Peter Bart and Mike Fleming Jr. worked together for two decades at Daily Variety. In this occasional column, two old friends get together and grind their axes on the movie business.
FLEMING: I had the dubious honor this week of writing our Robin Williams obit. Well actually it was more of a news story than, say, the obit of Lauren Bacall that came a day later. I found it a soul-sucking experience, leaving me the same empty feeling as when we published similar pieces on Tony Scott, Paul Walker, Whitney Houston, James Gandolfini, Corey Monteith and Michael Jackson. Juggling hard news with empathy in reporting a tragic loss of one so brilliant is the recipe for an awful day.
BART: The suicide of a figure like Robin Williams always forces an editor to make a painful distinction: There’s a difference between a celebrity and a mythic figure. A celebrity gets a respectful obit. A Robin Williams, who truly dug into the subconscious of our pop culture, merits not only an obit but a tribute. And that’s a tough exercise: Contacting not just his co-stars but his true friends. Publishing not just canned comments but expressions of honest emotion.
FLEMING: What you just described has become impossible because publicists are doing their own balancing act. They don’t want to call around comments or offer their clients for fear they will appear vulture-ish trying to get ink on the back of a dead friend; so all you get are variations on the same generic canned expressions of sadness. But maybe these people are so shocked, they aren’t ready to reveal themselves any other way to satisfy our deadlines.
BART: The process of public mourning has taken on a new dimension in the social media.Everyone becomes an obit writer. Fans put out electronic scrapbooks of Robin Williams clips. Stars like Chevy Chase or Steve Carell volunteer reminiscences. Williams’ friend Billy Crystal tweeted “no words.”
FLEMING: What I have the most trouble with is: how aggressive should you be before you too feel like a vulture circling overhead? We weren’t first with Robin Williams’ death, because I wanted to be sure. That took a little time as I berated his long-time reps who, I thought in hindsight, were working in uncharted territory, trying to be helpful while feeling the sad loss of a client who was part of their lives for years.
Another reason for a journalist to feel bad. We probably suffered in social media traffic by not rushing. Our reporters heard that one editor of a prominent website sent a memo to staff telling them to play up the words “dead,” “death,” “suicide” and “hanging” as much as possible in their Robin Williams stories for best search-engine optimization. That seems lurid to me. I am comfortable in how we played it and thought the staff did a laudable job under duress.
BART: Newsmen also face this issue in the face of a tragic death: How deep do you go? What’s the line between what is news and what is disrespectful. As a studio executive, I faced this issue from the other side of the fence. When Natalie Wood suffered a fatal accident in the middle of the 1983 film Brainstorm, I was on the phone with insurance executives on one line as newsmen were calling on the other. Will the film continue shooting? Who pays what to whom? They were valid questions but inappropriate to respond to immediately following a death. I did not answer the inquiries until two weeks later.
FLEMING: You could never get away with that today. We’ve had internal spats over slamming up a report about Whitney Houston’s death without corroboration, for instance, or whether to pick up what proved to be false reports that a disease compelled one of my favorite directors, Tony Scott, to end his life. I dug my heels in over that and was glad later. And when I read posthumous details of Houston’s drowning in a scalding hot bathtub, well, I would never have carried that information because the image of her soaring vocals in The Bodyguard is the one our readers should hang onto. Same with the details of Paul Walker’s tragic death, some of which we didn’t run because it was stating the obvious. We were pretty patient in revealing the details of Williams’ death, focusing our efforts on getting reminiscences from friends and those he made films with. You try to inform but also help your readers to process and grieve; we have no time to do that ourselves because it all moves so fast.
BART: Publicists today are trained to mobilize instant statements for their star clients when tragic events occur. As a young reporter for The New York Times, however, I remember cases when I was assigned to phone major public figures to elicit reactions to events they had just learned about—President Kennedy’s assassination, for example. I got gasps at the other end of the line; I heard sobs. There were no canned reactions. I sat at my typewriter trying to figure out – how do you put grief in quotes?
FLEMING: That is more honest than the reactions that are spooned out to the press today. A lot of the obit stuff feels prepackaged. We’ve been having a running discussion over whether to bank obits on people we expect to die soon. I am against it; how can you make readers feel anything unless you are writing in the moment, by the seat of your pants, painting a visceral emotional picture? I’ve written some of those pieces on people who were important to me, and the reaction makes me feel that it can be worthwhile. The long newspaper obits I read on Lauren Bacall and other icons that clearly were prepared well in advance were as dull as reading a tax return because they were written in anticipation of a death event. The only exception: Homeland star James Rebhorn, writing his own obit when he knew his time was up. There was also a piece we did with Walker’s long time manager, Matt Luber, who was gracious to describe his reality after losing his best friend and long-time client, who died as all their plans were coming to fruition. These pieces you don’t forget.
BART: The New York Times has made the obit a literary genre onto itself. Some of its best writers are assigned to what used to be a hated chore. The Lauren Bacall obit, for example, went into great detail, not only on her movie life, but also her life as a mother and dog owner prowling the West Side of New York. It even quoted Liz Smith talking about how Bacall disliked the press — usually a topic that’s never discussed in print. I have personally written some obits for The Times and for Variety — one of them on the great agent and Universal CEO Lew Wasserman.
The toughest choice I faced was this: How much critical material do you want to include on someone who has just died? Wasserman basically ‘owned’ Hollywood for a time. He was also disliked for his tough negotiating, his political manipulations (for Ronald Reagan in particular) and authoritarian manner. In his younger years, there were rumors of ties to the mob. Pondering all this, I couldn’t get myself to ‘go negative.’ He was a great figure in Hollywood history, after all. Why rain on his parade? My obit was probably too soft. So are most obits.
FLEMING: Well, you described in a past column about having to knock on the doors of families who lost someone, looking for a picture or a quote. That sounds just awful. We don’t have to do long dissertations on the dead here. I was disappointed in some of the comments on the site, most of which I wouldn’t publish. People took a “how dare he” tone. Clearly that reaction was widespread because Williams’ wife the next day divulged that Williams was in the early stages of Parkinson’s disease, a heartbreaking revelation. It reminded me of something I learned during a trip to Berlin. On the city streets outside the brownstones, gold squares are embedded in the sidewalks bearing the names of the Jewish families who were evicted from those homes and sent to concentration camps.
One was Martha Liebermann. The wife of the famed impressionist painter Max Liebermann, Martha was 85 and bedridden from a stroke when she got the notice she would be deported to the Theresienstadt concentration camp in a week. She knew she’d never make it, and took her own life, in her home. The guide told us a religious prohibition on suicide was relaxed for Martha and the thousands of German Jews who did the same thing; it was decided that because death was certain, they had the right to choose the means and the timing.
I’m not likening Robin Williams’ death at all to victims of the Holocaust. I was haunted by those gold plaques all over the Berlin city streets, imagining the suffering and indignity perpetrated on all the people who raised families and made lives in those proud homes. I guess what I am saying is that even though my own Catholic faith regards suicide as a mortal sin, I believe it is not that simple. I have heard that Parkinson’s brings on severe depression; whether that factored into Williams’ desperate act or whether it was because he knew what was coming, I don’t think anyone but his maker has the right to judge him. I’ll focus instead on the incredible mark he made on pop culture and movies (The World According to Garp and Good Will Hunting were my personal favorites), and I’ll think about the electric wit and magnetism that made him a singular performer. The personal toll such a gift takes on a person with a brain like that, and the demons that are unleashed along with the genius, I’ll leave for others to ponder.
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