Hollywood: Both Sides of the Age Divide

This is the tale of my on- and off-again affair with Hollywood – both the industry, and the city of my birth. This post is made possible with support from AARP’s Disrupt Aging. All opinions are my own.

Back in the 1960’s, NBC used to run old feature films on weekends under the title, Saturday Night at the Movies. And one night when I was eight years old, the entire family gathered at our house to see a 1949 comedy called “Adam’s Rib“… starring my dad.

Well, he wasn’t actually one of the stars.

My father had a walk-on that consisted of one line, and he told us how during filming, he flubbed that line so many times that you can visibly see Katharine Hepburn’s annoyance with him as she elbows him out of the scene in the final take. If you blink, you miss him. But if you pay attention, you can see him in all his 15-year-old glory: skinny, with all his hair, and the same exact voice he has now.

Adam's Rib, 1949 - ahead of its time in Hollywood
The author’s father with Katharine Hepburn in “Adam’s Rib.”

Girl Meets Hollywood

That may have been the first time I understood that my parents lived secret lives before I was born, and my father had been an aspiring teenage actor. I must have asked him a ton of questions about that secret life, because the next day, he marched me into the garage and gave me his old books of plays by writers like Eugene O’Neill, George S. Kaufman, and Lillian Hellman.

I ate those anthologies up, and from that moment on, I know exactly what I wanted to do with my life: I was going to write for the movies. Specifically, romantic comedies like the screwball play, “Boy Meets Girl,” which Samuel and Bella Spewack supposedly based on the antics of Charles MacArthur and Ben Hecht (“The Front Page”) when they were in Hollywood. And this was an awesome little play, because it boiled down the essence of romantic comedies to one easily memorable formula:

  1. Boy Meets Girl
  2. Boy Loses Girl
  3. Boy Gets Girl

I could make a career out of working on stories like that. And growing up in Los Angeles, I figured I already had a head start.

Boy Meets Girl: A Tale as Old as Hollywood

Girl Gets Hollywood

My college major was Radio-TV-Film (I’d broadened my goal a bit by then), and immediately after graduation, I got a job writing and producing a syndicated radio show. My best friend from the department landed a gig in the mail room at NBC, and I remember one excited conversation where we were comparing notes on our jobs, when she told me how great it was over there, because even behind the scenes, “EVERYBODY was YOUNG.”

And here is where this tale relates to the campaign to Disrupt Aging: I remember having a very fleeting thought: If everyone there is so young, what happens to them when they get OLD?

From my job in radio, I jumped to one in television and eventually worked as a production assistant on a late-night show, while writing spec scripts in my spare time.

And for the most part, what my friend had told me was true: The pressure to be attractive and youthful extended from the performers to the people behind the camera. Yes, there were people in positions of power who were older than 40, as well as older craftspeople who had union protection. But for the most part, those of us who worked on staff in the office were overwhelmingly young.

Some of that was likely due to attrition: There was no such thing as upward mobility where I worked.  Other reasons why the people working in television were so overwhelmingly young:

  • The work is seasonal, with long unpaid hiatuses.
  • The hours are long (sometimes stretching into a 14-hour work day).
  • And few production companies offered benefits like health insurance.

Girl Loses Hollywood

When I was 37, I had a health scare and no medical insurance. When that turned out to be a false alarm, I did what I hadto do. I took my place as an adult in “the real world,” by accepting a job that had nothing to do with the entertainment industry.

I still kept a foot in the door by working on scripts, but I had this terrible habit of coming up with ideas and starting a project – only to abandon it after learning that production had just started on something similar.

Like after I met the man who became my husband — in an online chat room — I had  the idea of adapting the old movie, “The Shop Around the Corner” to the digital age. This was such a great idea that Nora and Delia Ephron also sold it as “You’ve Got Mail.” In my version, the two pen pals who hated each other were rival political consultants, like James Carville and Mary Matalin, so it was different — but still the same general story.

Or the idea I had when I shadowed the staff of a convention hotel as part of my training as a meeting planner. I was most impressed with the housekeeping team and how hard their work was. This was the inspiration for a screwball romantic comedy about a maid who is mistaken for a wealthy guest – and if that sounds like the Jennifer Lopez movie, “Maid in Manhattan,” you’re right. My version took place in San Francisco with a Chinese-American heroine, but you get the picture.

Around the time I became a mom, the trades were buzzing about a woman named Riley Weston, who landed a lucrative writing contract at the precocious age of 19… and was then revealed to actually be 32.  And that’s when I finally gave up on writing for TV and film – because if even writers are lying about their age in Hollywood, what’s a 40-something housewife to do?

So I focused on raising my kid. Along the way, I satisfied my urge to write by launching a blog. I entered social media on the ground floor and as my daughter started college, I managed to get a job in marketing. She is on her own now, and I’m 62, and I realize that I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up.

And that’s a lie. The only thing I ever wanted to do was write for film and television.

Girl Dreams of Hollywood Again

Last month, one of the women I met through blogging was visiting Los Angeles and asked if I was free for lunch. It turned out that this friend – who has had a wide and varied career as a writer and speaker – had taken up screenwriting in her mid-40s.  And she’s absolutely undaunted by Hollywood’s obsession with youth.

She knew about my history, and didn’t understand why I didn’t try my hand at it again, especially now that I’m unencumbered by the responsibilities of motherhood. And I got to thinking… why not?

Because along with my newly empty nest, a funny thing has happened: The part of my brain that used to come up with story ideas is working again. I’ve been having lots of little inspirations, and I can’t get them out of my head.

And so that’s how I’m going to DisruptAging. I am mapping these story ideas out. I accepted my friend’s invitation to join her writing group. I invested a couple of hundred dollars of my own money for screenwriting software (which I have not touched in 20 years).

Maybe it isn’t possible for a 62-year-old woman to make a first-time script sale. But… why should that be? My age isn’t visible on the page. And I know a lot more now about life and love and what’s truly important than I did when I was in my 20s and 30s.

At any rate, I’m going to ignore everything I think I know about the business and forge through and write my script. I’ll worry about getting it read or sold or produced later.

Just as a young person has to do.

And in the meantime, I’m having fun. I’m writing again.

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