That Moment You Realize: Top of the Ladder, Wrong Wall

Written by | Columnists and Letters

Kevin gets caught in the turnstiles of Hollywood’s fame game, but he’s left wondering if there’s really any value in being known by the well-known.

By Kevin Phinney


After writing at a daily newspaper in Austin for nearly a decade, I’d had a few minor run-ins with celebrities. I’d interviewed Willie Nelson on his tour bus (no, I didn’t inhale). I sat in on early workshop rehearsals for Lily Tomlin’s Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe. I actually bought Bono his first margarita after a U2 gig. His review: “Oh, I like this. It’s green, and it’s got a kick!”

In 1989, Melanie Griffith arrived in town — due to deliver her daughter Dakota at any moment. One day, I ambled into the newspaper offices, and my editor handed me a phone number.

“What’s this?” I asked.

“Melanie Griffith has gone into labor, and this is her bedside phone,” he announced — beaming with pride.

“What am I supposed to do,” I replied, “ask her how far she’s dilated?” I made it clear that under no circumstances would I attempt to reach her in the middle of giving birth; so he stuck me on baby watch at the hospital until the blessed event occurred. I resigned soon after.

Moving to Los Angeles seemed the next logical career move. I began by crafting press materials for record labels and movie studios before eventually making my way back to reporting. I quickly learned how to pose in a tuxedo on the red carpet, shove a microphone in front of any famous face who would pause, bellow in a congratulatory tone, “Big Night!” and hope they’d provide some response.

It’s easy to get sucked into the Hollywood whirl. Someone always has a new project, a new fling, a fresh divorce, or a new source ready to “tell all.” I joined the staff of The Hollywood Reporter just as awards season was about to envelop the city. My first major assignment was to cover the Golden Globes, where the press share the same tables with the celebs they’re meant to cover, but it wasn’t all glamor. One of my tablemates (Bruce Springsteen’s first wife) found a dead roach in her dessert.

Over the course of the season, I became friendly with a few of the people I covered. One was Callie Khouri — nominated for her first screenplay: Thelma and Louise — who admonished me to beware of people in the industry who were once nice but decided to save time by being ruthlessly self-serving. Another was Sir Anthony Hopkins, just nominated for his role in The Silence of the Lambs. When I called to get his reaction, he was so thrilled it took us 20 minutes to put together three sentences I could use.

I found myself working harder and harder, attending more and more events. By the time I made it through the actual Academy Awards, I was exhausted. Nevertheless, I dragged myself to a post-Oscars party. Somewhere above the din I heard my name. It was Callie Khouri, waving me over with the Oscar she’d just won and introducing me around her circle. “Kevin, you know Jonathan Demme and Anthony Hopkins,” she said. Amazingly, I did, and for that brief moment I felt like my little journalist star was twinkling right next to those of genuine movie stars.

But the next day, the hangover hit me hard. As great as it had felt to bask on the edge of their glory, I didn’t really know them. I was just the latest Tinseltown town crier planted on the red carpet yelping, “Big Night!” I’d come to LA to write about how creative minds make art that lasts forever, but instead found myself ensnared in the great celebrity chase. It wasn’t quite as bad as phoning Melanie Griffith as baby Dakota was making her first grand entrance — but it wasn’t much better, either.

So that spring, I left Hollywood to begin work on a book project about the intersection of music and race relations in American history. And, during the course of its gestation, I did end up talking to more than a few famous people. But I was having real conversations with them — not simply trying to score more face time with names from the A-List. And that felt bigger than any big night.

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Last modified: July 27, 2017