“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 of my bygone secret life with my real life approached, I worried more than a bigamist whose other family was about to show up on his doorstep. I told a thoroughly therapized friend about my apprehensions, and she said I should “embrace this opportunity to integrate your two selves” and “get some closure by bringing that life into the one you consider real.”
“But,” I countered, “most of my HWood experiences were so unreal.”
Such as: going to a rodeo in Kingsville with an Oscar winner who’d been “attached” by Warner Bros. to direct the adaptation I wrote of my novel Virgin of the Rodeo and alienating her almost immediately by expressing sympathy when she kept touching the “cold sore” about to bloom on her upper lip. I knew how painful they were; I got them myself. Bull riding, calf roping, and all the details of rodeo subculture that I adored and yearned for her to capture on film were ignored as she poked obsessively at what turned out to be botched collagen injections. She cursed her incompetent dermatologist and wondered whether cotton candy was allowed by her fat-free diet.
Such as: spending two weeks in Borneo with Isabella Rossellini doing research for a National Geographic/Hallmark film collaboration about a primatologist who’d been studying orangutans in the wild for the past 25 years. The scene that greeted us as we were introduced to our subject’s husband, a Dayak tribesman, and his extended clan was out of Heart of Darkness by way of Apocalypse Now. We were not comforted to learn of her in-laws’ prowess as headhunters and the untraceability of the poison they used in their blowguns. But the moment that caused the light in Rossellini’s famously incandescent face to flicker out came when we visited the rehabilitation compound, theoretically devoted to returning these great apes to the wild, and were met by an orangutan mom sharing a can of Coke with her big-eyed baby. I think we all knew then that this would not be the song we’d teach the world to sing.
Such as: always flying first-class when on assignments. Although writers who don’t create HBO franchises are generally Hollywood’s coach class, the Writers Guild of America, our union, does insist that, at least on airplanes, we fly first. These Queen-for-a-Day upgrades allowed me access not only to scented hand towels, hot nuts, and unlimited drinks but, on one memorable flight home, to an unimpeded view of Sandra Bullock and her beau at the time, Matthew McConaughey. They waved away the chateaubriand in favor of a Tupperware container of vegan goulash, then made out like teenagers after the prom. Thank you, WGA!
The glamour! The fantasy! The craven name-dropping! Maybe my encounters could all be integrated into an episode of TMZ, but my own Bartleby the Scrivener ink-stained-wretch existence? I was dubious. The two were literal worlds apart. Then it dawned on me that, aside from Brett, Meat Loaf was, in fact, the one person who had ever bridged my screen- and novel-writing selves. Although “Flamenco: The Movie” never materialized, his optioning of my screenplay financed the research and writing of my novel The Flamenco Academy. If anyone could set the stage for the far-fetched mash-up I envisioned going down at the ceremony, it would be the Bat Out of Hell himself.
The day of the Texas Film Hall of Fame extravaganza was lovely in its early spring Austin mugginess. However, thanks to our state’s stunning ability to put the mercurial in the mercury, the temperature plummeted thirty degrees after I left my house. During the walk from my distant (yet free!) parking spot to the event, my diaphanous frock and I were pelted with icy rain. By the time I met Brett, I was drenched and shivering, puddles of mascara under my eyes and my hair plastered to my head. I’d kept up with my pal through his work on Friday Night Lights, Damages, Justified, Castle, The Mentalist, and dozens of other shows, so I already knew that he’d remained an actor in high demand. Brett probably wondered when I’d become homeless.
“Meat’s got food poisoning,” he informed me. His friend had been felled while on tour in England. Adding to the doubt about whether he’d be appearing that night was the man’s history of avoiding award ceremonies; he’d had his daughter pick up his 1994 Grammy. As the lights dimmed in the vast hall, the seat beside me remained empty. I clutched the copy of the novel his patronage had allowed me to write and regretted that I wouldn’t be able to present it to him.
And then he appeared beside me, and I met the least divalike human imaginable. Even though he has sold 43 million albums and counting, is a god in Austin for his work in the 1980 film Roadie, and was coming off five days of food poisoning and a transatlantic flight that would have flattened a man half his age, he didn’t demand so much as one non-green M&M. Whether he expected it or not, the adulation flowed. A parade of women dramatically oversharing their new breastesses passed by, leaning in to whisper in Meat Loaf’s ear about the “giant crushes” they’d had on him back in the day, their husky tones promising instant reactivation of these crushes should he be so inclined. (And, yes, the adorable and adorably age-appropriate Mrs. Loaf was seated right beside him.) The ultra-suave tequila and shampoo gazillionaire John Paul DeJoria sidled over as well to kneel beside Meat Loaf’s chair and welcome him to Austin. Busboys and servers abandoned their stations simply to catch a glimpse of the only headliner that night that they cared about seeing.
Amid the fans and supplicants, I presented Meat Loaf with a copy of my flamenco novel. He received it with the dignity of an ambassador from a country that was once, almost, my own. I wanted to ask him what on earth had ever attracted him to a screenplay about flamenco dancers, but clips from Meat Loaf’s many movie and television roles were already playing onstage. Brett introduced his friend Marvin Lee Aday, and, as one, the crowd leaped to its feet for the only immediate, universal standing ovation in an evening packed with big names.
Meat Loaf took the stage and—discarding his prepared notes, ignoring the teleprompter—pointed to the screen where his life in acting had just unfurled and said, voice quavering, “Watching that . . . it’s unbelievable how much acting is about truth. And that’s what I think we all attempt every time we walk on a movie set.” Seeing Meat Loaf openly surrendering to tears, talking about “growing up a poor, fat boy in Dallas,” I wished that I could take back whatever dopey, flustered sentiment I’d inscribed in his book, because I finally knew what I should have written.
The opening lines of the novel he helped me write are “Flamenco has Ten Commandments. The first one is: Dame la verdad, Give me the truth.” In the Venn diagram that represents the bizarre intersection of my life with Hollywood, this—the struggle to make something heart-stoppingly real out of words on paper—seemed to be the place of overlap. I wished I had thanked Meat Loaf for giving us his truth.
Was it closure? It was close enough.
When I last glimpsed my benefactor, Brett was running interference, trying to spirit his exhausted friend out of the hall before he collapsed or was tsunamied by fans. As they neared the exit, they were intercepted by a phalanx of gala crashers who’d managed to sneak into the high-dollar event. Meat Loaf insisted on stopping for the interlopers, guys still wearing their rent-a-cop uniforms from their security jobs and their girlfriends, who had the signs of the zodiac decorating their press-on nails. Treating each fan as if he or she were a gazillionaire kneeling at his feet, he nodded, fully engaged, as they told him of the moments of transport and pure fantasy that his music, his performances, had caused to bloom in their lives. Then, across the bottom of their Rocky Horror posters and Bat Out of Hell albums, he signed the only name they had ever known him by: Meat Loaf.
The next day he texted an answer to my question about what had drawn him to the script. His final words were “. . . the passion. The passion.”