Chuck Ross

An Oscar Hopeful’s Very Special Mentor, and the Best Saturday Afternoon Ever

Feb 22, 2012

A writer writes.

He was 12 years old — almost 13 — that blustery winter weekend. It really seemed like it got much colder in L.A. back then, especially with the pelting rain and belting wind that howled like animals who were way too hungry.

“Can I read your story yet,” she asked. “I’ll bet it’s a good one.”

He said hold on, just a minute. He re-read it one more time and then said, “OK”

Here’s the story she read:

“Perhaps It Was a Mishap” was the title.

It was a balmy morning, that morn when he had spotted her out by the natatorium.

She stopped reading. “What’s a natatorium?”

“An indoor swimming pool.”

“Wow. Good word. How’d you know that?”

“They have an indoor pool at the Y. And there’s plaque by it saying when ‘This natatorium’ was dedicated.”

She nodded and continued reading:

He had come to do battle with her once again. She had always been superior in these conflicts, which was detestable, but it had been necessary for him to get in a scrap with her. Not that he had antagonized her or anything; it was just that her very presence had annoyed him. By his nature he HAD to be dominant.

Then it had been time. He entered the courtyard and met her head on. She had not been feeling well that day, and after a while he abominably decimated her person. He had not meant to kill her. It was purely a mishap.

Or was it? This was his query now, and he did not know the answer. So after the slaying he ran, and this brings us to the present.

A block away from the accident scene now, and still running. HE stopped. He thought he heard something. He twirled around. He could not see anyone. He was frightened. He was confused. What had he done?

This was not his first violation. And after each violation he ran. All of the killings had been accidental. At least he thought that they were accidents. His mind was in a turmoil.

He decided to cross the street. A car almost hit him as he scrambled from curb to curb. The horn on the auto blasted. It scared him. He suspected everything and everyone. Had the car been deliberately gunning for him? What if someone had found out what he had done? He ran.

A man started walking his way. Was the man after him? Had he heard about the mishap? The killer did not know. The man was coming closer. He had to do something. He hid. The shrubbery camouflaged him. The man came closer. The killer’s mind became irrational, so he lunged, narrowly missing the man’s torso. The man twisted around. The assailant ran, and ran, and ran.

He became tired, so he stopped. He was scared. He was confused. His mind labored. Where should he go? Then he thought of it. The house. That exquisitely hideous place, his house. He thought the home confining, but at least it would be safe.

He started up again, slower this time. He did not want to arouse suspicion. Then he heard a bark. And another. It was becoming louder. Just what he needed, a dog to attack him, to attract attention. His hair stood on end. He panicked.

He ran. The dog chased. A tree came into his view. He ran. He leaped up and climbed into its lap. The dog passed. He came down, panting. It was late afternoon. He wondered if he would ever get there. He ran.

Blackness now engulfed him. As his eyes adjusted to the sublime nothingness of the darkness, he saw the house in front of him. Its gray paint blended ominously with the gray coat he was wearing. He approached the abode with caution.

Again, he thought he heard footsteps. He swung around and nothing was there. He was confused. He ran. The door was semi-open. He gave it a little shove. He entered. He breathed easier now, for he was safe. But he was still confused. He was in sort of a stupor, not knowing what was happening , and not caring; only wanting to find his favorite spot, lie down, and sleep forever…

Which he did, for just as he started to get comfortable someone accidentally nudged the scissors off the console. It plowed through his esophagus and he was killed. The cat was now dead. No more cars would swerve out of his path and honk. And the dogs would have one less cat to chase. A small boy would miss his faithful pet, and the natatorium area would be full of mice once again. Yes indeed, it was a terrible mishap.

“What a great story. Like Hitchcock.”

He was thrilled that his mom had totally gotten it. “Yeah. I think it would be a good short movie.”

His mom put the story down and went into the living room, returning with the Herald Examiner from the day before. “If you’re gonna make movies, you’ve got to see more movies. Let’s see what we’ve got here.”

As she perused the movie section of the paper, he thought how much she loved movies just like he did.

He loved the story she told of being in the movies at a theater on Hollywood Boulevard that fateful day in December 1941 when they stopped the movie and turned the house lights on and the theater manager stood in front of the screen and told everyone that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor and everyone should go home.

He thought it must have been very scary for her, just like last year, when the principal came on the intercom to announce that JFK had been shot and killed.

“Found a good one. Really, a good two.”

“Which ones?”

“Topkapi’ and “Fate Is the Hunter.”

“Are they Hitchcock?”

“No, but they’re supposed to be like him. ‘Topkapi’s’ a heist movie. This other one I don’t know much about except that it’s got Glenn Ford and Rod Taylor and it’s some sort of mystery involving an airplane crash. Oh, oh, forget it. I’m sorry honey. I was looking at the wrong place. They’re playing way in the Valley.”

The boy and his mom lived in the Pico-Robertson area of Los Angeles, which was nowhere near the Valley.

She looked to see if that double bill was playing anywhere closer, but it wasn’t. She could see how disappointed her son looked.

“Well, the storm seems to be letting up. Maybe just this once.”

Her son could not believe it. They had never gone on an adventure like this before. They usually only went to the Valley to visit their cousins.

She pulled the old blue 1954 Plymouth out of the garage and, on that Saturday afternoon, they began the long trek, through Beverly Hills and over Coldwater Canyon. He usually got car sick when the canyon got real curvy as it descended into the Valley. But the rain had stopped and while it was still mostly gray outside, there was a hole in the clouds where the sunshine had snuck in, bringing a rainbow with it. That kept his attention away from the curves in the road.

They arrived at the Fox Studio City theater with just a few minutes to spare.

That 12-year-old boy was me, back in the winter of 1964, and to this day, that double bill remains the most memorable I ever saw. Of course it’s been many years since theaters have shown double bills.

My mom and I never missed watching the Academy Awards together when I was a kid. We were very excited when Peter Ustinov won the Oscar for “Topkapi” that year. We thought he was wonderful in the part and were rooting for him.

Despite my mom’s unfailing encouragement of my writing, I haven’t yet made it into the movie biz. Maybe some day. But I did become a journalist.

All these years later we still watch the Oscars together, though it’s by phone now. I’m still here in L.A., but she lives in a small town in Northern California. The nearest movie theater is about 12 miles from her, but she still goes to the movies religiously. And every so often she’ll drive about 30 miles to a much bigger town, Santa Rosa, to see some of the art house movies sh
e wouldn’t otherwise be able to see on the big screen.

So this Sunday, as we watch the Oscars, I’m sure we’ll be comparing notes during the commercials as to how we each think Billy Crystal has done, if Michelle Williams is wearing a dress that Marilyn would have worn, and why the heck aren’t they playing the best song nominees.

Did I mention that my mom is about to turn 85?

Mom, I don’t know if you realize how special you are. You’ve always been my No. 1 fan. I cannot thank you enough for all the encouragement you’ve always given me.

And no matter how the Oscars turn out this weekend, thank you for sharing with me your lifelong love of the movies, which I’ve inherited from you.

We were on the phone together the other night, and out of the blue she brought up that short story I wrote years ago.

“You know,” she said, “with Hitchcock long gone, I think this David Fincher could do it.”

“Not a bad choice.”

“I liked ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,’ though not as much as that girl in the original," mom explained. "Fincher should have won last year for the Facebook movie.”

“I agree.”

“Well, Hitchcock never won an Oscar either," she said, "Except for an honorary one, and that doesn’t count. And neither did my dear Eddie G.”

“I love Eddie G," I replied. "Do you remember when you let me stay up late once so we could see ‘Woman in the Window’ on Channel 2’s ‘The Fabulous ’52?’ ”

“What a great movie. Joan Bennett. Are you gonna send me your Oscar picks? It’s almost Sunday.”

“Mom, if I get to it.”

“Don’t start up. It’s only because I beat you every year. Email it to me. Did you see the Streep movie? She’s terrific, but it put me to sleep. Send me those picks. Do you have Streep down to win?


“Not gonna happen. Send me the list. Love you. Talk to you Sunday.”

One Comment

  1. comment from marsha: heartwarming, interesting, lovely,wonderful birthday gift!
    Mom said “not bad.”

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