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Ava Gardner taught me to play chess, and I’ve never won a game.

This was in Mexico, during the filming of Night of the Iguana. I was five. I remember, even at that age, staring across the chessboard at the lady trying to teach me the L-shaped way the knight moved and not being able to take my eyes off her face. Even a five year old knows transcendent luminous beauty when he sees it. Something about her face was just really interesting.

She was kind to me. Which makes what I am about to do all the harder.

My mother had an Ava Gardner story. It does not reflect well on Miss Gardner. But it happened. Here it is.

When John Huston was filming Iguana, they were on location at Mismaloya, a fishing village on the beach south of Puerto Villarta. Fantastic natural rock arches into the ocean you can pass through in a small boat, but that’s another matter. There was a scene in which my mom was required to have a conversation over the telephone. They filmed this right before a big scene of Ava’s. Ava was on set in full costume, makeup and hair, ready to begin after mom did her bit. She watched from the side as mom spoke into the unconnected prop phone, listened to nothing at the other end, reacted, spoke again, reacted more, and finally hung up. Houston yelled “Cut, Print,” complimented mom and started the setup for Ava’s scene.

Ava came to Grayson and quietly said: “how did you do that?”

Mom wasn’t sure what she meant. “What, the scene?”

“The phone. I really believed you were talking to someone.”

Mom, who up until that point had enjoyed working with Ava, took a deep breath and explained that the night before, when she was studying her script, she had written out the dialogue she was hearing on the other end of the phone. Then, while the camera was rolling, she said her line, played the response that she’d written in her mind, reacted appropriately, said her next line, “listened” to the next bit of her remembered text, reacted again…

Ava’s eyes widened. “Oh, Shit,” she said, “that’s Acting!”

Whereupon she turned, ran down the steps and across the beach and threw herself, in full dress and makeup, into the Pacific.

It took 3 hours to get her out, wash and dry her costume, clean her up, redo the makeup and hair. Mom was upset at the movie-star childishness of the act, and mortified that she might be blamed (She had been warned that Houston could be difficult that way) but more than that, she was mystified that Ava Gardner had been Ava Gardner for as long as she’d been Ava Gardner, and she hadn’t known how to handle a simple on-screen phone call.

I expect when you look like that, nobody bothers to tell you anything. They just assume you know.

Because she had been nominated for Best Supporting in 1964 for The Night of The Iguana, Mom was a member of the Academy. This only affected us for a two-month period every winter, when our mail awakened from its usual rut and became considerably more interesting.

I’m in the Writer’s Guild, thus all these years later I still get courted for various awards-season campaigns, which has allowed me to track the progression. Only the screening invitations have remained consistent over time: flat white bulk-mail business envelopes with the logo of Paramount or Universal or Warner Bros (or Coralco! Or Orion! Or Fine Line!) in the upper left corner. Open it up, and a single sheet of paper touts a single movie “for your consideration,” gives a paragraph of not-always-penetrable précis, and lists a handful of screening times in New York and Los Angeles, usually in an office building screening room. Show your Academy card, and you and a guest will be admitted.

That was, and remains, the barebones minimum, the skimpiest, most meager studio marketing campaign. In the pre-DVD/VCR/Betamax era, back in the days when you needed a 35-mm projector to actually see a movie, the more aggressively hyped films would also send soundtrack albums, and these illuminated my childhood.

Thus: the soundtrack to Easy Rider, way before I was old enough to see the movie. Steppenwolf, The Byrds, the Holy Modal Rounders, the version of The Weight by a band called Smith because The Band’s label wouldn’t let their version be on a soundtrack; the soundtrack to Costa Gavras’ excellent true-story Greek political thriller “Z”—Mikis Theodrakis, kickass high-powered bouzouki drama-pop, with home-recorded versions banged out at the piano by Theodrakis himself after the Greek junta imprisoned him and declared all public performance of his music illegal. I played the fuck out of that record when I was a kid, home on school afternoons and weekends, and occasionally I hear To Yelasto Pedi still and yet in my perambulations, and it thrills me now just as it did then.

The soundtrack to Shaft. Yeah, got that from the Academy.

Plus of course a whole lot of junk. Soundtracks to Places From The Heart and The Natural and a zillion more movies like that. Stuff you wouldn’t play front and back unless you were an actual blood relation of the composer, and then only once, so you could say you had.

The soundtracks were routinely released commercially, so it didn’t really cost much of anything to send them to the Academy list. Next up were printed booklets such as you used to get during the first run of “premier” pictures—magazine-sized glossy 8-pagers with lots of color stills. These had been designed specifically for the Academy list, and were fancy. You would open the legal-sized envelope, flip through the booklet for maybe fifteen seconds, and then never think of it again.

The Godfather did a beautiful one of these. I don’t have it anymore, but I remember them merchandising that movie wall to wall and every corner at awards time, whatever year that was.

Next up, and we still get them: skinny horizontal (“landscape”) booklets with stills from the movie. Or: packets of postcards of stills. Like we’re going to use them to actually write people: Dear Grandma, how are you? I am fine. Camp Glenbrook is great! Please ignore the picture of Al Pacino on the other side.

Back in the pre-VCR days, the holy grail, of course, was being sent a script. It happened rarely, but we were always energized when they came, and I read a number of movies I was too young to see. Sneaky, yeah, the way all the hipsters in my eighth grade class read Burgess’s Clockwork Orange when the movie came out rated X. There was a period for about a month there when we all spoke Nadsat. These days, the scripts come published in trade paperback editions with introductions by famous people and stills of actors and director engaged in important-looking work. I’ve even received flash drives with screenplays on them, sometimes as many as four to a drive. But back in the day they sent working shooting scripts, 3-hole punched with gussets. Reading them was different than reading a TV script; for one thing, they had more work to do to introduce characters. For another, all the scenes were numbered, and the numbers were sometimes out of sequence, which struck me as weird.

And then came the ballots. In politics, the primaries are when you vote for who you want to vote for; the election is when you vote for who you have to vote for.* First the nomination ballot would come in—actors voting for actors, plus best pic. This was the only time we took the process seriously, or as seriously as we ever took it. We’d actually debate, or at least discuss, who should be nominated, who deserved it based on current performance or previous performances that had been ignored; who should get it but they weren’t going to because of some issue or other, which actors we hated and were going to vote against in an effort to keep them from winning, which performances would divide the votes, cancel each other out, and who would be left to get the award in the event that happened. We voted for friends when we had the opportunity. The nominating process was where the strategic thinking played out, in our family; even with whatever strategic thinking we did, the entire process took less time than it took to walk the dog.

And then some weeks later the award ballots would come in, with their 5 nominations in every category. I remember them being long and narrow; to be honest, at this point the whole thing was a goof. These final ballots didn’t get the same sustained attention as the nominating ballots, or should I say they got even less sustained attention. Some years we would sit around the kitchen table filling it out, me, Mom and Dad. Some years Mom would just throw it at me and say “you do it—you saw more movies than I did, this year.” When I went to college, I took the ballots up and filled them out with my friends.

It didn’t immediately end after Mom died—the ballots stopped coming, but the freebies continued for two or three years before gradually petering out.

Nowadays, of course, at least from the Writer’s Guild perspective, there’s a plethora of splendidness at awards time. Now they give you DVDs with different “for your consideration” packaging than the commercial release, at once simpler and more fussily “prestigious.” When you play the films, the aspect ratios change somewhat randomly, and text kicks onto the screen every fifteen minutes or so telling you all the Draconian consequences of putting the damn thing on the Internet. Were I them, I would have the DVD coated with some chemical designed to degrade the plastic over three days on exposure to light and air, vacuum-foil-wrap the disk with a warning that it had to be viewed within 72 hours after opening, and be done with it. If they can make shaving cream in a can that heats up on contact with air, this should be a breeze.

But I don’t have a dog in that fight. And to be honest, other than the sheer giddy goofiness of it, nobody else in my family ever really did, either.

 

*Thanx and a tip o’ Hatlo’s hat to Bruce Hunt for that nugget of fundamental wisdom.