Lina wasn't sure who was more startled by their initial encounter. She was lounging in a folding chair next to one of the Monumental sound stages during a break in shooting, her brow furrowing beneath her dark sunglasses as she scribbled out a line on a page.
"Can I help you?" she asked, glancing up as a figure bounded towards her.
Her jaw dropped at the same time as Don Lockwood's.
"Well, Donnie," Lina sneered, recovering quickly and leaning as far forward in her chair as she had suddenly leaned into her nasal placement. "Haven't seen you in a while."
Don was still gaping at her.
"Did you just...?" He stared for a moment longer, then cleared his throat and shot his former leading lady one of his most dazzling smiles. "Well, gee, Lina, it's swell to see you, too. How've things been?"
Lina leaned back in her chair and pulled off her sunglasses, coolly taking in Don Lockwood. His suit was four seasons old, and although his grin was as broad as always, it had lost an edge of the self-assurance that it had once always held.
"Peachy, Donnie, just peachy."
"Well, you certainly look like a million bucks." Don laughed a bit as he sat down on a chair-height prop column that had been left on the edge of the sound stage. "You, uh, somehow still landing roles in all the pictures I haven't seen recently?"
"Oh, I don't shoot pictures anymore, Donnie," Lina simpered, and she suddenly let her voice fall back into its low, melodic, natural register. "I write them."
There it was again, that look of bewilderment as Don Lockwood was confronted with several confounding facts all at once.
"You write...?" Don closed his eyes and shook his head. "All right, first things first, Lina: What's happened to your voice?!"
"Nothing's happened, Donnie; this is how I've always really sounded." Lina rolled her eyes. "Aren't you planning to ask what's happened to my twang and my grammar and my vocabulary, too?"
"Well, if this is how you always sounded, why the hell did you have to put all of us through the circus you did, huh?" Don snapped at her, crossing his arms.
Lina glared at Don for a long moment, then tugged a cigarette from her purse and lit up.
"You have no idea, do you?" she said finally, blowing a billow of smoke at Don as she once again leaned forward over her crossed legs. "Fine, then. Say you're an eighteen-year-old girl from some backwater where you're expected to be married with two kids by the time you're twenty. Say your dream is to be in the pictures, but whenever you even open your mouth to voice your opinion about your life and your future, your daddy gives you a solid backhand and tells you to shut up. Say you finally save enough money to get the the hell outta that backwater, and you make it to Hollywood, and everything is lights and glamor, and you finally feel like you could really be someone, if you work hard enough. But in your first audition, the director puts his hand up your skirt, and suddenly you realize that you're still a nobody, that you're always gonna be a nobody, no matter how many theaters have your face splashed all over them, so long as you have to screw a sweaty old man in order to be visible."
Lina paused to take another drag.
"So, what do you do? It's an era where sound doesn't matter, and you know that there's a certain voice you used when you were a kid that always made your daddy flinch and slap you even harder and tell you not to be such a shrill bitch. Your face is still pretty, and that's what's gonna sell the tickets, and you play sorta dumb in auditions so that places will still hire you even with that voice. They're gonna expect you not to talk too much, to be sweet and simple, like the angel your face makes you out to be. But backstage? You use that voice to keep the men away. It doesn't win you any friends, but you came to Hollywood to be successful, not to be popular. And, once you're a bit of a star and can afford it, you become the shrill bitch that your daddy used to always tell you not to be. It keeps the grabby hands off your tits, at least most of the time."
Lina glanced at Don, then stubbed out her cigarette aggressively.
"And say eventually you've made it, you're invited to all the big parties and wear all the biggest names and are getting just slightly more press than Norma Desmond herself. And the studio decides to pair you with this handsome rising star, for publicity purposes. He's charming as the devil, and dances as easily as he breathes, and has an ego bigger than Texas and California rolled into one. And you so want him to like you, once you've seen him in his element and realize that he's also somehow the one man around not interested in palming your ass. But you've gotten stuck in the repellant role you've had to create for yourself, and besides, this handsome star really couldn't care less about anything other than his best pal Cosmo and his own damn reflection. So, since R.F.'s latest squeeze has disappeared to god knows where, and that never bodes well, you ramp up the harpy voice and you ratchet up the dumb, and you cling to your newly assigned better-half in public so no one else tries to cling to you in private. And you keep on surviving, like you always have, even if it means that the first half of 'Lockwood and Lamont' can barely stand to be in the same room as the second."
Don had lowered his head guiltily. Lina took out another cigarette for herself, and, after a moment, she sighed and offered one to Don. He accepted both the cigarette and a light without looking at Lina.
"I was jealous, you know," Lina continued, slipping her packet of cigarettes back into her purse. "Not because I ever thought you'd be interested in me that way. But because of the fact that here you were, suddenly running around with this chipper kid with a phenomenal voice, and she never had to hide it. You'd taken a shine to her, so, swell, the boys all knew that she was your gal and they weren't gonna touch her. And meanwhile, there I was, flailing in deep water. I didn't know how to go back to my real sound, once the talkies came along and I suddenly needed it to survive in the industry. Being Lina Lamont, the dumb girl with the funny voice, was so much a part of who I was in Hollywood that I didn't know who I could be without the persona, I didn't know how I could protect myself. So yeah, I resented Kathy Selden with her pretty singing voice, and I treated her real bad, and I'm sorry for it."
"We treated you real bad, too, Lina," Don interrupted suddenly. He ran a hand over his face and exhaled a plume of smoke. "Jesus. I never knew..."
"How could you, though, Don?" Lina quirked an eyebrow at him. "I'm guessing R.F.'s never tried to stick his tongue in your mouth during a meeting in his office. And none of us ever talk about it. Ever. Who would listen, anyway? What difference would it make?"
Don still hadn't looked at her since she'd brought him into her narrative. Lina leaned forward and gently turned his face towards her with the tips of her fingers.
"Hey," she said with a hint of a smile. "Don't you realize that that stunt that you and Cosmo and Kathy pulled was the best thing that's ever happened to me in this town?"
"Don't joke about it, Lina," Don insisted, his handsome face pained. "When I look back on what we did..."
"I'm not joking." Lina pulled her hand back, but Don didn't look away. "Sure, I was mad as hell at the three of you, after it happened. R.F., too, although god knows I'll be mad as hell at him until the day I die. But once I left Tinseltown and cooled down a little, I realized that suddenly, I didn't have to be 'Lina Lamont' anymore. I could just be... myself, whoever that was. So I took some time to figure out who I was, what I wanted. I rediscovered what I actually sounded like, and I learned that outside of a toxic place like Hollywood, sometimes people even wanted to listen to me. I found out that I liked some things that I didn't realize I liked, and didn't like some things that I'd always assumed I had. And, once I realized that I liked myself much more than I ever knew, I suddenly realized that I didn't hate you three anymore. When I look back at everything I'd put all of you through, I often wonder if I hadn't been trying to provoke the studio into firing me."
Lina shrugged. Then she picked up the papers that she'd been reading when Don arrived.
"And, by the way, when I say that I found my voice again, I also mean that I started writing screenplays. Turns out the dumb blonde picked up a few tricks over her years gliding across the silver screen. Speaking via the page is grand, by the way. No one makes fun of how you sound, or slaps you for making noise in the first place, and everyone listens to what you have to say. If you tell someone to go, they go; if you tell someone to stop, they actually stop. Imagine that."
Don took the screenplay from her and flipped to the front.
"My god," he muttered. "You're L.L. Montmorency?"
"Who'd have bought my screenplays, if I'd submitted them under my stage name?" Lina shrugged. "Lina Lamont was always supposed to be seen, not heard. Once Monumental had bought the rights to my first three, though, I sure as hell let 'em know who I was. Signed a contract stipulating that R.F. Simpson wasn't gonna come within a mile of any screenplay of mine that they shot and would only get a quarter of the profits that he usually would from one of his pictures. I don't spend much of my time here in Hollywood anymore, actually. Came in to do a bit of screenplay doctoring when one of the leads for this film unexpectedly dropped out. After a few days, it's back to my real life, far away from here, where maybe people recognize me, but they don't make a production over it."
All of a sudden, Lina felt a wash of pity for Don Lockwood, who was still seated across from her in his out-of-fashion suit, holding her screenplay loosely in his hands, looking stunned and bemused and maybe just a touch lost, all at once. The Depression clearly hadn't been kind to Don, who, after all, was forty when they'd shot The Duelling Cavalier together, and, while still devastatingly charismatic, had only aged a decade since. Lina hadn't seen Kathy Selden's name in years, either, which didn't surprise her; with a baby face like that, what sorts of roles could Kathy Selden take, when she was too old to play a credible ingenue anymore? No doubt Cosmo was the only one of the three still making actual money—much as she'd detested the man for turning his razor-sharp wit on her so often, Lina had to admit that he was one hell of a musician. It seemed Hollywood remained the same fickle wheel of fortune that it had always been, and right now Don was trapped under its lowest point, unable to squirm free like Lina had.
"You were the greatest of us all," said Don softly, setting down the screenplay. "And we never even knew. You had us all fooled, Lina. Why, to think that you had to keep up that façade, not just hour after hour on set, but day after day after day..."
Tentatively, he took Lina's hand.
"If only you'd let me get to know the real you, over all those years we spent together," he said. "I don't know if it matters at all to say it now, but if I'd met the person I'm speaking with right now, I'd have liked you from the start."
"It matters." Lina smiled. "It still matters."
Don smiled back, and he gallantly kissed Lina's hand—less elaborately than he ever had on camera, but with a sincerity that Lina found genuinely touching.
"Good luck, Lina," he said.
"You, too, Donnie." She suddenly grinned. "Say, I'm writing a part that'd fit you great. We could throw a juicy little role for Kathy into the film, as well. I'm meeting Zelda for drinks after we wrap today, but come find me tomorrow and we can chat?"
"That'd be swell. You really are a crack writer." Don stood and tipped his hat to her. "Well, until then, Miss Montmorency."
Lina watched Don depart, a view she'd always enjoyed for various reasons, but mostly because it had always meant that her belittling leading man was done condescending to her for the time being. Now, though, she felt strangely buoyed, knowing that Don Lockwood had seen the real her, and liked the real her, and—perhaps most importantly—respected the real her. All those years of being viewed as a pretty face with fluff behind it, and suddenly even her old rivals stood in awe of who she had always been. What a glorious feeling, Lina thought, putting her sunglasses back on and sitting back to finish revising her work.