LOS ANGELES—On Monday, Feb. 18, five days after the Writers Guild of America strike officially ended, the actor Leland Orser, who plays Dr. Lucien Dubenko on NBC’s ER, was cooking dinner for his family. Mr. Orser’s wife, Jeanne Tripplehorn, is also an actress; she plays one of the wives on the HBO show Big Love. The household—the couple has two young children—had been hit hard by the four-month hiatus.
Up till strike time, Mr. Orser had had a productive year, but as he put it, in this town “whatever level the business you’re at, you have an overhead to match that.”
“And the prospect of a writers’ strike that could lead into a directors’ strike that could then lead into an actors’ strike was very frightening,” he said on the phone, while stirring something on the stove.
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The grand plans of a White Christmas in Paris were immediately canceled. Instead the Orser family drove up the coast and crashed at Mr. Orser’s mother’s place in San Francisco.
“It was like preparing for a storm,” the actor said (though he noted that his children were delighted to have Mom and Dad picking them up from school every single day). “You cut back every way that you can. Simply not knowing.”
The storm clouds were slowly lifting in L.A. this week as actors, agents, producers, directors and their retinues began hastily preparing for the 80th Annual Academy Awards, to be held at the Kodak Theater on Sunday, Feb. 24, hosted by The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart: Hollywood once again regurgitating its idea of “hip” and “smart” back to New York. (Could we be forgiven for craving the soothing balm of Billy Crystal’s pantomimed Best Picture musical montages instead?)
ER had been scheduled to begin shooting a new season on Jan. 8. Instead, on that day, executive producer John Wells made a chilling speech to cast and crew. “If you have family to see, go see them,” he said. “If you need knee surgery, go have it. Use the time wisely, because it may be a while.”
“We’ll see who had surgery when we get back,” Mr. Orser joked, and indeed, who would be surprised if the red carpet contained even more than its customary quotient of smoothed foreheads, suspiciously pneumatic breasts and rejuvenated hairlines? “Some people are still bruised from the writers’ strike, and you’ll see that, and others are not bothered at all, and they’ll go over the top,” said Deborah Ferguson, a wardrobe stylist whose clients includes Colin Farrell and Natasha Henstridge. “It will be about 50-50.” She is dressing Mr. Stewart’s old colleague Steve Carell for the Oscars (“I’m aiming for a slimmer collar jacket”), along with his wife, actress Nancy Walls (“a Dior shift, a really beautiful ivory silk shift with a train”), and predicted a modicum of modesty. “Some people are feeling very upset about how the writers’ strike affected them,” she said.
Not Brad Schlei, silver-haired, baby-faced head of production at Muse Films, who made his first $5 million before the age of 30 off the wildly successful indie film Swingers, and was cuing up a shot on a red velvet billiards table in the downstairs playpen of his Venice Beach mansion on Monday night, the Pacific making its therapeutic music a couple hundred yards in the distance. “I’ve made my favorite place, and I’m in it,” he said. “For me, it was a joke”—speaking of the strike that had had giant swaths of the town immobilized only days earlier. “I knew it was going to end. And I played it that way.”
During strike time, Mr. Schlei bought himself a new home in Africa and read lots of books.
An original Warhol print of Elvis Presley in cowboy regalia hung from one wall. On another, Mr. Schlei’s collection of teddy bears peeked out from a minimalist wine locker installment. Only a piece of glass (and a little security wall) separated the room from the ocean.
To Mr. Schlei, who prides himself on making low-budget and highly profitable films (his producing credits include Dogtown and Spun), the strike was merely another example of “people who should be making more money not making that money, people who normally don’t make money—well, they didn’t make it again.”
He said the strike hadn’t affected business at all; he had just shifted focus. Unable to reach out to actors, Mr. Schlei focused on what content was out there that he could get for a bargain price, as he did with the Bret Easton Ellis novel American Psycho.
But what about the Hollywood landscape? Hadn’t changed significantly, Mr. Schlei shrugged. “[CAA agent] Bryan Lourd didn’t go to Mr. Chow’s on Thursdays? Wow! Crazy!”
All the big talent agencies, including CAA and ICM, had very publicly suspended expense accounts. No more power lunches at the Grill or Tom Colicchio’s New York export Craft, the new CAA canteen, where Vanity Fair’s Graydon Carter had been scheduled to throw his magazine’s famous party. But was that a reflection of hard times or simply sympathetic good taste?