According to the housekeeper in Gosford Park, what makes a great servant is anticipation. “They feel hungry, and the food is ready, they feel tired, and the bed is turned down.” I’m kinda paraphrasing, but you get the idea, and she should know what makes a great servant, as she herself is a self-proclaimed great servant, a perfect servant, and who’d contradict her anyway? The woman—SPOILER ALERT—poisoned her employer to keep their son from stabbing him to death…
The perfect servant. Want her running your house? Eek.
Being an assistant in the industry is something like being a perfect servant. It can truly be (or at least it certainly seems like) life-and-death, but I’ll see anticipation and raise you creative-impossible-problem-solving. After all, whether you’re assisting a director, producer, writer, creative executive, manager or agent, there are always too many hands in the pot brewing trouble for your target employer. I think great assistants would probably make great spies for the CIA and the like, because problems must often be identified, assessed and addressed in a kind of clandestine manner. The Industry works with a lot of subjective material that costs a lot of money sometimes involving extreme personalities, so it’s understandably nervous and any whiff of a problem just makes confidence, and sometimes shows and related careers, plummet.
The job is typically to be an entire office and support staff while also being a perfect dictation machine, electronic organizer, and all-around human computer for an overworked, completely stressed-out person. But most assistants I’ve met who keep their jobs past the first month or so are no where near as obtuse, whiny, or incompetent as what I’ve seen in their on-screen counterparts. Take the “pink and blue” artificial sweetener scene in Swimming With Sharks. OF COURSE IT MATTERS what kind of sweetener someone takes, and it’s absolutely true that no-one who uses BLUE would EVER use PINK in their coffee. That’s just a fact. That the agent tosses a few packets in the assistant’s face is apparently really humiliating and dehumanizing, but do you know how many deals and clients can be lost over the slightest perception of being ignored or details being dropped? And then there’s the chance of allergies or cross-medications, maybe not something that would involve artificial sweeteners, but dairy versus non-dairy creamer? I can’t watch that packets scene without hearing Gordon Ramsey in my ear from Hell’s Kitchen or Kitchen Nightmares shouting, “you could kill someone!”
I thought I’d see better in The Devil Wears Prada, but when finally given the chance to run the ball, to act as a First Assistant and get her boss from Florida to New York when a hurricane canceled all flights, I was appalled that all the character seemed to do was call airlines. Is she trying to get her boss killed that she’d hook her up with a flight in that kind of weather? Her only burst of enthusiasm is to ask if the military might step in for her. I couldn’t believe it. Money was not a concern, she could have hired the woman a private car and driver, put her on a train—not to disparage those who would disagree, but the East Coast is just not that big. When the job is to move a body from Florida to New York and you have over twelve hours to do it—do it. And maybe it seems trivial to an outside eye, but the Devil in this case is a hard-working career woman with a crumbling marriage and twin daughters who will be grown and gone before she knows it. If you don’t think it’s life and death for a parent to see their kids’ recital, you clearly don’t have kids and should call your parents today to say you love them. Even the rotten ones.
To be fair, both filmic examples are of new assistants learning the ropes, and in both cases the characters harbor a kind of resentment about having the job at all. I have seen some of the best assistants in action. You may not—it’s often their job not to be noticed. Having been raised by one of the classics who helped set the bar (my mom put the “Executive” in “Secretary”), I can tell you they will see you, and they will remember as much about you as is possible to learn, right down to the collar preference of your neighbor’s dog. So be nice to them, ‘cause you might run into a perfect assistant, and they’ll remember that, too.