As a college junket journalist, I became somewhat of an authority on what is “smelly” and what is “clean.” For the fancy occasion of this Ladder 49 press junket, I was dressed in a “clean” shirt, meaning it did not explicitly stink of Doritos. My South Central apartment was “smelly” in the sense that the car exhaust fumes often hide the acrid stench of our neighbor’s recreational afternoon habit wafting under the doorway. “Smelly” is relative.
To professional journalists, I was the badly dressed scapegoat who gets stuck asking all of the questions to the non-English-speaking cinematographer. And to the overpaid studio bosses, I was a begrudging concession: a young writer to write for the massive 18 to 24-year-old movie going audience. Fortunately for me, stars at junkets were far more likely to let their guard down in an interview with a meek collegiate simpleton.
At the junket for Nicolas Cage’s National Treasure, the legendary (read-ancient) Jon Voight started bizarrely acting out scenes from Midnight Cowboy, even hunching down in his seat to play the diminutive Dustin Hoffman.
“I got to get you a doctor, dammit! You die in my damn hands!” he screamed.
As he motioned to an invisible Hoffman, I wondered if these impromptu monologues were the norm for junkets – or just the norm for a Tuesday for Voight.
I was removed from the line to talk to Tommy Lee Jones about The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada by studio personnel in favor of a big-time L.A. morning show and told to “just enjoy the free food instead.” When I protested, another journalist quickly hushed me.
“Watch out, man. Just tell Tommy you enjoyed the movie,” the nattily-dressed man warned. “And don’t say anything about his tie. He’s worn the same one to junkets for the past 10 years.”
So I did what every good Los Angeleno would: I swallowed my pride with catered nicoise salad and warm risotto. And snuck in later.
But I was always professional. Mostly. At the St. Regis Hotel, talking to Travolta, I couldn’t contain my enthusiasm for our shared past.
Joe: “You know, in my senior year I played Danny Zuko in my high school production of ‘Grease.’”
John: “I bet you were a good Danny Zuko.” Aw, well, gosh, shucks.
For the budget-busted student, junkets made Christmas shopping easy. For that special someone on your list, an autographed DVD from a favorite star was ideal, provided you could fight through the line of other journalists groveling with their felt-tip pens. And thank you, Mr. Costner, for that signed copy of Dances with Wolves.
There are certain benefits to scurrying about below the “professional” radar and benefits to living in an entirely unscrupulous city. Particularly annoyed with the patronize-the-kid tone of the past several junkets, I dared to break the mythic commoner-celebrity divide.
I called my sister: “Hey, hope school is good. Want to meet Orlando Bloom?”
Her immediate response carried the enthusiastic, eruptive force known only to girls whose walls have been plastered with Legolas the Elf posters for years.
Several days later, as I strolled into the Four Seasons with my new “note-taking assistant” and a faux bandage on my writing hand (which, as I related to Paramount Pictures, held together my sprained wrist, crippled in a grievous biking accident) for the Elizabethtown junket, we just happened to greet Bloom coming out of his last TV interview.
In a startling turn of fate, I happened to have a camera in my unblemished hand, and Bloom graciously supplied my sister with the photo of a lifetime. I might be a nothing in the Hollywood hegemonic order, but I’m still the big-brother-that-could.
I used to feel guilty as I stuffed croissant after croissant, Fiji bottled water after Fiji bottled water from the catered buffets into my bag, always gleefully wondering how long I could live off of the unwitting generosity of Sony Pictures. Now, armed with the infinite wisdom that comes from years of suffering the repulsed stares of L.A.’s privileged few when valeting my dented, dust-encrusted 1987 Volvo station wagon at the Four Seasons and steadily going deaf listening to my screechy tape recorder while transcribing the endlessly smug intonations of Hollywood’s glamorous elite, I’ve uncovered the one undeniable moral of existence in this amoral town.
Stealing food from press junkets is no crime. In fact, it’s not really stealing at all. I’ve earned that food. And now I carry a big bag.