High school highs, and lows

High school was hell, but Eve Babitz makes me envious of those four ego-scarring years with her descriptions of life on campus at prestigious performing arts school Hollywood High, which is famed as much for its glitzy alumni as for its cameos in films like, uh, Jon Favreau’s “Made.” (Anyone?)

Babitz mentions her days/daze at Hollywood High School in “I Used to Be Charming,” a plump collection of essays and magazine articles by the cool, acerbic chronicler of LA’s kaleidoscopic contours which I happen to be reading. It’s the early 1960s and she “used to watch them, those guys in their maroon and white sweaters at Hollywood High, their handsome faces and their invincibility and the way they smiled and said Hi.”

Right, that sounds like many a teenage girl mooning over the jock block. But Hollywood High is different, a sort of Harvard of the arts, a Juilliard transplanted to the sunny, mountain-fringed SoCal coast. It’s where the likes of Judy Garland, Cher, Laurence Fishburne, Carol Burnett, Selena, Bruce Lee, Sarah Jessica Parker, Lana Turner, John Huston and a wad of other luminaries graduated from. 

For mere mortals, it makes you think: Well, crap.

My California high school was a miasma of mediocrity: Clorox-white, suburban, middle-class, filled with dullards and philistines and animated by cliquey teen clichés — jocks, stoners, nerds, punks, cheerleaders, et al. “The Breakfast Club” writ eye-rollingly real. 

This callow pimple-verse was of course dominated by the chest-thumping jocks, those entitled, vainglorious meatheads, who actually believed they were special and that anyone but them gave one goddam about a Friday night football game. In four years, I attended one pep rally. I’ve never been so mortified in my life.

I can’t imagine the boho Babitz — artist, writer, rock- and art-scene groupie — stooping to the synthetic glee of a pep rally. But who knows. She was a wild one, slurping up life’s rich cocktail, no matter how corny or queasy. Her eyes were wide open, and rimmed with an agreeable cynicism that gave her writing a feral pop.

51qpHkS8hyLThe trope goes that high school is misery for anyone who’s even partially cognizant. It’s political, hierarchical, mean, rife with crappy beer, unshackled lust and timorous gropes. It leaves burn marks.

Not so for Babitz. Beautiful and busty — “When I was fifteen years old, I bought and filled my first 36DD bra,” she writes — and talented to boot, Babitz cultivated hot style with her precocious female cronies, described as “preternatural high schoolers,” which groomed her for a young adulthood of exotic artsy adventures, including a famous dalliance with Jim Morrison. 

One observer writes:

“It’s very likely Eve Babitz’s high school experience bore little resemblance to her readers’, then or now. A graduate of Hollywood High, the LA-based writer and artist moved in a circle of young women who enjoyed the company of older men. They smoked with abandon, casually popped pills, made out with the boyfriends of famous actresses, and occasionally made it to class. Many of Babitz’s peers were achingly beautiful; more than a few became famous because of it.”

I had more fun in high school than I let on — a dash of Babitz’s decadence and a lot of standard teen tomfoolery, as well as the predictable sturm und drang (angst for the memories) and a streak of bleeding heartache. 

Despite my tight quartet of high school friends being creative, thoughtful and music-obsessed, we were no Algonquin Round Table, nothing as chic, daring and ambitious as Babitz’s band of pretty bright things. 

We felt we were treading water in a sea of douchebaggery, believing, as deluded teens will, that we had an edge on most of our classmates, that someday our low-key cool would be appreciated. We were most assuredly wrong. 

So, these many years later, I pine for richer high school days, ones more artistically rarefied and socially sophisticated; grittier, glammier, sexier and slambangier. Pathetic? So be it. If I’m viewing it all through a gauze of romanticism, turning the rearview mirror into a funhouse mirror, I blame Babitz, that bard of badassness, queen of cool and cynosure of sex appeal.

If only.

McConaughey, the mensch

Meeting celebrities is easy. Interviewing them is a breeze. They are generally polished to a professional sheen. They know how to play the game, which is patently transactional. Some are harder than others (I’m squinting at you, Paul Thomas Anderson). Matthew McConaughey? He’s a cinch.

A good ol’ boy from East Texas, with a boingy twang, squinchy blue eyes, and bounding with bonhomie, McConaughey is much like what he seems: a smart, friendly dude you might want to shoot a shot with. He’s a charismatic lava lamp, alive and aglow.

To a journalist like me in 1998 — young, a smidge green — he was the most caring, amicable guy around. I was having a face-to-face interview with the actor in a Beverly Hills hotel room during a junket for “The Newton Boys,” Richard Linkater’s ill-fated western-comedy. A Texas guy, McConaughey was fascinated that I’d recently relocated from California to Austin for a newspaper job as a film critic. 

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He seemed genuinely interested, and we talked all things Austin and Texas, acting and movies. And from the room balcony he pointed out the groovy ‘70s-style van in the parking lot that he was driving cross-country for the hell of it. He was 27. We bonded enough that he’d remember me for years afterward. 

Like when he was walking the red carpet at the premiere of his 1999 comedy “Edtv” and he spotted me, grabbed my hand, pulled me aside and asked me how I was enjoying my new Texas hometown. He was sincere and serious, with laser eye-contact, shutting out the bustle around him. Then he smiled wide, cheeks caving into dimples, before moving on down the line. 

He didn’t have to do that. He could have said hi, answered my softball questions and walked on. But he was cool, concerned, a gentleman. He had class. 

Months later, when I ran into him at a Wendy’s on the University of Texas campus before a rare screening of Vincente Minnelli’s 1958 “Some Came Running,” McConaughey seemed a little out of his element, a tad awkward, though he still made a point of making me feel welcome and an equal. He spoke in a hushed drawl. He barely smiled. He kept things low-key. I introduced him to my girlfriend. He bought a large Coke. He sat in the middle row, we sat in the back.

The relationship between journalist and subject/source is a dicey one. They are rarely seamless. There’s a give and take, a perilous reciprocity that often leaves one party feeling burned. And so there’s this:

McConaughey was working the red carpet for the local premiere of Kevin Costner’s 1999 baseball melodrama “For the Love of the Game” at UT. He was beaming, strutting out of a black limo, in all white and all alone.  

He isn’t in the movie, he was just a celeb guest at the gala. And he was chomping a hunk of gum like cud. He approached me affably, answered two questions, then sauntered into the auditorium, chased by hearty cheers. 

I report details. I like what’s called “color” in my stories. So in my piece about the screening I prefaced McConaughey’s quotes with: “He was conspicuously chewing a huge wad of gum.” Readers want to know each iota of their beloved celebrities’ behavior. This, I thought, was a telling detail — innocuous but revealing. Or so I thought.

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Matthew, gum, chew.

In 2003, four years after this gum-chewing reportage, the Austin Film Society threw a 10-year anniversary bash for the release of Richard Linklater’s coming-of-age masterwork “Dazed and Confused,” which was made in Austin and co-starred a cocky, hilarious young newcomer named Matthew McConaughey. 

A red carpet press-line was formed. Here comes McConaughey, who I haven’t seen in four years. He is arm-in-arm with two young women, and chewing gum. I hurl him a question. He stops on a dime before me, and says, pointing to his mouth, “Tell them that I was ‘conspicuously chewing a huge wad of gum,’ you got that?” Dimples flashed, this time with a shit-eating grin, and he brusquely walked away with an up-yours swagger. 

Perhaps, just maybe, I had pissed him off.

Forward five years, to 2008. I hadn’t seen People Magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive (2005) since the “Dazed and Confused” screening and I was a little nervous as I was scheduled to interview him for the micro-indie comedy “Surfer, Dude” in Austin.  

He was there, in shorts and sandals, hair mussed and shaggy, mood ebullient. He greeted me with glowing teeth and cavernous dimples. He was almost ecstatic. He loved this movie. He was back. 

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McConaughey during our “Surfer, Dude” interview

At the end of a very friendly chat, I screwed up the nerve to ask him about that day when he repeated back to me, “Tell them that I was ‘conspicuously chewing a huge wad of gum,’ you got that?”

He laughed heartily. “I didn’t like the use of the adverb ‘conspicuously,’” he told me, practically slapping my knee. “If you hadn’t used that word I wouldn’t have cared!” He was over it. We cracked up.

The intricate dance of writer and subject is a fragile one. Like that, it can topple in misunderstanding. It can snap on the perceived power of one simple word. But people, even movie stars with eggshell egos, are resilient, forgiving and, sometimes, like McConaughey, true mensches.