Hollywood Strikes Back

       Maybe it’s not true, as one screenwriter says, that Washington is Hollywood for ugly people. But even as we revel in our buff-bodied hedonism out here, a Hollywood journalist can’t help getting misty-eyed reading Jacob Weisberg’s ” It’s a Wonderful Conspiracy.” Weisberg postulates that the political universe depicted in Barry Levinson’s Wag The Dog is merely a reflection of Hollywood’s own culture, which he conjures up as a conspiratorial swamp in which starring roles are doled out in exchange for sexual favors and movies get derailed by blood feuds among power players. To which we say, “Oh, if only it were true.”
       How jolly it would be if the West Coast were just like the East Coast–you know, where Fritz Hollings and Ted Kennedy hook up a scheme to screw Rupert Murdoch, where Woody Allen makes progressively more perverse romans à clef to explain away his cradle robbing, and where the New York Times puts the James Rubin-Christiane Amanpour affair on Page One. Sadly, our Hollywood isn’t like that: In this town, carnality can’t compete with cash, and even gross vengeance takes a back seat to gross profits.
       It’s pathetic, really, but in today’s Hollywood you sleep with the mogul after you get the job, not before. Titanic director James Cameron may have fallen for Suzy Amis during the filming of his movie–and broken up with her weeks afterward–but no one has any hard feelings. During the making of Sliver Sharon Stone snuggled up with one of the show’s producers, whose jilted wife took up with the then-married screenwriter … and soon, they’ll all be working together again! Weisberg’s vote for Hollywood’s most realistic film goes to An American President, which ends with Annette Bening tearing into the White House and the Oval Office unannounced. If that really can happen, we’d better pray for Al Gore. (Real-life Hollywood break-ins are more true to life: When Sean Young terrified hundreds by dressing up as Catwoman and bursting onto the Warner Bros. lot to campaign for the role, courageous executive Mark Canton did what anyone with his authority would have proudly done: He hid beneath his desk.)
       As for those behind-the-scenes hatreds that drive so many decisions? Yeah, right. Remember when Whoopi Goldberg vowed never to work at “Mousewitz” again after Sister Act? Must have been someone else in the sequel. Comedian Tracey Ullman was so outraged at being cut out of the profits from The Simpsons that she sued executive producer Jim Brooks–and proved her animosity knew no bounds by … playing a role in his I’ll Do Anything. And surely you’ve heard of the clash of the titans between Michael Ovitz, then CAA’s Uberagent, and producer-billionaire David Geffen? It would explain, perhaps, why Geffen’s Interview With the Vampire starred … um, Tom Cruise, Ovitz’s top client. (How lucky for Weisberg that he’s never met that most bloodless creature of all, the Hollywood agent, whose lust factor goes no deeper into his trousers than his wallet.)
       Of course, we adore the exceptions to the rule, where personal feelings win over cool-headed pragmatism. When Disney’s movie chief Joe Roth vows never to have anything to do with Matt Dillon because the actor once exited, just before shooting, from a film Roth made as a struggling auteur, we cherish the moment. Director Renny Harlin rewrites the Cutthroat Island script to favor his wife Geena Davis, leading man Michael Douglas takes a hike, the movie is a megaflop … and Harlin has a baby with Davis’ ex-personal assistant? Count us in. When Paramount’s Sherry Lansing gives the green light to two movies by her husband, out-of-favor director William Friedkin–and they both fail–we can’t get enough of it. Trouble is, it just doesn’t happen enough: Most decisions in Hollywood, good and bad, are based not on love but on love of money.
       These misconceptions about the movie business appear to spring from another immutable emotion: envy. With boatloads of cash and sex being enjoyed out here in the sunshine, if East Coast people feel the need to console themselves by thinking they’re smarter, that’s perfectly understandable. Why wouldn’t they? The most eagerly received press coverage of Hollywood relentlessly casts the town’s movers and shakers as sex-addled idiots, mindlessly blowing tens of millions on unwatchable blockbusters.
       Certainly it is important to approach a Hollywood job with a full set of hormones. Sex out here is the same as sex in Washington, in that more than a few have their judgment impaired by it. But a wise filmmaker will give an actress with whom he is smitten a big part only if he is convinced the world will share his enthusiasm. He who is blinded by lust risks unemployment. As a studio chief, the late Dawn Steel once circulated a photograph of Kevin Bacon and asked colleagues: “Do you think he’s fuckable?” Steel was just doing her job, which demanded that she cater to the tastes of large numbers of ticket buyers, not indulge her own preferences. Enterprises that take root in one individual’s libido–like Roseanne insisting that then-husband Tom Arnold get his own TV series, or director Paul Verhoeven seeing his ultimate Showgirl in Elizabeth Berkeley–have as bad a track record as you would expect from purely hormonal judgments. Getting laid in Hollywood is easy. Making money is hard.
       Do actresses and filmmakers sleep with each other? Of course they do–all the time. Any candidate for public office could be forgiven for coveting a Hollywood player’s access to well-toned babes, and the kind of public ruin that befell Gary Hart has no parallel here. Remember Heidi Fleiss? Legions of Hollywood’s powerful men, married and single, patronized the madam without exposure or career damage. Losing your shirt is grounds for humiliation in Hollywood; losing your pants is not. In Washington, money will only destroy you if there’s major sex involved; in Hollywood, sex will destroy you only if there’s major money involved. When we think of someone getting screwed, we think of Peter Guber and Sony; you think of Bill Clinton and Gennifer Flowers, or Dick Morris and his prostitute (who blabbed, unlike the high-priced Fleiss–you get what you pay for). Guber and Jon Peters were maligned by their peers for losing the Japanese billions of dollars, not for giving Sony a reputation as the studio awash in blond bimbos.
       Robert Altman’s The Player, the satirical twin to Wag The Dog, is the template for the East Coast view of a conspiracy-ridden Hollywood whose natives live by the “Others Must Fail” (OMF) code. With glossy magazines such as Vanity Fair energetically chronicling the feuds between Geffen and Ovitz, Ovitz and Eisner, Eisner and Katzenberg, etc., it is not surprising that people may conclude that movies are given the green light or stalled because of such animosities. But Hollywood powerbrokers rarely allow their antipathies to become obstacles to enrichment. “I Must Win” always takes precedence over “You Must Fail,” with the sweetest scenario being a deal that allows me to make money and hurt my enemy at the same time.
       Recently some famously chilly mogul relationships appear to be thawing, the motivation being clear self-interest, not warm, fuzzy feelings. Last week Ovitz and Geffen publicly broke bread at a Hollywood ristorante, signaling to the town a burying of the hatchet. Despite Katzenberg’s recent lawsuit against Disney, DreamWorks and the Mouse Factory may collaborate on future projects, and insiders would not be shocked to see Sparky and Eisner team up again someday. And during the Christmas holidays in Aspen, Eisner extended an olive branch to Ovitz, although his overture was spurned. Ovitz may be that rare Hollywood creature whose pride exceeds his greed, someone who can’t forgive even when it would benefit him.
       Former Universal studio chief Tom Pollock suggests that one should look not to The Player but to The Godfather Part II for an accurate approximation of the Hollywood culture. In a scene from that film, godfather Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) confronts gangster Hyman Roth (Lee Strasberg) about a rubout. Roth gives a long speech about how Moe Green built Las Vegas, which amounts to a rationalization of having ordered the killing. “This is the business we’ve chosen,” he says. In Hollywood, successful people don’t confuse business alliances with friendship.
       Weisberg concludes by telling us that while Washington is driven by conviction, Hollywood doesn’t understand strong belief. Oh really? Boy, do we ever. Never mind the test scores, the critics, or the box office–Kevin Costner is still convinced that The Postman is a great movie. And what else but pure conviction can explain Cameron’s laser-beam focus that resulted in Titanic? Compare the passion of those beliefs with those held by our last two presidents, and … well, you see what we mean.