Bart & Fleming: On ‘Birdman,’ Sony PR Tsuris, Mike Nichols And Bill Cosby

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, mostly on the movie business. 

BART: Critics don’t like to admit it, but the conditions under which you see a film strongly influence your opinion. Birdman is a good example: If you see a film like this with a pack of cinephiles like at Telluride, everyone gets every inside joke, and you instinctively go along with the crowd. I made it a point to see Birdman with a paid civilian audience and it was like screening it in a mausoleum. No laughs, just occasional grunts and lots of walkouts. Some reviews predicted Birdman “will captivate arthouse and multiplex crowds alike and send awards pundits into orbit” (the Variety review). Well that ain’t happening with the audiences; we’ll see about the awards. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu shot a movie about a play but all his actors overplay their scenes as though they were on stage full time. For the film goer, the end result is more exhausting than entertaining. Compare Michael Keaton’s nonstop rants with the understated nuances conveyed by Brendan Gleeson in Calvary – a quiet, touching performance in a beautiful and under-appreciated Irish movie.

FLEMING: While my comic tastes are best described by beloved touchstones Dumb and Dumber and Jackass, to me 2014 is distinguished by two great comedies, both highbrow. The Grand Budapest Hotel (I could not stop laughing as Ralph Fiennes delivered the most articulately peculiar speeches at inopportune moments) is one; Birdman the other. I saw it close the New York Film Festival, the perfect place. I don’t think you can rely on a random audience to measure a film’s worth. I laughed numerous times at Michael Keaton’s manic angst, his foul-mouthed feathered alter ego, at Edward Norton’s method actor. They’ll get nominated. Zach Galifianakis‘ agent was funny. Keaton’s exchange with that serpent-like theater critic, that was something.

BART: Critics like to gossip about the scene in Birdman where a female critic, presumably from the New York Times, tells Keaton she’s going to kill his play the next night. It’s a delicious scene but, as has been pointed out, no critic ever gives advance warning. And she ended up loving the play anyway. I wish I had loved either the movie or the play.

FLEMING: The basis for that scene was fulfillment by the playwright Alexander Dinelaris Jr, who co-wrote the script. He got hammered by a critic and used that angst for a wonderfully confrontational scene in which Keaton and that critics cut each other to the quick. Dinelaris wouldn’t elaborate who this was aimed at–I have to work in this town, he said–but how could critics not bring that kind of bias baggage to their jobs? And how could a creative who bares himself so nakedly, not want to strike back after being told his child is ugly? Great movie. We will have to disagree. Inarritu is one tortured Mexican and he breaks off pieces of himself each time out and I appreciate that.

BART: Speaking of disagreement. You had kind words for Charlie Sipkins, who “ankled” (Variety’s old term for getting the axe) Sony after one year — you even used the word ‘effective.’ I don’t think so. As a former crisis manager, he was unctuously corporate in a job that needed amiable persuasion. At the same time, he was put on a nightmare mission — all corporate PR jobs in Hollywood are death traps today. The studios don’t want anything resembling transparency. Columbia put Sipkins in a position of announcing corporate cutbacks, then disclosing major hires on the production side. So is Sony in retreat or on a defiant track to expand and fortify its slate? I hope the latter. But the mixed messages emerging from the PR machine at the studio seem designed to confuse the press, not inform.

FLEMING: I stand by what I wrote. I am not sure why crisis PR experience is derided. I need only one thing from any PR person who wants a place in my process: transparency. I loathe liars and passive aggressives; they waste time I don’t have. If a PR person needs some rope on something I have uncovered and they lie to get it, that only works once. As JJ Hunsecker said famously, “You’re dead. Get yourself buried.” If the PR person is honest with me, we figure out a compromise. When you are as close to the flame as you get to be at Deadline, you cannot simply be ruthless all the time. Sipkins had a hard job. I don’t know for sure, but I heard leaving was his choice. I think he did a hard job gracefully, he treated me with honesty and I hope I get to work with him again. As for Sony, I’m not sure it’s so, but they do seem to line people up to take bullets so Michael Lynton and Amy Pascal don’t have to. From Steve Elzer to Mark Weinstock, Jeff Blake and some others following Sony setbacks, and it wasn’t clear what any of them had done wrong. You hear they have no money to do anything and days ago, we broke a story they put the Steve Jobs movie in turnaround. Universal picked it up so fast that I haven’t so far gotten a sense why Sony bailed. I imagine it has to do with budget and high priced talent like Aaron Sorkin and Danny Boyle, versus a feeling the financial upside isn’t huge. Look at the memorable films Sony has done in the last half decade: Moneyball, The Social Network, Captain Phillips, none of which seemed any less risky a bet. Scott Rudin made all three of those and he’s making Jobs; Sorkin wrote two of those films. The only Sony film people are talking about in awards season is Fury, and Sony bought a fully developed Brad Pitt package. Since nothing else at the Sony Corporation seems to be working, why not empower Pascal to make this a shining example of a content-creation system that works? Sure, she spends too much money in a business where relationships have been devalued by bean counters, but she has a very capable brain trust in Doug Belgrad, Mike De Luca, Hannah Minghella, Tom Rothman and now Jeff Robinov. She and Lynton outlasted antagonistic shareholder Daniel Loeb. Let them start making decisions from the gut again and empower experienced picture pickers like De Luca and Rothman. The last Spider-Man showed how bloated these superhero IP gets and how they run out of gas when you tell the same story over and over. Sony needs new IP, and prestige films worth bragging about, and that’s where Rudin comes in. Go big or go home.

BART: Mike Nichols’ passing reminds me that, while so many artists feel unappreciated in their time, that could never be said about Mike. He became a folk hero at a relatively young age thanks to his early career in comedy with Elaine May and the success of his first three films – Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, The Graduate and Carnal Knowledge. During the ‘70s, however, when so many important young filmmakers hit stride, Nichols’ career hit a dead spot with Catch 22, Day of the Dolphin and The Fortune. Joe Levine, the fabled showman, had made Nichols the highest-paid director in the business and the fat paychecks seemed to foment failure. Even his fans wondered if he’d “gone Hollywood.” I remember Nichols’ moment of panic when he finished The Graduate. He’d used a temp score – the fabulous Simon and Garfunkel songs—and realized that no other music would ever make him that happy. His savvy producer, Larry Turman, managed to secure the rights to those songs and also fend off Joe Levine, who’d financed the film. Levine didn’t think the score worked. Fortunately, Turman and Nichols had creative control.
A couple of years later, I was at Paramount when Nichols submitted the script and budget for Catch 22. I’d loved the book but felt the script was incomprehensible and the budget irresponsible and I wanted to kill the project. Nichols made it clear to me that I was full of s*** and went over my head (and Bob Evans’) to CEO Charles Bluhdorn and secured his green light even though Bludhorn never bothered to read it. The film bombed. Nothing ever stalled Mike Nichols’ career, however. His work in the theater continued to be excellent and he went on to make some damn good movies. But no one in show business ever batted .1000 – not even Mike Nichols.

mike nicholsFLEMING: I had one encounter with Mike Nichols, which I’ll always treasure. I saw his Death Of A Salesman revival, and Philip Seymour Hoffman’s performance was the best I’ve ever seen onstage. I don’t get to Broadway much, and didn’t feel I had to after Salesman; I felt like I did after I sat first row, third base side when the Yankees won the World Series in 1996, and rarely returned to Yankee Stadium because it could never be that good again, ever. I interviewed Nichols and didn’t pretend to be a stage sophisticate. Rather, I apologized for being a culture cretin, admitted it was my first time seeing Salesman and told him the title was a spoiler for me, akin to retitling Citizen Kane to Rosebud Was His Sled. Nichols indulged me, noting the play’s first producer agreed withe me and tried to get Arthur Miller to change it—and was fired. I found Nichols to be more patient, funny and self-deprecating than I had the right to deserve from an 80-year-old genius. The result: one of my favorite of the many interviews I’ve done for Deadline. He liked it, too, and called to tell me. I couldn’t believe it. He was a talent for the ages. One movie of his I felt was very underrated: Closer. I didn’t see the Patrick Marber play (big surprise) and to me this was ferocious stuff, and career high points for Clive Owen and Natalie Portman. That one didn’t do well, either.

BART: The film critic Charles Champlin also died last week and the following question was often raised during his long and distinguished career on The Los Angeles Times: Was he simply too nice a man to cover Hollywood? Courtly and thoughtful, Champlin served as a critic and editor during the tumultuous ‘60s and ‘70s and there were times when he seemed to bend over backwards to be a gentleman. He later wrote that, while studio pressures never bothered him, he’d gotten to like some of the filmmakers whose work he covered and, “it’s painful to say a movie is a disaster.” Champlin nonetheless was a smart critic who panned movies when he felt it was called for.

FLEMING: I could never be a critic. I like too many movies, and I too am loathe to call a movie a disaster because of the respect I have for the creative process. The exception is when I see mismanagement, waste, ego and hubris as the lethal ingredients.

BART: The issue of ‘softness’ came up again in the ‘70s when the David Begelman scandal broke and, while a couple of newspapers ran with the story, Champlin’s reporters were late to cover it. Begelman, of course, was the boss at Columbia Pictures when he kited some checks and narrowly escaped a prison sentence. Writing about the story in retrospect, Champlin commented that Begelman had committed a “crimeless crime” and that he seemed like “a culprit who doubles as a victim.” Champlin’s observation was correct in the sense that Begelman, who was a career sociopath, seemed to want to be discovered. I had known him during his career as an agent and he all but boasted about his dishonesty. Hence I was amazed when Columbia actually gave him the keys to the safe. Even after his conviction, MGM soon rewarded him with similar responsibilities. Was Champlin too nice to Begelman? Sure. But so was Hollywood. Whatever his shortcomings as an investigative journalist (which he never pretended to be) Champlin was an honorable man – indeed an island of civility in Hollywood.

FLEMING: I don’t understand how you let off the hook a studio head you described as a thieving sociopath. Champlin couldn’t survive the world I live in. I said you can’t be ruthless, and I remember holding back three years while Steven Spielberg vacillated over making the provocative Munich, and again when Eric Bana got the lead. He was doing international press for Troy, and I was told they feared for his safety. I still broke those stories I waited on, but no way could I be that flexible today. This is minor compared to the decisions editors of showbiz publications make today. Look at the Bill Cosby stuff. I’m amazed these allegations didn’t end his career years ago, and equally shocked how quickly the allegations are pouring in now from all directions, and carried unquestioned by outlets all over the world. I was surprised when actor Stephen Collins (another iconic esteemed TV series dad) was instantly fired from every job and erased from memory. At least with Collins there was a smoking gun – the surreptitiously taped therapy session. So far there are allegations against Cosby and denials. How would Champlin have handled this? Women come out of the woodwork claiming to have been drugged and abused by Cosby years ago; but didn’t we just see this happen with Michael Egan, who in press conferences alleged he was sexually abused by numerous powerful gay people, only to withdraw those allegations after they were publicized everywhere and tarnished the accused? Was it right for media to drag those alleged perpetrators through the mud with “he said-he said” allegations and no evidence beyond an accuser in a decades-old crime? There have been several tough coverage decisions we’ve had to make in the last year and it gets harder to keep a line on civility, measured against being a spineless possible enabler of bad behavior if you say nothing.

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