Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Class Not Dismissed

In which we get a peek at how status works in the Valley

I recently borrowed a copy of Paul Fussell’s “Class: A Guide through the American Status System” from a friend. It’s an entertaining jaunt through this country’s unwritten but ever evident caste constitution. Though slightly out of date in its semiotics—it was written in the 1980s—the book’s essentials still resonate.

The other night I came home from the office and went to my local for a pop or two and a chat with the barkeep. In observance of Rule #1—always bring a book*—I took “Class” along with me.

Once inside I was hailed, boisterously, by a fellow semi-regular patron. I’ve spoken to this fellow once or twice but don’t know his name, so his effusiveness was lost on me. Until, that is, I realized he was talking to a celebrity and clearly wanted me to know it.

Burt Young is a fine character actor. He’s most noted for his role as “Paulie” in the “Rocky” movies, and as a frequent character in the TV detective series, “The Rockford Files” in the 1970s and ‘80s. He lives in or around Studio City and frequents many of its eating places and watering holes. He seems like an amiable fellow—a regular guy.

And on the fringes of Hollywood he is revered by many as though he was all but a prophet or a prince.

In Fussell’s book, high class has to do with association with, or the appearance of association with, East Coast, old money, Anglophilic culture. Family roasts on Sunday, Harris tweeds, attendance to the right schools, expensive and wasteful leisure activities, a distinct absence of legible attire such as printed ball caps and t-shirts, a proper sense of distanced irony and aplomb… that sort of thing. You can see in people’s houses their attempts to achieve that elusive high caste status—the 1950s ranch-style tract house that has been tarted up to look like a Tudor manse, colonaded colonial bungalow, or Milanese palazzo.

But Studio City is situated on the edge of Hollywood. It turns Fussell’s model, if not on its head, then at least on its side, and with its leg in the air. Here, it’s not class per se that counts, but status. It’s a status that can be acquired in a number of ways by those who care to. Notoriety and celebrity are the two quickest and easiest routes and usually involve, these days, some kind of orchestrated outrageousness (such as being a contestant on American Idol or doing schtick like Marylin Manson). That’s the L.A. way. But in my quiet little corner of the Valley, among those keen to make a living in TV, commercials, film, and more recently, computer games, it’s industry chops that counts.

So in my neighborhood, Burt Young, with his long acting history, is treated, if not as royalty, then at least as nobility. People act funny around him. They bask in reflected glory in his presence, hence my fellow patron’s unusual, beaming gregariousness. He was saying: “Look! Burt Young, the actor, is talking to me, and I am talking to Burt Young!”

I sat down, ordered my drink, exchanged pleasantries with the barkeep, and opened “Class.” Young and the other fellow went of with their chat in low tones. After a short while I noticed that many of the other patrons on the bar kept casting furtive glances in Young’s direction, each cocking a surreptitious ear to hear whatever wisdom might issue forth from between his lips. Maybe, just maybe, they would catch the one little bagatelle of showbiz insight that, if acted upon, would fling them into character-actor film and TV success and allow them to quit their day jobs.

After Young left, my fellow semi-regular beamed and, shaking his head, said, “He’s such a nice guy… Wow… What a nice guy…” And everyone listening had to agree, nodding “…nice guy…yeah…great guy…” finishing off with the extended “Oh, yeah—sigh…”

Not that Young isn’t a nice guy; he certainly seems to be. But that’s not the point. In a milieu of struggling actors, directors, writers and producers, it’s his chops, more than his amiability, that have earned him his status. It's what makes people want to be around him, listen to what he has to say and make sure others know that they have his attention. If he were an amiable plumber, no one, perhaps not even his fellow plumbers, would give him the time of day.

That’s the way class, caste and status roll in the Valley. I wonder what Fussel would say?

*Rule #2: Never start a land war is Asia; Rule #3: Never drive through Dallas in an open car.


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11:17 AM  

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