart. She was worried that Farrah might be feeling her friends had let her down and might be a bit stung about Michael Jackson’s death taking the limelight away from her own. She was also writing a book and wasn’t sure whether it would meet with approval.

Well, not to worry, psychic James Van Praagh was able to to talk to Farrah directly and come back with some answers.

No, she didn’t feel let down, no she didn’t mind about Michael Jackson, and she was thrilled about Alana’s book.

Lucky, that, because it reached the top of the New York Best Sellers' list. I wonder what would have happened if Farrah had replied in the negative; something tells me that Alana would not have shelved the project, psychic or no psychic.

Just to be on the safe side, James took Alana to a quiet place, where her friend allegedly told her: “Just scream at me in the air like you’ve been doing.”

This she did. Loudly. “It was like being with her!” cried an excited Alana. Phew. I’m glad I was never around Farrah’s place for a barbecue.

Psychic Hollywood also features Derek Ogilvie, who goes by the title “baby whisperer”. A man called Ryan came to him because his two-year old son Max was scribbling strange pictures and words.

Derek sensed “strange energy around the genital area” and was able to ascertain, from this, that Ryan had “intimacy issues”.

Derek wondered if he had been molested, but it transpired that Ryan had once had a tumour in one of his testicles.

Somehow, from this melee of information (and I’m still not sure quite how the connection was made), Derek and Ryan pinpointed the intimacy issues as having stemmed from Ryan’s childhood, when the family dog had to be put down.

I am now wondering whether any issues I have had in my adult life might be traced back to when Sally our Chihuahua and Tara our poodle paid their last visit to the vet’s.

It might explain a lot. Or not.

Derek sent Ryan and Max off to the park, where they were to address the intimacy thing that might explain Max’s drawings. After a group hug, Ryan tried to strike up a conversation. Max, however, had other ideas.

“Plane!” he cried, pointing to the sky.

For poor old Ryan, it was like pulling teeth. “I try to talk about the relationship issue . . . you just wanna look at aeroplanes,” he said, sorrowfully.

“Plane!” said Max, pointing to the sky once more. Ryan reported back to Derek that he thought Max wasn’t understanding what he was getting at.

He’s two, for goodness sake! I’m over 50 and I wasn’t getting it, either.

Derek’s speciality as a “baby whisperer” is helping people “use old knowledge for modern times”, and one aspect of this is clearing away negative spirits to make room for new energy. Having failed with Ryan (who he claimed had not done what he asked him to), he moved on to Mark.

“We’re gonna start off by sageing you”, he said, an operation that required calling forth the Archangel Michael, who would open Mark’s mouth and push the Jagwar spirit (whatever that is) through his body.

“Archangel Michael, push deeper into his body!” he cried. “Lock him down, angels! It’s really time for you to be who you’ve come to be!” I don’t know about Mark, but I was exhausted.

Mark insisted that he felt an “emotional connection” and something leaving his body. Miracle of miracles, Mark suddenly felt his fears subside and able to face life head on.

Quite what Farrah and Michael in the next room think about it all is anybody’s guess; but I suspect they are both in a safer place than a world inhabited by the likes of Derek and James.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Rumble In The Media Jungle: Leno vs Conan 2/2/10

You know when something is really big news here when the essence of the story can be reduced to just four words.

One of the hottest topics of recent weeks has been “Rain in Los Angeles”, a headline of such cataclysmic proportions, it dominated not only local news bulletins, but every dining table conversation within a 50 mile radius.

You would think the city had never seen water, let alone seen it pour from the heavens.

People caught unawares emerged from restaurants, staring blankly into the street like assistants of Dr Who arriving at a designated departure point, only to find that the Tardis had already gone.

Coming from Cardiff, one of the wettest cities in the UK, I was invariably one of the only people on the street with an umbrella (habit - I never go without one, even in LA), as soaked pedestrians gazed on enviously.

Ha! I thought. They hadn’t read their Bibles; I was all too aware of the parable of the ten virgins, five of whom hadn’t taken enough oil for their lamps, while waiting the arrival of the bridegroom.

Some say the story is a warning to people to be prepared for the day of reckoning; to me, it means never, ever, go without an umbrella, bridegroom or no bridegroom, so there.

“Will Brangelina break up?”

That’s been another four-word obsession and a topic for which people have an almost pathological obsession in Hollywood.

The ongoing saga about the celebrity couple’s marriage, and whether Brad Pitt will leave current wife Angelina Jolie to return to first wife Jennifer Aniston, is one of the major soap operas of the day.

At Sunday’s Grammy Awards, E! (Entertainment) Channel reliably informed us from the red carpet that the previous night, the couple had been seen very much “into” each other. Purely on this evidence alone, said an interviewee, they were definitely not going to be breaking up.

I don’t care two figs one way or the other, but I do wonder how Angelina manages to sleep at night next to Brad’s weird new beard. Waking up next to that facial yeti must put more of a dent in her love than ever our Jen could manage to do. To be honest, the only way I can see Angelina could get “into” Brad at the moment would be if she were to employ a topiarist to pave the way.

Even bigger than the rain and Brangelina, however, has been the “Jay Leno versus Conan” story. This plot has rumbled on for weeks, both on and off screen, and the network NBC, on which both men have shows (at the moment), continues to be strangely fascinating.

In brief: Veteran Jay Leno was hosting the Tonight Show at 11.35pm, and, when he moved to primetime last year, failed to attract the same ratings. Now, in March, he’s getting his old show back, while his replacement, Conan O’Brien, who didn’t want to move to a later slot (and why should he, having landed the top prize – it’s humiliating), is leaving with £20 million.

To be honest, in the humiliation stakes, I’d strip naked and allow myself to be pelted with cow dung (thrown by Sarah Palin) for that sort of dosh, but I’m new to LA and doubtless I will learn.

Humiliation? Drive it over here in that fleet of Ferraris.

But I can’t help noticing that successful US male hosts are known only by their surnames (Leno, Letterman), and the females by their first (Oprah, Ellen, Chelsea). In this, Conan was doomed from the start. He will doubtless rue the day he was not Christened a boy named Sue.

The Leno/Conan story has become one of the major sources of material for comedians, coast to coast. David Letterman, who hosts his late-night TV show from New York, is enjoying it hugely, reportedly never having forgiven Leno for taking over the Tonight Show from Johnny Carson when he so wanted it for himself (I wanted it for Letterman, too, but if I’d known the queue of adoring women was as long as we now know it to have been, I might have hitched my flag to another, er, pole, as it were – but that’s another story).

Meanwhile, in LA, Conan puts on a brave face, trying to make light of what is clearly a very hurtful situation.

Leno continues to milk it, sparing viewers no details about the whole history of the story, right down to the nitty-gritty of NBC executives’ part in the drama, adding that he bears Conan no animosity. I’ll bet he doesn’t.

It is inconceivable that any British TV host, in the light of such a debacle, would ever spend 15 minutes of their show making jokes at the expense of the network on which they were appearing. The most Jonathan Ross, for example, has ever managed, has been a couple of light-hearted jokes about what he can or cannot say in the light of “Sachsgate”, the now infamous phone-call he and comedian Russell Brand made to the actor Andrew Sachs.

Yet Leno, telling viewers that they had a right to know what had really been going on behind the scenes, made fun of NBC executives in the most extraordinary manner – after he knew he was being handed back the best gig.

It made a very funny story and he told it well - bemused, baffled, and, let's not deny it, faintly smug. The fact that he was allowed to tell it at all was, in itself, hilarious.

Viewing figures are, of course, important to any network, but in the US they are everything, and late night TV has a kudos here that it has never managed to acquire in the UK.

Quite why this particular story should be deemed to be a ratings puller is anathema to us Brits, yet O’Brien’s ratings have increased dramatically as the story has unfolded.

The difference is, that in the UK, our TV scandals are played out in our newspapers, especially where licence-payers’ money is concerned.

Personally, I think it’s a shame.

Leno versus Conan is the new Rumble in the Jungle, and I, along with millions of others, just can’t get enough of it. Leno? Floats like a butterfly, stings like a bee, is my guess.

But the real winner? Letterman.

At least it’s distracted viewers from simply wondering why he can’t keep his flies done up.