I knew a very successful talent agent once who told me that he and his wife had made a big life decision a few years before. It was one of those confessional moments that occasionally come out of nowhere.
“My wife and I made a big life decision a few years ago,” he said.
“Oh, how interesting,” I replied, trying to convey my anxiety about how personal this was getting. “How’s your salad?”
“It’s nothing too personal,” he said with a dismissive wave of his hand. “It’s just that a few years ago, we made the decision to live formally.”
“Live formally?” I asked, baffled. “You mean like ambassadors or something?”
What he meant, he told me, boiled down to this: they owned a large and old (for Los Angeles) mansion in Bel Air – full of the kinds of filigrees and details that suited an older, more proper kind of lifestyle – and it bothered them that all they really did was lounge around in T-shirts and jeans, eat casually in the kitchen, and reserve the formal rooms for formal occasions, which they never had.
So they decided to use their dining room for daily meals. And they dressed up a little. He wore his office suit. She wore something fancy. They lived a little like people do in movies from the 1930s, when it always seems to be a formal dinner party and no one is ever in a T-shirt.
“Must be a lot of work,” I said. “Is it worth it? Don’t you ever just want to hang around in your underwear eating biscuits directly from the box?”
“Sometimes,” he said. “But then we both remember that despite why we did this in the first place, it’s had an extremely positive effect on our marriage. Because it’s impossible to be really thoughtlessly rude when you’re all dressed up. You’re just naturally more polite and gracious, no matter how you really feel. The most you’ll be, across a nicely set dinner table, is ‘snippy’. And considering the alternatives, ‘snippy’ is not so bad.”
“But don’t you sometimes just want to be casual?”
“Rob,” he said, “there’s nothing casual about a marriage.”
“But don’t you just want to be comfortable?”
“There’s nothing comfortable about it, either.”
I’ll take his word for that, but what he didn’t say – and what I think the real reason for the formal living decision was – is that he’s a Hollywood agent. And there’s so much about being a successful agent that entails screaming obscenities into a telephone that there’s a real danger of bringing that kind of aggressive brutality home. Along with the money, of course, but that’s a trade-off some aren’t willing to make.
So the dining room and the dress-up clothes were a reminder – the way an actor often needs to be in wardrobe to really connect with a character – that the person at work, the one who is given to psychopathically unscrupulous dealing, needs to stay at work, and the person at home needs to be a little more like, say, William Powell in My Man Godfrey – charming, well-dressed, witty, and thoughtful.
They’re still very happily married, so it seems to be working.
And when I think about it, it’s not a bad choice for the show business workplace, either. In this casual industry, where writers and actors often wear a slovenly uniform of T-shirt, jeans, baseball cap and battered trainers, I often wonder, “Where’s the armour? Where’s the projection of effortless mastery?” Because if you’re wearing what are, essentially, children’s after-school clothes, how on earth can you stand up to the sharp and sharklike devils who fill the executive ranks of the studios and networks?
But if you dress up a bit – if, in addition to living formally you work formally – maybe that will give you the confidence to be a little tougher, a little more intimidating. A guy in a T-shirt is easy to push around. A guy in a nice suit with real shoes? Not so much.
“Well, do you wear a suit?” a writer asked me when I mentioned this.
“No,” I confessed. “I wish I could organise myself to do that, but in the end, when I’m producing a television show, I like to be comfortable.”
“What’s comfortable,” he asked, “about running a TV show?”
That, I had to admit, was a good point. Maybe if you’re comfortable and casual, in your work and in your marriage, you’re doing it wrong.
Rob Long is a writer and producer based in Hollywood
On Twitter: @rcbl