The Hollywood maxim should go like this: When your agent laughs at you, leave town. I know it firsthand. The place: Nate ‘n Al’s in Beverly Hills. The setting: an early-morning strategy session between me and my partner, Levien, and our agent. But the conversation never gets going. Each time the agent starts to talk business, he hesitates, stifles a sound in his throat and glances, for just a moment, at my head.
This worries me, because I know a thing or two about agents. Trained to be as tough, unrelenting and loyal as Rott-weilers, these guys are not easily distracted. And my guy-perma-scruff, huge biceps, dark Armani body armor-is a prime example of his breed.
My concern turns to horror as I watch him lose the battle to stifle himself.
And then it bursts forth: a full cackle. He reins it into a giggle, and finally he brings it down to a small chuckle.
“I’m sorry,” he says to me, “but I have to ask: What the fuck did you do to your hair?”
Like all the worst ideas, it came to me as a revelation and went against my most fervently held beliefs. I did it anyway. Just after my 35th birthday, before I was to fly to Los Angeles for a series of pitch meetings, I decided to get the gray out. I didn’t actually phrase it that way to myself. I pretended that dyeing my hair was no different than adding some heavy boots to the wardrobe. It had nothing to do with the fact that my prematurely gray hair might begin to mark me as an older screenwriter, even though I had broken into the movie business only five years earlier.
My plan was made all the more odd by the fact that there is no place where I feel more uncomfortable than I do sitting in a beauty parlor, wrapped in a thin satin kimono.
Yet that’s exactly where I was mere hours after making my decision: huddled over Elle magazine and trying not to make funny noises when shifting my position on the leatherette couch.
If I didn’t know that I was in trouble from the look the receptionist gave me when I said “cut and color,” I should have known the moment I met Jimmi* the stylist.
Jimmi’s exterior was so well-preserved that the only way to divine his age would have been to cut him open and count the rings. He was Asian and employed a hipster patois that sounded as if he had pieced it together by reading Sammy Hagar and Gene Simmons interviews from the mid-70′s.
Jimmi explained that although my appointment was with him, he wasn’t the colorist. He was overseeing the job-or in his words, “making sure you look killer, man.” Maddy*, a 19-year-old who’d modeled herself after Pink but ended up a dead-ringer for Cyndi Lauper, was the one actually brushing the jet-black lead acetate into my scalp.
As Maddy wrapped sections of my hair in small pieces of tinfoil, the salon’s radio played “Can’t Get There from Here” by R.E.M. Michael Stipe’s voice took me back to college. When I was 19, there was almost nothing that my friends and I found more pathetic than the misguided attempts grown men made to cover up their follicular inadequacies. “That’ll never be us,” we thought. We couldn’t imagine a day when we’d compromise ourselves for our careers. Walking into Jimmi’s salon hadn’t felt like compromise, but suddenly I knew that it was.
Maddy soon left me alone so that the dye could “marry the hair.” I blasted through all the Cosmopolitans that were stacked near me. I read Allure , W and Mademoiselle . I read everything I could so that I didn’t have to think about what I was having done to myself. Eventually there was only one magazine left; I could either read Jane or try to reconcile who I was with what I was doing.
I looked up at my reflection in the mirror.
The man I saw staring back at me had black goop on his forehead and a lost expression in his eyes. In short, he looked like three-quarters of the working screenwriters in the business.
I stared until Maddy came back. She rinsed out the extra color, dried my hair and sent me to Jimmi’s chair to have it cut.
“You are movie writer, yes?” he asked as he used a straight razor on my bangs. I nodded.
“Then I give you artistic look.” He switched to a pair of scissors that looked like pinking shears and began cutting in a frenzied manner. “I love the artist. I love the rocka-roll, and I love the movies. Gangster movies, crime films, you know?”
Again, I nodded.
“I know all of the movies. Tell me what movies you do.”
Before I could answer, he continued: “I love Goodfellas , The Godfather , Donnie Brasco . Which one you do?”
” Rounders ,” I answered.
Pause. “I do not know that one.”
He finished. I paid for the work, left the salon and headed for home. As I entered my building, my doorman asked me if I’d lost weight, but he was just covering up for the fact that he was staring. My wife, Amy, met me at the elevator and shook her head. My daughter burst into tears.
That night, I left on the last flight for L.A. As the passengers around me drifted off, I found it impossible to sleep. It wasn’t just because Jimmi had never heard of my movie. Before, I’d always prided myself on being a New York filmmaker-independent, uncompromising, all the rest. But now, sitting there with a head of faux black hair, I didn’t know who I was.
An image came to mind: It was of my first trip to L.A., after Rounders had been sold to Miramax. I was full of confidence, didn’t give a shit about my appearance and treated the studio execs as if they were lucky to meet me. It worked. At the end of the trip, Levien and I left L.A. with script deals at two studios.
Since then, though, something had changed. Gradually, over time, I had become attached to the success, begun to let myself need it. And as soon as that happened, fear snuck in. I started second-guessing my ideas a little, started taking studio notes a little more seriously, started reading the trades. And eventually, I starting worrying about how I looked.
“Damn,” I thought in the darkness of the plane cabin. “I’ve gone Hollywood.”
I lifted the window shade next to me and gazed out into the black sky. Los Angeles was still three hours away, but I could picture how it would look upon our arrival. Lit up in the night, it would glisten. But during the day, the smog would lay heavy over the city, limiting vision and making my head hurt.
The next morning was the meeting at Nate ‘n Al’s.
One week later, I was home and the phone rang. It was my agent. “The pitch sold,” he told me.
“Great,” I said. I hung up the phone, walked around the corner to my neighborhood barber and sat down in his chair.
“Shave it off,” I said.
“All of it?”
“Yeah, all of it.”
*The name has been changed.