After brush with stars, real life has more meaning

The red carpet’s vacuumed, new dresses designed, and that means that the Academy Award season encroaches upon the American public. As I watch preparations for Hollywood’s most glamorous night, I am reminded of my own run in with the stars just over a year ago and although I didn’t make the cut, neither did “Mona Lisa Smile.”

About a year ago, I got paid over $300 to study for the GREs. Well, that’s not completely true — I also read some of “Pilgrim’s Progress” for my senior seminar. I discovered an excellent new source of income, and it happened to be in filmmaking.

I responded to a request placed by the William Morris Agency for extras in the recently released movie “Mona Lisa Smile,” which was filmed at Yale in the fall of 2002. In the course of 14 hours, I had my hair braided, twisted and curled and my skin covered and recovered with theoretically non-pore clogging powder; I squeezed into a 1950s corset and acquired blisters from slippery loafers. But mostly, I sat in a white wedding tent on the New Haven Green, idly chatting with fellow Yalies and studiously catching up on my work.

Ironically, across the street and out of sight of our glamorous headquarters, about 100 homeless people huddled next to Trinity-on-the-Green because New Haven authorities closed an overflow homeless shelter, which has since been reopened. Residents of “tent city” relied upon the port-o-potty and meals provided by charitable groups during the time that they remained homeless. Across the street, we had catered meals — grilled vegetables and al dente pasta accompanied by lavish tables with dozens of cakes from which to choose dessert.

I never actually appear in the movie, but I did stand behind Julia Stiles as she got her makeup done. I glanced at her image in the mirror in front of me and she empathetically smiled in my direction. Then John Caglione Jr., an Academy Award winning makeup artist berated her acne-covered face.

“What kind of soap have you been using?” he interrogated.

“Neutrogena for oily skin,” she timidly replied.

“No, no, no. You need to use [and here I paraphrase] some overpriced brand with a famous person’s name pasted on the label.”

I also had a run-in with Julia Roberts. I heard her shoes rush up the stairs in the Yale Art Gallery and periodically listened to the director call, “Good work, Julia. Excellent.” When my co-extras returned from the set, they spoke enthusiastically of brushing shoulders, quite literally, with America’s sweetheart. And while feeling mildly rejected that I wasn’t chosen to walk down a flight of stairs while Roberts pranced up them, I mostly felt confused at this overawed idolatry of actresses who were every bit as flawed and human as I am. I confess little disappointment. I doubt I will ever again be paid so much to do so little, and it’s certainly a story I can dine off of for years. But as I viewed all the superficiality, all the makeup and the lighting, I realize that I’m just not cut out for that environment. I belong on the other side of the street.

I used to harbor a faint hope that I would be an Academy Award-winning actress. If I ever dreamed such thoughts, then I awakened from them that day. That’s not to say that wedding-tent world doesn’t serve a purpose. We all need to escape our lives periodically and gaze upon a new universe within the silver screen — I am certainly planning on tuning into the Academy Awards on Feb. 29. For just a few minutes, or if we’re lucky a few hours, we might believe in something larger and more perfect than our own pithy lives. We might even want to be part of it. But at the end of the day, I look forward to crossing the street and coming home.


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