Jewish World Review March 19, 1999 /2 Nissan 5759
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Soundbites are replaced by flashbulbs. Image is not more important than substance; it is substance. West Hollywood publicists are more ruthless than DC press secretaries (except possibly for Charles Bakaly III, the Kenneth Starr mouthpiece who resigned last week while being investigated for leaking information he claimed he didn’t leak).
Moreover, the egotism and arrogance of Hollywood players derives from the creation of such dreck as 8MM, while the egotism and arrogance of Washington players derives from the creation of laws and billion-dollar budgets. And lousy laws and budgets are still more important than lousy movies.
The press is something of a different beast in L.A. It craves access to the food-chain toppers even more so than the media of Washington. In the nation’s capital, politicians are ever in search of the cameras. You know the line: What’s the most dangerous spot on Capitol Hill? The space between Chuck Schumer and a television camera. Actually, it’s an old joke; the punchline works with most pols. Senators, representatives, agency heads and candidates are always vying to attract camera crews. In film-and-tv-land, the media scrambles to capture images of the ruling class. True, in both cities, much of the news is managed, as carefully arranged leaks and phony exclusives are doled out to favored reporters.
And in Hollywood, publicists do connive to obtain favorable coverage for stars pitching a new film or series. But the media/player power dynamic is not the same.
The shutterbugs would shout out to the publicists—"talent representatives," they’re called—who were escorting their clients, past fans who had been paid by TNT to oooh, aaah and roar. After lightning-fast negotiations, the tal-reps positioned the stars for the shooters. The celebs smiled and posed without complaint. The babes twirled their dresses and acted like models, as the photographers yelled encouragement:
"Laura, you look fabulous."
"Kellie, you look great. It’s a beautiful color on you."
"Marla, give us an over-the-shoulder. Real sexy now. That’s darling."
Everyone obliged. Gwyneth. Calista. Courteney. Noah. The stars love the paparazzi when they’re behind a rope. At one point, the photographers were trying to grab a two-shot of Kirk Douglas and Lauren Bacall, and one screamed, "Omigod! It’s Kim and Alec. What are we going to do?" It was the paparazzi equivalent of "Incoming!"
As the filming frenzy proceeded, a small, geeky, bespectacled fellow with ridiculous dark hair walked past. None of the paid fans, none of the photo-mercenaries yelled at him. It was Roberto Benigni, the star, cowriter and director of one of the year’s best films, Life is Beautiful. Alas. In Washington the nerds who do score big are recognized on the street.
Inside the auditorium, the press was relegated to cordoned-off pens on the second floor, far from the hall where the awards dinner was under way.
CNN’s Jim Moret told me that this was one of the better awards-show assignments. "It’s only two hours," he explained. Actually, the SAG awards, which honor only actors, are in a way more interesting than the Academy Awards because they are voted on by the union membership. SAG is a labor union of 95,000, and each of its cardholders is permitted to vote. In contrast, the major Oscar awards are decided by the 5502 members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, an elitist outfit often racked with politics and highly sensitive to the commercial consequences of a performance. Only 1386 of the Academy’s voting members are actors.
"One reason [for the awards show] was," Masur says "frankly so that people watching out in the world are reminded that everybody they see onscreen or on television is a worker, a union member, not some distant entity that has nothing in common with their own lives."
It’s heartening to see any union thrive. (Watching the decked-out stars dining in formalwear before a live television audience of 11 million reminded me of a quip columnist Christopher Hitchens shared on The Nation magazine’s cruise in November: "Nothing is too good for the working class.")
But backstage—or, rather, above-stage—the working Hollywood press was not covering common laborers. After the announcement of each award, the winner would be guided through the press pits. The photographers and television crews were the first stops, ahead of the print journalists, naturally. In the print media room, the triumphant thespian would stand on a raised platform for two and a half minutes and field what usually were insipid questions. "You girls all look so great," said one scribe to the women of Ally McBeal.
"How do you stay in shape?"
No one dared ask about a rumor racing through town that week concerning Calista Flockhart and a clandestine romance. (The other hot topic of the day: the news that Lynn Redgrave’s husband/manager eight years ago had sired a love child with his personal assistant, who subsequently married Redgrave’s son. Redgrave, who had considered the child not a step-child but a grandchild, had filed for divorce.
"A lot of people think this is going to help Redgrave," an entertainment industry reporter said, referring to her Oscar nomination for Gods and Monsters. "The sympathy vote." Kinda like what Hillary Clinton may be hoping for.)
When Kathy Bates took her 150 seconds of press questions—she won for her sharp portrayal of a cleanup operative in Primary Colors—she was asked how close the movie was to Clintonian reality. She shrugged: "I couldn’t say. I really don’t know." How should she know? One had to admire her for resisting the urge to pop off. The cast of ER was asked if the show would thrive without George Clooney. (Care to guess how they answered?)
I yearned for a good, old-fashioned Washington press conference, where a mix of fastballs, curveballs, sliders and lobs are thrown at the target—and where such down-to-earth topics as Medicare Part B, campaign finance reform and Asian currency bailouts, as well as sex in the White House, are covered. I was surprised that in such a setting—with major celebs standing before a pack of reporters—there was so little to talk about.
"We do not ask questions to piss off these people," one Hollywood beat reporter explained. "We need them. We don’t want to be cut off, unless it’s for a dynamite scoop, and then you would go through the publicist." The President should have it so good.
The reporters did manage to peeve Gwyneth Paltrow. It was not because anyone asked her about the scoop of the day: the affectionate kiss between her and Shakespeare in Love costar Ben Affleck on the red carpet. No, it was due to the persistence of several reporters who kept pressing her on whether she believed her SAG win indicated she had a better shot at bagging an Oscar for best actress. At first, this Spence graduate stuck to the Hollywood cliche playbook: I’m not thinking about it. I’m just spending time with my friends and family. The other actresses up for the award are so wonderful. It’s an honor to be... But after repeated attempts to push her off her lines, Paltrow revealed her exasperation: "How can you expect people to answer these questions about themselves?" Bravo. None of the reporters replied.
One moment saved the evening from being another walk-through, by-the-numbers Hollywood event: Roberto Benigni beating out Tom Hanks, Nick Nolte, Joseph Fiennes and Ian McKellen for the best male actor award. Take that, you paparazzi who ignored the Italian filmmaker. For a few seconds, the it’s-just-another-awards-show atmosphere on the press floor evaporated. People cheered. (Can you envision the stodgy and conservative Academy selecting a foreigner who delivered a non-English performance over Tom Hanks? Hooray for the Hollywood populists of SAG.)
In accepting the award, a stunned Benigni offered a stream-of-exuberance speech. His "organs," he noted, were moving in different directions. He thanked his coworkers on the film, noting, "I’m so lazy I married a pregnant woman."
When he passed through our press room, the show now over, I thought I should break my silence. All night I had been unable to think of a single intelligent question to ask any of the winners. I was beginning to respect the difficulty of working this beat. The setting did not lend itself to a serious query regarding the Holocaust.
("Did you fear you were exploiting or diminishing this tragedy? Do you think you could make a poignant comedy about the genocide in Rwanda? Must time pass before mass murder becomes a subject for entertainment?")
The best I could manage was, "While you were making this film, did you think about how it might be received in the United States?" (Okay, I’ll practice.)
Benigni’s English is joyful but not extensive, and it took a few seconds for him to understand the question. Then he took off. "No," he blurted, gesturing energetically. He and his colleagues only cared about "the story," just "the story." All that mattered was "the story." They did not consider how it would play anywhere. Not in "Arabia," not in "Egypt," not in the United States.
He continued: "I’m not so careful. I’m not looking for the truth. I’m looking for the pleasure. So I want to tell a story, which is the best thing in the world... For the pleasure, which is not trivial, but in the highest sense... Okay?" He looked at me, and I nodded. He had spoken as if the only way he knows how to speak is from the heart. That’s either tremendous acting or distinctly un-Hollywood-like (and un-Washington-like) behavior.
Distinguishing himself from many of the stars who paraded past the journalists that night, Benigni is someone I wanted to hear talk for longer than two and a half minutes. Another reporter began to ask a question, and Benigni peered at him. But before the query was completed, the man who had made the event special was unceremoniously yanked out of the room by a factotum, who had to rush him to the press rooms on the third floor. He shrugged and moved on.
An unscripted instant of genuineness was done. And I realized that
beyond the obvious similarities between Hollywood and Washington—the
triumph of spin over truth, the worship of power, the prevalence of
naked ambition—these two one-dimensional company towns share another
trait: in each city, hope is witnessed in