Babel Feud

The director and screenwriter fight for credit over a confusing movie.

Alejandro González Iñárritu

Hear this: It seems that director Alejandro González Iñárritu has teamed up with his Babel collaborators, including actors Gael García Bernal and Adriana Barraza and composer Gustavo Santaolalla, to denounce screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga as a credit hog. Arriaga and González Iñárritu have collaborated for some years—their films include 21 Grams and Amores Perros—but the issue of who deserves credit for Babel blew them apart. When the media reported on this in October, the producers of the film confirmed that the story was true but denounced it as “salacious gossip.” Babel, indeed.

Apparently, the Babel team felt compelled to gossip some more in the pages of Mexico’s Chilango * magazine. They wrote a letter addressing Arriaga: “It’s a shame that in your unjustified obsession to claim sole responsibility for the film, you seem not to recognize that movies are an art of deep collaboration.” Among all these stories about how Mexican filmmakers can’t make their movies in Mexico, we find that they can conduct their feuds there.

We were a little confused about the meaning of Babel. In a recent interview with Variety, Arriaga explained that it was all about miscommunication, sort of. Because it’s also about the last day of something in a person’s life—a day that is a turning point.

For the story of the Moroccan boys who shoot at a bus, he said: “That … was the last day of innocence.” (And for one of them, just about the last day of being alive. But let’s move on.)
For the Mexican nanny who gets deported: “I can call it the last day of substitution. She substituted her family with this other family. Now she realizes that’s not her country, that’s not her family, that’s not her identity.” For the Japanese girl played by Rinko Kikuchi, it’s “the last day of a sense of loss.” And for the couple played by Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, it’s “the last day of resentment between them.”

Each story line, Arriaga explained, ends with the characters finding refuge in family, because only family provides relief from a world full of miscommunication.

That’s not exactly our experience, but good for Arriaga if it’s his. Because he seems to be in a world full of miscommunication right now.

On a more practical note, how strange that this fight continues just after Babel almost whiffed at the Oscar ceremony. (González Iñárritu lost; Barraza lost; Arriaga lost; if it weren’t for Santaolalla, it would have been a total wipeout.) The film has gotten quite a lot of critical acclaim, but it’s grossed less than $35 million. So, here’s an idea: Maybe this should be the last day of bitching about the movie. (link)

Thursday, Feb. 22, 2007

Cate Blanchett and Brad Pitt in Babel

Indecision: Oscar ballots are in, and we still have no clue about the best picture winner. In previous years we have taken great pride in our predictions, at least when it comes to best picture, so we felt a little bad about this at first. Then we realized—no prediction is the way to go this year! So, we were right again.

“Whatever wins, it won’t be by much,” says a veteran awards strategist and fearless prognosticator, calling this “the closest year in history.” Of course, vote counts are never revealed so—he’s right, too!

The field seems to have left a number of academy voters feeling dispirited. One director said he stared at the ballot and considered leaving the best picture category blank. Then he gave Clint a tribute vote. A publicist told us he did not check favorites in a couple of major categories for the first time in his years of voting. “I just said, ‘Fuck it, I don’t like any of ‘em,’ ” he explained.

Everyone seems to suspect that the movie he or she dislikes most will win. The most passionate feelings in this respect are reserved for The Departed (certain voters say Scorsese would be rewarded for his weakest film in years) and Babel (certain voters say this movie is a wank).

You can find tea leaves to support arguments against all the contenders. The Departed had an amazing cast, but only Mark Wahlberg was nominated for acting—a bad sign, given the clout of actors in the voting. Little Miss Sunshine had no nominations for director or editor. Bad sign. Letters From Iwo Jima was snubbed in all the earlier awards, and it has grossed about $11 million so far. We’re not sure if that would make it the lowest-grossing winner ever, but it’s got to be competitive. And so on.

When it comes to best picture, the publicist says, “These are five movies that will be largely forgotten. Other than maybe The Departed, as a cable staple.”

Surely there will be surprises in other categories, though the top contenders have appeared to be locks for so long that voters might have gotten lock fatigue. If you care at all, you know who they are: Scorsese, Whitaker, Mirren, Hudson, Murphy. Best shot at an upset probably belongs to Peter O’Toole for best actor.

If only the uncertainty made for real excitement. (link)

Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2007

Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes

Oscar night will present you with the opportunity to see Mr. Tom Cruise present the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award to former Paramount chief Sherry Lansing (who certainly was a lot more humane to him than the current studio management).

Cruise has been out and about quite a lot. In December, he showed up at a press-packed cocktail party to fete nominee Meryl Streep at the home of Fox studio co-chairman Tom Rothman—lovely but not the sort of event that Cruise normally attends. In January, he presented an award at the Producers Guild celebration, and he also gave one to Will Smith at the Santa Barbara Film Festival.

This willingness to celebrate other people’s successes suggests that Cruise is committed to rebuilding his damaged career, brick by brick. His bride, Katie Holmes, has also let it be known that she wants to work. So, here’s a quick look at their prospects.

Cruise’s next movie sounds pretty smart. Lions for Lambs will be directed by Robert Redford. The movie, featuring the increasingly popular interconnected-stories format, casts Cruise as a congressman, Streep as a journalist, and Redford as an idealistic professor whose former student is wounded while fighting in Afghanistan. So, Cruise is sharing the screen with Oscar-associated royalty, which adds a nice touch of class.

The movie probably won’t do diddly for the teenage audience that crowns box-office kings. But Cruise’s reps have hastily aired the idea that he might team up with Ben Stiller in The Hardy Men, a comedy based on the Hardy Boys mystery books. You can almost see this one in your head, can’t you? Well, sort of. Doing a broad comedy would be a gamble for Cruise, says a leading agent, who muses, “If it misses, it’s going to be bad.” But Stiller is one of Hollywood’s hottest talents, not just as a comedian but as a producer. Note the telling line in the Variety story, though: “Fox is hunting for a scribe to do a rewrite.” That means this story is what is called “an announcement” and the project is one that may or may not emerge from development hell (where, for the record, it has languished for eight years).

Based on all this, the leading agent also says that Cruise can regain some lost stature. But he doesn’t think the actor will be satisfied with that. “Tom cares most about big popcorn movies,” he says. “He couldn’t find it before Mission: Impossible 3, so he had to go to his franchise to get it.” The agent observes that Cruise won’t have such a movie this summer or next summer, either. And he doesn’t blame it all on the behavior. “It’s evolution,” he says. “The fact that he stayed on top as long as he did is spectacular.” But now, when it comes to big, hot projects, he says, “I hear Tom Cruise’s name nowhere.”

As an example, he cites Fox’s Shadow Divers, a drama to be directed by Peter Weir. The picture has two male leads, and the studio is talking about Tom Hanks, Brad Pitt, Russell Crowe, Leo DiCaprio, Johnny Depp … maybe even your brother, but not Cruise. “In the old days,” says the agent, “he would have been first on the list.” A film executive involved in discussions with Cruise agrees that he may no longer be the top pick for such projects but adds, “I don’t think that prevents him from being a summer asset. He probably has to be a little more thoughtful and a little less arrogant or disconnected. But I think he’s paying closer attention.” This executive finds Cruise so interested and engaged that working with him is “delightful,” adding, “He’s one good role away from being back.”

And what of Katie Holmes? She appears to have blown a major opportunity by refusing a part in the Batman Begins sequel. Director Chris Nolan had a big part for her written into the script. But Warner is still seething over the way her romance with Cruise sucked media attention away from the original film and toward Tom’s movie, War of the Worlds. (The suits were said to be livid when Cruise caused a frenzy by zipping up to the Batman Begins premiere on his motorcycle. Holmes’ appearance on Letterman, ostensibly to promote the film, was a fiasco. Most of the conversation was about her boyfriend, and when Dave asked her whether she’d see Batman Begins or War of the Worlds if she had to choose one, she hesitated so long that he finally prompted her, “The Batman movie. Don’t you think?” Even then, Holmes didn’t take the cue. “I support my man,” she muttered.)

So, when Warner approached Holmes about Batman Begins the sequel, we’re told the studio played hardball. “They said no [big increase in] money, no entourage, no Tom tent,” our source says (that last item is an allusion to the Scientology helpers that have appeared on previous Cruise films). “She said no to the project and that was stupid. It’s going to play that Tom wouldn’t let you or you’re a diva now.”

The official explanation, for the record, was that Holmes couldn’t take the role because of “scheduling conflicts.” Look her up on IMDB and figure out what those conflicts might be. (link)

Friday, Feb. 16, 2007

Steven Spielberg 

Fight Club: As usual, there’s some heavy jousting among Democratic hopefuls for bragging rights and access to Hollywood dough. The fact that the powerful triumvirate of Steven Spielberg, David Geffen, and Jeffrey Katzenberg are hosting an upcoming fund-raiser for Barack Obama has generated a ton of ink for the candidate. Much of it was in the vein of, “Is Hollywood turning its liberal back on Hillary?”It was and is well-known in Hollywood that while Geffen and Katzenberg have committed to Obama, Spielberg has not yet promised himself to anyone. It was and is also well-known that Spielberg will host a fund-raiser for Hillary Clinton this spring, in addition to the Obama event this month. So, it seemed odd to read in a Robert Novak column over the weekend that Spielberg, “previously listed as a probable supporter” of Obama, would now host a Clinton fund-raiser. This was presented as news, though Novak didn’t make it clear who had “listed” Spielberg as an Obama supporter. Without quite saying so, Novak conveyed the idea that now only Geffen and Katzenberg are hosting the Obama fund-raiser, and that Bill Clinton had prevailed upon Spielberg to back away from Obama and toward Hillary. The Novak column is too silly to merit discussion—except, perhaps, about how it illuminates the real state of affairs in deep-pocketed Hollywood. If Spielberg had abandoned the upcoming Obama event, that would be news. But he hasn’t. Many expect him to commit to Hillary in the future. But one veteran Hollywood Democratic operative said skeptically, “There is no one on earth that would know that from Steven who would talk to Bob Novak.”The suspicion among some in the Obama faction is that this story came from the Clinton camp, eager to put a stop to the “Hillary Hemorrhages Hollywood Support” stories. In a recent visit to town, Clinton campaign chairman Terry McAuliffe conveyed the notion that folks should pick sides now. Most aren’t. In fact, McAuliffe’s admonishment prompted Norman Lear, who, like many, is contributing to multiple candidates, to ask a Los Angeles Times reporter, “What’s Hillary going to do? Jail me?”We’ll never know if McAuliffe was behind the column; we know that Novak is loath to reveal sources. But he really needs some better ones. He offered a couple of ludicrous explanations for liberal Hollywood’s supposed defection from Hillary. One: that “the gay community”—read: David Geffen—“is seeking revenge against President Clinton’s ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy restricting open homosexuality in military service.” That’s funny, considering Geffen’s continued support for Clinton long after that policy was adopted a few minutes after his inauguration. The gossip passed around by those who follow Hollywood and politics holds that Geffen fell out with Bill Clinton much later over the then-president’s refusal to pardon Leonard Peltier and over Clinton’s subsequent allusion to Geffen’s thwarted lobbying effort to demonstrate that he didn’t dole out pardons as favors to certain friends. Novak mentions another theory behind Hillary’s supposed weakness with liberals—and bear in mind that she’s so weak that Ron Burkle, Haim Saban, Steve Bing, and, of course, Spielberg are backing her. The entertainment industry, he wrote, “still harbors resentment about Clinton-Gore administration criticism of the material that is presented to children.” In a community that is concerned first and foremost about the Iraq war, that is too laughable to address. Having raised these ideas, Novak dismisses them and reveals the real reason for Hillary’s faltering popularity: She’s too conservative. To coin a phrase: Duh. “The whispered worry is that Clinton as the presidential nominee would be a loser in a year when all the stars seem aligned for a Republican defeat,” says Novak. That was whispered by David Geffen a couple of years ago in New York. Here’s what he said about Hillary in a room full of people: “She can’t win, and she’s an incredibly polarizing figure.” Subtle, huh? With code-cracking skills like that, it’s no wonder Novak was the very first one to identify Valerie Plame in print. (link)

Correction, March 15, 2007: The article originally misspelled the magazine that reported part of the Babel fued as Chilanga. (Return to the corrected sentence.)