Around the turn of the millennium, big changes swept Hollywood. Suddenly and as never before, screens were clotted with the teen-fodder likes of Scream and Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Titanic and Dawson’s Creek. Where other journalists saw the business story in the pop-culture youthquake – an audience demographic shift, a celebrity trend – Dave Gardetta homed in on its civilian fallout, the influx of young women chasing their dreams of fame, often by dating Hollywood’s new generation of actors. And to portray that collision, aka “the L.A. Scene,” he told the story of two of those young women, in a Los Angeles magazine story called “Valley Girl, Interrupted.”
Rohini Reiss and Jessica Stonich met in a bar, we learn in the first sentence, “a long time ago for both of them – last year.” Boom: We’re in their world. From then on, Gardetta calls them exclusively by their first names, and that feels right, both because of their youth and because that’s how everyone in their milieu – the bar manager, the bouncer, the arm candy – knows each other. This is the Hollywood populated by kids from the wrong side of the Hills, extending high school indefinitely. The bouncers are “football players in suits.” Rohini and Jessica “don’t club in their spare time; they lead the rest of their lives in their spare time.”
Then Gardetta zooms out. The Scene may never have existed at this pitch, but it has always existed. This isn’t just the story of L.A. in 2001; it’s also the story of an older L.A., the promised land for Bonnie Lee Bakley, who had recently been murdered, and for an enduring template: “the women who date James Woods, marry Larry King, divorce Kelsey Grammer, or carry Jack Nicholson’s babies to term.”
Right there, Gardetta had me. This wasn’t going to be just a subculture story. It was more conceptual. Instead of the usual starting point – a famous person, a newsmaker, a dramatic incident – this one proceeds from the observation of a type of person, the young woman from nowhere who gets chewed up by Hollywood.
Gardetta aces the reporting basics: He chooses a pair of exemplary main characters who are individually compelling, true innocents at large but also precociously shrewd about the strange scene they inhabit, and positioned to infiltrate Gardetta, and readers, into some of Hollywood’s toughest rooms. He logs the hours. We see a hidden world from a rare vantage point. This is the Rosencrantz & Guildenstern view of Hollywood.
Part of the payload of this story, published years before Entourage debuted, is that it takes fame, almost always viewed either remotely through a paparazzo’s telephoto lens or with contrived intimacy in a glossy magazine’s coffee-at-Marmont blatherthon, and exposes the grim mechanics of how it really works. Here are the young actors masturbating in front of the girls while promising them stardom; “the packs in snakeskin and leather whose reptile brains are hardwired into the sex circuitry of the room, whose necks swivel simultaneously as if locked into the same reflex action, whose response controls are set on ‘stalk’”; cameos by the likes of Bill Maher, Kirsten Dunst, “Leo & Gisele,” Ashley Hamilton, Coolio. (This was 2001.) Here is Leonardo Dicaprio, described from feet away at a friendly weekend softball game hosted by Toby McGuire, as a “bearish boy figure” who “is beginning to look these days like our own Ernest Hemingway – with a ballooning chest and stomach and sweeping Mephisto chin beard.” You’ll never read that in InTouch or on Gawker or in a wrangled “exclusive” cover story.
Gardetta cuts seamlessly between glitzy Sunset Boulevard clubs and lonely single-mom Sherman Oaks condos, and one of the merits of the story is how it toggles between inside and outside, between close-up and wide shot. One minute we’re at street level, watching Rohini deflect a suitor by “acknowledging only the oxygen beside his ears.” The next we’re in outer space, looking at the big blue marble. “These were the children of apartments, kids who want to blow up big in rock, kids who wanted to blow up on TV, kids who wanted to blow up in heroin.”
That’s a great sentence. Here are some others I wish I’d written:
On the Standard club:
The arcing walls of the lounge are hung with purple glass rods that shimmer, giving the effect that one has been set down inside a bar that has been set down inside Neil Diamond’s shirt.
On the people within:
Men and women seemed to conserve acknowledgement of others, expressions, and emotion as if stuck in a seven-year personality drought.
She was the shiny penny of a little exurb whose favorite adverb was like.
But let’s hear straight from her, as Jessica describes a blind date:
“And like we were just talking about everything and suddenly he comes in at 60 miles per hour and kisses me. And I’m like. And I just, like, froze up and I was just like and then he like backs up and he’s like, ‘What’s wrong?’ and I’m like, ‘You should know.’ It was just like. Nasty guy.”
Somehow the punctuation, those periods instead of ellipses or commas or em dashes, rescues the quote from the potential cruelty of verbatim reproduction and makes it instead an empathic depiction of the processes of her mind. If it reads mean out of context, it doesn’t in the piece, where Gardetta recounts it in the tone of a befuddled adult, a dork anthropologist; one of the secondary pleasures of the piece is its thread of light comedy, of this older outsider guy trying to understand an adolescent girl’s world:
“Right – got it,” I said. I had no idea what I was talking about.
Elsewhere, Gardetta tries to muddle through the many conflicting, overlapping, confusing definitions of “hooking up.” His own awkward relationship with his subject subtly echoes the story’s theme of inside-outside.
This is a story that threatens an unhappy ending. Rohini and Jessica are ultimately, among other things, “elements of a financial strategy,” the young and beautiful bait used by promoters to bestow ephemeral hotness on their clubs of the moment. They are on a road, Gardetta notes, that ultimately leads to “L.A.’s more sordid stations of the cross: the May-November pickup scenes at the Peninsula Bar of the Four Seasons, the trophy-wife luncheons at the Polo Lounge, the Beverly Hills escort services.” But his sympathy is always with the girls, and he ends with Rohini’s sunny expectation of “one day leaving the scene,” and finding a nice boy like the ones she used to hang out with when she was a tomboy teenager. “I just love innocence. I do,” she says.
I couldn’t resist Googling to see what became of Rohini and Jessica. Jessica seemed to have vanished into the ether, perhaps into a life of such hoped-for normalcy. Rohini had changed her last name and was turning up on Page Six, ten years later, as a “friend” of Sumner Redstone, who had given her Viacom stock and installed her in a P.R. job at Showtime.
Benjamin Wallace (@benjwallace) is a contributing editor at New York magazine and the author of The Billionaire’s Vinegar: The Mystery of the World’s Most Expensive Bottle of Wine.
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