Peter Bart and Mike Fleming Jr. worked together for two decades at Daily Variety. In this weekly Sunday column, two old friends get together and grind their axes on the movie business. Off last Sunday, the boys have a lot on their minds.
FLEMING: We have entered an age of digital fascism; render an opinion against the grain, and disagreement is followed by insults and threats to end careers. Because of an opinion.
BART: Are you referring to Javier Bardem, Penelope Cruz and Pedro Almodovar being attacked for signing that petition charging Israel with practicing genocide in the Gaza? It was certainly not a smart move on their part.
FLEMING: I get that. Anyone paying attention can see Israel’s existence comes out of an unimaginable genocide attempt in WWII. I wonder if Bardem and Cruz read the fine print when the petition was put under their noses. Provoked by Hamas (which fights from behind citizens it tactically regards as human shields), Israel has the right to make safe its borders and destroy all the terrorist tunnels it can find. Genocide is what provoked President Obama to drop bombs in Iraq against ISIS troops forcing Christians and other religious minorities to convert to Islam or be executed.
So these two Oscar-winning actors didn’t think it through; new parents, maybe they saw carnage and wanted to register concern. They’ve sworn they are not anti-Semitic. I find the ensuing insults and veiled blackballing threats to be appalling. Jon Voight tells them they should “hang their heads in shame;” Relativity CEO Ryan Kavanaugh says his blood is boiling, and infers they might be part of a growing wave of anti-Semitism in a THR article that says other studio heads are enraged and Bardem and Cruz could find Hollywood as cold a place as Mel Gibson does. A blog on The Wrap contrasts the images of Gaza fatalities with bombings perpetrated against Israeli civilians, and opines that “When Bardem takes Cruz out to Spago’s, the thought of his Schnitzel being blown all over Wolfgang Puck’s toque, along with his wife’s implants are the furthest thing from his mind.’ And this from the Jewish Journal: “Every Jew and every decent non-Jew should regard Cruz, Bardem, Almodovar and the other signatories with the same contempt that is directed at medieval Christians who charged Jews with the blood libel and at contemporary Holocaust deniers. They are on the identical moral plane.” Yowza! A so-called legit publication allowing a blogger to fantasize about an actress having her breasts blown off by a bomb? On the heels of Gary Oldman‘s ADL condemnation for saying Gibson was banished for biting the hand that feeds him (the allusion being that Jews run Hollywood), do you find this level of animosity as alarming as I do?
BART: Yes. I sense you aren’t done.
FLEMING: I sought out a tenured member of the Hollywood establishment who we both know and who won’t be named here. I asked: ‘Why, when you disagree with someone on a hot-button issue like Israel, has it become necessary to define that other person with insults and hostility, and harm? Does Hollywood really want to stamp out independent thinking by blacklisting those who don’t amplify the Vox Populi?’ This person didn’t feel the hate mongering was reflective of the Hollywood majority as much as the Road Rage mentality that has become the life blood of the web. “People who would never confront another person face to face get behind a keyboard and behave like angry motorists who are civil until they start their cars; cut them off or drive too slow, they turn into violent lunatics whose impulse is to wish the other person harm, or worse.”
BART: The Internet is often blamed for encouraging this sort of ideological noise but it’s all somewhat reminiscent of the Blacklisting era, when the only exchanges were angry exchanges. In those days, the pre-Internet press was complicit in spreading rumors and innuendo and destroying careers. Gossip columnists like Hedda Hopper seemed to enjoy hinting that a star or director was a secret lefty, maybe a Communist. The Hollywood Reporter of that era aided and abetted the Blacklisting process. It became dangerous for a writer or filmmaker to undertake any project that could be suspected of having a liberal bent for fear of incurring the wrath of the professional patriots. I don’t think there’s a Black List in present-day Hollywood but I would caution executives to avoid hinting that they’d favor one.
FLEMING: I’ve seen this Road Rage mentality evolve on Deadline’s comment thread. You write about a star deal and there was always someone who’d helpfully opine that that actor sucks. Now, they attack my staff, instructing and insulting writers who’ve set the high quality bar for decades. Are these attackers captains of industry? Or does their empire only extend to the cinder block walls of their mothers’ basements? All we know is they are armed with an Internet connection, a working typing finger, a stunning lack of self-awareness, and a lot of anger.
As for Bardem and Cruz, they are not carousers or criminals. Should we judge them on actions or words? In her memoir, actress Lee Grant says she wasn’t a communist, but fell in love with one; when she dared speak at the memorial of a blacklisted dead actor, she couldn’t get hired in her prime years of age 24 to 36. A look at Cruz’s bio: she spent time doing charitable work in Nepal, Uganda and India; worked with Mother Theresa at a leprosy clinic; started a foundation to support homeless girls in India; donated the entire salary of her first film to Mother Theresa. Kavanaugh, no Boy Scout, is now standing on her neck to be Hollywood’s flag waver for Israel at a time when he’s readying an IPO? And what’s up with Voight, telling other actors how they should feel?
BART: Voight is a conservative true-believer whose remarks often set him up for ridicule. But he’s really a nice guy. A year or so ago, he read one of my snarky columns and invited me to lunch to set things straight. In my column, I’d recalled the time when we were in casting discussions for Love Story — I said I’d opposed casting Voight for the role of the Harvard student because no one would ever believe he had the brains to go to Harvard (Ryan O’Neal, who got the role, was no more believable). Voight and I had a pleasant lunch, giving him the chance to explain that he was a thoughtful guy even though he was to the far right of me politically. Then he insisted on picking up the check. I resisted; no movie star since the dawn of mankind had ever picked up a check for anyone, I explained. He grabbed it anyway, saying that he wanted to be the first. Now, that’s classy conservatism!
FLEMING: Next topic. There have been articles galore about the summer movie apocalypse, and the next batch will tell us how armageddon was avoided thanks to surprise hits Luc Besson’s Lucy, Guardians Of The Galaxy and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014, the summer of Michael Bay). All of these made me recall screenwriter William Goldman’s famous line: Nobody Knows Anything.
BART: It’s ironic that William Goldman’s most famous credit is that line from his memoir Adventures In The Screen Trade; ironic because Goldman, in fact, knew a great deal about the movie business, and still does.
For one thing he understood how to write truly rich characters in his films. Who can forget Paul Newman in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid or Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman in All the Presidents’ Men? I mention this only because it’s truly hard to find a memorable character in today’s slate of films — even hit films. That is, unless you want to count Rocket the Raccoon from Guardians of the Galaxy. Characters in today’s movies are buried beneath layers of plot, and machinery. That’s why Goldman himself, who is an old friend, admits he rarely goes to movies any more. “I still love movies, but I can’t find anything to see,” he says ruefully, and he’s not alone. If Newman were around today, what roles would he play? He wouldn’t have been credible as a raccoon, and his talent would have been wasted as an ape.
FLEMING: Here is why I thought of Goldman, whose memoir was the book everyone told me to read as a primer when you hired me at Variety a quarter century ago. Scarlett Johansson did little promotion for Lucy, and trounced Hercules.
Dwayne Johnson was everywhere, but Paramount allowed the stink aura to permeate by not pre-screening for critics even though the pic got belated decent reviews. What gets me about Johansson is this: she’s right on the action-star precipice where Angelina Jolie stood after Wanted, and it’s a total accident. Marvel hired Emily Blunt to play Black Widow, until Fox enforced an option and made her star in the flop Gulliver’s Travels. Johansson appears in Iron Man 2, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Avengers and Avengers: Age Of Ultron. She’ll surely get her own Black Widow spinoff and a Lucy sequel. Blunt finally got to play a badass alongside Tom Cruise in the superb Edge Of Tomorrow, and nobody noticed!
Guardians is more preposterous; it’s like Marvel’s Kevin Feige launched a franchise on a dare he accepted at the second-to-last stop on a pub crawl. Hey Kev, you think you can make a hit franchise out of anything? I dare you to do it with these superheroes: a talking raccoon, a walking tree. You want stars? Okay, take the blue lady from Avatar and paint her green, and we’ll give you the fat redhead from Parks and Rec. Feige pulled it off and maybe that makes him the one guy who knows something. The other thing about Hollywood’s new hot leading man Chris Pratt: he got his movie shot after he slimmed down to play Oakland A’s first baseman Scott Hatterberg in Moneyball. Mind you, he only got the chance because Sony pulled the plug on Steven Soderbergh’s version of that film three days before production, when the role of Hatterberg was going to be played by…Hatterberg. You cannot make this stuff up. Nobody knows anything.
BART: All this underscores Goldman’s point about the absence of good roles. The only way for a woman to become a big star is to do action movies and become a super heroine. I don’t think Johansson dreamed of becoming the Black Widow when she studied acting.
BART: Next topic. Now that Rupert Murdoch has backed away from his Time Warner invasion, his dealmakers may whisper that his old adversary Sumner Redstone poses a better target. Viacom seems to be sliding into a torpor based on its sagging earnings, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Transformers aside, Paramount seems downright somnolent. Studio film revenue was down 26% in the last quarter as the pace of production continues to slide. Viacom’s overall profits decline of 5.1% is in sharp contrast to the buoyant quarterly earnings of Time Warner and 21st Century Fox. If Rupert’s voracious appetite needs to be satisfied, would he relish a full-scale Viacom offensive?
FLEMING: I never understood why he split Viacom and CBS, which has the kind of compatible pieces that Wall Street seems to want in a mash-up. I’m just glad Murdoch stopped his Time Warner quest. Murdoch was boasting about saving $1 billion; most of that would have been jobs. That would have had a frightful impact on an industry where people are more terrified than ever.
BART: Next topic. You and I share a sentimental attachment for newspapers, Mike, despite the fact that we now live in a digital domain. Hence don’t you feel it’s downright pathetic that Gannett, the Tribune Co and Scripps last week all joined Time Warner and Fox in ghetto-izing their print assets? Frail newspapers like the Los Angeles Times and the Milwaukee Journal are now orphans in the storm. Gannett spent $1.5 billion to buy 20 TV stations last year, ostensibly to fortify its newspaper holdings, but now the papers have been tossed into the orphan club. To add to the problem, the newly independent newspapers owe hefty payments to their dismissive former corporate parents. It’s one thing to starve newspaper holdings, but to send them off into the wilderness seems like corporate irresponsibility.
FLEMING: I feel bad that all of them have to circle the wagons. Romanticism aside, I am glad to be out of the tree-killing business of print journalism. Deadline just wrote about a movie to star Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Michael Keaton, Aaron Eckhart and Stanley Tucci, about the Boston Globe team that overcame the powerful church bureaucracy to expose a cover-up in the Catholic Church that shielded pedophile priests and allowed predators to move to other parishes where they molested more kids. The Globe won a Pulitzer for the kind of great journalism that William Goldman memorialized in his All The President’s Men script. Could the Boston Globe or Washington Post today weather the political hardship to lay bare those two incredibly controversial stories? Will digital journalism take over that crusade? I doubt it.
BART: Most of what passes for digital journalism consists of recycling stories that already have made the rounds — and not paying anyone for anything. Today’s Woodwards and Bernsteins hopefully were born rich.