x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

In Hollywood, social status can be a matter of life and death

Even when it comes to life-and-death medical affairs, what really seems to matter in Hollywood is still status.

I've lived and worked in Hollywood for more than 20 years, so it's not a surprise to me that for some people in this town, it matters what car you drive and where you sit at certain restaurants.

And everyone knows that there are differences - in prestige, if not in actual financial reward - between winning an Oscar, an Emmy, a Golden Globe and a VH-1 Audience Popularity award.

But what I didn't really know - not until a few weeks ago, when I suddenly found myself in the hospital on the business end of a surgical needle heading into my hip bone to get a bone marrow sample - was that it apparently matters a lot to people in Hollywood where and how and who you get to do this. Even health care, in Hollywood, has a "right" and a "wrong" set of status choices.

"Where are you going?" a friend of mine asked at lunch, when I told him that I was headed to the hospital. He said "Where are you going?" the way fashion reporters shout "Who are you wearing?" to movie stars on the red carpet.

When I told him I was going to the local hospital in Santa Monica, he looked stricken.

"No. No. No," he said. "Don't go there. No one goes there. Look, I have a guy. He's a wonderful doctor. He was the doctor for the entire cast of Desperate Housewives, I think. He's that good. Let me call him. Let's get you someone really A-list."

"I have a doctor," I said. My friend was trying to be nice, and I appreciated it, but I wasn't looking for a referral. What I was really looking for was more along the lines of a "hey, too bad about the bone marrow biopsy, let me buy lunch" kind of thing.

"Who is your doctor?" he asked.

I told him. He looked stricken, again. "I don't know who that is. I don't know who that is." His voice sounded alarmed.

"Why would you?" I asked. "You're a studio executive in business affairs. This guy works at the Writers Guild Health Center."

That was it.

"Are you kidding me?" he shouted. "That's … everybody goes there," he said, as if that were a bad thing. "You should be at Cedars or UCLA or somewhere. That's mostly for people who are…" And here his voice dropped, "… below the line, okay?"

Here's what he meant by "below the line": in every production budget, there's a line - it's actually drawn on the page - which divides, essentially, all of the fixed costs - "below the line" is what you've got to pay the crew and the construction team and the post-production staff - from "above the line", all of the crazy fungible could-be-anything costs, like actors, directors and, at least in the TV business, writers.

As a side note, one of the reasons that there's such a tight squeeze on below the line costs is because there's been such a pay-anything mentality about above the line costs.

"That doesn't matter to me," I said. "I like my doctor. I'm happy with him. Plus, with my insurance, it's only $10."

My friend shook his head sadly. I had disappointed him with my small-time thinking. "Okay," he said. "It's your cancer. But if it were my cancer, I'd want to go to an above the line doctor. I'd want to attach some big talent to it. I'd want to spend money for a star."

"You think I should hire a star for my cancer?" I asked.

He was about to answer, but then the bill arrived and he was preoccupied with waiting for me to get out my credit card so we could split it.

And then a few weeks later, the test results came in and it turns out that I'm entirely cancer free - it was just an odd blood anomaly, a giant false alarm that had preoccupied my every moment since early last month.

When someone tells you that you need a bone marrow biopsy, it's hard not to go immediately to a very bad place in your mind. But all that worry and negative futurising - all of the mental fast-forwards - all of that bad stuff was for nothing.

Which, to be honest, makes for a bad story. The writer in me - the one tasked with creating and developing satisfying stories - was a little disappointed to be cancer-free. The third act of a story is supposed to be more surprising, more noisy.

But in the story of my bone marrow biopsy, the third act turned out to be a giant letdown. It was a windup story with no kicker ending.

"I still think you should've gone to my guy," my friend said when I told him the news. "My guy could've found something," he said, proudly.

I have to admit that would have been a better story. But I'll take the bad story structure any day.


Rob Long is a writer and producer based in Hollywood