By Besha Rodell
By Patrick Range McDonald
By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
YET BY ALL OUTWARD APPEARANCES, Duncan had conquered New York — and Hollywood would be next. By 2002 they had settled in Los Angeles, staying in temporary digs at the Chateau Marmont — where else? — then rented a house on a Venice canal. It was time for a career jump, with the CD-ROM market dead. CD-ROMs were, as J.C. Herz now points out, “a temporary art form, like a novella.” But L.A.’s fickle film-and-television industry proved a much tougher challenge for Duncan.
In a written exchange in 2006, Duncan and I discussed how people create personal façades. She wrote, “I said I had the last credits of my B.A. on résumés when I did not. I shave a couple years off my age sometimes, which is the only thing I regret.” In the same exchange, she explained that having arrived in Hollywood, “I tell the truth about all these things all the time. The fantasy is handled in my day job. Plus, my profile is raised and I don’t want any fodder for making me look unreliable when I have to handle large crews and budgets.”
There were, however, no large crews or budgets. A version of Closet Cases can be seen on YouTube, but the authoritative IMDB has no record of either the Oxygen Media or VH1 project coming to fruition. Hollywood journalist Nikki Finke (a columnist for the Weekly) says Hollywood “is littered with the bodies of people who came out here to make it big. There’s a big difference between those who have set deals — someone’s going to make their movie — and those who have shopping agreements.”
Duncan privately struggled to nail down that elusive deal — even as Blake’s career gained steam. His digital art impressed director Paul Thomas Anderson, who hired him to create hallucinogenic sequences for the 2002 movie Punch-Drunk Love. Then Blake worked on Beck’s Sea Change album, creating a series of covers. (Duncan would later claim that this is when Scientology — Beck is a member — first took an interest in the pair.)
Art dealer and gallery owner Christine Nichols, who had known the couple for years, told the Weekly that Duncan sometimes found it hard to see Blake working with anyone but her. Their relationship was so intertwined, Nichols says, “You were either in complete agreement with everything they said or you were an enemy.”
Four years into her life in L.A., with her Hollywood career flagging, Duncan took a minor stab at journalism, penning a piece for Slate on reality shows and two articles for Artforum. (In 2005, at the urging of close friend Blake Robin, who owns a small record label, she had launched her blog, The Wit of the Staircase, where she wrote witty observations about esoteric perfumes, hotel bars and arcane literary works.)
But several odd incidents hinted at Duncan’s increasingly troubled state of mind. She suggested on her blog, without proof, that director Francis Ford Coppola had “smeared and threatened” her because she wrote a mildly critical Artforum review of his daughter’s film Lost in Translation. Yet Tim Griffin, the editor of Artforum, e-mailed the Weekly that “We never received any complaints about her contributions” to the magazine — from Coppola or anyone else.
Slate.com gave Duncan an assignment on celebrity perfumes, editor Julia Turner tells the Weekly, but problems arose after the story went online. Disturbed readers sent Slate some links to works by perfume blogger Victoria Frolova, showing that Duncan had lifted Frolova’s words. “We take that very seriously, and asked Theresa about it — she was upset and confused,” Turner recalls.
Says Turner, “We looked back at the first draft, and there were even more problems. We put up two editor’s notes, which [Duncan] didn’t like at all — but we’ve got a commitment to our readers.” Online perfume forums were abuzz about Duncan’s plagiarism, after which Slate published an apology to Frolova.
Duncan wasn’t all that sorry, writing on her blog that the blogger she plagiarized “acted like I had tried to murder her.” In the same post, Duncan casually dropped hints of living on a higher plane: “When I pitch a film I always begin with the influences, in legendary ‘it’s Jurassic Park-meets-Heidi’ fashion, and then some Hollywood also-ran runs around town saying, ‘It’s Heidi! She stole!’?”
According to Nichols and other friends who spoke to the Weekly only off record, Duncan began blaming her lack of success on the Church of Scientology, saying that the church was influencing “the studios.” Duncan accused her skeptical friends of stealing hair from her hairbrush to send to the Scientology Center, Nichols says, and confided to Nichols, “I really don’t have any friends.”
Duncan’s paranoia began to hurt her professionally. Renee Tab, her agent, tells the Weekly that Duncan was advised to tone down the paranoid talk but called back later to say she had not given that advice to Duncan, but hoped or wished someone had. And two of Duncan’s acquaintances, who refused to be named, say they were so unsettled by Duncan’s campaigns by e-mail, where she accused them of trying to hurt her or Blake’s careers, that they contacted lawyers. Nichols says of Duncan and Blake, “They didn’t just burn their bridges, they exploded them.”