“Hey, be my date for the Film Hall of Fame deal.” This irresistible invitation to Austin’s annual swankorifico salute to Texas filmmaking luminaries such as Renée Zellweger, Richard Linklater, and Dennis Quaid was offered by my buddy and my only movie-star friend, the exceptionally swoon-worthy Brett Cullen. (Yes, one of those Cullens. But the “middle-class” side of the family, he’s always quick to add.) “They’re inducting Meat Loaf for his movie work, and I’m going to introduce him.”
Meat Loaf. I first encountered the Dallas-born actor and singer in The Rocky Horror Picture Show , the movie about a “sweet transvestite from Transsexual, Transylvania.” It was 1977, and my brother was a co-owner of the first theater outside New York to run the cult favorite as a midnight costume party and yell-along. As Eddie, an Elvis-bewigged, cryogenically frozen biker, Meat Loaf was a baby-faced bolt of plushly upholstered, primal rock energy—and, like everything else in that movie, he electrified me. It’s hard now during this, the fourth season of RuPaul’s Drag Race , to convey the sheer thrill we felt at the sexual free zone that Rocky Horror opened up. Sure, David Bowie had been prancing around in a unitard with a streak of lightning painted over his eye, but that was in Manhattan. Not Texas. Rocky Horror took the word “transgressive” out of doctoral theses and made it play in neighborhood cineplexes.
Meat Loaf went on to seduce a nation into “paradise by the dashboard light” with the fifth-biggest-selling album of all time, Bat Out of Hell ; to play more than fifty roles in everything from Fight Club to Glee; and, in the past season’s Celebrity Apprentice , to unleash what might have been the most epic meltdown ever witnessed on reality television. Still, the Grammy Award winner was important to me not just because he told off the preternaturally annoying Gary Busey and showed the world that chubby boys in bad wigs could be objects of intense lust but also because he helped me write my sixth novel.
Backstory on How My Life Intersected With Meat Loaf’s: I was the most accidental of screenwriters. Writing exercises led me to this black art. I had lost my way on my second novel, The Boyfriend School , because I didn’t truly know my male protagonist. To understand him better, I decided to rewrite the entire book from his point of view. I was pricing carpal tunnel surgery when I happened to behold, for the first time ever, a screenplay. Here’s what I immediately loved about screenplays: acres and acres of glorious white space. Most of a script is a narrow tube of dialogue tunneling between occasional thin planks of stage direction along the lines of “Jebediah picks up the gun.” The magical part was that I didn’t have to decide what Jebediah was wearing or how his hair was cut. Nor did I have to spend days at the library researching whether the gun he picked up was a musket or an Uzi.
Since the prop, hair, and wardrobe departments would be doing all the heavy lifting, my first screenplay puffed up before my eyes like one of those tiny sponge capsules that transforms into a dinosaur with just a few drops of water. A surprisingly short time later, my exceedingly mediocre screenplay was made into an exceedingly mediocre movie. Released in 1990, it starred deathless thespians Steve Guttenberg and Shelley Long. Inexplicably, an entire decade’s worth of assignments in Hollywood followed. There was much to love: getting paid whether the movie was made or not; the minimal public accountability (as a non-famous screenwriter, I was almost never mentioned in bad reviews when the movie was made); and, best of all, the fact that someone else came up with the story ideas. Once hooked, though, I did keep working on my own ideas on the side and produced several original “spec” scripts (short for “spectacularly minuscule chance that anyone will buy them”). One of these speck-imens, set in the tumultuous world of flamenco dance, caught the attention of Brett and his amigo Meat Loaf, who were partners in a production company. They optioned “Flamenco” and embarked on the Sisyphean struggle required to get a movie made.
I never met the rock icon during the lamprey-esque process of getting “elements” (in Hollywood speak, famous actors and directors) “attached” to a “project.” Still, having the Meat Loaf Meteor crash upon my distant shore was one of those fantastical anomalies that made my years as a screenwriter feel like being trapped inside a video game. Without a rule book. During all my wanderings through Planet Pretty People, I never knew which beautiful princess could kill me and which evil troll might offer a bag of magic powder. Fortunately, Brett and I had bonded immediately over that strongest of Filmland adhesives, shared nemeses, and he acted as my guide. Once, when I called up to brag that a director had sent me a shrub-size bouquet with a note thanking me for all my “hard work,” it was Brett who decoded the floral tribute: “Honey, you’ve just been separated from the project.” Further translation ensued. My can had been canned.
Maybe because I hadn’t always dreamed of being a screenwriter the way I’d dreamed of being a novelist, these Hollywood experiences ran off me without soaking into my psychic water table. Whatever the reason, the sense of surrealism was so strong that when my time in Hollywood was over, it was as though that very long chapter in my life had happened to someone else. Like a lucky acquaintance, perhaps, whom I was fond of in a remote, distant-relative sort of way. Which is why, when I told my husband about the Film Hall of Fame invite—that I’d be a movie star’s date and even get to sit at the same dinner table with Meat Loaf, the effin’ Meat Loaf—I felt like an impostor, if not an outright liar.
As this massive collision