"Why did the tuxedo ever go out of style?" Aaron Echolls asks me, as the limousine approaches the Miramax post-Oscar bash. He's fiddling with the knot of his broad silk tie, his Dior evening suit obviously flawless, despite what he may think.
"I miss the tuxedo myself," I tell him. "But all things must pass."
"Like Swifty Lazar's parties, right? Remember when that was the place to be, after the awards?" Aaron has always been a pleasant man, unlike many other A-list actors. But he's nervous tonight, and it shows.
What he doesn't mention, and what I have the sense not to bring up, is that this is Aaron's first public event since his acquittal. He has been absolved of Lilly Kane's murder by courts of law – but the court of public opinion is more fickle, nowhere more so than in Hollywood. Aaron Echolls may again be a free man, but only time will tell if he can still be a star.
I don't have to tell you the first time I saw Aaron Echolls. It's the same moment for all of us, a cultural memory: the instant when the camera pans away from the burning mansion in Breaking Point, to show a young man's face illuminated only by the flames. Bryan DeMarco meant for the audience to be impressed by his tracking shot. Instead, we all leaned forward in our seats and wondered Who is that? The new face DeMarco had found -- the new face he had to find, because nobody else of any quality would tolerate his creative stranglehold -- stole his thunder and stole the show.
Pauline Kael told me once, at one of the New Yorker affairs, that Aaron Echolls was the only true overnight star in all of cinema. "The only one there's ever been," she said. "The only one there will ever be," I replied.
Close your eyes, and you can still hear the low piano notes of the soundtrack, see the gold reflecting off those famous cheekbones. Sometimes, I instantly know if an up-and-comer is going to be a star, but I can't claim any special skill for seeing that in Aaron. We all saw it, didn't we?
(However, that was not, as Aaron has tried to claim since, his first movie role. Find the 1977 low-budget togafest Romulus and Remus – if you can – and you'll catch a glimpse of Aaron attempting what I can only assume was meant to be a British accent. But it doesn't really matter; every actor's first movie is the first movie people remember, and that will always be Breaking Point.)
Within weeks, Aaron's face stared back from every magazine worth reading and several that weren't. I first met him at one of Jack and Angelica's parties in the fall of 1979; even Sophia Loren made excuses to introduce herself to the unknown. Former unknown, I should say.
Already – on the talk-show circuit, in Interview, even at some of these parties – Aaron was telling the world about the hardscrabble background he came from. Back then, we thought he'd run away from all that. In the golden age of the shrink, nobody liked to recognize that people's pasts cast a shadow that won't disappear, not even in the light of a thousand flashbulbs. And the worst about Aaron's father didn't come out until the trial; he never presented himself as a victim, despite the horrors he'd been through, until the day he had to explain how he could hurt someone else.
Because of Breaking Point, we all know how Aaron must have looked that night when young Veronica Mars nearly burned to death. He might have seen his stardom dying the way it was born: by firelight.
"Try to imagine what was going through my mind," Aaron explains. We're sitting by the poolside at his rented bungalow in Malibu, a few hours before we'll leave for the Academy Awards afterparties. "I knew suspicion would fall on me. As absurd as it was – there would be people who thought I had killed Lilly Kane just because I was having an affair with her. Some people still do, I know."
"And you were afraid," I say. "That doesn't explain why you chased Miss Mars."
Aaron leans back in his pool chair, and I can't read his expression through his Versace sunglasses. "Fear explains a lot of things. You'd know that, if you'd ever really been afraid."
When Veronica Mars – then only 17 – told her story to the police, she told them this: Aaron Echolls, an international film star, hid in her back seat while she drove away from a party at the home of the Kanes. He threatened her life, forcing her to wreck the car in an attempt to get away. After the crash, she fled the scene; Aaron chased her, repeatedly threatened her, then locked her in an abandoned refrigerator and threatened to set her on fire. Her father, worried when she failed to answer her cell phone, arrived on the scene and attacked Aaron, who lit the fire out of insane spite. However, Aaron was stopped by the quick work of her dog, who – rather cinematically, like a modern-day Lassie – attacked the evil movie star before he could get away.
When Aaron told his story to the police, he told them this: Upon being confronted by Veronica at the party, he agreed to leave with her to talk. Although he admitted the affair with the late Lilly Kane – a friend of Veronica's – he denied any involvement in her death. The discussion became an argument, and in the heat of the moment, Veronica did not drive carefully. Hysterical after the crash, she ran away from the scene, shouting that Aaron was a murderer. Aaron lost his temper and threw her in the old refrigerator. At that point, the father appeared on the scene, understanding only that his daughter was at risk; the cigarette Aaron was attempting to light for himself at that moment inadvertently set the blaze. Veronica ordered her pit bull to attack Aaron, leaving him injured, in pain and unable to adequately explain what had happened.
When the court heard both stories, they also heard that Veronica Mars was described by most of her contemporaries as "obsessed" with the death of Lilly Kane; that she commonly threatened people of all ages with attack by her pit bull; that she had already been under criminal investigation several times; that she had once come into the police station demanding to file rape charges but had backed down when questioned; and that she had trespassed onto Kane property that night, going so far as to wear a wig and a disguise.
It's obvious to us who was more credible; apparently it was obvious to the jury as well. But no matter how unstable his accuser may have been, Aaron couldn't get away from the videotapes.
"Statutory rape – it's such an ugly thing to say." Aaron's daughter, Trina, is staying at the bungalow with him. She was his staunchest supporter during the trial, appearing on numerous newsmagazine shows to defend his innocence. By now, her face is almost as familiar as his. "Rape – that word is about violence. Not about something that happens between people who consent."
"I tend to agree with you," I tell her. "But still – a girl in high school? Your brother's girlfriend?"
"Lilly wasn't exactly innocent.' Trina laughs, then catches herself. "I don't want to say bad things about someone who's dead. I mean, what happened to her was awful, just awful – and she was a friend of mine, back when she was with Logan. But anybody who talks about 'corrupting youth' just is not talking about Lilly."
"Would your brother agree?"
"Leave my brother out of this."
That's impossible, and Trina knows it; Logan has taken his father's place in the tabloids, and for far worse reasons. At age 21, he's already done two stints in rehab and has a felony conviction for assault. Sometimes he tells the papers his father is guilty; sometimes he says his father is innocent and calls Lilly Kane "a whore." When I ask Trina what she thinks her brother really believes, her eyes fill with tears.
"Whatever the chemicals in his system tell him to believe that day," she says. "That's what he believes."
By all accounts, Logan was always closer to his mother.
I met her when she was Lynn Lester, a starlet among dozens glittering at Swifty Lazar's Oscar party. Swifty would always invite several barely-known beauties to add sparkle to the room and smooth egos: the men who could be sure of girls propositioning them throughout the night, and the women who could take comfort in reminding themselves that, unlike the girls around them, at least they'd never again have to wear off-the-rack.
Lynn was lucky to the get the invitation – she'd only done a soap and a dreary little indie film at that point – but she knew it, and was frank about it, which is more than you often see in a girl her age in this town. We stood near a Nebuchadnezzar of Krug's Clos de Mesnil, and given what happened to Lynn later, I feel somewhat guilty admitting that I only began speaking to her while waiting for Warren Beatty to extricate himself from one the Weinsteins. But she quickly impressed me; it's not every 22-year-old who can tell exactly which women in the room actually own the jewelry they're wearing.
"It's all about keeping your head, isn't it?" She tossed her hair – such beautiful hair – and spoke in the purring voice that hinted at her later triumph (no matter what the Times says) in the revival of "Chicago." "That's the trick to staying alive in this business. I've figured that out already. But I bet you hear that from everyone who's starting out, don't you?"
"From you, I believe it," I replied. Warren became free, and I excused myself. I never felt guilty about that, because later that night, in another corner of that room, Lynn met Aaron Echolls. When the tabloids splashed their wedding pictures (Ibiza, telephoto lens) over their front pages later that year, I even congratulated myself: If I'd taken too great an interest in her that night, would she ever have become his wife and a star in her own right? I doubted it.
Then, over the years, I stopped thinking about Lynn and Aaron Echolls at all; so, apparently, did most of the moviegoing public. It's too bad she didn't realize she would never be forgotten. It's too bad she didn't realize the world would understand.
"Why did your wife kill herself?" I ask Aaron over a pitcher of sangria. Sometimes you just have to come out with these things.
He clearly has tried to make himself ready for this question, but he still has trouble answering. ""You remember the scandal," he says, referring to the unhinged girl who stabbed him at a Christmas party in 2004 – an incident now almost forgotten, given what has happened since. "Scandal. My God. I didn't know what scandal was, then. It was just a few headlines. But at the time, it seemed like the end of the world."
Lynn demanded answers, and Aaron, frightened by his near-death experience, decided to come clean to her. He tells me he confessed all his infidelities, including Lilly Kane.
"And that terrified her," Aaron says. "She knew I would never have hurt the girl, but she knew other people wouldn't believe that. And she was just sure the truth would come out. It's funny – it's like Lynn could see the future, except for the very end. I think about that a lot. If she had only known how it would all end, we could have seen this through."
Instead, Lynn Echolls jumped to her death. Her body has never been found. Aaron still wears his wedding ring.
"Will audiences take him back?" asks one top studio head. "I think they will, but you never know."
"Scandals aren't what they used to be," I say. "Look at Hugh Grant. At Roman Polanski."
"I don't mean the scandal. Aaron was found not guilty; our research shows that people believe it. And they should, after a courthouse fiasco as sad and bizarre as that one."
It was the strangest I'd ever seen, and I covered every day of Michael Jackson's trial. "If you think that, then why aren't you sure Aaron can stage a comeback?"
The studio exec shrugs as the waitress at Koi brings him another mineral water. "Aaron's not that young anymore. There are stars who never fade – Nicholson, for one – but who knows if Aaron is one of those?"
Nobody knows, yet. Aaron Echolls may have faced down his accusers, but nobody is immune to fashion.
The revelation that Aaron Echolls was having an affair with the underage Lilly Kane is, somehow, the least shocking part of this whole business.
"He was insatiable," whispers one Beverly Hills matron, who seems to have been in a position to know. "With some men, it's all about the conquest. With Aaron, it really was all about the sex."
"You know how we all knew he was in love with Lynn Lester?" a studio head's wife asks me. "The womanizing didn't stop, but it did slow down."
The tabloids spit out all kinds of lies about all kinds of people, but in the case of Aaron Echolls, they couldn't create lies ribald enough to outstrip reality. Even when we only list verified partners, the list of his lovers includes:
Staff members at several luxury hotels. Some of his most famous costars. Some very exclusive and expensive prostitutes. Some prostitutes who were neither expensive nor exclusive. Extras on all his films. A sheik's wife. An Olympic swimmer. His teenage son's girlfriend.
"Aaron's womanizing started right after the honeymoon. So did Lynn's drinking," says Rebecca Lowell, a friend of Lynn's from back in her soap days. Avid viewers of daytime television may remember her; I must confess that I do not. Rebecca says she has given up Hollywood, and she says she often wished she could convince Lynn to do the same. "The thing is, Lynn knew it was all a lie. She knew it. Her marriage, Hollywood, all of it. But she couldn't walk away."
"You don't think Aaron really loved her?" I ask.
"I know he loved her. Lynn knew it too. But what's it worth, in the end? Love. It won't see you through."
"It does for some people."
Rebecca shakes her head. "Lynn needed more. She needed the truth."
But in the end, the truth was exactly what Lynn Echolls couldn't handle.
Some people, when confronted with truths they dislike, invent new realities to inhabit. Southern California contains more of these people per capita than anyplace else in the world; how else could Hollywood exist?
That doesn't explain the actions of Aaron's accuser, Veronica Mars. For that explanation – why a teenage girl would go to the trouble of framing a movie star for murder – we have to dig a little deeper. In fact, we have to go all the way back to the year Lilly Kane died.
Until Aaron's arrest three years ago, everyone thought they knew who had killed Lilly Kane. That was last year's news, nobody's dinner conversation, the subject of true-crime books that had already been moved to the half-price bin at Borders. The vibrant young daughter of software mogul Jake Kane and his socialite wife Celeste was almost forgotten by everyone beyond her family and a few unceasing gossip hounds.
And apparently, the Mars family. If you get a chance to leaf through the aforementioned half-price bin at Borders, you may see Veronica's father, Keith, mentioned prominently; he was the "bumbling local sheriff" who accused Jake Kane, before disgruntled former employee Abel Koontz came forward and confessed.
In light of the fact that Abel Koontz's confession turned out to be a lie – this much has been established beyond any doubt, one of the few rock-hard facts in the entire Lilly Kane murder investigation – should Keith Mars' original assertions be taken more seriously? Jake Kane is, after all, the only person with a standing conviction in this matter, though he did his eight months at a country-club prison for obstruction of justice.
We have to ask ourselves what justice he was trying to obstruct. Then we have to ask ourselves why Veronica Mars would be working with him, why she offered up another suspect only days after Abel Koontz was proved innocent.
And we find the answer in the social pages of the Neptune paper in January, where – buried beneath the clip-art-heavy wedding announcements of shop clerks and middle managers – we find two scant lines announcing the engagement of Jake's son and now sole heir, Duncan, to the one and only Veronica Mars.
It could be coincidence. It could have nothing to do with the fact that Duncan has been hospitalized twice for fits of epileptic rage, with the uncontested assertion that he was the first person to "find" Lilly's body, or the fact that the romance between Duncan and Veronica predated Lilly's murder. Maybe these two people only came together out of grief, not guilt.
"And maybe I'll be president someday," Logan Echolls says. His voice is slurred over the phone. "Maybe I'll lead the first manned mission to Mars. Maybe I'll win an Oscar, or two, or five, or ten."
Given that Logan's last stint in rehab is obviously another failure – I imagine that I can smell the booze through my iPhone – all these scenarios seem unlikely in the extreme. This is undoubtedly the point Logan is trying to make.
"So you think Miss Mars is covering up for Duncan?" I ask. It's late at night, and outside my hotel window I can see spotlights sweeping through the sky for a nearby premiere. "Do you think that's why she accused your father?"
"I think there's nothing Ronnie won't do for Duncan." Logan sounds almost sane as he says it. "She loves Duncan. Like I loved Lilly."
"Will you ever speak to your father again?"
The next several words Logan says are unprintable, even in a magazine for mature adults. Finally he calms down enough to say, "You know what he did. You KNOW. Everybody knows. But, see, it doesn't matter what he did – it only matters what it looks like he did –"
It's not my place, but I have to say, "Your father loves you, Logan."
"Love," he repeats, and from the lengthy clatter of plastic on plastic, I think it takes him a long time to successfully connect phone and receiver to hang up.
Although I tried many times to speak to Logan again, he would never take my phone calls when sober. All the others he took while drunk were even less coherent than this one.
"He'll get help," Aaron says when I tell him about this. His son's disintegration shadows the brilliant California sun for a few moments as we talk about it. "Someday, Logan will get help, and he'll make the choice, and he'll find sobriety. I believe in him completely, and so does Trina. We just need Logan to believe in himself."
"A lot of fathers aren't that wise," I say.
He shakes his head as he pours himself another glass of sangria. "That's the only part of this I can't forgive. The false accusations against me – I can't say they haven't damaged my life." Admirable restraint, considering that he could have been sentenced to life in prison. "But Veronica was a very young girl. She came from an unstable home. I know what that's like, and I know not everyone can channel that energy in positive ways. I did lose my temper and hurt her, and that's not something I could deny even if I wanted to. And the trial, the controversy -- I made it through. Justice prevailed."
Aaron's recent exploration of Buddhism has clearly affected him, more deeply than a lot of celebs in this town, I think. "So what is it you can't forgive?"
"What she's done to Logan. The arrest, the trial – it's too much." He can't look up from his drink for a moment. "Logan made it through Lilly's death. He made it through his mother's suicide. But how much can one kid take?"
Not as much as he's been asked to.
The day before the Academy Awards, I am – surprised is far too mild a word – to receive a phone call from Veronica Mars.
"I got your number from Logan," she says.
"You still speak to Logan Echolls?" It was more polite than saying, he still speaks to you?
"He calls, sometimes." She doesn't mention that Logan calls when he's drunk; she doesn't have to. "He's not in any condition to talk to you about this. You get that, right?"
"I think that's Logan's decision to make."
"You need a big interview to polish off your puff piece on Aaron Echolls? Fine. Stop hounding Logan. Come talk to me."
We meet up on the beach in Neptune – the city where the Kane, Echolls and Mars families all lived when Lilly died. Although the neighborhood has fallen somewhat out of fashion – real estate prices are plummeting, Aaron says, having just unloaded his former home at a loss – it still has a kind of glamour, white buildings and white sand and palms.
Veronica Mars doesn't match this glamour. If she has already tapped into Duncan Kane's money, it doesn't show in her wardrobe; to my dismay, she is accompanied by what appears to be the same pit bull she threatened people with years ago. But it sits quietly by her feet and eats a hot dog as we talk.
"Aaron is guilty." She says it with such intensity that I think she actually expects me to believe her. "He killed Lilly."
"He was found innocent," I say. "And I'm not here to try Aaron Echolls a second time. Double jeopardy, remember?"
"That darned Constitution. Always getting in the way." Her smile is hard, twice as old as she is. "I'm telling you this because you can't understand what happened to Logan if you don't understand that."
"So Logan's – deterioration, let's say – that's not your fault. It's Aaron's."
"I know what I did to Logan. That doesn't change what his father did to Lilly."
It's not an admission of guilt, not exactly, but the girl in front of me, who cannot hide her shame, is not a righteous avenger. Is it possible that she's tired of the lies? I try a different approach. "When is the wedding?"
"You have good researchers." She isn't surprised that I know; despite her youth, she is obviously not someone who can be caught off-guard. "It's a private ceremony. We aren't announcing the date."
"You're rather young to get married. Just 20? Some people would ask questions."
"I'm not pregnant."
Her naivete makes it difficult to avoid laughing. "You're marrying Lilly Kane's brother. The one person who has never had a compelling alibi for Lilly's death, and who probably only avoided prosecution because you pointed fingers at Aaron Echolls. And who, perhaps by coincidence, now stands to inherit close to a billion dollars. Are you telling me this is just – fate? Just love?"
Veronica can no longer look me in the face. She doesn't even claim to love her fiancé; she says only, "Duncan is the only one who'll ever understand."
No, not an admission of guilt. But she knows how it looks, and she doesn't care – and when she becomes one of the nation's richest young brides later this year, you can bet many society up-and-comers won't care either. They'll have tables at the best restaurants, invitations to serve on the boards of the best charities, everything else their hearts could desire. Everything that happened in Neptune – everything they did or didn't do – will seem very far away.
And eventually, even the half-price bin at Borders won't have any books about Lilly Kane. She is already a part of the past.
"I start filming in three weeks," Aaron says of his newest film, the adaptation of the best-selling novel River Hunter. Rumor has it that he beat out Michael Douglas for the part – though God knows Mike's people aren't talking. Aaron speaks a little more nervously as limousine turns the last corner to the Oscar party. "It's not the lead – but it's a good part, a good project. I don't want to come back just – to be back, you know? The work has to be about something."
"Don't worry," I say, and I mean it. Aaron may still be a man living under a cloud – but he is a loving father, a mourning widower and an artist starting over with personal and creative determination. A lot of people think those kind of values don't matter much in this town, but I do. Call me old-fashioned.
The limousine stops, flush with the red carpet, and flashbulbs start going off even before the door opens. But when Aaron steps out, they quicken and brighten; it's like being swallowed up by the sun.
For a moment, the roar is so deafening that it sounds like booing – but it's not. They're cheering. They're welcoming Aaron back.
He holds a hand up in a wave or a salute, and he smiles that famous grin. The light reflects from his cheekbones, and I remember Breaking Point, all the other great films this man has made and will make, in the future. Aaron now knows you can go home again, oh yes, you can.