Tuesday, July 26, 2022

Alison B. Hart's "The Work Wife"

Alison B. Hart’s writing has appeared in Joyland Magazine, Literary Hub, The Missouri Review, and The Millions, among others. She co-founded the long-running reading series at Pete’s Candy Store in Brooklyn and received her MFA from The New School. She grew up in Los Angeles and lives in North Carolina.

Here Hart dreamcasts an adaptation of her debut novel, The Work Wife:
The Work Wife is a novel, set over the course of one day, that’s told from the perspective of three women in the orbit of billionaire movie mogul Ted Stabler—his personal assistant Zanne, his wife Holly, and his ex-business partner Phoebe Lee. Maybe it’s because I wanted to be a screenwriter before I ever wanted to be a novelist, but I’ve always enjoyed dreaming up who would play my characters in the movie. So let’s give my Hollywood novel the Hollywood treatment!

Zanne’s the hardest for me to cast. She’s Joan Jett without the makeup, Snow White if she were a daddy. Zanne Klein’s a tough nut. She grew up in LA as the only child of a single mother, the product of an affair between a professor and his teaching assistant. When she was thirteen, her mother died, and Zanne was shipped off to Boston to live with a father and a step family she never knew. All of the ingredients are there for her to develop a substance abuse problem, and she does. At 18, she gives the finger to her dad (and the free tuition she could get at the college where he teaches) and heads back to LA to work on a film crew. Zanne was striking even as a child, and never knew what to do with all that attention from men, which felt barbed and hostile. But when she finds herself struggling to make ends meet on the peanuts she’s paid as a production assistant, she picks up extra work as a “model,” paid to attend parties and look pretty, and sliding perilously toward dangerous situations. Eventually, she leaves LA, comes out as gay, gets clean, and by the time we meet her on the morning of this one extraordinary day, she’s built up a hard shell around herself. There are a lot of actresses who could play Zanne, but I picture her like Ally Sheedy in High Art, someone who’s battled so many demons they seem impenetrable, but look closer and you realize they’re walking a tightrope toward everything they’ve ever wanted, and one misstep can cost them everything.

Holly Stabler is Hollywood’s golden girl. She grew up modestly in the mountains north of LA, a sweet, popular girl who loves to paint and ride horses. In art school, she doesn’t recognize the trustee and famous director who paid her a studio visit, but Ted Stabler takes a shine to the young artist. Next thing she knows, she’s married with two kids and smiling on the cover of all the tabloids in the nail salon, her art career an afterthought. No one really knows Holly Stabler but everyone loves her—except maybe her husband, who’s so busy he looks right through her. Everyone wants her long, reddish hair that’s straight out of a Pantene commercial. Everyone wants Holly Stabler to be nice, and she is—until she’s not anymore. Picture Connie Britton in White Lotus or Leslie Mann in This Is 40.

Phoebe Lee is a better filmmaker than Ted Stabler, and she knows it. Or she once was—and might still have been—if her career hadn’t been derailed twenty years ago while her creative partner, Ted Stabler, went on to amass a shelf full of trophies, a film and TV empire, and a giant fortune. She’s never kidded herself; she knows success won’t come as easily to her as it did to Ted. She’s a Korean-American woman, the daughter of immigrants, and she’ll have to fight to make it into the same rooms where Ted is welcomed with pats on the back from the rest of the boys club. Now 48, she’ll do whatever it takes to get her film on the silver screen. Chloé Zhao won her Oscar for Nomadland as I was revising The Work Wife, and Crazy Rich Asians’ Gemma Chan’s arrival at the Oscars inspired a key scene in the book, but the actress I’ve always seen when I think of Phoebe is Sandra Oh.
Visit Alison B. Hart's website.

--Marshal Zeringue