Imaginary Movie Star Boyfriend

Joanna Biggs

‘If ever there was a book calculated to make a man in love with its author,’ William Godwin wrote in 1798 of Mary Wollstonecraft’s Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway and Denmark, ‘this appears to me to be the book.’ Mary’s aim was off: she was trying to get back an errant lover but ended up ensorcelling Godwin instead. Falling in love with someone through their writing is slow and delicious and sad, like sighing gently over the years at a screen actor, like, say, the guy whose cheekbones and tousle stare out at me from a postcard on my fridge door, and who now stares out from the back cover of A Bright Ray of Darkness, his new novel – Ethan Hawke.

When I try to disentangle my crush on Ethan Hawke, I can marshal my arguments and even make some sense. He’s movie-handsome yet his teeth are crooked. He’s serious enough to be writing a version of The Cherry Orchard set in Texas, yet unprecious enough to play a villain in a Marvel movie. And laid over the facts picked up from gossip mags and New Yorker profiles are the roles he’s played. As Todd in Dead Poets Society, he was the first to stand on his desk and recite ‘O Captain! My Captain!’ As Jesse in Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy, he’s persuaded me to get off the train with him in Vienna, many many times. He co-wrote my favourite of the three movies, Before Sunset, with its Wollstonecraft-like opening premise: Jesse brings his lost love back to him by writing and publishing an account of their meeting as a novel. Is there anything more writerly – in the worst and best way – than believing you can summon someone by writing about them?

So, I bring my crush to the novel. I almost don’t want to read it: what if it’s bad and the way Ethan runs his hand through his hair is ruined for me? A few years ago, Tracey Emin married a rock in the South of France, because it would always be there for her. In a pandemic, especially, the best boyfriend might be on a screen, or on the page. I read the novel.

William Harding is a movie actor, just touched down in New York to start rehearsals as Hotspur in Henry IV on Broadway. But he is also all over the tabloids. ‘Is what they are saying about you and your wife true?’ the taxi driver who picks him up from JFK asks. ‘When I read about you in the Post and saw how you fucked it all up,’ the hotel owner tells him, ‘I got excited, figured we might see you.’ On the first day of rehearsal, the legendary actor playing Falstaff asks him: ‘Is it true?’ It’s true, sort of, that he’s getting a divorce. It’s sort of truer that he cheated on his wife, and it’s most true that his marriage isn’t exactly over. Until the last performance, Harding will hope that his ex-wife will show up to see him act and fall in love with him again.

Hawke, neatly, makes celebrity the motor of the plot: no matter where Harding is – bar, taxi, elevator, dressing room, hotel room – someone there knows his business, and is going to tell him what they think he should do. A playwright thinks he should disappear for a year, to one of the Dakotas: ‘You disappear for a week: you’re an irresponsible child. You disappear for a month: you’re a bum. You disappear for a year: she’ll be glad you’re alive.’ The taxi driver wants him to beg for his marriage back. Another movie star hands him a bag of cocaine and blue pills and tells him his ex has been photographed with someone else: ‘Let her go. Get a lawyer.’ His mother thinks he ought to find someone who needs him, ‘and that partner is not going to be an internationally touring rock star!’

Harding – in between vomiting, crying and snorting coke – moves from encounter to encounter, listening. It feels like an early Linklater movie, like Slacker, but also like Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy: there is nobody so inviting to someone who wants to talk as a person quietly imploding.

The advice keeps coming, from people important to Harding and not, and through the conversations the stark contours of the tabloid picture soften. Yes, he cheated, and yes, he enjoyed it, but now that his marriage is over it is like a sock has been pulled out of his throat and he can finally breathe. Yes, he’s a father that promises his kids a puppy during a divorce and pays the hotel cleaner to babysit, but he also bathes the children, reads them to sleep, takes them to daycare and realises his life matters most when it’s in service to them. When the New York Times singles out Harding’s performance as the bum note in ‘the greatest American Shakespeare ever’, he’s liberated by the terms of the criticism, which evokes an essay of Auden’s on Henry IV that he and the director had long decided was wrong. Harding sees that the chatter – he’s a cad, a bad actor, a failure, there’s a scarlet letter on his chest – can be overwhelming, and also be wrong.

I should complain about the Bardot blonde who asks if she’s prettier than Harding’s ex-wife before she’ll have sex, or the tattooed stripper who asks to be slapped around the face in bed – but am I not also jealous? What are these women doing with the fictional version of my imaginary movie star boyfriend anyway? But really it’s hopeless: I swoon, I have swooned and now I see that Hawke has also earned my respect: he’s a good writer. Godwin tried to explain why he’d fallen in love while reading Wollstonecraft: ‘She speaks of her sorrows, in a way that fills us with melancholy, and dissolves us in tenderness, at the same time as she displays a genius which commands all our admiration.’ He was writing weeks after she died in childbirth, inhaling from the page a feeling he’d never have again in life. Only in a story as romantic as Before Sunset would writing a novel bring a person into your life, but for the rest of us, watching their movie, reading their book, well, there is nothing else, and yet that can be enough.