“Life is Elsewhere.” – Milan Kundera
It starts out in daydreams. I’m a regular person, and he’s a regular person, except that, of course, he’s a movie star. We meet. He’s seated next to me on an airplane. We’re browsing in the same section at a bookstore. He’s sitting in the row in front of me at a Sonics game with a bunch of his buddies, all of whom are drunk and boring him to tears. I win some contest and the prize is an evening out to dinner with him. It’s always focused. For whatever reason, we’re talking to each other and there’s nothing else to do really and we’re thankful for one another’s company. I’m a little bit more beautiful than I really am, but not so much so that it’s completely unrealistic. I am still me. Like I said, a regular person. He is a little bit less beautiful than he really is. He has a friendly face, a genuine smile. He is much taller than he looks on screen.
Most importantly, he is smart.
He has interesting things to say. He is a searching soul, pondering what it’s all about – the fame, the fortune, the lifestyle. He cares about his acting, the roles he chooses, his co-stars. He tells me about his inspirations, about what it was like working with Robert DeNiro in “This Boy’s Life,” Meryl Streep in “Marvin’s Room,” the great Woody Allen. I impress him with the fact that I’ve seen all his movies, even the unsavory “Total Eclipse,” that I’ve been a fan since “Growing Pains.” I tell him that his role as Arnie in “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape” was unforgettable, that that is the sort of accomplishment that one should never forget or diminish as time passes. He frowns, fighting his own cynicism about the whole business, not quite sure if he can believe me, what do I know anyway, I’m just a regular person.
He actually asks me to tell him about myself. He actually listens.
He’s not all melancholy and contemplation. Truth be told, he loves his life. He loves the fame, the money, the work. He’s not one of those stars that wishes he was a regular guy with a wife and kids and a 9 to 5 job. It would be like wishing he was born in the Middle Ages. Nor does he feel particularly obliged to be extra nice or political or altruistic. This is the way it works, he says. You take it or leave it. It’s not like we don’t get anything out of it. You have to be careful not to be an ingrate. You can be as personable as you want to be, but you can never forget the difference between you and the person who’s autograph you’re signing, and you can never resent that difference. Either you take it for what it is, or you lose it or OD or something. It’s not just an industry or a culture; it’s a fucking religion.
He does not believe in God. Sometimes, he meditates.
He swears in almost every sentence, but his speech does not sound adolescent. He is younger than me, but he doesn’t seem younger than me. He chews his fingernails, as do I. He doesn’t smoke as much as one would think.
I tell him that I am a writer, and that one of the reasons I am a big fan of his is that he seems like someone whose artistic career will go a long way, someone with actual talent. I envision him as the next Robert Redford. He almost spits up his drink, says he has no intention of being the next anything, he doesn’t feel like he needs to be the emblem of any generation. God, you’re serious, he says. Lighten up. Enjoy the ride. He probably sees that I’m a little hurt, so he asks me what writers I like. I list off a handful, and when I get to Annie Proulx, his eyes light up, and he says that he really enjoyed the Wyoming stories…
Here, the daydream cuts off. I somehow have a hard time imagining him as a lover of literature.
Act II: the end of the evening. He offers to drive me home, but I tell him that won’t be necessary. I tell him I had a nice time and am glad to have met him in person. Like an idiot, I say I hope we can keep in touch, i.e. if a letter from me arrives, I hope that he would recognize my name and read it. He says thanks for a cool evening, for making it much better than he imagined (at this point, I’ve resigned to the contest-winning scenario), he’s glad that I turned out to be a regular person as opposed to a love-starved psycho teenager. I say thanks, and I’m glad he turned out to be a nice-enough person despite all the asshole rumors. I say I’ll tell the press he was a perfect gentleman. He says whatever, it doesn’t matter. I put out my hand, and he takes it and pulls me in, kisses me on the cheek. We part.
In the sixth grade, I went steady with a boy named Ben. He had blonde hair and dark skin and hazelnut eyes, and he wore tube socks that matched his shorts. He was from Minnesota. Shortly after he confessed his affections (via his sister, who was in junior high and friends with my sister), my mother took me to her hairdresser to “do something” about my sagging, straight black hair. The hairdresser thought that some layers and a perm would do the trick. I was all trust, envisioning myself as Farrah Fawcett. I came out looking like a Korean Carol Channing. At school, the girls tried to hold back their laughter, the boys were forthright with theirs. Cracks about fingers being stuck in electrical sockets abounded. I can’t be sure, but I think I recall Ben asking me “What happened?”. I was crushed. At recess, under the jungle gym, he asked me if I wanted to go see “Footloose”, his mother would drive; I said yes, and together, we skinned the cat and put the skin back on about 50 times before the end of recess. After the sixth grade, we went to different junior high schools; but we were friends for a long time. Recently, I found his personal web site, which contained photos from a trip he took to Greenland. It occurred to me that he looks a little bit like Leo.
Twenty years later, I am talking to Troy, the guy at Rudys Barber who has just given me the head massage of my life. I ask him if he does perms, I’ve been thinking about going for the Cher-in-Moonstruck look, or the Sarah Jessica Parker look, now that my hair is long. Girl, perms are way passé, he says. I don’t know anyone who’s doing them anymore. Forget it, Asian hair is hip these days, you are it.
Nighttime dreams are pretty much out of my control. The occasion, or the connection, is usually vague or unexplained or irrelevant. I am experiencing the dream as me (as opposed to those dreams where you see yourself from the outside), and everything is lusciously sensory: I can feel him, the warmth of his breath, I can hear him speaking to me, he is very intimate, and forceful. He kisses me, and the dream is all about the kiss. There is no sex, but I feel him inside me, like every earthly desire exploding and spreading its heat throughout my body; and then, we are underwater, and the scene shifts, and I am on the outside now, remote, watching he and Claire Daines swim about in the pool underneath Juliet’s balcony.
A friend of mine in New York writes me an email. He is a writer as well, and he updates me on the progress of his first novel. Life is busy, he writes, but busy with good things. I note this as a good way of saying that you are unhappy but you don’t know why you’re unhappy and you know that you shouldn’t be. I resolve to use this in my emails from now on. By the way, he writes, my tickets to Letterman finally came in, but I’m off to Boston for a wedding that week, so I can’t even go. I think Leoschmardo De Cap‘n’gown is the special guest. Aren’t you a fan?
The tickets are for March, and I usually take my annual trip east to see my parents in April, so it’s not such a far stretch; plus it gives me an alibi. I accept the offer.
Much of my free time between the news of the tickets and the trip is spent at obscure newsstands, standing with my face in a corner, paging through teen magazines. I notice that most of the coverage is generated by the mags themselves, the photos are re-used headshots and film shots; which tells me that Leo is not as hungry for the press as it is for him. This is, of course, appealing. I find the article in Time about the filming of the movie “The Beach” depressing, since it paints him as a western imperialist, exploiting Asian natural resources. The photo shows him signing autographs for flocks of Thai girls.
I tell my mother that I am flying into LaGuardia two days later than I really am. There is no need, it seems to me, to tell her about Letterman. There are a number of people in Manhattan that I could call who’d be happy to house me for the night, but I opt for a hotel. It seems simpler.
The taping is at five, the line forms at four. After checking in to my hotel, I have three hours to kill. I am at home in Manhattan due to a six-year stint living here about ten years ago, so wandering is not a problem for me. I wander over to the MOMA and spend almost an hour in the gift shop. I wander back to Times Square and claim a window booth at Ollie’s, my favorite Chinese restaurant in the entire world, where I order A Little Bit of Everything Noodle Soup and a Dr. Pepper. Since it is two in the afternoon and not very crowded, I am banking on them letting me sit for the next two hours. While I’m waiting for my soup, I dig through my bag and pull out two things: my toothbrush and the paperback Leo biography I picked up at the airport. Clean teeth and life details somehow seem important.
“You all finish heah sah?” The waitress has barely given me a chance to get to the last noodle, and she’s already shoving me on my way.
“All right if I sit for a while?” I ask, handing her my bowl.
“Oh, shuh, no prah-blem. You want check, sah?” I look up at her, and I must have a strange expression on my face, because she doesn’t wait for my response. “Oh, sahrry, Miss. I bring you check when you ready.”
When I was in grade school, people frequently mistook me for a boy. At the department stores, the salesladies would point us to the wrong floor. When I asked for the restroom, I’d find myself face-to-face with urinals, too trusting of a grown-up’s confidently pointed finger. At the shopping malls, I would ask my mother for a penny, and I’d go and stand at the edge of the courtyard fountain, cursing my reflection, that boy’s bowl haircut, and I’d close my eyes and toss the penny into the fountain, wishing with all my heart for long hair. To this day, I have nightmares about my hair being chopped off. What I feel when I wake up and realize it was just a dream is always the same: Absolution. Mercy. An Irrevocable Loss recovered.
In the bathroom at Ollie’s, I brush my teeth thoroughly, looking straight into the lavatory bowl. When I’m done rinsing, I check my teeth, but only my teeth, making sure not to rest my gaze on the reflection in the mirror. It’s ridiculous, but I’m afraid to look. As I swing open the door to leave, I pull out the barrett that has been holding my hair up in a tight bun in the back of my head, and I shake my hair loose. I almost knock down a little old Chinese lady who’s entering as I’m leaving.
(A literary digression: How often are the narrators or main characters in contemporary fiction drop-dead gorgeous? There must be a rule written somewhere, maybe in John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction, or Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, that says: Narrators and primary characters must be likeably self-deprecating in all respects. No one likes a perfect or over-confident protagonist, unless the point of the work is somehow wrapped up in the protagonist’s perfection or over-confidence. In this case, what you have is what you call an “unreliable narrator.” Because someone who is attractive and confident must surely be unreliable? What would it mean for the rest of us if the world were portrayed for us exclusively through the eyes of the rich and the beautiful?)
At 3:55, the line is already around the corner. Energetic Late Night employees wearing satin-y blue Late Night jackets with bright yellow lettering are directing the line, making sure we’re all ticket holders. People are scalping their tickets right in front of the jacket people, right in front of all of us. I consider whether or not I’d buy a ticket if I was just walking by.
“Twenty-five dollars,” a young woman says to another young woman who stops to inquire. “It’s Leo, and some animal trainer from Montana.” I size up the potential buyer: thirty-something, professional, educated, maybe in advertising or graphic design judging by her trendy outfit – too stylish for corporate, too classy for retail. Single, but in a committed relationship, one that requires significant cooperation. You can tell. She considers for a moment, then shakes her head no. “No, thanks,” she says. “Gotta meet someone downtown.” Bingo.
By 4:45, there’s just one scalper left; five of them have already unloaded, one guy sold his tickets for $50 a piece to a teenage girl and her mother, most likely Long Island-ites who were in the city for a day of shopping. At five minutes to five, the last guy is yelling, “Ten bucks, tickets to Letterman, Leonardo DiCaprio is guest!” A middle-aged gentleman in a suit stops and quickly hands over the money, snatching the ticket out of the scalper’s hand. The man in the suit hurries to the back of the line, anxiously looking at his watch; I imagine a wife, two kids, and a hot meal waiting for him at home.
The rumors I’ve heard about the Ed Sullivan Theatre are true; it must be 40 degrees, maybe 45 with the added bodies. Even with a sweater, my teeth are chattering, and I’ve got my arms wrapped around myself. Everything in the studio is black, except for the stage and the cityscape backdrop, which somehow makes it feel even colder. The studio lights are huge and intense, all directed at Letterman’s desk and the guest chair, a few towards Paul Schafer’s domain. No wonder; it must be hot as hell up there.
A young black guy in a teal-colored sportscoat and khaki pants runs out onto the stage and sweeps up our attention all at once. “All right, everyone, welcome to Late Night With David Letterman! I’m Charles, your host, and I’m here to get you warmed up, let you know what’s going on here tonight. First off, fire exits are over this way to your left. Do we have anyone needing special assistance in the event of an emergency? Anyone? No? Okay, great, looks like we’ve got a healthy happy crowd here tonight.” Charles is all teeth and gums. The man next to me whispers to his wife, “Is that Arsenio?” and she whispers back, “Don’t be stupid! He said his name was Charles.”
Charles tells us the order of the program, how long the taping will be, what to do when Letterman comes out, yadda yadda yadda. He gets us hooting and hollering according to the part of the country we’re from and throws a baked ham towards the lone voice from Alaska. When he feels our hooting has reached acceptable raucousness, he thanks us for coming out and hands us over to Paul Schafer, who gets his guys to play for about 10 minutes. The music is loud, the lights are bright, the darkness is dark, and the cold is getting colder. I am surprised by the rite of passage involved in this, but not too bothered.
At 5:29, Charles comes back to thank us once again for coming out, gets us hooting to optimal volume, then cuts us to absolute silence. The production guy comes out and counts down from five, and then..it’s pandemonium. Schafer and company are blasting away, the voice from nowhere is introducing all of today’s guests, and then finally comes Letterman. We’re cheering and clapping and hooting like crazy people. It’s so chaotic and cold and weird that I think I might be sick, but I keep clapping and hooting to save my life.
Letterman looks exactly as you’d expect, almost superreal. You’d never guess that he was wearing any makeup, or that someone had spent a good deal of time on his hair or picking out his clothes. You can just see him coming straight from his Volvo and his Connecticut commute, into the studio and right up on stage. I appreciate this. And yet, it makes all of the fuss seem so incongruent, like the wrong guy is out there, like we need some kind of explanation for why we’re out here and he’s up there. The monologue is not-bad. He tells a handful of presidential-campaign and Hilary jokes and gets some good laughs. Overall, though, the interaction seems flat, one-dimensional, more like ping-pong than romance.
The biggest let-down: after the monologue, Letterman tells us who’s up next and to stay tuned. Instead of bantering informally during the commercial break, Letterman sits down at his desk and is immediately joined by Charles. Schafer is on, louder than before, and we are relegated to wonder what the in-between Letterman is like. All is controlled: stardom is held from us at arm’s length by the careful plans of the studio manager.
It turns out that Leo is last (in the introductions, his name was mentioned first, and not until Letterman himself gives the rundown do we clue in to the fact that the guests come out in ascending order of celebrity). The animal trainer from Montana is actually quite remarkable, handles Letterman like a pro; he’s got a ferret sitting on Letterman’s head and a lioness lying down at their feet. His name is Lars. The trainer, that is. Letterman makes a joke about a ferret toupé that goes over well, even in its predictability. It was the right moment for obsequiousness.
Again, during the break, the conversation between Letterman and the trainer is obscured from us by music. I observe the body language and sense that Letterman is awkward, distracted; how else could it be, why else would the interaction be shrouded? By this time, the barriers between the audience and the stage players seem so heavy-handed that they betray the sense of control; it’s a little too much.
It feels like hours since we first entered the studio, but really, it’s only been forty-five minutes. We’ve just had an underwhelming performance by the band Third Eye Blind, followed by a commercial break. Paul Schafer is sweating up a storm, it seems to me that he and his guys are working harder than anyone to earn their keep. Letterman seems more relaxed than he did when he first came out. He’s laughing and leaning back in his chair. Finally, the intro: “Our next guest, ladies and gentleman…” – there is an interruptive screech from the audience, followed by whistles and hoots. Letterman pauses, laughs. Then, practically all in one breath: “Our-next-guest-is-a-young-actor-who-by-the-age-of-20-starred-in-movies-opposite-Robert-DeNiro-and-Meryl -Streep-and-was-nominated-for-an-Oscar-for-his-supporting-role-in-the-movie-What’s-Eating-Gilbert-Grape-starring-Johnny-Depp…” He goes on, hits the Titanic credit, I’m sitting up now, straining my neck even though I can see just fine sitting back. Then: “Ladies and gentleman, please welcome LeoNARdo DiCAPrio…” There is a burst of applause, screams and screeches. The enthusiasm borders on mania – clearly organic, not something conjured by Charles the host to create an ambience of worship, but rather actual worship. The entry music seems much more deferent than it has earlier in the program, more like an accompaniment, a kind of hymn.
He enters at a mid-pace, confident, his stride easy with the beat of the music, the applause, the energy. He waves a hand at the audience as he enters, shakes Letterman’s hand firmly, takes his seat, crosses his leg and leans back comfortably into the chair. So far, all routine. The music stops abruptly, the applause and the screams linger a few extra moments. He is smiling, squinting slightly as he looks out towards the residual squeals. He is wearing a white t-shirt and black pants, some sort of leather necklace with a stone pendant that hugs close to his neck. His hair is short, mussed, lightly gelled. Letterman keeps up, starts in right away.
“Well, hello there, welcome back.”
“Thanks – thanks, Dave – it’s good to be back.”
“Now, the last time you were here was what…three, four years ago?”
“Three…well, let’s see, it was just before ‘Basketball Diaries’ came out – I remember we talked a little bit about that – so… that was ’95… so four years ago.”
“So you’re an old man now, all grown up, legal and everything.”
“Yeah, that’s right. Legal…” (laughter) “…Well, actually, I was legal three years ago.”
“So how old are you now?”
“Twenty-five…twenty-five and a half.”
“Twenty-five and a half, that half is key, isn’t it? It means you’re well into your late twenties, isn’t that right?”
“Why don’t we test our studio audience here for die-hard Leo fans, shall we? Who here knows Leo’s birthday, down to the minute? Anyone? Anyone know the birthdate down to the minute?” Letterman is in his element, goading the audience for his human punchlines. There is laughter, some murmuring, but no response. Then, a young woman in the third row raises her hand. One of the cameras pans towards her, and a studio hand stands by her with a microphone.
“I’m not sure,” she giggles, “but I’ll guess November 21, 1974 at 3 am.” Camera pans back to Leo.
“Well, Leo, how close are we? Did she guess right?”
“Pret-ty close. I think it was around 4:30 in the morning,” he says. There’s applause, the camera pans back, we can see on the monitor that the girl is covering her face, laughing, flushed to an impressive deep red. There’s a drum roll and then a ham comes flying out of nowhere. “All right, folks, let’s give that girl a ham,” says Letterman.
My view of Leo is remarkably good, and I seem to have forgotten the cold. He looks tanned, bulkier than I remember from pictures, older. He handles himself well on stage, interrupts as much as he’s interrupted, which seems important in the Letterman dynamic. Letterman asks the “how has your life changed since Titanic” question, and he answers, “It’s the privacy thing, mostly. It’s impossible to go anywhere or do anything without being noticed or swamped. The whole thing is pretty weird, and it can get tiring.”
“What about roles? Are you getting to do more of what you want to do?”
“Yes and no. I’ve always been selective about the roles I consider. Now I just have more slosh to sift through and I suppose more freedom to choose carefully.”
“What’s this we’ve been hearing about you and a law suit?” Leo puts his hand up to his ear, feigning hearing loss.
“What’s that? You like this suit?” Laughter. “Nah, listen, you can’t believe everything you hear or read, Dave. But let’s just say that I don’t concern myself too much with what other people think. If I did, I’d quit the whole thing.”
“The whole…which thing?”
“You know, the whole…uh…celebrity thing, I guess. You gotta live your life, you know what I’m sayin’?”
“Sure, sure.” Letterman makes a face, pleads to the audience for comprehension. Laughter. Leo laughs. “So, uh, what about love interests? Any, uh, special ladies we should know about?”
“Special ladies… there are lots of special ladies, Dave. But, uh, no, not for me, not at the moment. Just enjoying what I’m doing, keeping up with my buddies. You know; keeping it simple.” The conversation switches to “The Beach,” and they show a clip. The scene is Leo and two of his co-stars swimming towards the destination island, exhausted after two miles or so of swimming; the female actress is crying, whining, threatening to give up. The other actor, her boyfriend in the movie, encourages her on. There’s a voice over, Richard (Leo) thinking about how attracted he is to the woman, how much he longs to be the one holding her up, carrying her along. The girl is wearing a white t-shirt (of course), and as she floats on her back to rest, her breasts and nipples bared, the scene shows the boyfriend kissing her frantically on the forehead, and Leo off to the side, also floating to rest, the third wheel. Alienated. Longing. “I thought at that moment,” the voice says, “that if I died right there, in the middle of the ocean, that no one would care, no one would know, the two of them would continue and then find the Beach and live happily ever after, and it would all mean pretty much nothing.”
Letterman plugs the movie, and then that’s it. The interview is over and seems ridiculously short. The rest of the audience seems weirdly satisfied, though, as if a dose of Leo is all they could really handle. “He’s a good kid, huh?” the man next to me says. I smile at him, suddenly aware that none of us in the audience have anything to do with one another, that we are each lone souls, floating in this darkness, cold and near-blinded by the studio lights that warm those on stage and remind us of our remoteness. As far as I can tell, Leo has hardly said anything, has made almost no impression.
The music for the break blares. Leo and Letterman both stand, shake hands, pat each other on the arm like politicians. A gorgeous bombshell Vanna White-type woman escorts him off stage. The break ends, and when all is said and done, we are directed out of the theatre, row by row.
Outside, the sun is setting, or rather it is disappearing behind the congregation of buildings that is Times Square, Manhattan. As I head downtown towards my hotel, I notice a crowd forming behind the theatre in the back alley. People are lifting their cameras over their heads and snapping photos of whatever the lens catches. It is Leo, exiting the theatre.
I close my eyes and smile weirdly and listen to the people gasping, calling the name of their star-god, hoping for a look, a smile, a wave, anything at all. I imagine the crowd falling to their knees, beholding their man-god, their figure of beauty, weeping and turning away for the power of their love and devotion.
I imagine Leo spreading out his arms, palms up towards the sky, an unearthly light emanating and all his fairness pouring out from his fingertips into his devotees, transforming them into gods of their own image, lovers of their very own flesh and souls.
I breathe deeply.
I open my eyes, and I see a black Lincoln Town car with tinted windows speeding away down the alley. The crowd disperses in a deflated entropy, and we are all left there, to ourselves – to our aloneness, our unexquisiteness, and the ungodly agonies of desire.