Emily Bennett stumbled onto the legend of Showdown while doing a tiny part on an episode of a long-forgotten television series being shot at Fox Ranch, off Malibu Canyon Road between Calabassas in the San Fernando Valley and Malibu on the other side of the Santa Monica Mountains. She found herself talking to an extra who claimed to have worked in one scene of a fourth major James Dean film, a film that had never been released.
She was more than startled, since to common knowledge there is no such film.
The man, a rosy-faced talker named Miles, said it had been filmed toward the beginning of the last year of Dean’s life, 1955—before Rebel Without a Cause began production. “It was shot in Arizona. That’s where I was living at the time,” he said, unsmiling. He never smiled.
Miles morphed into character actor Karl Malden in Emily’s mind. It occurred to her that no matter how nutty what he had just said was, if she were to tell him who she was seeing him as, he would get that fey look people do when the guy in the next seat on the bus or subway leans in to you, looks you dead in the eye and tells you he’s not wearing underpants.
“Why wasn’t this … um … lost film ever released?” she asked Miles. She knew she was being put on.
“Because it was never completed. His co-star quit.”
“Who was his co-star?”
He regarded her belligerently. “Consider yourself special,” he said. “I’ve never told this to anyone. It was John Wayne.”
“NO! Noooo.” She giggled. “Come on.”
Emily shook her head reflexively, flicking her long chestnut-brown hair across her face. She scooped it back and tried to repress a grin. “Why don’t I know about it? Why doesn’t everybody know about it? Why isn’t it common gossip?” She was ready to leave this extravagant old liar and go watch the shooting just over the hill.
“Because some tough-looking guys told us to keep our mouths shut, and it was easy to see they weren’t kidding. One of the extras had some Hollywood experience—he was older than I am now. He told me people had gotten in deep doo-doo for opening their mouths in this kind of deal.” He pushed his nose to one side, an impression, she assumed, of gangland intimidation.
“So why are you telling me now?”
When he told her he’d been diagnosed with a brain tumor and felt he had to tell the story to somebody, Emily restrained herself from rolling her eyes and saying, “Sure... riiight.”
Two months later, another extra told her Miles had died.
Several months after that, she was working for Richard Boone, the craggy Western star, as a personal assistant. Boone was a devilishly charming man, as well as a masterful actor, who liked whiskey. He and Emily became close friends, a fact that quietly thrilled her. Although he was a roughhewn bear of a man whose tippling, like so many Hollywood “men’s men,” occasionally approached “problem” level, Emily found him only kind, generous, and with her anyway, always a gentleman.
One night, as they were doing some drinking together, Emily asked him if he’d ever heard of a movie called Showdown.
Boone blinked and squinted at her with his patented, dangerous Have Gun—Will Travel smile. “Where did you hear about that?”
“Never mind. Did you?”
“I saw it,” said Boone. “Well, maybe two minutes of it.” He took a draw on his Pall Mall, and then, at the bottom of his warm, raspy register, intoned, “What the hell.”
This is the story he told her:
“One morning I got up and found a brand new Cadillac in my driveway. Duke had bought me a car, to thank me for doing Sam Houston in The Alamo—I’d worked for pocket change since he was producing it and footing the bill. Well, hell, I didn’t know what to say. I figured I ought to say thanks for a thing like that, so I jumped into that beautiful black Caddy and drove over to the office he kept in Culver City.
“He was kind of embarrassed and so was I, so to help kill that he got out a bottle of sippin’ whiskey, which we went through in short order. When we were near the end of it, he said to me, ‘I want to show you something I never showed anybody.’
“He took me into a little screening room, set up and started a reel of film, then returned to the front, sat down a seat away from me and glanced back and forth between me and the screen as I watched.
“A cowboy rode up over the crest of a hill off in the distance, moving toward the camera. Then the angle shifted to include the profile of a boy—a young man—in the foreground, watching the cowboy. The boy reached into his jacket pocket, drew out a bag of chewing tobacco, opened it, tore off a chaw, and put it into his mouth. I started to say something, but Duke said, ‘Watch.’
“The cowboy dug a spur into his mount, a big old bay, and galloped toward the camera and the boy, whom I could now make out clearly. I said, ‘What is this?’
“Duke growled. ‘A reminder of all my sins.’
“I said, ‘When did you do it? And what in great fucking hell were you doing with James Dean?’
“‘It was a long time ago,’ he said. ‘I did half a damn film with the little bastard. It ought to be worth a fortune, but it’s not. We had to shut down.’”
“Why? Why did they shut down?”
“Duke wouldn’t say. He turned it off. Said he couldn’t look at it anymore.”
“Did he have more footage?”
Boone shrugged. “Evidently.”
“Where did it come from? How did it get made? Why hasn’t anything ever been written about it?”
“There are good reasons. And I’d advise you not to go passing this story around. I shouldn’t have told it to you at all.”
Emily frowned at him, her intelligent eyes narrowing. “Then why did you? Did you just make this all up?”
Boone looked at her somberly. “You know me better than that. And I told you about it because you’re trustworthy.”
This was the moment, she would realize years later, that marked the point from which there was no turning back. The Showdown legend had hooked her.
For now, she knew she couldn’t make anything of what Boone had told her; after all, she was “trustworthy,” which, looked at from the point of view of a Hollywood girl with ambitions, can be an awful burden. But it had reminded her of her personal plans. She’d begun, even though she knew it was even more than typically manic of her, to feel—some of the time—like Don Quixote in search of honor. She’d be a “trustworthy” Hollywood producer.
About as likely as an ethical child molester.
Also, in the case of her movie industry ambitions, Emily was not at all certain she had the necessary linear relentlessness of character to be one of the Hollywood killers. To complicate things further, her developing self-image was plagued with dualistic messages.
You’re too soft for the job. A film producer has no time to feed and water prisoners.
I can be tough.
So can a sponge—until it’s soaked up all the tears of the world the way you do. If there were such a thing as a producer’s aptitude test, the only question about something like, say, “compassion” would be: are you able to ignore yours?
Leave me alone.
Because of her doubts and all the insecurities that accompany most dysfunctional upbringings, and partly because she could see a growing currency in doing things unconventionally, she resolved to make a bold move. She decided to approach her career from outside Hollywood, which in those days mainly left New York City.
The first thing Emily discovered while living and working in Manhattan was that her lifelong difficulty didn’t go away. For years, she’d been sure her celebrity face-blindness “little problem” had been mostly a result of being raised in Los Angeles, where it was not at all odd to run into, for example, Martin Sheen at Sears, looking for a sheet of HardiBacker ceramic tile underlay. Celebrities had been unavoidable in her experience. It was, she understood, at least part of the reason she’d moved to New York.
She found plenty of them there too. Unsurprisingly, a good deal of the time she didn’t know the difference. Her roommate’s father had once come to town, and he hadn’t been a plain-faced Iowan as he should have been, but a youngish version of Laurence Olivier.
She worked at a series of jobs in Manhattan: secretary for an advertising agency, assistant to a talent agent, reader for a movie production company, assistant editor for a publishing firm, and finally, assistant vice president in charge of acquisitions at Sterling Films, a respected independent production company. She became the youngest executive they’d ever had.
She told herself: “Finally, I’m knocking at the door.” She knew she was now on standby for success, and she hoped—although she hadn’t quite worked this part out—honor.
During her final six months with them, Sterling released three pictures, all bombs. Her boss (Emily saw him as Walter Brooke—“Plastics,” The Graduate), with whom she’d had a brief tempestuous fling, and who had been respectful of all of her suggestions before, suddenly became unresponsive to everything she had to say, even though she’d had nothing to do with choosing the properties that failed. She’d been instrumental in the optioning of two novels during her fourteen months at Sterling, but neither of them had been scheduled for production and she was “let go.”
Crushed, she left New York’s endless buffet of stimulations, frustrations, triumphs, and disasters, went back to Los Angeles, and moved in with—please God, temporarily—her father, Dr. Benjamin Bennett, a Los Angeles internist, and her brother, Ben Jr., “currently unemployed.”
It would have to be temporary. Her father had recently been diagnosed with lymphatic cancer. The only thing that made it possible to even consider nursing him through his final months was that along with it she would be able to spend time with her brother.
Ben Jr., six years older than Emily, was an ex-actor who’d recently undergone his third plastic surgery and was reminding her more and more of Lew Ayres—in the role of the young, regretful, and alcoholic brother in Holiday, at whom Katharine Hepburn looks sadly and says, “Oh, Neddy, you’re dying.” Emily hoped a little of her outlook—she told herself it was still essentially optimistic—would rub off on Ben. She wanted to do everything possible to save him.
A week after she’d moved back home, convinced all over again there was a short in her brain’s electrical wiring, she got a telephone call from Richard Boone, asking her if she’d be available to help him out while he was in Hollywood and Nevada working on what would turn out to be John Wayne’s last film, The Shootist.
“Yes!” she cried, recoiling from a shotgun blast of adrenalin. She remembered the tiny bungalow she’d rented when she’d first moved out of her father’s house. The rental agent had told her the place had “some history,” that Lon McCallister (a blandish juvenile leading man who played mostly callow roles in the late thirties and early forties) had lived there when he was breaking into the business.
What if she lied and said she had once rented a house that James Dean had briefly lived in—approximately twenty-two years earlier? It was perfect. It would give her an opening gambit to question Wayne about Showdown—if she could just find the guts and a moment alone with him. Certainly it wouldn’t be dishonorable to talk to Wayne about it—if he was willing.
“Yes,” she told Boone. “I’ll do it.”
It must be mentioned that Emily didn’t think that she had a problem with celebrities themselves. She felt comfortable with Boone. At first, she thought it was because of his rough, homely face, but realizing that it was also in its way a beautiful face, she decided it had to be something else. Maybe, she thought, it was because with actual celebrities, she knew where she stood. Richard Boone was Richard Boone. John Wayne was John Wayne. She had convinced herself that she was not awestruck by celebrities, just baffled by a world where she didn’t know who was one, and who wasn’t.
In Richard Boone’s case, she felt more at ease with him, celebrity or not, than she had with anyone since her mother. Maybe it was because their affection for her was and had been so consistent and easy.
Boone had not talked to her about Showdown since that first time, three years earlier. She assumed he forgot he’d mentioned it—they had been drinking that night. She knew he wouldn’t want her saying anything about it to John Wayne, but this hooked into the determined corner of Emily’s psyche, a hidden alcove she was again beginning to explore simultaneous to her unexpected, rekindled belief in the authenticity of the Showdown legend. Just talking about it wouldn’t be a comment on her trustworthiness.
That’s how it begins. Boone called you trustworthy.
That’s how what begins?
Skewed definitions of truth.
A certain amount of pragmatism is necessary if you want to survive.
Got it. Survival on one side of the scale, and on the other—
—I’m simply thinking of TALKING about it to somebody who already KNOWS about it. What honor does that violate? I do not want to crash … like Icarus. For once in my life, I intend to fly.
And she did have her own kind of relentlessness. She was sure of it. She’d learned it in New York. A young woman doesn’t go to Manhattan and survive for two years without a stockpile of desperation, first cousin to relentlessness. She’d been wrong in her earlier judgment of herself. The fact was, that when she was at her strongest, when she really grabbed on to something, she had the dogged persistence of a trial lawyer. At this moment, her pendulum had swung all the way in that direction. She intended to find out what John Wayne would have to say about Showdown.
I can do it. I can do it.
From your lips to God’s ear, honey.
I can DO it.
She hadn’t counted on how sick the old man was.
“Duke” had almost no time for off-camera conversation. He would show up just before the director, Don Siegel, said, “Action,” and leave as soon as the shot was over. In his trailer, he was unapproachable to her. Emily could never find an appropriate moment to get away from her obligations to Boone and talk to Wayne alone. She was introduced to him briefly, but that was it.
Boone’s role in The Shootist wrapped and Wayne disappeared as usual into a limo that waited for him at the edge of the set.
It was late winter. Boone would soon be on his way to his home in Florida and have no more employment for her for the time being. She put out half-hearted feelers for other personal assistant work, but no one responded.
Her self-confidence pendulum swung all the way back to her un-dogged, timid side.
Benjamin Bennett Sr. couldn’t have helped seeing his daughter come into the room, but he didn’t look away from Dian Parkinson, the gorgeous young blonde model on The Price Is Right. She wore an eye-popping bikini in the Showcase Showdown, fondling a lucky jet ski. A dead man couldn’t have looked away.
Emily picked up the remote lying next to him on the bed and turned the sound off. “Please talk to me. I want to know something. This is going to seem strange—an odd thing to ask your own father at my age, but this is something I really need to figure out. If I don’t ask you now, I’ll never be able to.
“I came across something. I know it’s silly … I found Ben’s old baby book. Here’s the … curious part: you have an entry under the section about potty training. It’s in your handwriting. It says Ben was potty-trained at three months and that you started the process at five weeks. Do you remember that?”
Her father’s eyes flicked toward her, then back to some point in the space between Emily and the television.
“At five weeks? You know that’s insane. You’re a doctor. The thing I need to find out is, did I get the same treatment? Ben won’t remember, he’s barely conscious.” She waited. “Can you answer me, Daddy?”
Her father’s mouth tightened. It hit her like knuckles in the ribs.
“Did you make Mama hold him over the potty too? I picture you gripping him under his arms when he was three months old, too roughly; his head is lolling off to the side. Little Ben gazes around, tries to make sense out of any of it, then, one day, he’s accidentally successful while you’re holding him there—or maybe he was just scared shitless.”
She gazed out the window at the manicured yard. When she looked back, he was watching her. Then he looked away, almost casually, and closed his eyes. Dian Parkinson had vanished from the TV screen, replaced by a close-up of a pristine bathroom sink, thanks to Bon Ami cleanser.
Emily sat on the edge of the bed. “The thing is, I know you did the same thing to me when I came along, whenever you got your hands on me.” She giggled. “I told you this was strange. But I’ve got to talk to somebody about it. Ben won’t listen. It probably wouldn’t bother him any more than it does you.”
She got up, moved to the window, glancing down at the Crayola green lawn. “See, Daddy, I’m thinking maybe I should give some thought to this. Sometimes, I’ll look at you or Ben and see something that’s in all three of us. I don’t know what to call it—sort of an essence of despair. Other times, I’ll glance at either one of you and catch that … feeling. But it’s not only that melancholy, that aimlessness, I see. Underneath it, there’s a sharp flavor of—” She frowned. “There’s only one word for it: rage.”
Benjamin Bennett Sr. turned his head slightly and looked her directly in the eyes. “Is this why you came up here? To vomit this sort of twaddle on me?”
Emily recalled coming home from school once. Her father told her that her mom was sick. “I’ve taken her to the best people at UCLA,” he’d said. “She has leukemia.”
Emily had asked him if there was a cure. When he’d told her there wasn’t, she’d said, “Could all the pills you give her have anything to do with it?”
“What kind of question is that? Not, what can we do for her? How can we make her feel better? How long does she have? But, is Dad responsible?”
“How long does she have?”
He’d stared at her as if wishing her into the cornfield. “A year, maybe two. It’s hard to predict with this kind of leukemia.”
“Could it be longer?”
“Then why don’t you try to get her off of the drugs? She doesn’t need them.”
“I’ll be the judge of that. She needs them more than ever.”
Emily watched him turn away from her. She studied his profile.
It was unmistakably the profile of Melvyn Douglas.
“You think it’s all about you, Daddy, but it’s not. You think you’re the only crazy one in this family, but you’re not.”
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