Hollywood on the Couch

Hollywood on the Couch

by Dennis Palumbo
An entertaining look behind the the scenes of the entertainment industry.
Filed Under: Practice Management


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My client (call him Larry) sits across from me, holding his stomach gingerly, rocking back and forth in his seat. His face, once seen smiling proudly next to a feature article about him in the Los Angeles Times, is now set in a rictus of pain.

"Jesus, my stomach's in knots," Larry groans. "I'm six weeks late with the script. Six weeks! The studio's climbing all over me, my agent's screaming on the phone." He looks morosely at me. "I swear, the problem is that goddamned Oscar. If only I hadn't won it . . . "

I nod. This is the familiar Oscar-as-jinx lament, one I've heard often from clients since I began my practice in Hollywood. After winning the Academy Award for Best Screenplay some years back, Larry's writing career careened from one disaster to another. His Oscar win resulted in an avalanche of job offers, which pushed his script fee into the stratosphere. The result? Every movie studio he worked for resented paying his huge fees, while every producer complained that his work for them certainly didn't seem to be "Oscar-caliber." The Hollywood buzz was that maybe Larry was a one-shot wonder.

Unfortunately, by now he'd traded up to a multimillion dollar house in the Pacific Palisades, had both kids in expensive private schools, and was the principal investor in his wife's Pilates studio. His nut, as they say, is killing him.

"Know what I did yesterday?" he asks, managing a tight smile. "I put the Oscar out in the garage. I swear, that thing is cursed. Evil. Like the devil doll in that old Twilight Zone episode."

Larry says he knows for a fact that the Oscar was cursed, because it had already jinxed him once before. He'd hidden it away in a linen closet while he was rewriting a thriller for Sony, but his wife had taken it out and put it on the mantle when his in-laws came to visit. Soon thereafter Sony cancelled the whole project."I think that's the reason the picture never got made," Larry says, giving me a knowing look.

I smile. "In my business, Larry, we call that 'magical thinking.'"

"Yeah, well in my business we call that going four years without having a movie produced. If I don't totally nail this script for Warners, my agent says I'm not gonna get my asking price for the next one. If there is a next one."

He stops rocking long enough to take a swig from his Evian water. "My big mistake was winning the damn thing in the first place. If only I'd just been nominated . . . when you're nominated, you pick up a nice buzz, maybe get a better agent. You're hot, but not too hot. You're on the radar screen, but you're not blinking. Not drawing all the heavy fire, know what I mean?"

In fact, I knew exactly what he meant. I'd heard other award-winning clients—actors, writers, directors—say pretty much the same thing.
Because in Hollywood, where everyone's goal is to attract attention, there are some people for whom the worst thing that can happen is to attract attention.
Because in Hollywood, where everyone's goal is to attract attention, there are some people for whom the worst thing that can happen is to attract attention. And then there are all the other people, for whom the worst thing that can happen is not to attract any attention at all . . .

Hollywood from the Inside

Formerly a Hollywood screenwriter myself for many years, I'm now a Marriage and Family Therapist (MFT) in private practice in Los Angeles. My clients are primarily writers, actors, and directors in the entertainment industry. They range from the famous and successful to the unknown and struggling. And after 15 years of doing therapy in Hollywood, I can state one thing with complete confidence:

Doing therapy is the same everywhere. Except here, where it's different.

For example, my session with Larry illustrates one of the many paradoxes that creative people grapple with in the entertainment industry. Many of my most noted clients live for the big break, the surprise hit, the runaway success. But, when it happens, they often fear it's only a fluke—their talent fraudulent, their fabulous careers as fragile as the opulent houses precariously cantilevered over the earthquake-prone Hollywood Hills.

Of course, for my less-successful show business clients, Larry's "problem" is the kind of luxury they can only dream about. For these folks, it's a daily struggle just to maintain a career, much less an intact sense of self-worth, in the face of brutal competition, insatiable demands for the next new thing, and industry-wide contempt for the unyoung, unrich, and unbeautiful.

In such a roiling climate of soaring hopes, crashing defeats, and maddening near-misses, it's no wonder that my clients have an ambivalent, anxious love-hate relationship with the Hollywood Dream. They know the odds, but they're still driven to grasp for the shiny brass ring that's always, though sometimes just barely, out of reach. As one of my long-suffering writer clients remarked about Hollywood, "It's a place where anything can happen—and nothing ever does."

Doing therapy, of course, is doing therapy—whoever the client and whatever the locale. All human beings come with roughly the same emotional equipment and confront, with greater or lesser success, the same old dramas of love, fear, loss, anger, desire, ambition, and envy. And yet, the peculiar—not to say extreme—values and circumstances of Hollywood give these ordinary human dilemmas a unique twist that therapists are far less likely to see in, say, Toledo or Baltimore or Omaha. So
a lot of the therapy I do is to provide an opportunity for creative people to talk about their specific problems with someone who doesn't have an axe to grind and knows the intricacies of their business.
a lot of the therapy I do is to provide an opportunity for creative people to talk about their specific problems with someone who doesn't have an axe to grind and knows the intricacies of their business.

For example, notwithstanding Larry's troubles, everyone in town hungers after awards. This is why, after practicing here for a while, you notice that there's an almost seasonal quality to the work. Just as accountants get swamped at tax time, I've noticed severe spikes in my clients' career anxieties during the annual frenzy of award nominations.

In recent years, awards have proliferated like viruses. Besides the old standards—the Oscars and Emmys—there are now the Golden Globes, the People's Choice, and the MTV Awards, as well as less-publicized awards (but crucial to the industry) bestowed by venerable union organizations like the Writers Guild, Directors Guild, and Producers Guild. Falling roughly within a four-month period, this annual harvest of award nominations—"the season of envy," one of my clients calls it—gives people in the business a wonderfully rich smorgasbord of opportunities for bitterness, resentment, despair, and self-loathing.

This year's Oscars were particularly galling for some of my clients, who've managed to battle their way into the Hollywood mass-entertainment production machine, but have never lost their yearning to be artists. With one exception (The Aviator), the Best Picture nominees for this year's Oscar awards were all independent films. Developed and produced outside the conventional studio process, these movies were more idiosyncratic and "character-driven" (read: "artistic") than typical, mass-market-oriented Hollywood fare. "See, those are the kinds of films I want to make," a director client bitterly complained. "But what does my agent set up for me? The next Scooby-Doo sequel!"

A successful actress in my practice fumed with envy about Hilary Swank's second Academy Award for Best Actress. "Excuse me, but she got both of her Oscars for playing women who get beaten to death! What's up with that? Is this some kinda trend? Maybe that's my problem . . . Everyone I've ever played is still alive at the end of the movie."

This is life in Hollywood for most ambitious people in the business: living in a state of extreme self-consciousness, feeling that your entire worth as a human being is being judged by people who are technically your peers, but much richer, more successful, and probably a lot cooler than you. Meanwhile, you secretly think you're as good or better than they are (when not worrying that you're really not), and desperately want them to like and accept you. You also suspect that they mostly don't know you exist.

Sound familiar? It should. Because, from my perspective, Hollywood is just like high school.

In high school, you try out for a spot on the basketball team or the cheerleading squad or the drama club's latest play, and, if you're like most of us, you don't get it. You spend hours honing your particular "look" in the mirror, working on cool repartee, practicing smoking a joint without choking, and flaunting the latest electronic gizmos money can buy. But the girl you want to hook up with still thinks you're a dork, and the guys you want to impress just look at you with bored, half-closed lizard eyes before ambling away.

So, what do you do for comfort? What everybody does: rationalize. You tell yourself that these people aren't worth the grief; that they're basically dumb jocks or silly little girls. You ostentatiously ignore them or loudly disdain them.

Likewise, my show business clients, feeling ignored or unappreciated by their peers, boycott watching the awards shows, cancel their subscriptions to the "trade papers" (Variety and The Hollywood Reporter) and, in sessions with me, indignantly list the many worthy, though obscure, films and TV programs that should have been nominated, if the awards weren't such monuments to fraud, irrelevance, and blatant commercialism.

For my clients working in television, I'd guess the ultimate pinnacle of Hollywood-as-high school happened the night a few years back when writer-producer David E. Kelley won an Emmy award for Best Comedy (Alley McBeal) and one for Best Drama (The Practice). Then he got to go home to celebrate with his wife, Michelle Pfieffer.
The fallout from that evening went on for weeks in my practice. How could any of my clients, no matter how successful, top that?
The fallout from that evening went on for weeks in my practice. How could any of my clients, no matter how successful, top that? It's as though Kelley got to be both Class President and first-string quarterback, while making it every night with the Prom Queen.

Everyone remembers the rigid caste system of high school—the "royals" (the popular kids, good-looking girls, athletic stars, Big Men and Women on Campus) and the various lesser castes of brainiacs, greasers, and assorted wannabes.

Ditto Hollywood. For example, in the film business, there are those "above the line" (movie stars, producers, screenwriters, and directors) and those "below the line" (cinematographers, costume designers, makeup artists, etc.). While you might think such demarcations are only the concern of contract attorneys and accountants, the sociological ramifications of commingling these worlds can be huge.

Not too long ago, I had an initial session with a well-known movie actress, who burst into tears not 10 seconds after she sat down on my couch.

"I'm in love," she said with difficulty, "really in love for the first time in my life. We're engaged and everything."

"Congratulations," I said at a loss.

"But we can't get married!" She drew herself up. "I know I'm going to sound horrible, and like a total bitch, but I can't go through with it. I mean, everyone's telling me to call it off. My friends. My managers. And I love Gary, I really, really do . . . it's just . . . "


"He's a set decorator, and, well, I just don't think I should marry below the line!"

She was entirely serious.

"And I'm not just thinking about myself," she went on. "You know what the tabloids are gonna do with this. Look at what they did to Julia Roberts when she married that cameraman. They made her life hell—and his, too. I can't put Gary through that." She looked down. "Or me, either."

"Have you discussed this with Gary? I can see how it would be difficult, but . . . "

"He brought it up to me!" she exclaimed, eyes shining. "He worries that he won't fit into my world. He even worries about what it might do to my career. He's very thoughtful like that. Why do you think I love him? He's so unlike all the other guys I've been with. He wasn't even married when we started dating."

She put her chin on her hands. "I'm not stupid. I know we don't exactly make sense. I mean, he drives around in a Range Rover. He goes fishing. But I also know it shouldn't matter.

"But it does?"

She took a breath, then slowly nodded. "Yes," she said a last. "I feel really shitty about it . . . but yes."

I saw that her pain was real, her conflict genuine.

But we both knew the reality of life in Hollywood—and in high school. Prom queens don't go steady with the A-V guys. Not without paying a price.

I never saw her again after that one session. Then, months later, I read somewhere that she and her fiancé Gary had broken up.

The Television Rat Race

Just as awards season is ending, something called "staffing season" begins. This is the three-month period when new and returning series are building their production staffs, negotiating with their returning stars, writers, and directors, and meeting with potential new employees. It's a harrowing ordeal for my clients, having their work evaluated by series producers and network executives, not knowing whether they'll have a chance at huge success or be thrown back into the oblivion of unemployment.

Again it's the unedifying spectacle of mature adults going through gruesome rituals that resemble nothing more than those that high-school seniors endure: taking SATs, writing endless college application essays, trying to impress college recruiters, wheedling recommendations from teachers, and waiting, waiting, waiting, waiting for their fate to be sealed . . . 

Nancy was in her thirties, a single mother of two whose last job as an executive story editor on a sitcom ended when the series was cancelled the year before. She'd been out of work since then, and dreaded the arrival of another staffing season.

"God, it's like a nightmare," Nancy said, pushing her hair back from her forehead. "I can't stand talking to my writer friends anymore. All we do is obsess about staffing season. 'Did you get a meeting?' 'Is your agent sending out your new spec script?' 'I heard they're looking for someone at Hope and Faith.'" She shook her head. "Talk about desperate housewives. . ."

Nancy recited her litany of complaints (I'd heard variations of it from all my writing clients): her agent wanted her to give in and write scripts for the kind of lowbrow sitcom she couldn't even stand to watch, much less write for. She was also furious because she'd been turned down as a script-writer for 8 Simple Rules, a show about a single mother. "They said I wouldn't be right for it," she said, her voice dripping sarcasm. "Of course not. I'm a single mom with kids, so how the hell could I write about a single mom with kids. Those pricks!"

I hesitated, then brought up a writing job on a little-known cable series—a show we'd been referring to for weeks as her "fallback" position.

"Christ, I don't even want to think about it," Nancy said. "Talk about the bottom of the barrel. If only my kids hadn't got kinda used to eating regularly."

She looked up, letting me see for only a moment the pain, yearning and desperation behind the sarcasm

"So what do you think?" she asked at last. "If I even get a meeting . . . and if they even make an offer . . . and if it doesn't completely suck . . . should I take it?"

She did, they did, it didn't—so she took it.

Quitting Time?

There's one issue that virtually all creative people in Hollywood wrestle with on an almost continual basis, on a scale unimaginable to clients in practically any other field of endeavor: namely, should they leave the business entirely?

In most professions, career success follows a more or less predictable trajectory. If you're a lawyer, banker, computer programmer, doctor, or the like, you spend a number of years learning your profession, then you generally ascend—if your job isn't outsourced or your CEO indicted for fraud—to a reasonable level of security, seniority, and maybe even pretty decent pay.

For the creative professional navigating a show-business career, there's no such path. Triumph and failure follow one another—in fact, feed one another—in a maddeningly erratic way. Hollywood is a notoriously fickle industry, where you can earn vast sums for a few years, then face a sudden and inexplicable loss of marketability, followed immediately by a severe cash drought. Not surprisingly, creative professionals spend an inordinate amount of time in therapy discussing whether to ditch the whole thing and start over.

Of course, many people in their forties and fifties go through midlife crises during which they wonder if they, too, shouldn't leave their boring law partnerships or real estate businesses and try their hand at running a B&B in Vermont. But, for most of these people, the crisis passes—they get therapy, they join a fitness club, they work on their marriages, they make modest changes in their careers that give them a larger degree of contentment and peace. The whole process is a one-time thing, with a more or less definable resolution at the end.

For Hollywood entertainment professionals, however, this "midlife" crisis afflicts them throughout their careers. Wondering whether to continue struggling against repeated rejections, chronic frustration, and financial hardship on the off chance of "making it"—or else, giving up and getting into something, anything more dependable—is the name of the game in this town.

At least weekly in my practice, a veteran show-business client—perhaps with a family, five projects in development, and a vacation home in Bali—gives me a haggard look and admits, with undeniable sincerity, that the business is driving him crazy, that he "can't stand the bullshit anymore," and that he's wondering if this is really what he wants from life. "Is it always going to be this bad?" he asks wistfully. "I spend half the time hating my job and wondering what I really want to be when I grow up."

And yet, very few clients ever do leave the business, regardless of the perfectly sensible arguments against continuing to struggle in Hollywood. Take Phil, for example, one of my clients who declared to me in the most melodramatic, forceful—not to say weirdest—way possible that he'd had enough.

In his mid-forties, Phil was an established TV writer-producer in my practice who one day left five breathless messages within the space of an hour on my voicemail, while he was on vacation in Kauai.

I called him back at the number he'd left, a lone pay phone near a cluster of cottages at some small, exclusive resort. I could hear waves lapping the shore, but I could barely hear him. He seemed to be whispering.

"Can you speak up?" I said.

"I said, I'm not coming back."

"To therapy?" This surprised me; I'd thought we'd been making some progress.

"Therapy? No . . . I mean, I'm not coming back to L.A."

"What? And why are you whispering?"

"I gotta keep it down. My wife's in the cottage, but the walls here are made outta leaves or somethin'. She'll hear me."

"Oh." A therapeutic pause.

"Look, I don't want her to know. Not yet. In fact, I'm thinking of letting her and the kids go back to L.A. without me. Tell 'em I need a couple extra days on my own to relax, unwind . . . "

"Is this true?"

"Are you kiddin'? I'm exec producer on a lame-ass series in its second season, with a bad time slot, and a flaming psychotic in the lead. What do you think?"

"But that's why you're on vacation. Some much needed R&R. Remote cottage, right on the ocean, no phones or faxes. Sounded great when we talked about it in session."

"It is great. That's why I'm not coming back."

"For an extra couple days . . . ?"

"For the rest of my life, man. But I'm not stayin' here. Too civilized. You can still get here by boat, or helicopter."

"I'm not following you, Phil."

"Damn right. Nobody is. See, once I get Helen and the kids on that plane home, I'm leaving this place and heading for parts unknown. Some little island off New Guinea, or maybe the Hindu Kush. Didja know they got parts there that are still unexplored, that aren't on any map?"

"You're serious."

"Hell, yeah. Look, I'm overweight, overworked, and overstressed. Buried in debt. I got a wife who hates me, two kids who hate both of us, an agent, three attorneys, a business manager, a domestic staff that rivals Brideshead, four cars, and a black lab that sees a grooming stylist and a pet shrink. With the whole damn thing on my shoulders. That means putting in an 80-hour workweek, cranking out jokes and story beats, with the goddamn network breathing down my neck, all while negotiating office politics that would baffle Elizabeth I. Fuck it, I'm goin' over the wall."

"Okay, I get how stressed you feel, how trapped. It can be very demanding, and murder on your personal life. But, if you work at it, you can find a balance . . . "

He chuckled wearily. "Hell, I've been looking for that balance for 18 years. I'm starting to think it's like net profit points in your contract—some kind of urban myth."

I tried a different approach. "Okay, let's say you just drop out of sight. Live on some uncharted island somewhere. What'll you do all day?"

"I was thinking along the lines of drinking and chasing women. And sleeping. Yeah, I got about a dozen years' worth of sleep to catch up on."

"That could get old. What about your mind, your creativity?"

"What's it done for me lately?"

"Well, it takes imagination to plot an escape from your life. A certain aesthetic daring."

"Yeah, I'm like David Copperfield. One minute I'm here, the next I'm gone. The Man Who Dropped Out." He paused. "Hey . . . wait a minute." There was a long silence on the phone.

"Phil? Phil? What's happening?" I asked. I could almost hear his brain whirring.

"I was just thinking," he said, "with computers and the net and satellite tracking, how hard it would be for a guy to really disappear. But finally, after all these close calls, he pulls it off. He's out, he's free as a bird. But then, what if his wife had to find him—their daughter needs a kidney transplant or something . . . "

I noticed his voice rising with excitement.

"But . . . " I said.

"No, listen. What if the guy's ex-business partner is looking for him, too? Millions are at stake. They hire these mercenaries to find him. Every episode ends with a cliff-hanger. Will they get him, won't they? . . . Uh, look, can we talk about that other stuff when I get back?"

"If you want. But I thought . . . "

"Shit, this is a great idea for a series, 9:00 slot. I can work it off that development deal I got at Fox . . . Hey, I gotta hang up and make some notes. See ya next week, our regular time?"

"I'll be here."

Hangin' In

There's an old joke about a man working in the circus, whose job it was to follow behind the elephants, sweeping up their droppings. When asked why he doesn't find some other line of work, he replies, "What, and leave show business?"

What makes the joke funny, of course, is the truth behind it. Creative and talented people, once having tasted the wild nectar of Hollywood success, find it almost impossible to quit the field, even when the odds are stacked against them. And nothing stacks the odds higher than committing the one unpardonable sin in Hollywood—getting older. As veteran TV writer Larry Gelbart said in a recent interview, "The only way to beat ageism in Hollywood is to die young."

At 58, my client Walter has been directing episodic television for most of his adult life—except for the past five years, during which, despite Herculean efforts to get work, he's been unemployed. He also got divorced and lost his house, and had to move to a condo in Thousand Oaks.

At a recent session, Walter announced more bad news. "My agent finally dumped me," he said quietly, without rancor.

"I'm sorry, Walter. I know you've been his client a long time."

"Twenty-one years. Lasted longer than my marriage. And the sex was better . . . " He managed a rueful smile. "Hey, I can't blame him. He busted his ass for me. But let's face it, nobody wants to see a gray-haired old fart like me on the set. Everybody there looks like my grandchildren. Hell, they could be my grandchildren."

As is often the case with clients in his situation, we talked about options. Walter agreed that he could probably teach, but that even teaching jobs were getting scarce and the money wasn't very good. Not that he was poor—he had a generous pension and some decent stocks. But the money wasn't really what bothered him. Right now, at 58, he felt he was a better director than at any time in his life. He knew his craft, he understood actors, he could keep his head in a crisis. But it seemed clear that nobody wanted to see a face much over 40.

"I might as well pack it in," he said gloomily. "My life in this town is over."

"Your life isn't over, Walter." I said to him. "Neither is your career. Unless you're ready for it to be over."

"What does that mean?"

"It means you don't have to let other people decide what you can do. Or how to feel about what you can do."

"Shit, don't get all therapeutic on me now."

"I'm not. I'm being pragmatic. If you want to teach, go teach. But if you still love directing, go find something to direct. A play. A short film. You say you have a few bucks. Okay, then hire someone to write something. Or rent an Equity-waiver theater down on La Cienaga for a week and put something up on its feet."

"Forget it. I'm used to working for studios. Networks. Guys with parking spaces on the lot, who at least have to pay me for the privilege of pissing all over my work."

"And I know how much you'll miss that. But at least you'll be directing. If that's what you still want to do."

"Hell, it's what I am." He sat back, stroking the edge of his trim, salt-and-pepper beard. Then he laughed. "Hey," he said, "remember that joke about the guy at the circus, cleaning up after the elephants?"

"One of my favorites."

"You think I'm that guy?"

"Walter, I think we're all that guy. These are the lives we lead, the things we do. If it's who we really are, all we can do is keep doing them.
As a colleague of mine said once, about trying to achieve in any profession: Keep giving them you, until you is what they want.
As a colleague of mine said once, about trying to achieve in any profession: Keep giving them you, until you is what they want."

He paused. "You know, Alvin Sergeant is in his seventies, and he wrote the two Spider-Man movies. Huge hits. For years, David Chase couldn't get arrested, and then he creates The Sopranos. Hell, John Huston directed his last picture in a wheelchair, sitting next to an oxygen tank."

"All true."

"I mean, maybe I'm just kiddin' myself, but . . . " He nodded toward the door. "There's gotta be at least one more elephant out there, right?"

I smiled. "I've never known a circus without one."

Copyright © 2008 Dennis Palumbo. All rights reserved. Originally published in Psychotherapy Networker, July 2005.
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Dennis Palumbo Formerly a Hollywood screenwriter (My Favorite Year, Welcome Back Kotter, etc.), Dennis Palumbo is now a psychotherapist in private practice, specializing in creative issues in Southern California. His latest book is From Crime to Crime, a collection of mystery short stories narrated by a therapist. He has previously written Writing from the Inside Out: Transforming Your Psychological Blocks to Release the Writer Within.

CE credits: 1

Learning Objectives:

  • Describe the unique issues for entertainment industry professionals
  • Plan effective treatment with these particular clients

Articles are not approved by Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) for CE. See complete list of CE approvals here