"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 9 April 2001. Updated every WEEKDAY.

The Glamour Crisis

Los Angeles is a city of beggars masquerading as choosers, a fact neatly illustrated by the writer and actor strikes coming this summer to a studio lot near you. The only thing to fear in LA is looking like you're afraid, so the beggars who inhabit the studio lots and network offices are confidently continuing to hire actors and writers as if it's business as usual. While the Screen Actors Guild's (SAG) contract expires July 1, and the Writers Guild of America (WGA) are set to stop working May 1 if a settlement with the studios isn't reached by then, studio executives continue to make threatening noises about their shrinking budgets during a shrinking economy, ignoring the well-known fact that Hollywood is an industry whose unique back-end participation deal with Satan makes it immune to economic slowdowns.

Meanwhile, networks are proceeding with their preparations on the usual slew of painfully bad sitcoms, while quietly readying a Plan B fall line-up of reality programming, which requires neither actors nor writers. Setting aside the obvious question of whether or not America will tune in for a full week's worth of Boot Camp, at least the networks have more of a backup plan than they did back in 1988, the year of the last writers' strike. Then again, wasn't it just a matter of time before the networks recognized that a dramatic performance by a starving woman with a spear, set to provocative Aboriginal backbeat grooves, would beat out an Ally McBeal rerun, set to the achingly unoriginal vocalizations of Vonda Shephard, 9 times out of 10?

But remember the lesson of Temptation Island: The new batch of reality shows is to Survivor what Falcone was to The Sopranos. Unless the networks figure out a way to clone Mark Burnett, it's going to take more than a few good poker faces to avert a programming catastrophe. Still, all reports indicate that denial is at a record high. United Talent Agency partner Peter Benedek told the Wall Street Journal, "There's kind of a surreal quality to it all. We're behaving as if there's nothing unusual going on when in reality there's this elephant in the room."

Luckily, residents of Los Angeles are well versed in make-believe. Without a willful suspension of disbelief, how else could a city of 10 million describe the almost continual blanket of smog, day after day, with creative words ranging from "haze" to "mist" (as opposed to, say, the far less romantic-sounding "nitrogen dioxide")?

While it's tough to get too worked up about talk of impending doom in a town where a sudden unavailability of Kiehl's Lip Balm would be treated as catastrophic, if these strikes do happen, the merde will be hitting the 5-speed oscillating fan at a head-spinning velocity. And this being Los Angeles, everyone's in a delicious tizzy over the prospect of a dramatic showdown inching closer by the day — particularly those who stand to be affected the least. Like spectators who gather to watch, struggling to stifle their giggles, as multimillion dollar homes slide down hills of mud in Malibu, Angelenos have always had a thirst for the suffering of others.

But in a cartoonishly clichŽ town where executives talking on cellphones in Range Rovers really do cut you off and then flash you the bird with one hand while reaching for their caramel frappucinos with the other, it's not hard to figure out whence this sadistic taste for fallen fortunes and unexpected tragedies arises. So bloodthirsty bystanders from Santa Monica to Pomona are hoping against hope that this disaster will be at least as "crazy" and as "scary" as the Northridge earthquake, with all the "creepy" human drama of the riots.

Witness, for example, the comic stylings of Jack Kyser, chief economist for the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corporation, as performed for Los Angeles magazine: "[E]verybody will be feeling the pain, even Beverly Hills. If you're thinking about opening a new restaurant, forget about it. Talent agencies, equipment rentals, restaurants, clothing stores, and real estate: People will be selling their homes and no one will be buying."

While those planning to open a new restaurant are still reeling from the shock of that revelation, LA natives and naysayers nationwide are clapping their sweaty palms together giddily. "Pain, in Beverly Hills? Now that's a cause I can really get behind!"

Meanwhile, the union leaders are puffing up their chests and doing their best Hoffa impressions, painting a picture of their groundbreaking fight for the rights of the little guy as if their chapter of history has already been published and signed by the author's Sharpie, the film rights optioned off to the highest bidder. Indicating that at least they know their audience, SAG leaders are limiting their statements to simple sentences: "Actors don't want a strike. Actors want a deal. Actors want to keep the industry working." But given the curious lack of facts and figures on the tips of their tongues, one wonders if these tough guys know anything about the art of negotiation, or if they merely play negotiators on TV.

With the kind of bravado that would play to mixed reviews anywhere else, Screen Actors Guild power player Chuck Sloan humbly told Los Angeles magazine "I could be God of SAG if I wanted to." He's forgetting of course, that while the role of God is certainly a powerful one, it won't win you an Oscar the way playing, say, a retarded kid or a feisty, devil-may-care mother will. We're told his correct line was, "I could be the Norma Rae of SAG if I wanted to."

Only one thing seems certain to everyone "in the know": If these strikes do happen, they will affect the personal checking accounts of almost everyone in town — a fact that has powerless nobodies across the nation daydreaming about all those overstuffed couches and 3x5' Toulouse-Lautrec prints they've spotted in InStyle magazine being auctioned off to the highest bidder. But can we be sure that at least one Baldwin brother will sink deeply into debt? Can we be certain that Matt Damon and Ben Affleck will never again be spotted in $500 silk t-shirts, flirting with the latest batch of Survivor debutantes to hit the Bar Marmont?

Probably not. After all, this is Los Angeles, where the beggar masquerade never ends. No matter how dire the conditions, each bland eatery will be stuffed to the gills with waitresses masquerading as "actors", accountants masquerading as "producers", washed up geeks masquerading as "screenwriters", and barristas who, as they blithely spread low-fat schmear across miles of seeded bagels, claim to be in the process of making an utterly original short film that blurs the boundaries between something and something else that's even less visually compelling.

And no matter how many residents stand around chatting about how they hope the strike is over quickly, this is not a metropolis known for its strong sense of community. Noted disastorian Mike Davis is sure to weave an intricate web of multi-level implications (and more than a few turgid essays). But 2000 census data indicate most residents are just hoping the newest eruption from the volcano of eternal doom that is Los Angeles will mean shorter lines at Fred Segal.

But maybe, at least, we'll hear less of that LA beggar noise — a noise well known but seldom named, that envelopes guests of restaurants from Pasadena to Venice, animated and musical, but eerily tone deaf. It's the noise of people asking other people for favors, while trying to appear as if they're doing those people a favor merely by asking. Is it any wonder that negotiations continue to break down?

So what will happen to all those richly talented citizens if a strike really does come to pass? Marc Moss, who wrote the screenplay for Paramount Pictures' Along Came a Spider, adhered to that Hollywood beggars-disguised-as-choosers code when he optimistically told the Wall Street Journal, "When we go on strike, we promptly go home and start writing. Maybe itÕs an opportunity to write something you really want to."

Publishers, you heard it here first. Better brace yourself for the flood of critically acclaimed first novels out of Hollywood that should be hitting your desks by the end of the summer.

Courtesy of Polly Esther

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