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Coldheart Canyon

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Язык: Английский
Год издания: 2018 год
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‘Forty million, the first weekend.’

‘Don’t get your hopes up.’

‘You don’t think we’ll do forty?’

‘I think it’ll do fine.’

George’s face lit up. Todd Pickett, the man he’d paid twenty million dollars to (plus a sizeable portion of the back-end) was declaring it fine. God was in His Heaven. For a terrible moment Todd thought the man was going to weep with relief.

‘At least there’s nothing big opening against it,’ Todd said. ‘So we’ve got one weekend clear.’

‘And your fans are loyal,’ George said. Again, the desperation in the eyes.

Todd couldn’t bear to look at him any longer.

‘I’m just goin’ to make a quick getaway,’ Todd said, glancing towards the theatre doors.

The first of the crowd were emerging. If the expressions on the first five faces he scanned were an omen, his instincts were right: they did not have a hit. He turned his back on the crowd, telling George he’d see him later.

‘You are coming to the party?’ George said, hanging on to him as he headed down the carpet.

Where was Marco? Todd thought. Trusty Marco, who was always there when he was needed. ‘Yes, I’ll pop in later,’ he said, glancing back over his shoulder at George to reassure him.

In the seconds since he’d turned away the audience spilling from the theatre door had jumped from five to a hundred. Half of them saw him. In just a few seconds they’d be surrounding him, yelling his name, telling him they loved this and they hated that, touching him, pulling on him –

‘Here, boss!’

Marco called to him from the kerb. The limo door was open. God bless him! Todd raced down the carpet as people behind him started to call his name; cameras started to flash. Into the limo. Marco slammed the door. Todd locked it. Then Marco dashed around to the driver’s seat with a remarkable turn of speed given his poundage, and got in.

‘Where to?’

‘Mulholland.’

Mulholland Drive winds through the city like a lazy serpent for many miles; but Marco didn’t need to know where along its length his boss wanted to be taken. There was a spot close to Coldwater Canyon, where the undulating drive offers a picture-perfect view of the San Fernando Valley, as far as the mountains. By day it can be a smog-befouled spectacle, brown and grey. But by night, especially in the summer, it is a place of particular enchantment: the cities of Burbank, North Hollywood and Pasadena laid out in a matrix of amber lights, receding to the dark wall of the mountains. And moving against the darkness, the lights of planes circling as they await their instruction to land at Burbank Airport, or the police helicopters passing over the city, spitting a beam of white light.

Often there were sightseers parked at the spot, enjoying the scene. But tonight, thank God, there were none. Marco parked the car and Todd got out, wandering to the cliff-edge to look at the scene before him.

Marco got out too, and occupied his time with wiping the windshield of the limo. He was a big man with the bearded face of a bear recently woken from hibernation, and he possessed a curious mixture of talents: a sometime wrestler and ju-jitsu black belt, he was also a trained Cordon Bleu cook (not that Todd’s taste called for any great culinary sophistication) and a twice-divorced father of three with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the works of Wagner. More importantly, he was Todd’s right-hand man; loyal to a fault. There was no part of Todd’s existence Marco Caputo did not have some part of. He took care of the hiring and firing of domestic staff and gardeners, the buying and the driving of cars, and of course all the security duties.

‘The movie’s shit, huh?’ he said matter-of-factly.

‘Worse than.’

‘Sorry ’bout that.’

‘Not your fault. I should never have done it. Shit script. Shit movie.’

‘You want to give the party a miss?’

‘Nah. I gotta go. I promised Wilhemina. And George.’

‘You got something going with her?’

‘Wilhemina? Yeah. I got something. I just don’t know whether I want to. Plus she’s got an English boyfriend.’

‘The English are all fags.’

‘Yeah.’

‘You want me to swing by the party and bring her back up to the house for you?’

‘Suppose she says no?’

‘Oh come on. When did any girl say no to you?’

Todd said nothing. He just stared out over the vista of lights. The wind came up out of the valley, smelling of gas fumes and Chinese food. The Santa Anas, hot off the Mojave, gusted against his face. He closed his eyes to enjoy the moment, but what came into his head was an image of himself: a still from the movie he’d fled from tonight. He studied the face in his mind’s eye for a moment.

Then he said: ‘I look tired.’

Chapter 2

Todd Pickett had made two of his three most successful pictures under the aegis of a producer by the name of Keever Smotherman. The first of them was called Gunner; the kind of high concept, testosterone-marinated picture Smotherman had been renowned for making. It had made Todd – who was then an unknown from Ohio – a bona-fide movie star, if not overnight then certainly within a matter of weeks. He hadn’t been required to turn in a performance. Smotherman didn’t make movies that required actors, only breath-taking physical specimens. And Todd was certainly that. Every time he stepped before the cameras, whether he was sharing the scene with a girl or a fighter-plane, he was all the eye wanted to watch. The camera worked some kind of alchemy upon him; and he worked the same magic on celluloid.

In life, he was good-looking, but flawed. He was a little on the short side, with broad hips; he was also conspicuously bandy. But on the screen, all these flaws disappeared. He became gleaming, studly perfection, his jaw-line heroic, his gaze crystalline, his mouth an uncommon mingling of the sensual and the severe. His particular beauty had suited the taste of the times, and by the end of that first, extraordinary summer of coming-to-fame his image, dressed in an immaculate white uniform which made poetry of his buttocks, had become an indelible piece of cinema iconography.

Over the years, other stars had risen just as high, of course, and many just as quickly. But few were quite as ready for their ascent as Todd Pickett. This was what he’d been polishing himself for since the moment his mother, Patricia Donna Pickett, had first taken him into a cinema in downtown Cincinnati. Looking up at the screen, watching the parade of faces pass before him, he’d known instinctively (at least so he later claimed) that he belonged up there with those stars, and that if he willed it hard enough, willed and worked for it, then it was merely a matter of time before he joined the parade.

After the success of Gunner, he fell effortlessly into the labours of being a movie star. In interviews he was courteous, funny and self-effacing, playing the interviewers so easily that all but the most cynical swooned. He was confident about his charms, but he wasn’t cocky; loyal to his Mid-Western roots and boyishly devoted to his mother. Most attractive of all, he was honest about his shortcomings as an actor. There was a refreshing lack of pretension about the Pickett persona.

The year after Gunner, he made two pictures back to back. Another action blockbuster for Smotherman, called Lightning Rod, which was released on Independence Day and blew all former box-office records to smithereens, and then, for the Christmas market, Life Lessons. The latter was a sweetly sentimental slip of a story, in which Todd played opposite Sharon Campbell, a Playboy model turned actress who had been tabloid fodder at the time thanks to her recent divorce from an alcoholic and abusive husband. The pairing of Pickett and Campbell had worked like a charm, and the reviews for Todd’s performance were especially kind. While he was still relying on his physical gifts, the critics observed, there were definitely signs that he was taking on the full responsibilities of an actor, digging deeper into himself to engage his audience. Nor was he afraid to show weakness; twice in Life Lessons he was required to sob like a baby, and he did so very convincingly. The picture was a huge hit, meaning that both of the big money-makers of the year had Todd’s name above the title. He was officially box-office gold.

For most of the following decade he could do no wrong. Inevitably, some of his pictures performed better than others, but even the disappointments were triumphs by comparison with the fumbling labours of most of his contemporaries.

Of course, he wasn’t making the choice of material on his own. From the beginning he’d had a close relationship with his manager, Maxine Frizelle, a short, sharp bitch of a woman in her mid-forties who’d once been voted the Most Despised Person in Hollywood, and had asked, when the news had reached her, if the awards ceremony was full evening dress. Though she’d been representing other clients when she first took Todd on, she’d let them all go once his career began to demand her complete attention. Thereafter she lived and breathed the Pickett business, controlling every element of his life, private and professional. The price she asked studios for his services rapidly rose to unheard-of heights, and she drove the deal home every single time. She had an opinion about everything: rewrites, casting, the hiring of directors, art-directors, costume designers and directors of photographers. Her only concern was the best interests of her wonder-boy. In the language of an older but similarly feudal system, she was the power behind the throne; and everyone who worked with Todd, from the heads of studios to humble hair-stylists, had some encounter with her to relate, some scar to show.

Needless to say, the Pickett magic couldn’t remain unchallenged forever. There were always new stars in the ascendancy, new faces with the new smiles appearing on the screen every season, and after ten years of devotion the audience that had doted on Todd in the mid-to-late eighties began to look elsewhere for its heroes. It wasn’t that his pictures performed less well, but that others performed even better. A new definition of a blockbuster had appeared; money-machines like Independence Day and Titanic, which earned so much so quickly that pictures which would once have been called major hits were now in contrast simply modest successes.

Anxious to regain the ground he was losing, Todd decided to go back into business with Smotherman, who was just as eager to return to their glory days together. The project they’d elected to do together was a movie called Warrior: a piece of high concept junk about a street-fighter from Brooklyn who is brought through time to champion a future earth in a battle against marauding aliens. The script was a ludicrous concoction of clichés pulled from every cheesy science-fiction B-movie of the fifties, and an early budget had put the picture somewhere in the region of a hundred million dollars simply to get it on screen, but Smotherman was confident that he could persuade either Fox or Paramount to green-light it. The show had everything, he said: an easily-grasped idea (primitive fighting man outwits hyper-intelligent intergalactic empire, using cunning and brute force); a dozen action sequences which called for state-of-the-art effects, and the kind of hero Todd could perform in his sleep: an ordinary man put in an extraordinary situation. It was a no-brainer, all round. The studios would be fools not to green-light it; it had all the marks of a massive hit.

He was nothing if not persuasive. In person, Smotherman was almost a parody of a high-voltage salesman: fast-talking, short-tempered and over-sexed. There was never an absence of ‘babes’, as he still called them, in his immediate vicinity; all were promised leading roles when they’d performed adequately for Smotherman in private, and all, of course, were discarded the instant he tired of them.

Preparations for Warrior were proceeding nicely. Then the unthinkable happened. A week shy of his forty-fourth birthday, Smotherman died. He’d always been a man of legendary excess, a bottom-feeder happiest in the gamier part of any city. The circumstances of his death were perfectly consistent with this reputation: he’d died sitting at a table in a private club in New York, watching a lesbian sex show, the coronary that had felled him so massive and so sudden he had apparently been overtaken by it before he could even cry out for help. He was face down in a pile of cocaine when he was found, a drug he’d continued to consume in heroic quantities long after his contemporaries had cleaned up their acts and had their sinuses surgically reconstructed. It was one of the thirty-five illegal substances found in his system at the autopsy.

He was buried in Las Vegas, according to the instructions in his will. He’d been happiest there, he’d always said, with everything to win and everything to lose.

This remark was twice quoted at the memorial service, and hearing it, Todd felt a cold trickle of apprehension pass down his spine. What Smotherman had known, and been at peace with, was the fact that all of Tinseltown was a game – and it could be lost in a heartbeat. Smotherman had been a gambling man. He’d taken pleasure in the possibility of failure and it had sweetened his success. Todd, on the other hand, had never even played the slots, much less a game of poker or roulette. Sitting there listening to the hypocrites – most of whom had despised Smotherman – stand up and extol the dead man, he realized that Keever’s passing cast a pall over his future. The golden days were over. His place in the sun would very soon belong to others; if it didn’t already.

The day after the memorial service he poured his fears out to Maxine. She was all reassurance.

‘Smotherman was a dinosaur,’ she said as she sipped her vodka. ‘The only reason people put up with his bullshit all those years was because he made everybody a lot of money. But let’s be honest: he was a low-life. You’re a class act. You’ve got nothing to worry about.’

‘I don’t know,’ Todd said, his head throbbing from one too many drinks. ‘I look at myself sometimes …’

‘And what?’

‘I’m not the guy I was when I made Gunner.’

‘Damn right you’re not. You were nobody then. Now you’re one of the most successful actors in history.’

‘There’s others coming up.’

‘So what?’ Maxine said, waving his concerns away.

‘Don’t do that!’ Todd said, slamming his palm down on the table. ‘Don’t try and placate me! Okay? We have a problem. Smotherman was going to put me back on top, and now the son of a bitch is dead!’

‘All right. Calm down. All I’m saying is that we don’t need Smotherman. We’ll hire somebody to rework the script, if that’s what you want. Then we’ll find somebody hip to direct it. Somebody with a contemporary style. Smotherman was an old-fashioned guy. Everything had to be big. Big explosions. Big tits. Big guns. Audiences don’t care about any of that any more. You need to be part of what’s coming up, not what happened yesterday. You know, I hate to say it, but perhaps Keever’s dying is the best thing that could have happened. We need a new look for you. A new Todd Pickett.’

‘You think it’s as simple as that?’ Todd said. He wanted so much to believe that Maxine had the problem solved.
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