Celebrity Eye(I) on Tony Billings by Frederick M. Barclay
by Morgan Hobbs
The first time I interviewed Tony Billings, many years ago at the sparsely decorated Manhattan flat he shared with a certain aspiring young actress named Sherill Sutcliffe, who happened to be a close friend of mine back from our days with Shakespeare in the Park and who served as liaison in setting up my interview with Tony--the official assignation of which was agreed upon and sealed with a kiss (Sherill--then spelled C.h.e.r.y.l) and a handshake (Tony) at the then little known Midtown eatery Chez Guevara--he (Tony) had just starred in a raw, low-budget film about disaffected Italian-American youth called American Bambino for first time director Clay Barlow--whom I had previously met at a fund raiser for Hansen's disease--and there were musings around town, nay, a veritable rumble, about superstar potential.
Tony's fierce acting style--he was given to frequent bursts of raw emotion (some thought too frequent, most notably the writer of American Bambino, Dirk Minelli, who threatened to kill Tony on more than one occasion) spitting his lines of dialogue like the cobra spits venom--coupled with undeniable good looks, more James Dean cum youthful Marlboro Man than pretty boy, made him a hot commodity overnight. A lush head of brown hair that when cut short stood on end as if being sucked by a vacuum cleaner couldn't have hurt either. My own hair had begun to recede in high school and to this day whenever I tip my hat I am haunted by the past, even though I am, in all other respects, exceedingly comfortable in my own skin. It is no surprise that I long for the days of Henry Miller, when hats were de rigueur and the tonsorially challenged fought on equal terms with the hirsute in the garden of connubial delights. Perhaps my time has come and gone, a faded memory like the brave, worldly literature of that more noble age, an era steeped in the incandescent sweat of boxers, bull fighters and earth shattering sex. (If only I could have gone to the rug with Anais Nin...Ah, the sweet nectar of forbidden fruit.)
We stood, Tony and I, in my living room sipping brandy as Tony admired my piece de resistance, a painting I had done under the influence of Miles Davis, herb cigarettes, too much wine, and, of course, da Vinci--it was a reasonably faithful replica of the Mona Lisa, an example of a ritual I performed, and believed in very strongly, in which by reproducing the great work, stroke by stroke, I hoped to inhabit the genius of the master, that, by retracing his steps, I might gain some rare glimpse of the artist's soul, to crawl, as it were, under his very skin. That is, I assumed he was admiring my work but it was difficult to follow the train of his eyes concealed as they were behind the smoke of dark sun glasses, an affectation of celebrity that Tony took to instinctively upon his matriculation into Hollywood's creme de la creme. Can one blame him? After all, the sun glasses, the perfect hair, afternoon shadow like a charcoal painting, and the detached, laconic air--even outright haughty disdain--are their right, just as surely as the scepter and crown are a king's and the Mormon patriarch his bounty of fecund brides.
It was then, after raising his shades and staring ponderously into his empty glass, that he said,
"Got any coke?"
Of course I obliged him--that, too, was their right--spilling the last of my coke onto a coffee table book of Braques and forming the lines with my platinum card. Tony leaned over and snorted up the blow through the vacuum cleaner nozzle of a rolled fifty dollar bill (Actually it was a five-spot but Tony insisted I exaggerate the value) and the interview finally got the proverbial kick in the hindquarters that it required.
Facing each other in identical antique wicker chairs, I posed my first formal question--that is, "for the record," as there is much dirt kicked around when I get together with Tony and his ilk that must never make it into print--for instance, Tony revealed confidentially that producer Don Rebello is, as has long been rumored, an embryophage--I asked him what makes him tick as an actor. Staring out the window for a moment, as if searching externally for what can only be found within, he lit an unfiltered Camel, inhaled deeply then tilted his head back and blew smoke at my ceiling.
I knew what he meant.
And having, too, developed a thirst for smoke, I lit my own cigarette, an unfiltered Pall Mall, and let the silence, which was, after all, the only true language, sink in. Matching him cloud for cloud, our expressions contemplative, even relaxed, yet belying the tension that exists just below the surface and which makes for a great interview, I began to formulate my next question. Tamping my cigarette into the mother-o-pearl ash tray, I leaned forward, my words poised at the cusp of my lips, then took pause and retracted my advance. Something had been needling me, and I decided to take issue about it with Tony. At the time of our last meeting I had suggested to him that he might switch to Pall Malls. I considered them a superior cigarette and thought I had convinced him of their virtue. Here he was, however, smoking Camels.
"I see you're still smoking Camels," I said to him.
"You didn't like the Pall Malls?"
He winced, took a long drag on the Camel, and exhaled, and I felt my fists clench. I decided to broach the subject of his increasing reputation as a cocksman, as somewhat of a loose cannon, if you will, or lothario, in the sexual arena.
"I've been with a few girls," he said nonchalantly, a trace of humor in his voice.
"But it's really not fair," I insisted, "this reputation, the insistence by the media to chasten. Have we so soon forgotten the lessons of Gargantua and Pantagruel?"
"I never saw their movies," Tony said, wincing again and blowing a cloud of smoke.
I took a drag on my cigarette, blew a ring of smoke, then another, and ground the butt into the mother o'pearl. Flicking the pack of Pall Malls so that a single cigarette emerged, I extended it to Tony, my eyes widened entreatingly. He winced again, and I blinked, then pursed my lips, eyebrows raised in an expression of laissez faire disapproval, and leaned back, withdrawing the cigarette with my lips and lighting it.
Our mutual friend Sherill Sutcliffe was in town working on a project with a certain infamously wiry and perfectionistic director whose vault-like secrecy and pathological fastidiousness had long been a thorn in my side, and I casually dropped her name.
"Yeah, I knew her," Tony said.
"You lived with her, Tony," I reminded him.
"Personally I have always found her to be one of the most talented young actresses on the screen. Her radiance, professionalism and intelligence are arguably nonpareil in this business, particularly among film actresses, who, though they may dazzle on screen, invariably fail to impress in matters of tete-a-tete. Sherill's failure to achieve commercial success is nothing but an indication of a non-supportive, non-artistic industry, of a viewing public without taste or scruples, and, I am ashamed to admit, a media that coddles to and perpetuates the criminal wrong-headedness of both. During my stint with Shakespeare in the Park, Sherill was the lone, bright star in my Sirian night. Her freshness and vitality inspired me to persevere, and I always found in her expression a tolerance, one might even go so far as to say warmth, as I labored over my lines. Iambic pentameter had been like a strange taste in my mouth, like a very tough and resilient piece of fat. True, she possessed a solipsistic streak. What I took for tolerance, for understanding, may have been no more than a kind of profound detachment--whereas she would simply stare off into the distance (the outward looking mask) as I committed dramatic faux pas, the others tended to go into diatribe or leave the stage in a huff--they were all homosexual--but accuse me of naiveté, considerate is considerate, motivation be damned."
I concluded with a heavy fist on the arm of my chair. Tony blew smoke and smiled.
"I heard she's gettin' jammed by that human coat hanger," he said.
I put the Pall Mall out on my wrist and grinned oppressively. Tony seemed a little taken aback, his mouth hanging somewhat ajar, his breathing suspended. Then he smiled, as if amused, and continued smoking. To reassure him, I lit my own cigarette and was soon matching him cloud for cloud. Tony and I have been friends for some time, and my admiration of him is unreserved. There are few popular actors who would be capable of delivering the fevered, no-holds-barred performances in films about jet-planes, bar tending, affable big foots, little league hockey, or a string of cop-canine buddy pictures that Tony has managed to do time and again, a yen for craft pushed to the limit in his current project, as yet untitled, about an S.S. officer who reinvents himself as a sherpa.
And then there is the matter of his flawless complexion and rippled abdomen. My own significant girth, a thickness of middle that I have carried with me since boyhood, as well as a full beard that I cultivated originally to mask the bad skin that befell me during the teenage years, are, I believe, contributive to an overall look--the fedora, the beard, my substantial midsection, the horn rimmed glasses--that is well suited to my latter day role as chronicler of the zeitgeist for the more rarefied organs of pop cultural digerant.
I noticed that Tony was becoming increasingly distracted, and, fearing the complete loss of his attention unless decisive action was taken--in many ways the celebrity, no matter what the age, is like a young child or animal--I tightened the reins, appealing to his youthful vigor and need to be in constant motion, and suggested we go for a ride in my BMW.
"What for?" he replied.
"It's the latest model," I told him. "You will really be amazed. The performance is simply world class."
"I know. I've got one," he said, wincing.
"Is it red?"
"Yeah." He blew smoke.
My fist clenched reflexively, my palms were hot with sweat, and he must have sensed, because his expression suddenly betrayed a twinge of nervousness, the undeniability of my silence and intensity of stare. He dropped his cigarette into the empty brandy snifter--a breach of social grace that one learns to accept when traveling in these circles; their whims must be countenanced, for their egos are quite fragile; the rewards of being cast in their star's glow, however, are commensurately great--then rose from his chair with the characteristic wince and intimated, "I gotta take a leak."
Once in the car I dissuaded Tony from putting on his seat belt (he would buckle it, I would unbuckle it) with the warning that they did more harm than good as well as with the added assurance of a passenger-side air bag. I was none too certain of the overall veracity of this statement but felt justified nonetheless due to the nobility of my desire to hone an atmosphere of Romantic excess and Kerouacean devil-may-care bravado. I set the bottle of Glenfarclas between my thighs, to which Tony reacted with a suspicious side-stare, and turned the key, bringing the engine to a roaring, big cat-like purr.
We proceeded into the night and within an hour, during the course of which I drank heavily from the bottle of Glen, I found myself whirring along just the kind of winding, ill-lighted country road I had had in mind. Heretofore, nary a word had passed between us, so in the spirit of camaraderie and male-bonding I extended the Glenfarclas to him. He declined rather sheepishly, so I splashed some on his coat and pants then turned out the headlights.
Increasing my speed in anticipation of the blind, hairpin curve that lay up ahead, I stole a glance at Tony, and in his expression of muted terror it was clear he had divined--we were so close and understood each other so well that words were seldom necessary; he simply knew, telepathically--that I had decided that, by the stroke of midnight, I would be wearing his skin. The skin of his knees on my knees. His scalp on my scalp.
Having come upon the curve I switched into the inside lane, which was designated for oncoming traffic, in order to minimize the inertia that could perhaps cause us to lose traction and fly from the road, and was immediately set upon by a pair of opposing high-beams. I swerved instinctively, missing the vehicle--I am unsure of the make but was left with a sense of its being something on the order of a Mac Truck--and smashed through the guardrail, finally coming to rest at the bottom of a ravine.
I looked at my companion, who appeared shaken but not stirred, and suggested since we were relatively unhurt that as a finale to a heated evening of matched wits and virility, a meeting of men characterized by the need to destroy, as well as become, the other, we partake in a physical bout along the lines of the unctuous au naturel wrestling match between Oliver Reed and Alan Bates in the film version of Lawrence's Women in Love.
Tony limped desperately from the car, but I soon overtook him, and, saying, "I simply must insist," tackled him so that he lay prone and forlorn, my arms wrapped about his legs.
There is a moment aspired to in the career of every interviewer, a consummation of one's spiritual and occupational odyssey, in which the ultimate revelation about one's subject is achieved, a secret wrapped in a code, a golden nugget of truth that lies just beneath the layers of armor and posturing, beyond persona, which is definitive not only about the individual, but about the entire human condition. Pulling down Tony's pants, I found it, there, illuminated by moonlight on the pale arch of his right buttock: A precisely drawn tattoo of the human heart.
About the author:
Morgan Hobbs began writing fiction while a student at the University of Wisconsin - Madison, where he graduated with a degree in English and History in 1993. He currently resides in Washington, D.C. His work has appeared in Shattered Wig, McSweeney's Internet Tendency, Mississippi Review, The Nocturnal Lyric, Punchline and Satire Magazine.