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The Side of Hollywood You Don't See

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With that annual ritual of fanfare, glitz and glamour otherwise known as the Oscars upon us, yet again the world will be treated to a view of Hollywood and the movie industry which suggests streets paved with gold and a passport to fame and fortune for all who arrive with heads filled with dreams and hearts bursting with desire.

But what we are fed on our TV screens and in the pages of showbiz columns and on the multitude of celebrity websites that feed this mammoth industry belies a truth that is as brutal as it is sad.

From 2000 to 2005 I lived and worked in Hollywood, having arrived intent on establishing a career as a screenwriter. To make ends meet while working towards this objective I embarked on work as an extra on the myriad TV shows, sitcoms, and movies that are produced and shot there each year.

Starting out as a non-union extra on minimum wage, I progressed to attaining that all elusive SAG card which marks your entry into the comparatively privileged ranks of the actors union, Screen Actors Guild, and entitles you to double the pay of your non-union counterparts plus various add-ons for walking back and forward in the background of TV sitcoms and dramas like Friends, ER, Frasier, and on movies such as Ocean's 11, Minority Report, and others for anywhere from eight to 14 hours a day. It also means you are eligible to be cast in those much sought after roles in TV commercials, complete with those residual fees for which many would quite literally offer him or herself up in shameless supplication to attain.

On any given day in any of the major studio lots in and around Hollywood, not to mention the innumerable productions being shot on location, thousands of extras, a vast army of men and women of every age, ethnicity, and description are to be found being herded, screamed at, and in many cases abused by hard pressed assistant directors, second assistant directors and production assistants. In the process they are left in no doubt that where the unwritten but rigid caste system of Hollywood is concerned they are the untouchables; the bottom feeders in an industry and in a town where status is the only currency worth having, and where social being not only determines consciousness it also determines who can afford to pay the rent and who cannot.

In my time I witnessed extras being escorted from the soundstage of the sitcom Friends by set security for the crime of arriving for work five minutes late, even as they pleading to be allowed to remain as they hadn't worked in weeks. I saw pensioners being bullied and yelled at by production assistants barely in their twenties for moving too slowly.

Prior to working on the movie Minority Report I was instructed by the casting director not to look directly at the star Tom Cruise or else be immediately escorted off the set.

On one memorable occasion I found myself almost being arrested after swapping punches with the producer of a low budget independent movie after he began yelling abuse at me and the other extras. And while working as Ben Affleck's double on a Christmas comedy that sank without trace, I was privy to the utter venality of an industry in which human beings are reduced to such a state of servility that any notion of self esteem or dignity is the product of a perverse fantasy.

The reality is that rather than fame and fortune it is desperation and despair which abounds in Hollywood. Of the vast army of hopefuls who arrive each and every day from every part of the globe, heads filled with dreams and hearts with desire, those who manage to succeed constitute the tip of the tip of a mammoth iceberg. And of the majority who don't succeed many of those are genuinely talented - indeed, many are the product of the best acting schools and creative writing courses in the business.

But talent alone is not enough in Hollywood. In fact more important than talent, much more, are connections. For writers, getting that script which they've poured their heart and soul into over months of writing and rewriting even read, or for actors securing an audition even for a tiny part on a low budget movie, involves knowing the right people. And it is here where the art of supplication reaches its apogee.

Young and not so young Hollywood hopefuls clog the bars, restaurants and nightclubs all along the Sunset Strip and beyond, working as waiters, cocktail waitresses, busboys, valets, doormen, bar tenders, and hostesses. Each and every one of them does so hoping to come across a major producer, director or movie star who will take a shine to them and provide them with that golden opportunity they've spent years waiting for. It is a recipe for the rampant exploitation and abuse which pervades in this town, and which is measured in the mountain of damaged humanity it leaves in its wake.

But of course this reality, one that lies behind the mask of glamour and excitement of the Oscars, can never dare be revealed. To do so would be to prick the illusion upon which Hollywood has been built and is fed.

Marilyn Monroe said it best: "Hollywood is a place where they'll pay you a thousand dollars for a kiss and fifty cents for your soul."