Not So Golden

By Malina Saval 01/22/15

Hollywood's award season brings up ghosts of the past—what might have been, where I am now, and, finally, how lucky I am.

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As a failed screenwriter-turned-entertainment journalist, when it comes to my self-esteem, Awards  Season (Golden Globes, Oscars) is my Achilles' heel. Refrains of would have, could have, should have...bang against my brain like a lead pipe.

There was a time when I was primed for the big time, when I had a deal at a movie studio and was poised for Hollywood success. My life between the ages of 24 and 27 was a feverish whirl of pitch meetings and parties and lunches with producers hungering for my next script. I rode elevators up 37 floors (tall for LA) to meet with presidents of production companies and flew to Arizona to interview major league baseball players about a script that I was being paid to write. I cashed checks for amounts larger than anything I’ve received since. Now, I write about other people's success in the 'biz. It's not bad, but it's not what I imagined my life would be.

In Al-Anon, we say that when we compare, we despair, and that’s exactly what happens.

Some of the celebrities about whom I've penned profiles are actually old friends from college who once upon a time called me up to ask for career advice when they first landed in L.A., their first-draft screenplays slipped under the door of my apartment with thank you notes paper-clipped to the title page. Fifteen years later and I’m going through their assistants to book phone interviews.

Granted none of this is anybody’s fault except my own. It was a heady combination of youth, confusion and too many –isms to mention (and not necessarily substance-abuse related ones) that derailed my nascent career in Hollywood. I was anxious, sad and on six different kinds of anti-depressants. I did things like run around parties and cry in bathrooms and steal candy from the kitchens of development executives’ office buildings. Plus, I was lousy at time management. If the producers gave me 10 weeks to complete a first-draft of a script, I took one. The remaining nine weeks I spent getting stoned, obsessing over whatever guy at the moment was hijacking my attention and taking four-hour lunch breaks with friends at the Spitfire Grill at the Santa Monica Airport.

I couldn’t believe my luck in graduating with my MFA from the number one film school in the country, signing with an agent straight away and landing my dream job, which was really not a job at all. There was never a moment that I believed I wouldn’t be rich and famous. This was who I was. I was destined for greatness.

Or not.

Granted, it’s not like I haven’t achieved any sort of success in my life: I wrote and published two books, appeared on national TV and radio, am currently raising two great kids and working on a third book, plus an assortment of other writing projects, plus my full-time gig as an editor at a major trade publication. But there remains this nagging voice in my head that says: You are not enough.

Never was this feeling of inadequacy more potent than at a recent Golden Globes after-party thrown by one of the big movie studios for its nominees and winners. My assignment was to report on who showed up, who said what, but the bash was such a depressing bore—not only were there no celebs by the time I got there, but they were playing shitty techno and serving stale sushi—I spent most of the night leaning against a balcony railing overlooking the pool at the Beverly Hills Hilton, staring down at the crowd gathered inside another party, a presumed more “happening” one, to which I had not been invited. I kept apologizing to my husband, to whom I felt responsible for showing such a bad time (even if, in reality, I was the bad time and not the party), and the fact that I felt a need to apologize made me feel even worse. What was there to be sorry for?

Down below, my husband spotted one legendary movie star milling about, almost aimlessly, pulling absently on his white tuxedo scarf as he circled the room. I saw a girl from work, her shiny red dress reflected in the shimmering ripples of the pool. My husband thought he spotted an old friend from summer camp, now the creator of a hit TV show and married to a successful actress, but a harder squint confirmed that it was actually the creator of a different TV show. At this point, we had zero confirmation of who was actually there, but we seemed to be enjoying this masochistic guessing game, convincing ourselves that whatever was lacking in our own lives could be found one story below at a party with the same identical-looking hors d’oeuvres tables and cocktail napkins as the ones at the the party from which we’d just fled. For a recovering Al-Anon working in a profession where there is so much emphasis placed on the external—money, box office numbers, awards, accolades—if I didn’t have my program and its principles to guide me through it all, I would go absolutely batshit crazy.

That night was a dangerous slippery slope.

I furiously scanned the room for my millionaire movie trailer producer ex-boyfriend who I was convinced must be there with his wife, the executive vice president of creative advertising at one of the world’s most successful movie studios. I craned my neck for a glimpse of my old screenwriter mentor back in grad school. I’m absolutely certain I saw the back of Lena Dunham’s head. If you’re searching for the definition of insanity look no further than this: praying that your former therapist, who broke your heart when he abandoned his private practice and whose boyfriend (whom you occasionally stalk on Instagram) is co-president of marketing at the same studio as your ex-boyfriend’s wife, appears out of thin air onto the balcony of the Beverly Hills Hilton on Globes night so you can prove to him that you are just as cool and important as any other highly successful person in the biz. I am doing exceptionally well thank you very much! “People, places and things are not my business,” I said, rocking back and forth on my gold high heels.

“People, place and things are not my business.” I repeated the Al-Anon slogan, over and over again, like a mantra. Since I started going to Al-Anon meetings five-and-a-half years ago, the slogan has become one of the most important tenets by which I live, because when I don’t follow it—and I was obviously sorely out of practice by the time the Golden Globes rolled along this year—I start to unravel. I obsess about everybody and everything. In Al-Anon, we say that when we compare, we despair, and that’s exactly what happens. I waste hours, days employing the keen investigative skills that I have cultivated as a journalist over the past 18 years and make myself nuts scouring the Internet for the tiniest clue as to who has what and who’s doing what and who’s got what going on.

Social media and search engines become my crack cocaine. I become powerless. In the time I could have spent finishing a personal essay or proofreading the pages I promised my book agent six months ago, I obsessive compulsively perseverate on the details of a photograph I found online taken of somebody I barely know at an Oscar nominee brunch three years ago. When I make people places and things my business, like I did that night at the Beverly Hills Hilton, I basically become a pretty sick human being.

It took me about a week to recover from my Globes self-flagellation after-party hangover. I woke up the next morning with a pounding headache, shaky, and ran to my bookshelf for my "Courage to Change." I read every chapter on obsession, resentment, grief, living in the past. I called my sponsor. I went to meetings. I meditated in the car on the way to work. "People, places and things are not my business," I repeated like a song. I spent a day at the beach with my kids, left my phone and laptop at home and spent the day snapping photographs of what was in front of me, the gently lapping ocean, the muddy, sun-dappled sand, my son and daughter leaping over the waves. I focused my attention on my own writing instead of focusing on the accomplishments of others. "People, places and things are not my business," I chanted over and over and over again.

The next few weeks will prove tricky: my job requirements will necessitate me writing about film, about screenplays, about directors and actors and producers. And I will write about them, and I will complete these assignments to the best of my ability. I might even feel a sense of pride when I do them well. But I will also stay in the moment, focus on what’s right in front of me rather than what is not, and I will tape the words, "People, places and things are not my business," on the mousepad of my computer as a physical reminder of my own self-worth.

On Oscar night you can find me at home, on the couch, with my husband and kids, (hopefully) working on my next book, doing my best to quell the doubt in my head. I will order vegetarian Chinese food, maybe take a hot bath, and generally just be kind to myself if I'm feeling low. And if all else fails, there’s an Al-Anon meeting down the street that starts right as the awards kick off.

Malina Saval is the author of  The Secret Lives of Boys: Inside the Raw Emotional World of Male Teens and Jewish Summer Camp Mafia. She's also an associate features editor at Variety, a regular contributor to The Fix and prefers sweatpants to Oscar gowns. She last wrote about the CBS sitcom Mom.

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Malina Saval is the author of  The Secret Lives of Boys: Inside the Raw Emotional World of Male Teens and Jewish Summer Camp Mafia. She's also an associate features editor at Variety, and a regular contributor to The Fix. You can find Malina on Linkedin or follow her on Twitter.

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