How Darryl Ponicsan navigates life after Hollywood
Perhaps you have wondered, in some random, unguarded moment, how much Barbra Streisand would charge, by the hour or the day or the week, if she were a high-class hooker. What kind of tricks would she turn, at what price and for how many hours?
Or perhaps not.
You can set the question aside because someone in Sonoma has already answered it. With Barbra’s help. We’ll explore the answer later, but to get from here to there you almost have to start with something like the M. C. Escher image of a hand drawing a hand that is drawing a hand. Pull that feedback loop into focus and park it for a moment.
Then meet Darryl Ponicsan, the man with the key to the conundrum of Barbra Streisand’s sexual value, a successful novelist and Hollywood screenwriter who has turned his back on Tinseltown and is now penning a series of mystery novels under a female pseudonym, two of which involve the character of a successful Hollywood screenwriter who has turned his back on Hollywood.
The protagonist in these immensely
appealing books is a cynical, wise-cracking, 50-ish female, seriously-menopausal, private detective and (of course) ex-cop, named Quinn, whose hot flashes alternate with spasms of hunger for the love and sexual attention of a good man she is yet to find.
That good man may or may not be the ex-screenwriter, named Alex Krapp, who appears in the third Quinn book (called Krapp’s Last Cassette, with a sly nod to Samuel Beckett). Krapp hires Quinn to find a young abuse victim who may or may not exist, but whose name is on a best-selling memoir.
In the fourth (and perhaps final) book, The Other Romanian, Krapp disappears on a Harley Davidson Road King while riding up and down the Pacific Coast in search of existential reality, and still exercising the habit of recording along the way every thought and conversation on an endless collection of micro cassettes.
Ponicsan, you will not be surprised to learn, also rode a Harley for years, although his disappearance from a successful Hollywood career was less mysterious.
That career includes several esteemed novels—The Last Detail, Cinderella Liberty, Tom Mix Died For Your Sins, An Unmarried Man—and numerous screenplays—Taps, The Boost, School Ties, Nuts, Random Hearts—but Ponicsan won’t put his name on the Quinn books, resorting instead to the nom de plume Anne Argula. Why?
“I’ve always liked the secondary character narration, so I decided to tell it from the partner’s point of view and, for the life of me I don’t know how it happened or why I did it, but it turned out to be a woman. And she dominated. And I thought, most of the readers are women, they’re going to think it’s presumptuous of me to write from a woman’s point of view, I should give myself a woman’s name. So that’s what I did.”
Ponicsan grew up in Pennsylvania coal country. Post-Hollywood, he inhabited
Seattle until the weather weighed too heavily on his wife. Now they’re both happy Sonomans, and he sprinkles references to local wine throughout the Quinn books.
“I’m very chauvinistic about the wine. I don’t drink Napa wine, I don’t drink Italian wine, I don’t drink Chile wine. I drink Sonoma wine.”
The Quinn plots are a pastiche pulled from headlines, Ponicsan’s past and “big subjects” about which he seems to think deeply. Things like the mystique of Native American culture, capital punishment, child abuse, reincarnation.
Ponicsan, a “born-again Buddhist,” arrived at the portal of for-real born-again belief through deconstruction of the available options.
“Reincarnation almost came from a process of elimination. You get down to oblivion or something else, and I thought well, reincarnation might make the most sense. But I’m still skeptical, even about that. I can’t quite grasp what good it does to be born again and again and again. If you don’t carry with you any consciousness of how you got there, how you gonna fix it?”
Traces of Buddhism go all the way back to Ponicsan’s first book, the widely celebrated novel, The Last Detail, in which the three lead characters briefly and comically practice chanting “Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo” in hopes of mystically materializing a beautiful woman.
Ponicsan explores such esoteric and existential issues through the Krapp character, who wrecks his Harley on the way to the Sonoma Mountain Zen Center, then meets the Roshi and begins a dialectic about his “monkey mind,” and why he can’t manage the sitting meditation. The seeds of all this are plucked straight from Ponicsan’s life.
“I’ve tried and I’ve tried to sit, but it just doesn’t seem to work for me. I meditate now by tai chi. When I officially converted to Buddhism, I joined a Pure Land temple. Pure Land is based on gratitude. The whole idea is to be grateful for everything. And I thought that was a fascinating thing that maybe I could handle.”
So, is Alex Krapp actually Darryl? Are Ponicsan’s novels unapologetically autobiographical?
“Yeah, I don’t know how you avoid it, if you take your work seriously. I mean, the references to the films he’s done are films that I’ve done. I thought, why work over making something up when there’s a pretty good reality there. So let’s just do that. And if you’re going to talk about movie stars it probably helps if you actually know them and have worked with them.”
Which leads us back to Barbra and the price of her body.
In The Other Romanian, Krapp commits to one of his cassettes an account of a seven-day marathon he once spent with a famous actress to flesh out her role as a high-class hooker in the script he is writing for her next movie. They bicker over how much she is worth and how much she could charge for each sex act.
Because Ponicsan co-wrote the screenplay for the movie Nuts, which starred Barbra Streisand as an expensive call girl, you have to ask the obvious question. Is this more autobiography?
“It absolutely happened. Seven days. At the time I was thinking, God, wouldn’t it be great if we could tape this for film schools. So they see the real nuts and bolts of making a film. How many tricks does a whore have to turn to be in this situation, how much does she have to charge? And Barbra doesn’t want to see herself priced too cheap. There was a time when I said to her, you know, you’re thinking these guys are doing this stuff with Barbra Streisand. They’re not. They’re doing it with someone who looks like Barbra Streisand.
It was funny. She’s got a great sense of humor.”
Streisand, Ponicsan recalls, wanted her tricks to cost at least $1,000. He argued for no more than $500.
Does the real screenwriter miss that life?
“I can look back at moments that I miss, but, you know, not really. In fact, I look at these shows on TV that take place in Hollywood—Episodes and The Entourage-—
I look at those shows and I shudder, because they’re so close to the mark.”
These days, Ponicsan’s not even sure he’s going to write another Quinn book. That’s partly because he’s finding at least as much satisfaction putting art on canvas instead of the printed page. He now has a walk-in studio near the city’s historic Plaza where he can leave the door open, the welcome mat out and the music on.
So while writing is work, painting and sculpting have become more like fun, especially since he got past the color barrier. Ponicsan is colorblind—he doesn’t see green, certain shades of red or orange, and purple is impossible—so while he’s been drawing for ages, painting was a problem. But then he had an artistic epiphany and now the colors flow.
Besides, he’s a bit down on the publishing game.
“The writer now has to pack his own bag and essentially go sell his own books. And I think the level of criticism, by and large, has gone down. When I was in college you would talk about the latest novels. Ten years later, you would talk about movies. Now, I think, you’re talking about the games.”
But the lament doesn’t last long before Buddha awareness returns.
“I don’t want to come off ungrateful, because that’s all I ever dreamed of, becoming a published writer. I would have been happy just with that. But I had a lot of success, and I’m grateful all that happened.”
From the 2012 Fall issue of SONOMA