Peter Bart and Mike Fleming Jr. worked together for two decades at Daily Variety. In this weekly column, two old friends get together and grind their axes, mostly on the movie business.
FLEMING: We both questioned if Best Picture films would have lingering impact. American Sniper showed Lone Survivor was no fluke and has sparked sudden interest in real-world tales. Deadline broke last week that Warner Bros won a heated auction for Pulitzer Prize-winning war photographer Lynsy Addario’s memoir with Steven Spielberg directing and Jennifer Lawrence playing her; and Reese Witherspoon, Natalie Portman and Darren Aronofsky, and George Clooney attached to rival bids. Suddenly, there was all kinds of chatter on Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal, who skillfully mined this turf with The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty. I heard rumors Bigelow was dropping out of Paramount’s Triple Frontier, a Traffic-style tale set in South America. Neither the studio nor her agents would comment, but I dug a little deeper and found she has pushed this to the side (the timing so close to Adam Goodman’s exit is coincidental, as she didn’t mesh with him anyway). Instead, she will next direct a feature we revealed last year. I hear next up will be the Boal-scripted pic about Bowe Bergdahl, the Army sergeant captured by the Taliban and held prisoner for five years after he left his base in Afghanistan. Backing it is Megan Ellison, who made Zero Dark Thirty. I expect studios to start jumping immediately, if they aren’t on it already.
That’s not all. Reese Witherspoon is the name I’ve heard on Ashley’s War, a book on submission to Hollywood about a groundbreaking team of female American warriors who served alongside Special Operations soldiers on the battlefield in Afghanistan — including Ashley White, who died a hero as the women rose to the occasion alongside Green Berets and Army Rangers in fierce fighting.
Another book, Three Days in Paris, about the massacre of the staff of Charlie Hebdo, is also getting nibbles. Finally, people are talking about the Focus Features-owned The Yankee Comandante, about an American who helped Castro gain power in Cuba and then became targeted as an American spy. Clooney and Grant Heslov are producing and word raced Friday that Matt Damon had sparked to playing the lead. I see the NY Post wrote that, but everyone from Focus to Damon and Clooney’s camps said Damon is not at all attached. Despite this, there is revived interest in that project. Can I take this surge as a sign studios are willing to make movies where the heroes don’t necessarily have to wear spandex?
BART: Your news is very heartening — it’s all a vivid reminder that the major players want to make compelling stories even if they have to drag the studios along kicking and screaming. Creating fact-based war stories is a demanding exercise, however, and, at this point, I’m still not sure how to explain the success of American Sniper. The Clint Eastwood movie is not just a success — it’s a blockbuster, grossing $337 million in the U.S. and over $140 million abroad and passing the latest Hunger Games as 2014’s highest domestic gross film. If I were starting another war film, I’d draw at least two lessons from Clint: the movie should have a protagonist the audience can root for. Clint’s movies have clarity as well as complexity. And he shot it for $60 million. That’s the bill for craft services on a Marvel film.
FLEMING: It will be a challenge to place a hero tag on Bergdahl, whom some said deserted his unit and wasn’t worth freeing the Taliban soldiers it took to spring him, or Oliver Stone’s Edward Snowden film that just started production. Neither Bigelow nor Stone take simplistic views of these things, which make their films so interesting.
BART: Next topic. Ask any question of a CEO these days and you get buried in Big Data. Big ideas disappear amid a haze of Big Numbers and, as Shane Smith, the boss of upstart Vice Media argues, “misconstruing metrics has become a big deal.” Numbers can prove or disprove anything, Mike, even in sex, as I was reminded the other day by an economist who decided to do a Google search of sex data. The conclusions from the Google survey often contradict widely held assumptions. While the majority of men feel their penises are too small, for example, more than 40% of women complain their partners’ members are too big – painfully so. While men worry about climaxing too quickly, half the women would like to find ways of making their men come faster. As analyzed by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz and reported in The New York Times, the Google results, like all Big Data studies, are steeped in contradictions. If the number of men and women claiming to use condoms was valid, it would account for vastly bigger condom sales than has ever been recorded. The number of couples about to be married who complain that they do not have enough sex almost equals the number of married couples – that’s a lot of complaints. Married men under age 65 claim to have sex about once a week while married women report less activity. The desire to have bigger butts is growing fast among women while men do not favor female butt-itude. The writer’s conclusion: “We are all so busy judging our own bodies that there is little energy left over to judge other people’s. Maybe if we worried less about sex, we’d have more of it.”
FLEMING: I worked for you 20 years at Variety and you waited this long to get around to the “sex talk?” If I claim a headache, can I get out of this? I will stick to noting that it’s a relief this preoccupation fades as you get older. The big butt obsession — and the examples of women having their posteriors surgically augmented to resemble the shape of a rutabaga – seems just the latest example of media serving up over-sized body parts as the ultimate ideal, which preys upon the insecurities of normal young people. What is sad is that when Jennifer Lopez and Beyonce presented alternatives to the stick figure, it was refreshing. Kim Kardashian seems to have taken it in the wrong direction. The augmentation — I guess you could call participating surgeons bottom feeders – is a little horrifying. As you get older, obsession with vanity fades. Exercise and diet become more about staving off bypass surgery than looking good at the beach. It’s too bad these lessons don’t take hold earlier; what we see happening isn’t healthy. How many times do we see formerly beautiful actresses indulge in unfortunate surgical facial augmentation to the point only Michael Jackson would say that looks good?
BART: The data showing that Fifty Shades of Grey has now passed the $500 million milestone worldwide may be interpreted as showing a higher interest in erotic cinema. On the other hand, after viewing the Google conclusions, there’s a chance it may prove something entirely different… I’m just not sure what.
FLEMING: I think the Fifty Shades replicates Twilight Saga’s romantic notion of finding a near-perfect dream man and then trying to fix him. Author E.L. James began this trilogy as fan fiction to that vampire saga, inspired by mid-life crisis fantasies about Robert Pattinson. She changed the dream man’s flaw from bloodsucking to the inability to be sexually intimate without domination. Judging by our overuse of photos of a nude blindfolded Dakota Johnson, the S&M aspect is more titillating than if the otherwise perfect guy was a drunk or degenerate gambler (try getting laid after watching Leaving Las Vegas). Fifty Shades stirred a romantic fantasy in a global army of female readers, who trekked to theaters for opening weekend to see their beloved book translated to film. The fact that Fifty Shades went flaccid right after shows that the notion of being degraded and dominated isn’t sexy or romantic to non-book fans. Spank me if I’m wrong, but S&M makes me think of Pulp Fiction’s “Wake the Gimp” line; the connotation is danger, degradation and sleaze, appealing to a small group of fetishists.
BART: Next topic. OK, I’ll admit it: I personally enjoy those moments when an old guy gets a job that young guys have screwed up. Case in point is the appointment of Andy Lack, 67, to be chairman of NBC News, the organization that lost its lead in the morning ratings game (Today became yesterday), lost its news anchor (Brian Williams) and made a total mess of MSNBC, the so-called liberal bastion. Lack replaces Pat Fili-Krushel, whose management skills proved as untenable as her name. (On the other hand, Lack is not the perfect leadership brand name either). Full disclosure: I know Andy Lack and have great respect for him, but I don’t envy him his job. Lack has shown a genius for corporate survival (following his last NBC gig in 2003 he’s worked for Sony Music, Bloomberg Media and even co-produced a movie) and his genius will be tested as he tries to cope with the mistakes of his predecessors. Here are some unsolicited suggestions: Dump Phil Griffin at MSNBC, a man who has clearly run out of ideas. Bring back Brian Williams before ABC’s pretty boy, David Muir, steals his ratings (in his initial months Muir has displayed his contempt for hard news, filling his ‘news’ show with fluff). As for the Today show, I have happily migrated to CBS where Charlie Rose and crew have carved out a truly informative and entertaining show that assumes its audience is comprised of grownups, so it’s time for another Today reboot. Whenever anyone gets a media job these days, all they do is blab about Snapchat, Facebook and mobile. So please talk about something serious, Andy.
FLEMING: When Alan Horn went to Disney, we saw how an old-school guy could stabilize a leaky ship. But Horn works in a business whose structure hasn’t changed much. The way young audiences absorb news is something for a younger person to figure out. My kids get their news fixes from Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert; the news outlets with the most rabid followings are biased like Fox News. Can younger audiences find the patience to ingest old-school objectivity when they are conditioned to being told how to think? The gold standard is 60 Minutes, which presents serious stories not in a voyeuristic way like NBC’s Dateline does, but is that a fossilizing format? As for your call to bring back Brian Williams: after Bill O’Reilly showed you are Teflon as long as you shout down your accusers, I say, sure, bring him back. But ban him from moonlighting on entertainment shows. If he wants to be Tom Bergeron, there’s a good honorable career in that. If being a credible, polished journalist was enough for Bob Simon, it should be enough for Williams.
BART: Los Angeles people who grew up in New York always dream about making their Big Return to Gotham, Mike, but no one has brought it off quite like David Geffen. He enjoys the New York social scene and, with his new $100 million gift to Lincoln Center, will see his name enshrined on what has always been Avery Fisher Hall. Of course, that has pissed off a lot of L.A. culture vultures. The Music Center folks have been chasing Geffen to bestow some millions on the downtown L.A. scene. The struggling Geffen Theater in Westwood has been hitting on ‘the founder’ for more money. Indeed, all the philanthropoids in LA have been on his tail, but Geffen signals that he is a New Yorker now, and his signals have always been loud and clear. The late Gil Cates, who ran the Geffen Theater in LA for many years, once told me what it’s like to ask Geffen for money for his own theater. “A Geffen ‘no’ means ‘no,’” Cates told me. “The word ‘maybe’ is not part of his vocabulary. And the ‘no’ is not followed by hugs and kisses.”
FLEMING: Geffen’s a Brooklyn kid whose cultural sensibilities were shaped by the New York institutions to which he is now giving back. Anyone in L.A. who has problems with that can pull out their own checkbooks. A self-made billionaire donating sizable sums of his fortune to philanthropic pursuits in any city is laudable. And we die-hard New Yorkers never give up on those who head West for weather and career opportunities. Since I stayed here, it’s not uncommon to have conversations with transplants and I can’t remember a single one who wouldn’t come back if they could.
BART: So, Mike, these are things you should think about as you shuttle back and forth between LA and your cave on Long Island. It should be re-named The Mike Fleming Cave. Plus the new Academy museum in LA is offering all sorts of nooks and crannies for naming rights and I was pondering a Peter Bart urinal. I think many readers would line up to use it.
FLEMING: To show a lack of vanity, would you have your photo baked into the porcelain as a target? If so, would James Cameron be first in line? You once told me he informed you that he used your photo as a dart board. As for my Long Island home, I’m not bragging about it. This winter has sorely strained my allegiance to New York, and would it be too much to ask if you and everyone else in L.A. could resist inserting into every conversation an L.A. weather forecast? A few more snow storms and I might become one of those transplants who whine about Geffen neglecting our L.A. cultural institutions.
BART: Cameron created his Bart dart board when Variety kept taunting him about his overages on Titanic. A weekly chart showed the rising budget against the background of a sinking ship. In the end, of course, the movie floated away handsomely. But I wouldn’t like to be the Fox executive monitoring the numbers on his next sequels. Next topic: So Broadway is enjoying its romance with movie and TV stars, but will Larry David push that trend over the brink? I have often run into David at parties over the years and have found him true to his TV persona – alternatively rude and boring. That’s the way critics describe his performance in his new show, Fish in the Dark, not that it has hurt box office. “An overextended sitcom,” snapped the LA Times’ smart critic, Charles McNulty. “I laughed fully exactly once,” confessed Ben Brantley of the New York Times. Still, seats are going for $423 and the Cort Theater is sold out. Which leads me to wonder: If you want to spend time with a grumpy old guy, re-visit his old shows. Or run into him at a party. I’d love to see Broadway re-discover Broadway actors.
FLEMING: The star system might be dead in Hollywood, but it drives Broadway when the likes of Denzel Washington, Hugh Jackman or Daniel Craig come for short runs. The least pretentious of all is Honeymoon in Vegas’ Tony Danza, who filled the cavernous Nederlander Theatre during previews by lobbying people on line at the TKTS discount booth. Then he’d stand outside after, so they could tell him how he did. His show got raves and he’s a former boxer who knocked out most of his opponents, so who’s really going to give him grief? Still, I find his hustle admirable and hope people don’t forget that show, which is just plain fun.
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