VIVA LAS VEGAS, Author and stripperOnce upon a time (this is a fairy tale), late on a Tuesday night at Mary’s Club, a posse of handsome, well-dressed men entered the bar and quietly took seats along the back wall. Immediately whispers hissed through the club. “Sean Penn is here!”
Headed to the stage, I was suddenly overwhelmed by an urge to hide. My knees felt weak. I had to command my legs to remain under me. For though it was true that Sean Penn had just walked in, so had Gus Van Sant. My hero. The man I had idolized since my first viewing of My Own Private Idaho.
One thing I take very seriously as a dancer is communicating with my audience through music. At Mary’s, the jukebox has a limited but diverse selection of tunes. What could I play that would honor, wow and seduce my hero, in exactly three songs, while consciously reminding my legs to remain under me?
The first song is a blur. I think it was the Wipers. Then I steadied myself with a shot of Hornitos and shrugged off my underthings to Ella Fitzgerald’s “Them There Eyes.” My third song, straight out of Gus’ Drugstore Cowboy, was “The Israelites” by Desmond Dekker. When the song ended, I curtsied, grabbed my robe and the generous stage contributions and scurried downstairs to the basement dressing room to find a gift for my prince.
Now, we all know that Gus doesn’t play for my team and is not very likely to fall for a Mary’s Club girl. That wasn’t my intention. Like I said, I wanted to honor, wow and seduce him. So I dusted off my favorite pair of glass slippers—the ones with the 7-inch Lucite heels and the little ducks floating in the platforms. I also grabbed a CD by Coco Cobra and the Killers to give to Spicoli—I mean, Sean Penn—as it seemed rude not to include him in my total fan-girl meltdown.
I presented Gus with my shoes and Sean with my CD. Sean, being garrulous, heterosexual and adept at getting into gals’ panties, got really excited about the CD, its Petaluma pedigree (“that’s where I LIVE!”) and the fact that we had both hung out with ex-Black Panther Pete O’Neal in Tanzania. Gus, being shy, humble and not-so-heterosexual, graciously accepted the shoes, but said little. He probably gave them to Milo, his Australian shepherd, later that night. But he came back to Mary’s Club to visit several times after that, cast me in a couple of movies and—miracle of miracles—welcomed me into his circle of devoted friends.
Months later, these two men reconvened to discuss a Gus movie that Sean was slated to star in. According to Gus, Sean asked after me, “that stripper,” and when Gus told him I was going to be his guest at the Cannes Film Festival, Sean’s eyes nearly popped out of his head.
At Cannes, it became even clearer to me what a rare breed our Gus is. In France he is deified. It seemed he was on the cover of every industry magazine. But he’s hardly your archetypal director: egomaniacal, authoritarian, self-absorbed. Rather, he is humble, even shy. His films are infused with a sense of place and, like him, are quiet, humble and trenchant. And while he is an international celebrity, surrounded by adoring throngs wherever he hangs his hat, I sense that he—like me—would rather observe than be observed, and that although doors swing wide open for him in the most privileged places, he—like me—finds the most inspiration on the wet, gray and gritty streets of Portland.