My Very Brief Career
If you knew me when I was a kid growing up on the south shore of Long Island, you’d also know that besides resembling a beanpole, I was ridiculously shy. To raise my hand in class became a major accomplishment because the fear of other kids turning around in their squeaky chairs to stare could render me mute. Yet, in most of our family movies, you would see a totally different me: a relentless jokester, a tap dancer, a happy-go-lucky girl making funny faces and full of mischief.
So maybe it’s not so strange that this was the same exact girl who had always wanted to be in a movie- a real movie. I attribute this burning desire to all those early escapes as a teen to the mildewed tiny theatre down the block that charged only 25 cents. It became the place to hide whenever girlfriends were mean, or a boy broke my heart. While watching a movie I could cry my eyes out or laugh till I felt the calm waves of relief.
How I would wind up working in my own production company for twenty years, eventually moving to a place where movie stars could be picking out ripe peaches beside you in the supermarket, that?…yes, that is a bit strange. And yet, it is no big deal. We really are in so many ways the same. Yet, still, my desire, though long buried, did not leave me.
I didn’t care whether I showed up in a café scene sipping wine, as a walk-on, or simply a blurry face pushing through a crowd. So, when a poster appeared in my local Starbucks, my home away from home, announcing the producers of “The Nanny Diaries” were casting “Hamptons’ types” at a locale nearby, I received a call from a friend who urged me to attend the open call.
“You really look like a Hampton’s type,” she said. I wondered if she was thinking in terms of fashion like Lilly Pulitzer, or J. Crew, and the store in every town out here but just not me… J. McLaughlin.
“Elizabeth…what do you mean exactly?” Friend or not, of course I had to know.
“You’re always so, so…put together.”
“Well thank you!” I answered, not totally convinced what I’d received was a compliment. Yet, without hesitation, two days later, on a beautiful, cloudless Saturday, I showed up for the one day casting in the auditorium of Southampton High School along with at least two hundred other East End want-to-be-a-star hopefuls─ each of us well-dressed Hampton residents seeking our five minutes of movie fame. Since I’d been attending what was then Southampton College for my MFA in Writing and Literature, this gave me yet another creative though lame excuse not to work on my thesis or to re-edit my unsold novel buried in my bottom drawer.
While navigating through the curvy back roads to avoid a standstill procession of vehicles on Montauk Highway, I enjoyed a delicious day-dream of being discovered at my ripened age, just like the leggy Lana Turner, who was spotted at Schwab’s soda fountain. Lana who, you ask? Truth is, more than thirty years prior, a svelte twenty-something version of me, wearing an aqua crocheted bikini, was cast, then cruelly cut, from the swimming pool scene in “The Heartbreak Kid.” Talk about heart break. It is clear to me now that I never fully recovered and vowed to one day make it onto celluloid, even if I had to form my own production company, which I would eventually do.
This time when the call finally came, two days before the shoot, I had already accepted failure and suffered through a familiar rash of rejection. Feeling a bit like Woody Allen, my persecution complex had risen like mercury. Had I appeared a bit too ethnic for the stereotypical Hampton type? Perhaps I was just a tad more Lilly Goldberg than Lilly Pulitzer, or worse, too old.
I tried to pacify myself by remembering how my high school choir teacher had constantly scolded me for not blending whenever we sang the Messiah during the Christmas holidays. Of course, that was it! I was simply too frontline for any of this extra work. But then the efficient and pubescent casting director delivered her news. She said “they” wanted to “use you” for an important beach scene they’d be shooting on Monday.
While she recited a long list of instructions, I began lathering my thighs with the anti-cellulite cream samples I’d saved from White’s in East Hampton…the same place I would buy my first straw hat. Nervous and giddy, I joked with the youngster saying that coincidentally, I’d planned to start a serious diet just this morning. “Are you saying you don’t want to do this?” the casting girl pried.
“No, no, of course, I’ll be there. Thanks so much for your call!” For final effect, I said I’d be attending a fundraiser at the Parrish Museum tomorrow evening, but then came her clipped response.
“Oh and please don’t wear anything that’s either red or white. And, by the way, we are, of course, looking for elegant.”
“I can absolutely do elegant,” I said, and hung up before she changed her mind.
In my head I had images of flowing chiffon and my new straw hat−something more Ralph Lauren than Laura Ashley. I began to breathe normally once she said beach cover-ups were acceptable. Then, the very next day, I bought two ensembles at the popular St. Barts inspired shop, Calypso, in East Hampton. The cost was triple the amount I would earn for a day’s work. What I should have bought instead was a down parka since on the day of the shoot (how I love the word) on May 8th the temperature on Main Beach in East Hampton read 42 degrees. Still, fourteen extras, which included men, women, and a few perfect blonde children were stationed for many, many hours at an airport hangar, where it was even colder, before being shuttled like skimpily attired mannequins in one white van for the anticipated scene.
Awaiting our arrival in the beach parking lot were, at least, a hundred film crew members surrounded by block-long trailers and lighting trucks. This was true Hollywood excitement. All of the extras gaped as the lovely actress, Scarlett Johansson, cast to play the Nanny, was positioned in a rickety phone booth near a snack stand. Now the long wait seemed worth every minute. Next, each of us were led by the director and placed on our camera marks. That’s when I knew− knew that the perky seagull bopping at the water’s edge had a much better chance of being in the shot than me, and what became my “movie husband,” a well-dressed, fast-talking gentleman named Joel, who the director for whatever reason had paired alongside me, way down by the seashore, far from all the others. He left Joel and me shivering in the wind, saying, “Hey, you two, try and look busy.” Then, with busy seeming a slim possibility, he added, “Spread out your towels, sit down, relax.” But Joel nailed our coffins when he yelled back: “Hey, who do I have to schmear around here to get a better spot? I whispered to Joel to forget about it; this was not The Palm, obviously Joel’s favorite haunt.
As time went on, Joel and I, who became fast friends that afternoon, might have been better off burying each other in the sand to keep warm. Instead, every time the director shouted, “ACTION!” we jumped to our feet whining about our sore backs, achy knees, and the sandy gusts that brought back memories of that famous box office failure: Ishtar.
Here we were…two authentic Hampton types, elegantly senior, and thrilled to be chosen, if only for what was considered “background,” or that one wide angle shot that might be digitally deleted. Or, as in the age of film editing: land on the cutting room floor. When I returned home, hours later, I scrubbed the sticky sand from my cheeks and made myself a cup of hot tea. The movie An Affair to Remember had just begun on AMC. Finally, I knew where I belonged.