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 on the movie business.
BART: Glowering with anger and frustration, Sean Penn always comes across as a stranger in a strange land. This was the case Sunday as he explained to Charlie Rose why he decided to interview El Chapo, the Mexican cartel king. And as usual, I didn’t really “get” what he was trying to say.
FLEMING: I think I understand what he was trying to do, but continue.
BART: Over the years I’ve spoken with Penn about many topics, but he always protests he’s been misunderstood. His Haitian forays, for example: While his initiatives were clearly idealistic, they were often at odds with the Haitian authorities, who have claimed them confusing. But then Penn is a confusing guy. In the case of El Chapo, Penn acknowledges that his Rolling Stone article failed to achieve its objectives, but I never understood his objectives. Why was it important to elicit the opinion of a drug lord about the impact of drug abuse? But notice one thing: The entire episode was not so much about drugs as it was about Sean Penn. Movie stars always manage to capture center stage, no matter what the setting. And in this case it turned out El Chapo wanted to cast Kate Del Castillo in the leading role, not Penn. Yet again, a stranger in a strange land.
FLEMING: I’m reluctant to pass judgment, after a Deadline weekend editor inexplicably posted as serious a satirical blurb on The New Yorker website that claimed ISIS leaders had canceled a meeting with Penn. But since you asked…Penn said he wanted to open a dialogue about the failed War on Drugs and I believe that’s why he wanted to paint El Chapo as a sympathetic chap. Maybe he figured that humanizing him would make the cartel leader relate-able and somehow redeemable, and get us past the idea of the boogeyman and into a real conversation about the futility of the drug war. But Penn badly miscalculated. I’ve admired the way Penn doesn’t just write charity checks, he puts himself on the line when moved by tragedies like Hurricane Katrina and Haiti. I admire a lot of what he has done as an actor and a writer-director; Into The Wild was particularly memorable. But as The Cartel author Don Winslow described in detail today here on Deadline, Penn and his softball questions made him the Leni Reifenstahl of a feared drug lord. He became Chapo’s propagandist. He ignored the carnage caused by the cartels, barely brought it up. I can completely understand Winslow’s outrage when Penn characterized other journalists as being jealous that he interviewed El Chapo and not them.
Winslow, a former private detective before he became a bestselling novelist, spent two decades researching this stuff; all the brutal violence in The Cartel was based on real incidents. He devoted the first two pages of the book to listing the names of over 100 journalists who were murdered in the line of duty by the drug cartels. They were literally torn to pieces, their bodies left on public display, because they dared to pry. Who knows? Had Penn asked any hard questions, it is possible both he and that soap actress would never have made it back alive. But when I read Penn’s long description of his covert journey to Mexico, with all the fear and anxiety and hardship, it made me think of Apocalypse Now. I wondered if that movie would have had the same impact had Martin Sheen, after his Heart of Darkness journey into the jungle, finally met up with Col. Kurtz, only to ask: What’s your favorite color? I can’t believe Rolling Stone’s Jann Wenner didn’t run a companion piece on the reign of terror that El Chapo and his peers have wrought on Mexico. Penn could have done this same piece on the leader of Boko Haram, or ISIS, or any other despicable entity looking to soften deservedly horrific reputations. I hope Penn realizes why his attempt to be some Jack Kerouac character and calling himself an “experiential journalist” upsets journalists. The title he claims belongs to Sebastian Junger or Into The Wild author Jon Krakauer, and others who risk their lives to go into war zones and dangerous places to tell hard truths.
BART: Next topic. The media gurus have been torturing themselves trying to rationalize Academy voters “snub” to black-themed films and black actors this year. In recent years, Oscar votes have favored films like Selma and 12 Years A Slave but this year, despite the admission of a record 322 new members – a policy designed to improve “diversity” – films like Straight Outta Compton, Concussion and Creed failed to get the nod. So what happened?
FLEMING: I feel like you are going to tell me.
BART: The Academy’s efforts to democratize its constituency have been going on for decades. Back in 1968 I was recruited to become a voting member because the Academy, I was told, needed a younger point of view. I had been working at a studio for only a year so felt less than fully qualified to pass judgment. Nonetheless when I looked at the nominated films that year I felt an obligation to fulfill my mission. It was my responsibility to vote for The Graduate over Doctor Dolittle and In The Heat Of The Night (which won). The Graduate was, after all, a reflection of a younger generation of filmmakers. In addition to that, I thought it was a better film. I wonder if some of the new Oscar voters this year find themselves in a similar dilemma. They want to go with their artistic preferences rather than their “mission.” I only wish this year’s films were as good as those of 1968.
FLEMING: It’s a fool’s errand to pick apart the Oscar choices in a calendar year, because you have to ask the question: If you put Idris Elba, Will Smith, or Straight Outta Compton’s F. Gary Gray or Creed’s Ryan Coogler in the finals, who are you excluding? I don’t know if those people deserved a nom over the ones who are still in the race, and I am just as vexed that Ridley Scott and Aaron Sorkin were snubbed. You mentioned Selma, and I would argue that movie’s chances were undermined by director Ava DuVernay basically acknowledging she made LBJ an impediment to black voting rights (even though history says different) because she didn’t want to make yet one more movie where a white man was the catalyst for change. So there are always reasons for omissions, but no excuse for the Academy to make changes, quickly. Maybe broaden the nominees for categories like it did Best Picture, or make public who got what votes. If loyalists cry blasphemy to either of those, then the Academy should take more drastic steps. It knows the racial makeup of its voters and it should add many more minority members. Let’s face it: even the most liberal white person isn’t going to see the world or process films and their meaning the same way as a black person might. Spike Lee is spot-on when he laments the paucity of decision-making executives at studios. That’s a much larger hurdle than the Academy faces. Just colorize the voting body, already, and don’t be subtle about it.
BART: The bottom line is that the membership of the Academy still consists mainly of white male working dudes, not stars or star filmmakers. I hope the new members will bring some “diversity” and fresh energy to the Academy. But I also hope the voters will balance their artistic preferences and their sense of responsibility. And I will leave it to Chris Rock, the Oscar host, to bring some humorous perspective to it all.
FLEMING: I want to lighten the tone here, and take issue with your last column that identified four feature scripts on the Making of The Godfather, and your feeling none should be made. Watching Jay Roach’s Trumbo reminds me how wonderful well told Hollywood stories can be. I’ve seen how much Deadline readers loved when I got former Universal head Frank Price to tell how he played a game of poker and granted a one-time license on Double Indemnity and got the languishing script Back To The Future; and Tom Pollock to explain how, as lawyer for George Lucas, he got sequel and merchandising rights for Star Wars, which was either the best or worst deal in movie history, depending on what side of the table you were sitting on. Interviews with Ridley Scott, Woody Allen, Sly Stallone and Burt Reynolds obsessed on past war stories, and our readers ate them up. So why wouldn’t I want dishy tales about my favorite movie The Godfather? You mind if I drop a couple great Hollywood stories here that illustrate my fixation?
BART: Obviously, I am not going to stop you.
FLEMING: OK, here’s the first one, but I need to keep anonymous the narrator. This one is about Raoul Walsh, who directed the James Cagney film White Heat. Here goes: “There was this tight group of Irish American directors and actors who would hang out at Errol Flynn’s house on Laurel Canyon. John Barrymore was one of them and when he died in 1942, Flynn told them, ‘I can’t believe we’ll never again have Jack, sitting there in his chair with a glass of scotch.’ Raoul nods, and after thinking about it, he goes to the mortuary, where the guy there had been an extra in a couple of Raoul’s silent Westerns. He tells him, If I give you twenty bucks, can I borrow the stiff for a couple hours?’ Raoul takes Barrymore’s body to Errol’s house, puts him in his chair and puts a glass of scotch in his hand and waits for Errol Flynn to come home. Errol walks in, sees Barrymore, and he just freaks out. He runs out of the house, screaming. And then Raoul takes the body back to the mortuary.” Peter, you got time for another?
BART: How can I refuse?
FLEMING: This one’s about the late movie superagent Marty Baum, narrated by ICM agent Jack Gilardi. “So this was at General Artists Corporation, after GAC bought Marty Baum and Abe Newborn’s company, Baum-Newborn. I was in the nightclub division, covering Vegas, and I was asked to go into the motion picture department because the kids I repped started getting hot, like Frankie Avalon and Bobby Darin. Marty Baum comes into the 8:30 meeting and says, ‘I read the greatest script last night. Who covers comedy?’ I say, ‘Me, but you could say good morning first.’ He says, ‘OK smart ass, good morning. I got a script here called It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Stanley Kramer is directing and producing and it’s one of the greatest scripts I’ve ever read.’ So Marty does one helluva job, putting Mickey Rooney, Ethel Merman, Edie Adams and Buddy Hackett and others in the picture. I’m sitting in Marty’s office one day and the phone rings. Marty, his assistant Jack Gross and me are there and it’s Stanley Kramer, who by now had cast most of the picture. Marty had one of the very first speaker phones, so we are all listening. Kramer says, ‘Marty, you did such a great job, but I got one more role open. It’s the sheriff. Can you help me?’ Marty says, ‘Ed Brophy.’ I’m thinking, who the hell is Ed Brophy? I never heard of him. Stanley says, ‘Who?’ Marty says, ‘Oh, he did this, he did that, he has done Broadway, he’s great.’ Stanley says, ‘OK, if you believe in him, let’s get him in the picture.’ Marty says, ‘Well…he’s not cheap, you know, and I’ve got to get some money for him.’ Stanley says, ‘I’ll give him 1200 a week, six weeks guaranteed. I can’t give him any more than that.’
Marty hangs up and tells Jack Gross, ‘Go get me Ed Brophy on the phone.’ Jack says, ‘Who is Ed Brophy?’ Marty says, ‘Don’t worry, he’s a great actor.’ About five minutes later, Jack comes in and says, ‘Mrs. Brophy is on the phone.’ Marty says, ‘I don’t want to talk to Mrs. Brophy, I want to talk to Ed.’ ‘Well, she’s on the phone.’ Marty picks up and says, ‘Hi, Mrs. Brophy, Marty Baum here, head of Motion Pictures for General Artists Corporation. There’s a picture that Stanley Kramer is going to make, and I have great news for you. I got a major part in it for Ed Brophy.’
She says, ‘Ed is gone.’ Marty says, ‘I know. But this is going to bring him back. Spencer Tracy is the star!’ She says, ‘You don’t understand, Mr. Baum. Ed’s gone.’ This went on for about two minutes until she finally said, ‘Mr. Baum, Ed died six weeks ago.’ Marty, who was a nice man as well as a good agent, says, “Oh, my God Mrs. Brophy, I am so sorry.’ I am falling on the floor by now.
Then, Marty gets Stanley Kramer on the phone and says, ‘Look Stanley, I can’t deliver Ed Brophy.’ ‘Waddaya mean?’ ‘Well, he wants more money.’ ‘More money? I never heard of him.’ Well, he wants $2500 a week, and that’s a lot of money and I understand this won’t work out.’ Stanley says, ‘Marty, you’ve been so right on the picture that I’m going to give him the $2500.’ Marty says, ‘Yeah, but what about the billing?’ Stanley says, ‘What billing? I don’t even know him…alright, I’ll give him co-star billing and he’ll be among Mickey Rooney and Buddy Hackett and the others.’ Marty says, ‘I still can’t do it.’ Stanley says, ‘C’mon Marty. Let’s get this thing done.’ Finally, Marty says, ‘Stanley, Ed Brophy is dead.’ There’s a pause and Stanley says, ‘You sold me a dead actor?’ Marty says, ‘Yeah. But you bought him!’ True story. I was there.”
So, Peter, maybe you can now see why it might just complete me as a human being if at least one well told ‘Making of The Godfather’ pictures gets made. Got any classic stories to rival the two I just told?
BART: Well, yes, but I’m keeping the director’s name to myself, in deference to his family. In the days when I was president of Lorimar Films, Merv Adelson, the uber boss, used to complain that filmmakers were not respectful of him. Some were downright rude. One day he called me from the set of a Lorimar film shooting in Europe. He had just approached the director to chastise him that he was behind schedule. The director, sitting in his director’s chair, didn’t even acknowledge him. Hearing this, I called the production manager to ask his version of the incident. “The director died in his chair and, cause we’re in Italy, we didn’t want to remove him until the authorities got there,” he told me. “Merv was criticizing a dead man for working too slow.”
FLEMING: Well, here I thought I had a pretty good hand, but I think you just took all the chips off the table.
BART: Next topic. Here’s my nomination for the most misleading headline of the week on the awards race: From the Los Angeles Times: Major Studios Are Pushing to the Front Again. The thrust of the story is that most of the contenders are studio films. What the story does not say is that, in almost every case, the funding was from outside the studios. So are films like The Revenant or The Big Short “studio films?” Would studios have initiated them? Or funded them when they got into trouble?
FLEMING: Clearly, the companies which took the risk, most significantly New Regency on both The Revenant and The Big Short, deserve the love. But it’s Chinatown, Jake. A last gripe from me. I so hate the way Hollywood markets comedies, and puts every damn joke in the trailer. But this weekend’s big hit Ride Along 2 took it too far. The most enterprising gag in the trailer is the film’s ending! Talk about a spoiler alert! It’s in the trailer, and so instead of being surprised, I was wondering when I would see the gag. Before the movie, I saw jokes galore in the trailers for Zoolander 2, in Dirty Grandpa, and Neighbors 2. Can’t anyone figure out a way to sell laffers without spoiling them for the people who actually pay to see them?