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.
BART: So this is the moment, Mike, when we all have to get behind our women. Or pay the consequences. Hillary Clinton has just announced her candidacy. Then she’s expected next week to deliver a power speech at Tina Brown’s Women of the World Summit. There seems to be a Power of Women conference almost every week now. And while there are many women in power in many places now, the drive to elect the first woman U.S. President puts the movement on a whole new level. The fascinating question: Will women nationwide get behind this movement? Women’s rights will be a key rallying cry in the campaign, which really puts America’s women at the moment of truth: Will they cast their votes behind their ultimate advocate or will they get buried in political hyperbole?
FLEMING: On the other side of the ledger, there are two female journalists in the news right now who’ve set precedent in the wrong direction, and illustrate how important it is for women to get it right because there aren’t enough of them in positions of influence to get lost when they don’t. Rolling Stone apologized for and officially retracted a report by freelancer Sabrina Erdly about rapes on college campuses. The most shocking tale in her story detailed an alleged frat-house gang rape, and it was more shocking that RS editors went along with the writer’s request (on behalf of the alleged victim) to not try to corroborate any facts. So she didn’t reach out to the frat, and not even the friends who supposedly came and got her after a crime described in lurid detail, and then urged her not to call police because she’d be ostracized. The story was discredited and shreds a proud magazine’s reputation. Just out on bookshelves is The Story, a memoir by former New York Times journalist Judith Miller, who shared a Pulitzer, reported from dangerous locations, and once went to jail for refusing to divulge sources in Scooter Libby’s outing of Valerie Plame’s status as CIA agent. Miller’s best remembered, however, for front-page scoop reporting on evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq that are now considered suspect and helped fortify the Bush Administration’s campaign for war in Iraq. The supposed cache of WMDs was as empty as Al Capone’s vault. And once again, editors shockingly went along for the ride. Miller’s memoir got panned in the NYT and her book’s tone is defensive.
BART: Since I tend to bring things down to the lowest intellectual level, I’ll also point out that Lena Dunham this week starts shooting her fifth season of Girls. This is relevant because, while Hillary wants to bring women together, Lena is uniquely divisive – most men I know can’t stand her show. Or her. But Lena is as good at publicizing as she is at polarizing. Look at her 2.1 million tweet devotees. Or at her myriad magazine pieces telling us how her germophobia morphed into sexual anxiety or how she once experimented sexually on her younger sister. Or read in The New Yorker how she can’t distinguish between her dog or her Jewish boyfriend (both crave cream cheese and like to spend Sunday morning in bed). My message to Hillary: Don’t let Lena campaign for you.
FLEMING: I don’t get Lena Dunham, but my daughter sure does. You wouldn’t find her in a Michael Bay movie, but I love the idea that she helps fuel the proliferation of women who do not look like prototypical supermodels. It is so helpful in getting young women to feel good in their own skin, even if they aren’t 5’8” and weigh 98 pounds. Even though she is guilty of leaving you uncomfortable (good for her), Dunham’s following illustrates there was an under-served audience for her blunt, salty views. I look at her, or Amy Schumer, who blazed on the scene with a standup comedy routine as savage as any working male comic, and who tonight hosts the MTV Awards in advance of her first big studio movie, Trainwreck; Melissa McCarthy, who thank goodness is back with Paul Feig and apparently soars in her next film Spy; or Jenny Slate, who went from the Saturday Night Live cast member who accidentally said f*ck in her first episode, to the offbeat, nervy and charming star of Obvious Child; and Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones, the SNL cast members joining Kristen Wiig and McCarthy as Ghostbusters. It’s the best time for women of all shapes and sizes to break in, and not have to pretend to be someone other than themselves. This is wonderful. I’ll never forget a few years back when Rosie O’Donnell had strong movie turns in Beautiful Girls and A League of their Own, and tried to thin herself for a movie career. She looked so miserable, starving herself. Am I being too bold to say that wouldn’t happen if she came along now and her star was rising in this day and age? I hope so.
BART: I’ll remind you, Mike, that the top actresses of Hollywood’s Golden Era had a certain, shall we say, heft. Elizabeth Taylor and Ingrid Bergman were by no means ‘sticks.’ I met Marilyn Monroe once and she was definitely not skinny (thank goodness). As for comediennes, most were hefty until Joan Rivers came along. Joan, who was a friend, seemed to regard meals as an unnecessary intrusion on her work schedule. She once told me she enjoyed lunches with me because neither of us ate.
FLEMING: Wasn’t Joan Rivers also one to serve up the less than perfect for ridicule? Best we move on and let your friend rest in peace. As for the Judith Miller stuff, there is such a great movie in her story. But her telling is only half of that story of the first woman to rise to the top of the Times’ Washington bureau. Beyond questions of whether she carried the Bush Administration’s Iraqi war agenda, it would have to factor in the recollections of fellow NYT reporters who loathed her sharp elbows and bull-in-a-china-shop manner, and the dubious nature of those said to have fueled her pro-war front page NYT stories (Ahmad Chalabi was identified as being among them). You could probably only tell that movie story as a fictional composite. But you look at the way that Miller was once excoriated by the old Spy Magazine for her too-close relationship with sources (successful women, not men, face this kind of rumoring all the time, that they somehow sleep their way to success). You can find this and everything in old articles available online (a New York magazine piece by Franklin Foer was very detailed). Were they jealous of her success, or see something editors should have? This has all the elements for a Prime Suspect-like complex drama about a bold woman rising in a male-dominated world, shattering the glass ceiling through sheer will, and then losing herself in the ambition that can cloud a journalist’s better judgment as a too-good-to-be-true story is dangled. We all get spun, but hers is a cautionary tale; she might be journalism’s answer to Helen of Troy.
BART: Next topic. You talk with Harvey Weinstein a lot, Mike, so I suspect you’re glad to learn that the cops aren’t pursuing charges on the ‘groper’ incident. Harvey’s propensity for putting himself front-and-center in every situation, however, seems to invite trouble. The executives of every other entertainment company go to great lengths these days to remain invisible. Amy Pascal was one exception, and look what happened to her. Not so, Harvey. In the case of his new musical, Finding Neverland, Harvey seems the focus of every news story, every interview. This is HIS first musical production, and it has become HIS story – a high-risk adventure. And with a new presidential campaign looming, memories are stirred up of Harvey’s role in the Hillary-vs-Obama battle in 2007. Harvey will occupy lots of media space if any other Democrat challenges Hillary this time even though some of his left-leaning friends would like him to ignite more support for Elizabeth Warren. There’s going to be enormous money at stake here. And Harvey clearly likes the political spotlight as much as the show-business one – even though temperatures grow dangerously hot in there.
FLEMING: It’s unfair to drop Amy Pascal into this. Her private business email correspondence was stolen and fed to bottom-feeding media outlets by North Korean hackers to, we found out later, give validity to a terror threat to blow up movie theaters in the U.S. She didn’t deserve that; she just reacted out of severe embarrassment and didn’t handle the crisis as well as she could have. As for Harvey, he’s a married guy with kids and I have gotten to know him pretty well after covering him so long, so I am glad for him. Deadline didn’t initially cover those groping allegations. Our policy is, we cover the business and people can read salacious personal stuff elsewhere. The early reports on this story had the same Rashomon tone as the press-conference revelations made by Michael Egan, who last year accused execs and filmmakers of sexually abusing him when he was underage. He then retracted those claims. Where did that leave the trade outlets that covered every allegation? Was he telling the truth? I have no idea, but I was comfortable not dining out on the story. You can accuse anyone of anything these days and it will be front-page news somewhere. Had Harvey had been charged by the NYPD, we would have had to cover that, but in no greater detail than the item we wrote announcing there would be no charges.