Angie Dickinson is sitting three rows behind me, and I can't stop whipping my head around to stare at her. Definitely not cool. We are in the Motion Picture Academy theater in Beverly Hills, where staring is a deadly sin. Stare and they know you don't really belong. But it's Angie. How can I not look? She and I go way back.
My mother has always wanted Angie Dickinson's life. Or thinks she is Angie Dickinson. They certainly look alike. Put a brunette wig on Angie and you have my mother. Momma has always expected me to turn her life story into a novel, and there is little doubt that she has Angie slotted for the screen version. (A movie that runs regularly in my mother's mind, I suspect.) I might consider Gena Rowlands, myself, but Momma's probably right to go with Angie. Her lips parted in a perpetual sigh. Aware of her power to draw the eye. Ready at all times for the room to turn and stare.
A Story My Mother Likes To Tell: Thirty years ago my parents are on vacation in San Francisco with another couple, and one night they pile into a cab, heading for the Wharf maybe, or the Embarcadero. And the cabby looks in the rear-view mirror and exclaims, “Angie! Hey! Where you wanna go? Anywhere you want.” My father and the couple look at one another in confusion, but Momma doesn't hesitate. She leans right over the front seat and becomes Angie. Why shouldn't she? Southern housewife, devoted, lifelong movielover, mistaken for a beautiful, sexy star in front of her husband and dumbstruck friends. What good would it do to correct such an error? Why make the night ordinary again? So she leans in. She even gives the cabby an autograph: “Love, Angie.”
We are in the break between features now, and Angie is walking across the lobby back into the theater. I fall into step next to her, wanting to say, “Ms. Dickinson, I have not heard from my mother in three years, and I can't stop staring at you because it's almost like being in the same room with her again.” I don't say that, of course; stars must live in dread of strangers coming up and muttering such things. Nearing the double doors to the theater, I put my hand on her arm (presumptuous, I know) and ask, “Ms. Dickinson, may I have a second?” Angie Dickinson, gorgeous up close, stops and turns.
“Dressed To Kill.”
“It's my all-time favorite movie. I know every frame of it, but there's something I can't figure out that I'm hoping you can help me with.”
“Your character gets picked up by the stranger at the museum. You take a taxi to his house, you're walking into his apartment building. He has his arm around you, he's holding you tight, and just as you get to the door, you look back, you look over your left shoulder. Remember? You see something, or maybe you just sense that someone is following you. I've frozen that scene a dozen times trying to see what you see, but all De Palma shows is some men unloading a van. I don't see any sign of the killer. When you look over your shoulder, what do you see?”
Angie takes a second to consider. She looks down, thinking about it, then back up at me. Blonde. Lord she's blonde. “I think she just senses danger, but I don't really remember. You'll have to ask Brian.”
“I did. He didn't remember, either. Of course, I asked him in a parking garage after a pretty disastrous screening of Bonfire of the Vanities. He was not happy. Probably not the best moment to bring up his greatest triumph.”
She laughs. “No, probably not.”
“Do you mind if I gush a little?”
“That long wordless sequence – from the time you enter the museum until the moment you meet the killer in the elevator – is some of the finest 18 minutes of screen acting I've ever seen.”
“Oh, that was all Brian.”
“Oh, no, darlin',” I say, grinning, moving in tight. “That was all you.”
Angie Dickinson grins back in agreement; her hand gives mine a squeeze, a quick one, a millisecond of touch. “Enjoy the movie,” she says and walks back to her seat.
This, I think, is why I live in this town.
Back in my seat, with the lights coming down for the second show, I am elated. Angie is back in her spot three rows back, but I don't turn to look. Enough. Although Dressed To Kill really is my favorite movie and I have always wondered what she sees as she walks into that building, I guess I knew she wouldn't remember.
A Story I Tell Myself: When I was 14 years old, I was the last kid living at home and my parents were miserable, near the end of things. My mother so unhappy and my father mystified as to why; he'd given her everything. One night, the three of us were sitting in the den watching TV. Daddy in his La-Z-Boy, Momma on the little sofa, me on the big one and there was some show on, I don't remember what, but something with Angie and her husband, Burt Bacharach. Daddy, who rarely thought about celebrities, asked out loud, “How have those two managed to stay together all these years?” To which Momma replied, in a matter-of-fact tone, as if the answer were obvious, “He lets her do her own thing.” There was a pause, the TV talked on, and then my father popped the handle on his La-Z-Boy, shoving his feet down so hard the footrest came crashing shut, the boiiing of the springs echoing through the room and the chair tilting as his whole body came forward. It was violent, that closing of the chair. Daddy thrust his head over at my mother and asked, his words clipped and exact, “And just what is it, this thing he lets her do?” Contempt. Fury. As if everything, all the trouble between them was carried in that single word, thing.
Momma didn't say anything, she just stared straight ahead, refusing to look at him as he left the room, shaking his head. What could she say? She didn't know the answer. Even now, all these years after the divorce, she still can't name what Angie Dickinson got that she didn't. But there is something, there must be. She can feel its absence and the not knowing, the bitterness of not being able to name what was denied her, makes her hold herself at a distance. Withdraw. Perhaps she doesn't want to be reminded of who she was and who she is not. So she does not call her children, her son, me.
These things you do not tell a movie star.