SCENES OF PASSION
entirely for jess, because i find her simply delightful.
The Motion Picture Production Code of 1930 (Hays Code)
Motion picture producers recognize the high trust and confidence which have been placed in them by the people of the world and which have made motion pictures a universal form of entertainment.
They recognize their responsibility to the public because of this trust and because entertainment and art are important influences in the life of a nation.
It's the smothering saturated desperation of the town that bothers Henry, more often than not.
Because he knows, by now, what Hollywood's all about. And anybody would have told him so, back when he was leaving home with a carefully packed valise and a stubborn notion of becoming an actor. They did, actually. Repeatedly. His father had spent more than a few nights outside Henry's door, reciting to him all the ways in which a young man could go wrong in a place like Hollywood.
As it turned out, Henry managed to avoid the hashish-filled dens of iniquity that loomed threatening in his father's dire tales. He didn't turn to drugs or alcohol or highway robbery in order to pay the bills. In fact, he'd been able to maintain a small, clean apartment without much trouble and always had enough to eat and an impeccable wardrobe.
He's never been desperate, because he's never allowed himself to reach that stage. Sometimes he thinks it's all semantics, and it's all in what you let happen to you.
In the case of impure love, the love which society has always regarded as wrong and which has been banned by divine law, the following are important:
1. Impure love must not be presented as attractive and beautiful.
The mirror on the inside of his closet door is probably one of the more expensive items in the apartment, floor-to-crown silver that shows him entirely, pristine and crisp and unwavering. He gets a certain sliver of satisfaction from keeping it shuttered up, dark and dead until he swings the closet open and it reflects him, sparkling to life with whites and peaches and champagnes.
Henry stands in front of it and smoothes the matte black of his suit tailored, sleek against his body. His hair is golden spun sugar in the lamplight, his wrists a promising gap of naked silken flesh under stiff white cuffs, his shoes neat and blocked and unrepentant. He'd never been ashamed of his body and that trait has served him in good stead. He's not ashamed to do anything. It's all leading up to a purpose; he'd decided before he headed out to California that he would make sacrifices to get what he wanted. There have been cold, specific reasons for every move he's made, and he doesn't regret anything.
Henry runs his fingers along the inside of his collar, thinking that it may be fitting a little too closely against his throat. But his fingertips fit underneath the cloth easily, and his skin is chilly against his nails.
The party thrown by Fox Studios, upon the release of its latest Charlie Chan picture, The Black Camel is at Werner's house. As the star of the preceding film, it's his privilege and duty to host the festivities, whether or not he wants to.
"I can't stand all of this damnable pretense," he mutters, sitting in his study. Raising one eyebrow, Henry finishes his cigarette and stubs it out in the ugly, heavy stone ashtray that squats like a particularly loathsome toad on the desk in front of Werner. It's Swedish and has the same weighty, doughy look that its owner does; Henry supposes that it must be a national trait and wonders if the Oland paterfamilias made the same leaden faces of reluctant release when he was begetting Werner. He twirls the cigarette against the stone until it comes apart under his fingers, fragments of tobacco scattering noiselessly.
Werner watches him, taking liberal draughts of his glass of whiskey and sweating slightly from the flush of alcohol warming his blood. This close, he doesn't look much like a film star. He doesn't even look like a film villain, although you would think that the amount of times he's played Fu Manchu would be apparent somewhere, in a certain inscrutability in the eyes, perhaps.
But he's not, he's horribly transparent and he looks old and worn, pouchy. Henry lifts his eyes from the ashtray to Werner, and sees the wetness shining in the corners of Werner's mouth, and he stands up, his own throat dry.
Mostly, Henry knows how to keep his mouth shut.
...or at least, he knows when.
"Excuse me," says a voice next to him, and Henry is momentarily startled because he'd chosen a place out of the way, next to an enormous banana plant that Werner's wife had selected for the party decor. A Hawaiian-Chinese theme, or something to that effect, but the resulting humid display of tropical greenery and pagoda lamps seems nothing more than ridiculous to Henry.
He looks over to find a short man next to him, close, so close that Henry can smell the starch in the man's collar. "You're an actor, aren't you," the man smiles. He looks Jewish, Henry notes, distracted by the quality of his clothes, his shoes, his haircut. He looks like money.
"I am," he says softly, in the tone he's perfected and pitched to be ruthlessly intimate. The man shifts closer still as Henry smiles slightly and asks, "How did you know?"
The man actually looks slightly embarrassed and proud at the same time as he laughs, "Oh, you just start to be able. To notice the type, I mean. Actors. They've got a certain kind of...something. A je ne sais quoi." The man's eyes turn cunning behind his glasses, looking to see if the French has made any impression on Henry one way or another.
But he's schooled himself on keeping a neutral face, and so he doesn't react either way. I'm not that easy, he gloats inside. "At least, not in that respect," he adds, aloud, delighted by the look of charmed confusion that crosses the man's face. Quickly, Henry holds out one hand, which the man takes, limply. "Henry Denton," he smiles. It's so natural to call himself that now that the small man is instantly convinced and his grip tightens a bit.
"Morris Weissman," he says, and Henry feels his smile blossom like blood.
2. It must not be the subject of comedy or farce, or treated as material for laughter.
Weissman courts him more gently than if Henry were a delicate British heiress. He sends invitations to garden parties and premieres and various other outings that Henry is more than happy to attend, scrupulously attired and gleaming like the pearl stickpin in Weissman's tie.
He calls Henry up with fragile suggestions "Come motoring with me, Henry," or "Would you care to have lunch downtown today?" and Henry accepts them all, bemused by the ease of it. To look at Morris with his round spectacles, his thinning hair, his nervous laughter, you would never think that he was a successful Hollywood producer. You would never think that he was financing anything more than perhaps a pampered daughter's college career or his club's new games room.
One simmering evening in June, Morris calls Henry up asking if he'd care to go out for drinks with him and George Raft. Henry stands in his rapidly darkening apartment in his stockinged feet and undershirt and listens to Morris' voice, scuttling through the phone, and he waits until Morris has completely finished talking and finished even babbling nervously.
"No," he says, and predictably, there's a long bleat of silence on the other end. Henry shifts, prickly and irritated. He wishes that just once somebody in this fucking town would do something that wasn't predictable.
"No?" Morris repeats, his voice retreating.
Rubbing his damp forehead, Henry frowns into the phone. "No," he says again. "Send your car for me." The silence isn't so long this time and he smiles wryly before hanging up the phone.
3. It must not be presented in such a way to arouse passion or morbid curiosity on the part of the audience.
When the car is facing the other direction and taking him back home, right in the curve of dawn where even Hollywood's asleep, Henry sits in the back and rubs his wrists. The laughter comes quickly and violently, and the sight of the driver trying not to take notice of him makes him howl even harder.
4. It must not be made to seem right and permissible.
"It's not as if people don't know what you are," he throws sullenly, lounging beside Morris' shimmering blue swimming pool. "It's not as if they don't know what I do for you."
"That's not the point!" Morris halts in his pacing, dressing gown flapping damply about his sodden calves. His hair, still chlorinated from the pool, sticks up in wisps and whorls from his round head, and Henry doesn't bother doing Morris the courtesy of hiding his mocking laugh. Annoyed, Morris waves his cigar emphatically. "The point is...the point is, we want you to succeed, don't we?"
The smile drains from Henry's face. Morris is speaking in his terms now, and he's right. "Yes," he says, dropping one of his raised knees so his legs are spread, lean and golden, the soles of his feet almost touching where they meet. "Yes, we want that. Very much."
"Exactly." Morris stubs out the cigar and picks up his glass of juice, some foul concoction that the Ecuadorian cook swears will clean out his gallbladder. He's really quite a ridiculous little man, Henry notices for what surely must be the hundredth time, watching the grimace while Morris swallows the greenish-orange juice. "Exactly," Morris repeats, setting the empty glass down. "And we don't want everybody talking about you as my...my protege. Instead of an up-and-coming young actor."
"I thought those were the same thing around these parts," Henry mumbles, sliding one hand up his bare thigh to cup around his knee. He tips his hand slightly so he can see his wrist, see the pale skin there that never seems to change, never seems to suffer any sort of blemish or delineation but is always soft and smooth and featureless like powder.
"The pouty starlet act doesn't work quite as well if you're not a starlet," Morris tells him, and Henry looks up, squinting slightly in the sun. Morris is looking at him levelly, his dark eyes like marbles behind his glasses. His voice resonates between them, quiet but hard, a voice better suited for darkness and secrets. Shuddering slightly, Henry stands up, stretching and forcing himself to enjoy the feel of his muscles shifting warm beneath his fine skin.
"Whatever you want, Morris," he shrugs, before taking a few running steps and slicing deeply into the water. The cold of it shocks him more than he'd expected.
5. It general, it must not be detailed in method and manner.
By the time the trip to England becomes more of a reality than merely a topic bandied about over midmorning cocktails, Henry has learned some things.
He stays for weeks at a time at Morris' enormous home, lazing about like a spoiled cat and thoroughly abusing the help, who hate him right back and he revels in that because it's an honest feeling and he doesn't want them to pretend to like him. He's rude and condescending to everybody, and especially derisive when it comes to Morris himself. He enjoys the way Morris' small eyes blink rapidly when he's figuring out just how he's been insulted.
A few weekends, though, he spends back at his own apartment, the wood floors sandy and dry beneath his bare toes. He doesn't turn on lights, even if he needs to get up at night for something. It hardly matters, because he goes to bed early and stares at the ceiling until his eyes cross and close of their own accord.
The moon is full and yellow outside his window one night, and Henry slithers out of his clothes and opens his closet. He holds his breath as the door swings open, so silent that he's almost disappointed that there's no dramatic creak or groan. The scrolling silver edges flash past him and then he's staring at himself, painted pale cream and reflected in the mirror, just as beautiful as he's always been. He stands there and lets his eyes follow the lines of his torso, the shift of his arms, the hollows of his hipbones, the longness in his shins. He watches as the light changes and chills, silvery white pouring over him. The moonlight touches the insides of his wrists, and the dark bruises there.
Henry meets his eyes in the mirror, quicksilver blue, and thinks that there may not be that much difference between desperation and success.