The Pickup Artist

James Toback stopped me on Broadway right in front of Ernie’s Restaurant where I worked at the time. I was wearing shorts and remembered I felt fat. My hair was dirty. He was wearing a big black shirt and was sweating profusely. “Can I talk to you for a second. I had to stop you because you have something really special. An energy or whatever you’d like to call it. I’ve been following you for a couple of blocks. I’m a director and I have a new movie I’m casting. You’d be perfect for a role. It’s for a tennis player and you’re perfect physically for that.” He was talking fast and I was tired and I listened.

***

I am an actress. A good one. But I was new to it at the time and I had a hit or miss success in auditions. I love acting, but I’m not competitive. Or maybe I’m very competitive and I feel guilty about it so I opt out so I don’t have to feel as bad about losing. I don’t know. I do know I had been accused of not being ambitious enough for my talents and shy about promoting myself. So his interest intrigued me.

I can’t write many more direct quotes because I was in my late twenties and I’m now in my late forties and any dialogue we had would be paraphrasing. But with the help of recollections from both my ex-boyfriend at the time and other women who had encounters with Toback, I remember much more than I thought I did. I certainly remember the feelings.

He kept on talking, not really letting me get a word in. He was imposing physically and above-average in repulsiveness. The speed of his patter, in retrospect, seemed like he wanted to get it over with to get to the meat of the matter, but at the time I interpreted it as excitement about me. I’m smart, but considering I grew up in New York City, I’m incredibly naïve.  And I trust my intellect will save me from bad decisions and bad people and that has proven not always to be the case.  

Hearing him say how compelling I was, was exactly what I wanted and needed, especially since I felt unattractive. From other women’s accounts, Toback also stopped them when they weren’t feeling at their best. Maybe he sensed their vulnerability and mine. Maybe he knew he’d have a better shot at making his mark when we at our most insecure. All of us were young and hungry and wanting to be special.

He dropped some names, told me the films he had done. I’d heard of some. He showed me a dogeared, yellowed paperback—Jim Brown’s autobiography (I knew next-to-nothing about football)—and said he was in it. That he used to go to wild parties with him where there were orgies. He wrote down his number for me and told me to call him after I had watched all his movies so I could get a sense of what he did. He begged me to get in contact.

So I watched his movies—Fingers, Black and White and Two Girls and A Guy—and they were very good. In fact excellent.  I was impressed. They were compelling and thought-provoking and disturbing. And well-acted. He was a legitimate talent. I weighed his creepiness against his technical skill and decided I would call him. My boyfriend gave me the go-ahead because he wanted me to have the chance to be in something great. I believe my mom gave me her blessings too.

Toback told me to meet him at the Harvard Club. Sophisticated me let him know I had many friends who went to Harvard. So suave. As I matured, I came to realize that many dumb and horrible people went/go to Harvard but at that point I was still unreasonably impressed. 

We met and talked some more. I’m not sure exactly what he said, but it was more name-dropping and compliments, and it started to go into a sexual direction. Vaguely. He made himself out to be a libertine. I was not, but I didn't want to betray my innocence so I just tried to look mature and worldly-wise.  

He asked me to come visit him at his editing studio on Leroy Street and see the movie he was cutting. And then I would audition for him. It sounded professional, but when I called my ex-boyfriend the other day to check with him about whether I had my facts straight, he told me that I left the apartment at around midnight, which is definitely a strange time to have an audition. I lived a short distance away, and as I walked over, I said under my breath, “Please let this be real. Please tell me I’m not being stupid.”

I went, I saw him editing the movie. He explained what he was doing at each step. It was interesting, he was good at it. We stayed there for about 10 minutes and then he said we should go to his office and see what I had.

We went upstairs. He told me he had done the most LSD anybody had ever consumed. I don’t know how to check the records on that but I’m sure Timothy Leary would disagree. He said it gave him insight into orgasms. He said he could just go back into his experiences and have an orgasm with his mind. He said I had to get in touch with my sexuality, I had to go to dangerous places in myself and scare myself in order to access what he was looking for in an actress. He saw it in me, but I had to be prepared and committed to doing this if he were to give me a role in one of his movies. Then he gossiped about actors. Really nasty things he shouldn’t have told a stranger. I won’t say what they were, but they weren’t nice and I doubt they were even true. I do know that he said he admired Mike Tyson because he was an animal, barely in control. That’s what he wanted to see from me.

I was fairly innocent. I hadn’t been with many men. And I’d only had long-term relationships. I didn’t know myself well in that way at all. I was shy and modest and I still don’t lead with my sexuality. Being ladylike was something that was drilled into me by school and my family and it was hard to abandon. I hardly talk about sex with anyone, even now. What he was asking me to do was something I struggled with in every acting class I’d ever had. It scared me. And so that stupid phrase “Do something every day that terrifies you” popped into me head. “Maybe this is exactly what I need to do. Force yourself.”

He asked me to sit on the couch and be sexual. Thank god I kind of froze. I just closed my eyes and tried to think sexy thoughts but it was impossible because Toback was sitting right in front of me and I found him to be disgusting. 

He told me it wasn’t working so we’d have to try something else. He said he was going to look into my eyes and try to see if I had something inside me that could make him orgasm. He said to watch his eyes and see if they dilate and then I’d know he was cumming. I couldn't move. He knelt down on one knee in between my own and pressed his erection into my thigh. He stared into my eyes and I saw them move back and forth rapidly as if he had R.E.M., but awake. He told me to pinch his nipples. I thought, "If this is all I have to do to end this, I'll do it." Then I heard him grunt loudly and it was over. It was probably a minute but it felt like forever. He told me his wife was very powerful and if I mentioned this experience to anyone, he’d ruin me. And then he said “I saw what I wanted to see. Thanks. I’ll let you know.” And I was dismissed.

***

I’ve had much more upsetting and traumatic experiences in my life. I’m not shattered by James Toback’s perversions. However, I remember the feelings right afterward, walking around the neighborhood, unable to go home right away where my boyfriend was probably waiting up, excited to hear about my meeting, hopeful it would lead to something big for me. I felt so stupid, so shaken, so mad at myself. I decided not to tell him about letting that vile, sweaty man have an orgasm by looking into my formerly starry eyes. What was I thinking?? Believing his praises, going up to his office alone. Not leaving when he started talking about my sexuality and asking me what kind of pubic hair I had. And relief that I managed to get out of there without being raped. My biggest fear. Every woman's, I'd wager. I had been molested as a six year old. It could have happened again, but worse. Now I was a grown women who should have been more responsible for my actions. I made a bad, bad decision and it was all my fault for not heading the warning signs.

What I had forgotten is that I didn’t have the uncontrolled impulses to sexually abuse young women. I came in there with good intentions. Toback did not. He targeted girls and plotted how to trap them and make them his victims, like all predators do. He was the bad guy, not me. I was young and inexperienced in the ways of the world and how men sometimes use their stature and physical presence to prey on vulnerable women. It was a sober reminder that most women are targets of abuse. Young, defenseless men too. I thought someone considered me special and it turned out he didn’t, I wasn’t, I was one of many. Hundreds, it seems. I never really trusted myself and and my specialness again. i’m sure I’m not alone.

***

One detail I forgot: when I talked to my ex to corroborate my story, he told me that a few years later as I was walking down the street, James Toback stopped me again and said the same things to me, demanding I meet with him and audition for a role in his movie. He didn't remember one of his victims. He wanted to take advantage of me again. I don’t recall my response. I hope I shut him down in a brutal way. But I don’t think I did. I am still too polite.

Emergency Style Tips for Men If They Ever Want to Have Sex with A Human Being

This is going to be a bullet point presentation because the urgency behind it overshadows my wish for lyrical prose.

GUYS, PLEASE READ THIS CAREFULLY:

  • No sandals or flip flops on city streets. At the beach or pool or lakeside acceptable only if your feet are well groomed. Unless they have a vile form of foot fetish, the thought of a man’s calloused feet rubbing up against them in bed makes most people want to throw up.

  • No Tevas EVER.

  • No cargo shorts, unless you want people to think you're carrying poop in your bulging leg pockets.

  • No tank tops. Maybe at the gym but even that is questionable.

  • Flat front pants rule. 

  • No bow ties unless you're Paul F. Tompkins or if you're Charlie McCarthy of Bergen and McCarthy. Or Pee-wee. Being a member of a Barbershop quartet also is a non-starter because, well, Barbershop quartets.

  • No bracelets unless you're originally from a warm country. Men with brown skin can wear things white boys can't and you know this is the truth. They're exceptional.

  • Sometimes necklaces are ok. You have to run it by me first.

  • Rope bracelets are cool. Especially during hot weather.

  • No school rings. School rings are an indication of assholery. Think Ted Cruz. Is that graphic enough?

  • No American flag pins on lapels.

  • Tattoos are fine as long as they aren't nazi symbols.

  • I used to not like beards but now I love them. See? I'm a very flexible and tolerant person.

  • There is nothing wrong with a suit occasionally. Los Angeles, listen up: don't let the only people who wear suits be agents and lawyers. You're better than that.

  • Jeans are great, But I adhere to the Goldilocks Principle:  not too loose and not too tight, but just right. Tapered skinny jeans generally looks dumb. Very few men can get away with this. Neither can I by the way, so don't feel bad. Plain skinny jeans look good on skinny people, that's why they have the adjective "skinny" in them,  Last night I was told that I was old for not liking tapered skinny jeans on most men. So be it.  If the jeans fit, wear them. Boot cut jeans are really good. EXCEPTION: rock stars. Rock stars can wear tapered, skinny jeans, they can also wear tank tops and jewelry. Whatever they want—they're rock stars. Become a rock star and then we'll talk.

  • For god’s sake NO CAPRI PANTS!!

  • Mullets should be banned. I think you all know this already but it's worth repeating.

  • No cologne unless you know what you're doing and have self-restraint and self-respect.

  • And please god, smell good. Take regular showers and floss. Brush teeth a lot, at least. Try not to have too much garlic before you kiss someone. Think of us as vampires, if that helps remind you.

  • Sorry to be repetitive, but just smell good. This is really so important.

  • Linen and cotton are nice.

  • Cool sneakers are a good thing.

  • This might be just my thing, but Oxford shoes for dressing up are spiffy.

  • Corduroy jackets with jeans look great.

  • Corduroys in fall and winter are comforting too.

  • Try to avoid looking like someone who loves golf.

  • Cummerbunds are stupid.

  • I like button downs.

  • No baseball hats backwards. The kind of people who would be attracted to this are not people you want to sleep with.

  • No fedoras. Or Trilbys. Or Floop-de-doo's or whatever the hell those hats are called. No berets unless you're Sartre.

  • Absolutely NO FLIP FLOPS WITH ATHETIC SOCKS. IT LOOKS DUMB EVEN IF YOU'RE A PROFESSIONAL ATHLETE.

  • Message t-shirts suck unless you know what's funny and what's not. Most people do not.

  • Go to the gym but don't go crazy. You should be able to get your arms to touch your rib cage and walk like you're not wearing a diaper full of pee.

Please, please, please, don't look like this. Or think and act like this. Just avoid this at all costs.

Please, please, please, don't look like this. Or think and act like this. Just avoid this at all costs.

Twitter's own @shanenickerson added this following warning:

shane.PNG

 

This is what I came up with off the top of my head. Please feel free to come up with your own. I'm sure this list is incomplete.

And guys, heed this list if you know what's good for you. God speed, and enjoy your vastly improved sex life.

Here are some helpful tips and comments from respected followers:

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Yes, I agree with Stretch: I hate this. 

Yes, I agree with Stretch: I hate this. 

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I forgot about square-toed dress shoes. Those are very bad. And white Stan Smiths are cool, but white New Balance are definitely not. I had no idea about statement socks. Good god.

I forgot about square-toed dress shoes. Those are very bad. And white Stan Smiths are cool, but white New Balance are definitely not. I had no idea about statement socks. Good god.

The Wrong Side of 40

Last week, highly-regarded film critic Owen Gleiberman wrote about Renée Zellweger’s appearance, and how he thought she’d lost her essential self through plastic surgery. He hardly mentioned her magnificent range, vulnerability, or the legendary kindness that shines through her acting. Instead he chose to focus on the idea that, “In the case of Renée Zellweger, it may look to a great many people like something more than an elaborate makeup job has taken place, but we can’t say for sure.” So perhaps it shouldn’t be said at all.

I’m using “actress” in this piece for gender clarity even though I’m not a big fan of the word. To me, it implies a diminutive, lesser quality to a woman’s abilities compared to ”actor.” “Actress” seems to be more appropriate to an ingenue, which might be a tad insulting to an revered, seasoned woman like Dame Judi Dench.

Most of the time as an actress—especially while I’m working—I feel blessed to be in this profession. But my job is also tough for many reasons, and getting older is one of them. I am on the “wrong” side of forty, actually very close to Zellweger’s age.

Do I have lines around my eyes when I smile? Yes I do. Are my lips as full as they were when I was in high school? No they’re not. Is my body the same since I’ve had two big, healthy, happy boys. It isn’t. I live in Los Angeles where if you haven’t had your face and body “enhanced,” you begin to feel inadequate. I struggle all the time with these kinds of doubts.

I booked a job after I lost the baby weight from my first child. The head of the costume department called me up for my sizes and I proudly gave him my new weight, which was the lowest it had been since high school. I may have even been too thin. He replied, “Oh, so you’re normal sized. Good. That makes things easier for me.”  I had practically starved myself for five weeks, but in film and TV this was considered “normal.”

I was really, really hungry while filming this 

I was really, really hungry while filming this 

And last year my agent submitted me for a pilot in which the lead character was an obese woman. Every scene was her either having a hard time getting a dress over her head, getting winded or talking about how fat she was. I tried to explain to him that even by L.A. standards I wasn’t a good fit for the role. He consoled me by saying that if I did well in the room they might consider altering the character for me.

I laughed this particular incident off because it was absurd, but being scrutinized constantly for my looks takes a toll. It’s hard for me to focus on a job I was hired to do when I’m worrying about how to stand so my tummy won’t bulge and my legs will look slimmer. It can even be self-destructive.

I feel like I look fine, yet I’m still ashamed to say how old I am. I don’t lie, but I avoid the subject because if I reveal my age, I’m worried I’ll be cast as a grandma (and not a young one). I should be proud. I’m comfortable in my skin, but because my profession takes place within an industry where youth is a calling card, it’s a challenge to stay grounded and honest. I’m afraid that if I admit my real age, I‘ll be judged not based on my abilities but by shallow perceptions of what unimaginative people think a forty-odd-year-old person should look and act like.

Maturity should be celebrated. Ideally, aging would benefit an artist professionally and personally. I’ve had more time to read, travel and meet people. I hope I’ve become wiser and more compassionate as a result. I understand human behavior more so that now when I’m playing different characters I don’t have to work as hard in my acting,  like I did when I was younger, covering for my lack of knowledge.

If Renée Zellweger has had work done, it’s her own business. She has the right to do whatever she wants to herself. And perhaps part of the reason she may have wanted to change her appearance is because she’s been under intense scrutiny for her looks since she first appeared on screen.

When Jerry Maguire  came out, I remember reading, ad nauseum, how unlikely a choice Zellweger was to play a Tom Cruise love interest, because of “her fetching ordinariness,” as Janet Maslin wrote in the New York Times. Her performance was breathtakingly sweet and painfully honest. Yet the big story was her “ordinariness.”

She doesn't look "ordinary" to me. Her sweetness and sincerity is luminous.

She doesn't look "ordinary" to me. Her sweetness and sincerity is luminous.

Looks can be an important tool for an actor. It’s undeniable. But it’s also unreasonable and dispiriting how often actresses get slammed (and even blamed) for their looks in a way male actors simply do not. Actresses’ lucky or “unlucky” genetics are tied to their self-worth and many times are prized more than their skill as artists.

Hollywood traffics in youth, so actresses tend to have a shorter shelf-life than their male counterparts. Harrison Ford is seventy-three and he’s still an action hero. I’m convinced Hollywood thinks actresses over fifty shouldn’t even have sex. Our earning potential decreases significantly because this business sees us as less desirable and marketable than men as we age. It’s no wonder some of us feel we have to take subtle or drastic measures to insure working as long and profitably as possible.

Post-Jerry Maguire, Renée Zellweger did something particularly daring for an actress. Something I’m not sure I’d have the guts to do: she gained thirty pounds to make her character believable in Bridget Jones's Diary. It was essential for the part: Bridget’s self-deprecation about her weight, her humor in battling through her awkwardness, her sense of being an outcast, a “singleton” in a sea of “smug marrieds” we're all features of her enormous charm. When she drunkenly lip-synced “All By Myself” after a breakup, alone in her tiny flat, I cried. And when she reunited with Colin Firth, who said he liked her just the way she was, I don’t think I was the only one who wanted to give Zellweger both a standing ovation and a hug.  

Bridget Jones's Diary

Bridget Jones's Diary

Gwen Inhat, of the A.V. Club states it beautifully:

“But this imperfect heroine resonated with readers who also occasionally nestled beneath that low bar, taking two-and-a-half hours to pull together a simple outfit for the office, or frittering away an entire day supposedly spent working at home by looking at vacation brochures (followed by: “1:00 p.m.: Lunchtime! Finally a bit of a break.”) In a world where many chick-lit heroines and rom-com stars were often passed off as some sort of adorable type-A superwomen (like Jennifer Lopez’s super-organized Wedding Planner or Sophie Kinsella’s uber-ambitious Undomestic Goddess), the smoking, drinking, swearing Bridget Jones was funny, likable, and most of all, relatable. Many singletons of a similar ilk chose Bridget (or Fielding, more like) as their own personal heroine.”

It’s sad that I have to say it’s “brave” when an actress gains weight for a role. Did anyone in the Press criticize Robert DeNiro when he put on weight to play Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull?  The gossip magazines breathlessly tallied every pound Zellweger gained or lost. It was a national fixation. She’s too fat. She’s too skinny. She has chipmunk cheeks! On and on and on. I’ll admit I was complicit in this ugly fascination too, which makes me feel ashamed. But at least I’m not a professional critic.

Google search for "Renée Zellweger weight gain"

Google search for "Renée Zellweger weight gain"

How do you think this scrutiny makes an actress feel? Especially one possessing such openness and sensitivity? How did she block out all this toxicity? I’m guessing that no matter how much she tried, she couldn’t. It’s insidious and powerful. An actress can’t help but judge herself, to question her worth and to worry about her professional viability in the future. I have a hard time with my own efforts to be selectively sensitive. If Zellweger did have plastic surgery or fillers, she was probably trying to make herself feel better. To stave off the criticism and make her career last longer. To be proactive.

Whether he meant it or not, Gleiberman’s article was mean-spirited.  He mused her changed appearance would affect his enjoyment of her performance, all from the Bridget Jones's Baby’s trailer. He’s a film critic, not a pageant judge. I hope Renée Zellweger didn’t read his piece, but I’m guessing she’s at least heard the gist of it. When I read it I couldn’t help but think about myself: if I became famous, would I be placed under the same cruel microscope?

When a respected, influential film critic starts reviewing an actress’ looks instead of the movie she's in, he becomes no better than an tabloid gossip columnist. It’s demeaning to his profession. I think Renée Zellweger and his readers both deserve better.

Bridget Jones's Baby

Bridget Jones's Baby

 

 

Amy Pascal and Jezebel

I haven’t been able to let go of my disgust after reading Natasha Vargas-Cooper’s poisonous Jezebel takedown of Amy Pascal.  The continually-unfolding Sony hacking scandal revealed Pascal’s highly intimate Amazon purchases in addition to emails about her diet, all gleefully and ghoulishly recounted in Vargas-Cooper’s piece.  On one hand, I’m angry with myself for consuming that toxicity and directing any more attention to it.  On the other hand, I’m still shaken that a woman could do that kind of hatchet job on another woman.  It seems like a double betrayal; one of privacy and one of humanity. 

We may differ in our opinions about Amy Pascal.  I personally hold no animosity toward her, but then again, I’m white.  By all accounts she was a champion of projects that had artistic merit, was genuinely friendly to actors, creatives and executives and was one of the few women in Hollywood holding a position of prominence and power, which is no small feat.  We need more people like her in this business, I assure you. 

She did say some indelicate things.  That may be too mild a descriptor.  Okay, some of what she expressed in what she thought were private conversations was uncomfortably close to racism.  However, I noticed that Scott Rudin, the person with whom she was communicating, didn’t get half as much flack for his portion of their conversations, which were equally if not more inflammatory.  Maybe it’s because he has a reputation for brashness.  That’s possible.  My hunch, though is that it’s because he is a man, and men who are powerful are kind of expected to talk that way.  Most of us love Glengarry Glen Ross.  I certainly do. 

As progressive as we like to think we are, women who are bold and decisive and strong are still perceived as threats.  Not just in the Entertainment Business.  Everywhere.  Hillary Clinton certainly knows this.  You don’t even have to be in a position of power.  I have less than 2000 followers on Twitter and I’ve been called a cunt for a political opinion I posted.  You probably don’t know me, but I’m one of the least assertive people in the Greater Los Angeles Area.  Despite this, I’d obviously struck a nerve:  How dare she express an opinion?  Don’t women know that they are nothing more than a face, a body and a vagina, preferably hairless?  To be honest, it didn’t shock me as much you’d think.  This was the evaluation of a knuckle-dragger, someone who forgot that he actually came out into the world via the epithet he was using for me.  Blocking people on Twitter is really easy. 

The most shocking aspect of the Jezebel article for me was it was written by a woman.  How could she do this?  I assume Vargas-Cooper intended this to be a humor piece, but it read as if she was the chapter head of the Mean Girls’ Society of America (MGSofA).  I don’t want to go into the specifics of Amy Pascal’s purchases, but I can’t imagine the humiliation of having them displayed in print for anyone and everyone to see.  For me, it would be exactly like a recurring nightmare where you are in a crowd of people, you are suddenly completely naked and you’re desperately trying to cover up.  It's inconceivable a woman wouldn’t know what damage this kind of information could do to the woman she was writing about.

Yesterday, I was searching my mind trying to think what could have motivated Cooper-Vargas to write this trash.  I understand it’s an ugly side of human nature that we love to put certain people up on pedestals only to topple them over when we feel they’ve gotten too high.  But I think there is something else at play that as a woman I find quite disturbing: whether it’s cultural or instinctual, women are taught to distrust and sometimes even despise one another. 

It starts early.  I have seen it in my children’s classrooms.  And I realize I’m speaking in generalities, but when there is conflict between boys, they tend to knock each other down, cry and then get right back up and start to play again.  However, between girls, it’s more complicated.  They exclude and they whisper and they try to hurt.  Unchecked, this kind of behavior can become even more toxic in High School.  I went to an all-girl school.  Believe me, I know.      

I see the same kind of behavior at play in Cooper-Vargas’ post.  It’s as if she is expressing the very feeling that women can’t tolerate when certain men express it:  “Lady, you can’t have it all.  You can be powerful or you can be attractive, but you can’t be both.  If you try, then I will mock you and tear you down until you’re no longer a Superwoman, but a sad, grasping female who’s just longing to be pretty for a man."  It’s not only disgusting, it’s heartbreaking.  And it's sexist.

It doesn’t matter if you’re a hack writer, like Vargas-Cooper or one who has more prestige, but who is equally hacky, like Maureen Dowd.  What business do they have knocking a powerful woman’s femininity?  Don’t they see this hurts us all?  I’ve heard way too many women on social media talk a good game about supporting other women (which usually involves a degree of sycophancy), but then tearing down other women they consider beneath them with intensely petty comments usually based on looks.  This really needs to be examined, harshly, if need be. 

Yes, it’s incredibly hard for women to have it all.  Sometimes it seems impossible and many times it is.  We are asked to balance so many vital aspects of our lives and then try to make it look easy and pretty.  What we need to do is to tap into the other profoundly beautiful aspects of our gender, like compassion, humor, intuition, nurturing and understanding.  And strength.  We should support each other, be happy for our successes and be gentler with each others’ flaws and failings.  Why should women make it harder on each other by perpetuating this destructive, and really self-destructive, behavior?  It makes us look bad because it is bad.    

Jezebel is supposed to be a blog directed at women’s interests.  With that in mind, Jezebel, what do you think is in women’s best interests?  There is a great similarity to that despicable guy calling me a what he did because I refused to conform to what he thought was feminine and you publishing a piece mocking a powerful woman for buying products to use on the same anatomical part.  That guy and you are sharing the same epithet.  How sad.