Joel Coles, a twenty-eight-year-old screenwriter, son of a once-successful stage actress, has spent his childhood between New York and London, trying to separate the real from the unreal. For six months he has been in Hollywood writing scenes and sequences for films as a continuity writer. He is invited to a Sunday cocktail party at the home of the Miles Calmans, a mansion in Beverly Hills “built for great emotional moments.” Miles Calman is the most significant director at the studio; his wife is the star Stella Walker, whom Miles has created (“brought that little gamin alive and made her a sort of masterpiece”). Joel sees the invitation as evidence that he is getting somewhere in his career, as well as an opportunity to mix with the important people of the industry.
Though he resolves not to drink at the party—Miles Calman is “audibly tired of rummies”—Joel breaks his vow. As a result, he performs for the crowd a tasteless impersonation of a crass independent producer, Dave Silverstein, burlesquing the man’s cultural limitations. Tempted to show off for the attentive Stella Calman, Joel seizes on this routine, which has been well received at other parties. The result is disastrous: The feeling of the audience is expressed by the booing from an actor, the Great Lover of filmdom. “It was the resentment of the professional toward the amateur, of the community toward the stranger, the thumbs-down of the clan.”
The next day, back at the studio lot, abashed and alarmed, Joel writes an apology to Miles but receives the following day a letter of praise from Stella and an invitation to her sister’s Sunday buffet supper.
At the buffet, Joel learns of the Calmans’ troubles—Miles’s affair with actress Eva Goebel, his jealousy of Stella, his trials with his psychoanalyst, his mother fixation and its linking of sex with dependency. Joel is informed of this by the Calmans themselves, mostly Stella, back at the Calmans’ house. It is obvious by now that Joel is falling in love with Stella and that Stella is using Joel to spur Miles’s jealousy so that his attraction to Eva will be neutralized. The Pygmalion story of Miles and Stella—the creation that he brought to life with the marriage—is in peril, both Miles and Stella feeling they might lose the dream: he as artist/fairy godmother, she as Pygmalion/Cinderella. Eva is Stella’s best friend; Joel is considered by Miles a friend and confidant.
Monday, at the studio, Joel is invited by Stella to escort her to the Perry’s Saturday dinner and theater party, for Miles is flying to the football game at South Bend.
On Wednesday Joel asks Miles about the flight to the football game and about the party, finding that Miles is indecisive because of his jealousy and guilt: He might stay, he thinks, and escort Stella safely to the party. Reassured when Joel says that he is not even planning to go to the party, Miles asks him to go, for he likes Joel. The problem, says Miles, is that he has trained Stella to like the men he likes.
Miles flies east to attend the game and sends Stella telegrams from there, yet she insists that he could have had the telegrams sent falsely and could be observing what she does. What she has done is to take Joel into her house and seduce him, or anyway, to invite his seduction of her. This occurs just before midnight, but the result is that Joel becomes aware that she still loves Miles, a fact she admits. Just past midnight, on the third Sunday of the story, a phone call informs Stella of Miles’s death in an airplane crash.
With the news of Miles’s death, which Stella refuses to accept, Stella’s attitude toward Joel changes, from the distancing that accompanied and followed their lovemaking to begging him to stay the night with her and to make love to her. Joel realizes that Stella is trying to keep Miles alive by sustaining a situation and a problem in which he played an important part; she will play the role of the unfaithful wife that...
(The entire section is 1,518 words.)