All in a day's work....JFK and me
It was 6 a.m. on Dealey Plaza. I’d been there for an hour already. It was cold and dark. You see, the Dealey Plaza was my station. It was my great big break working as a production assistant on the film JFK. Shooting was to begin on this day. A funny term, shooting. It was principal photography, really, but about a very famous shooting. The assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy. I was excited.
My husband had met the assistant director, Joe Burns and got me the job. All those years I’d been in Dallas trying to hire on as some kind of film person, but in truth, I was too fucked up to put anything together. I’d gathered all the courage I could muster and rang my cousin, James Garner when he was supposed to be filming in town. I’d studied film at UT in Austin and called his home in hopes for a job. Unfortunately, I got ahold of his wife instead. Boy, was she a piece of work. But, so was I, I guess. At the time.
I think she’d been drinking, because she let loose on me for about an hour on how things were done in Tinseltown. “These men are kings, you understand. You don’t just call them and ask for a position.” She spoke sharp and did I detect a British accent? Or maybe one of those Norma Talmadge dialects from the 30’s? Either way, she had certain patois and it was intended to make me feel a step down from her. And it worked.
“You see, Marty is like a king, these directors.” She emphasized the royal analogy again and then several more times during our conversation.
When I was able to work up enough confidence, I reworded my request. “I’ve been to film school and feel I’m quite qualified to work as a p.a. on Mr. Ritt’s film.” What I didn’t tell her was how many hours, days, weeks I’d spent watching and learning in the dark. I knew everything about film backwards and forwards. No nuance was ever lost on me.
That’s when she laughed. “That’s simply not how it’s done, dear.” She said ‘dear’ not as an endearment, but as a put down. Again, for the millionth time, I felt like a loser. I felt like one because I was one. A loser. She began to list some of the celebrated films of Martin Ritt. “Hud. The Long, Hot Summer. The Sound and the Fury.” Big time A-list Hollywood movies and certainly no place for the likes of me. She made that quite clear. What she meant and what I understood was this sole fact. I was nothing.
I finally got it through my head that she or Cousin Jim weren’t going to be helping me get a job on the Dallas production of Murphy’s Romance, I carefully placed the phone back in its cradle. I went on back to work at my waitress job at the Black-eyed Pea Restaurant in Addison. I wasn’t good enough. Not for Murphy’s Romance and not even for Dallas.
I thought about that when I stood there in the dark waiting to keep the crowds away. I wondered if I might turn this opportunity into a bigger deal. If I kept the set clear like a good p.a., maybe, just maybe I could hire on in a more permanent role. Who knew?
We got three meals a day. I learned what craft services were and saw what a big Hollywood layout consisted of. There was everything to pick from for breakfast. Bagels and cream cheese. Rich, imported coffee. Fresh fruit. Exotic flavors and different than how foods tasted at home. I’d see the regular film workers all going about their jobs. The video assist girl pushing around her giant monitor and always in a huge rush. Everybody had something to do, was going someplace. They all seemed important. Necessary.
I made a friend on the crew. His name was Gary. He was gorgeous Like you saw onscreen in tv soap operas. He had that look. Soft and naturally curly blonde hair. Lovely skin. He was tall and most of all, he was extremely nice. All in his package worked against him, though. He was so perfect, he eviscerated a contempt from strangers. This came to a head one day when it was all quiet on the set just like you’d see in a movie about shooting a movie. “Quiet on the set! Quiet on the set!” yelled out the b director and on down through the ranks from assistant to assistant, the names you’d see later on in the miles of rolling credits.
We all shut up, as was our job. Elm street had been cleared to allow the procession of vintage automobiles. My station faced the triple underpass housing Elm, Main and Commerce streets, also known as the ‘Gateway to Dallas.’ But, right as ‘action’ was called, a funny looking man began marching himself right across the set. One of the crew members who carried a bit of authority motioned to Gary to stop the guy. Gary braced himself in front of the man. “Sir, you can’t go this way,” he whispered to the interloper.
The man was wearing a shiny gray business suit and tie, but was on the short and dumpy side. A lock of greasy thin hair fell from his over-comb. His face turned bright red and he put a finger into Gary’s chest and began to accentuate his point. “You’re a guest in this town, mister!” He was yelling so loud, they had to cut from the shot.
Gary was mortified. We’d seen crew members let go for a lot less reason. At that moment, all attention was centered on Gary and the business man. He tried to step forward toward the man which only served to incense him further. Nowadays, this would’ve most likely become a viral Twitter moment, but what did we know back then?
Another local chick who’d hired on as a p.a. jumped into the fray. Her name was Verushka and everybody was scared to death of her. She was black and took absolutely no shit. She always used to yell out she was kicking ass and taking numbers. She’d worked on most every production that hit town and wasn't shy about letting you know about it. She’d made friends with the band Queensrÿche and was always dropping their names. Until then, I had no idea who they even were and still couldn’t tell you any of their songs.
Verushka was a player and not even the angry Dallas guy was going to give her any shit. She cut in between Gary and the man and took over. I don’t know what she said to him, but boy, did he back down. Later on, during a break, one of the crew members asked her how she dismantled the situation and she went full Van Halen on them. With a crowd surrounding, she flew into an impromptu dance routine and sang out the words to “Might as Well Jump” complete with a flying jeté and kick that knocked over a gaffer.
The cool thing was Gary kept his job. I was glad, since he and I’d become rather close. One of the big moments was the day Kevin Costner came to set. His scenes weren’t being shot, but he’d dropped in to have his hair touched up. The hairstylist on JFK was pretty widely known and Kevin was here for that. It was life imitating art in its purest form. Like Mr. Kenneth who created the coiffures of Jacqueline Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe. It became a movie moment as we all stopped and watched a real big ass movie star walk along the raised ground high up in the air, almost as if the whole thing had been staged. He waved to us all and I got why he was such a star. He really knew how to make the scene a scene. A mise en scène rendered up just for us.
There were stars all over the place. I loved watching Lolita Davidovich. She’d be sitting around in what looked like a ladies’ slip with a trench coat wrapped around her to protect her milky white skin. And there was Gary Oldman. He was playing Lee Harvey Oswald in the film. There was something rather strange to me, though. A guy who was cast as one of the Cuban laundry guys looked exactly like what I thought Lee Harvey looked like. He had star quality, that guy. They all wore pressed gray work pants and shirts like you’d see a driver on a laundry truck wear. Like the man said, “a mystery wrapped in a riddle inside an enigma.”
One day, I was sent after Gary. He’d been dispatched to another part of the set which was
downtown Dallas around the corner. I yelled out, “Gary, stop!” at the top of my lungs. Turning around, though, I was shocked to find myself face to face with Gary Oldman, the Gary Oldman,
one of my all time favorite actors. To me, he’d always be Sid Vicious. Like I said, I was speechless. But, he was so cool. He just laughed a magical Englishman Hollywood glorious laugh.
Bill Murray’s brother was also in the movie. Brian Doyle Murray. One day, I accidentally ran into him and boy, was he mad about it. “Watch where you’re going! Do you know who I am?”
My waitressing kicked in and always one to think on my feet, I responded, “Yessir, Mr. Murray. Can I get you a cup of coffee?” He liked that idea. I’d learned a long time ago that most men like to be babied and kowtowed to and movie stars weren’t any different. Maybe even more so. Still, if I was writing my own life story, why couldn’t it have been Bill Murray?
One of the main things we were instructed about was keeping a tight lid on the assassination scene. Word had it that the National Enquirer had secreted some reporters to catch photography of the shooting. We had to watch everyone closely and report any suspicious behavior. Another weird life moment lifted out of the movie. Oliver was really like one of those Mrs. James Garner Hollywood kings. He was the king of our world here on Dealey Plaza. One day, I found myself standing right alongside him. He was just as tall and good looking as any big time actor on the screen. And powerful. Before I even knew it was him next to me, I could feel it. A vibration you get when confronted with greatness. Like that feeling that something is about to happen, something big. I stood there looking straight ahead at the goings on. I didn’t want to let on that I knew it was him and spoil the moment. I could feel his eyes turn on me, taking me in. Little old me. A nobody. I finally allowed myself to return the gaze and maybe for just a few seconds, he and I shared something, Oliver and me. From the king to the lowest serf there was something great at hand. The majesty of a film. It was the same feeling I would get in a dark theater as the curtains would begin to rise. That there was magic and majesty everywhere and I was a small part of it.
Oliver was known about town. He’d shot Born on the Fourth of July in Dallas and used much of the same crew. One of the guys who’d worked with him showed up on JFK. He’d come every day and wait around to catch a moment with Oliver. He was a funny little man who wore a black suit and tie with a white shirt. He could almost have been a cast member from the film. He had the effect of a person come to life from a newspaper picture, almost stepping off the page. That was the feeling I got from him.
On this day, he showed up with a giant painting of an Indian Chief. It was painted in bright technicolor shades of greens, teals, oranges, yellows and reds. The chief was posed sideways and wore a full feather headdress. He carried that picture around with him all day long on the set waiting to have a moment with Oliver. I couldn’t help but sense the scene of a real king’s court with a commoner bringing with him a gift for his royal highness. That’s what it felt like. It was the last day of shooting in town and a memory I would always carry with me. The little man, the Indian Chief, Oliver Stone and me.