Bart & Fleming: How A Caustic Comment Cavalcade Moves Us Curmudgeons

By Peter Bart, Mike Fleming Jr

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.

peter-bart-mike-fleming-badge-verticalFLEMING: We just finished a dull, holiday-shortened week, and by the time this is published I will have headed off for two weeks in Hawaii to celebrate a 30th wedding anniversary with my long suffering wife. Rather than miss three straight columns, I thought we’d take a detour here to ponder the unusual relationship we have developed with readers who seem moved by our writing, often in the wrongest ways possible.

BART: Congratulations on that milestone.

muppets 3FLEMING: You mean pissing off readers, or staying married? I can’t say I have much wisdom to share on the latter front. I’ve discovered it’s not hard to stack time in a marriage if you: 1. Choose the right partner. 2. Don’t die. Forget her for now, this is about us, and we’ve been at this together nearly as long, starting when you were a producer and took my call when I was a kid reporter working on a gossip column at New York Newsday. I don’t exactly feel old, but I have started to become comfortable with numerous Hollywood people who excitedly say they like our “curmudgeon column,” though I can’t shake the image now of those two cranky, bitter Muppet characters complaining about everything in the opera house balcony. Are we the human equivalent of Statler and Waldorf, philosophizing and fossilizing a bit further each Sunday? Deep down, even backhanded compliments like that make me uncomfortable. I am more at ease with the commenters who don’t just take a shot at me, but take the liberty of psychoanalyzing and defining me, based on some offhanded comment I’ve made. Maybe it’s because they parrot the self loathing voice that rattles around my own brain, but I seem to enjoy comments that make me say in appreciation, You don’t like me. You really don’t like me! The fun part and the challenge of Deadline is putting yourself out there, taking a stand now and then, trying to have fun once in a while. And waiting for the abuse to pour in. I wrote a story that put forth a movie chauvinist’s view that I didn’t want Paul Feig giving an estrogen makeover to one of my favorite guy movies, Ghostbusters. And when I covered box office on the opening weekend of the chick flick The Other Woman (whose marketing maxed the jiggle factor of Kate Upton), I suggested the film had a “well rounded cast.” Both times, a chorus of outraged commenters called me a sexist caveman who should be strung up by a bra strap. Is it too late to say thanks?

BART: When I read comments from readers, my first thought is one of gratitude. I’m grateful that, amid the torrent of gurgitated and regurgitated prose, some folks are taking the time to give us a read. The data dogs tell us that nearly 75% of the population spends three hours a day checking their smartphones. We are all living in an echo chamber as everything we read keeps bouncing back to us in some slightly altered format. I’m glad Twitter and Instagram are crafting better ways to aggregate but I’m already overloaded on aggregation. What Silicon Valley guru warned that in a world of apps there’d be no more naps? So readers may get cranky about some of things we say but at least we are trying to summon up original news and observations, not just recycling second hand blogger buzz. And I, for one, love it when readers take us to task for pushing it too far.

muppets 6FLEMING: To best illustrate this desire to be drawn and quartered, I’ll confess that my all-time favorite comment came in response to a slow news day post, after the director of The Human Centipede sued his lead actor, and I hoped out loud it would be forever tied up in court so another installment of that loathsome franchise wouldn’t foul a movie screen. Commenters were surprisingly outraged, but only one, at the end of a diatribe, said he “would love to see Fleming and Nikki Finke, sewn ass to mouth.” She and I laughed and approved the comment. When you manage not only to insult a writer, but also make him laugh and paint a visual that is impossible to un-see, all in one sentence, you have accomplished something. Since I am trawling for punishment, what critical comment would you make about my Deadline work?

BART: Like the media in general, I think you let famous directors get away with too much “auteur attitude.” I know several top filmmakers who are monsters on the set, and in their private lives, but magically become gentle and kind during interviews. They jabber endlessly about their hits and somehow forget about their flops, and the lessons learned. And interviewers let them get away with their flatulence of ego. Of course it’s their egos that got them their fame to begin with but interviewers should challenge them, not let them bask in their brilliance. I’ll never forget one famous director who literally tore an actor apart in a screaming rage, then, seconds later, became downright Papal in an interview. Too many film critics these days review a filmmaker’s work rather than his new picture. If he’s named Anderson (or Woody) he can get away with anything. Take that, Mike.

FLEMING: Thank you sir, may I have another! I could tell you that I learned the hard way that an antagonistic approach doesn’t help, and that artists will gladly tell you about their failures, if they think you respect the creative process and aren’t there to try tricking them into saying something they’ll regret. I don’t much care if a filmmaker has harsh words with a studio exec like you used to be, if it meant keeping a suit from compromising his vision. I’ve been like the proverbial fat kid in a bakery at Deadline lately, doing long interviews with Woody Allen, William Friedkin, Ridley Scott, Michael Mann, Robert Zemeckis and Luc Besson. These things tend to build their own momentum. But rather than have me go back at you, I’ll let our commenters do it. From our 8/16 column on which summer franchises deserve to live, “John” writes, “Memo to Peter Bart: we get it, you worked on The Godfather and Harold & Maude. You don’t have to remind us of that fact Every.Single.Time. We get it.” How about that, Peter?

BART: I agree with that person. However, the fact is that people ask me about those films so I respond. But I prefer writing about projects I worked on that were flops — interesting flops. Like Mrs. Soffel starring Mel Gibson — he is a brilliant actor but a loon now and then (especially then). Or movies like Being There that were under-appreciated at the time. The Peter Sellers movie holds up brilliantly today. One reason: Donald Trump is Chauncey Gardner — the guy running for President who doesn’t know how or why.

muppets 5FLEMING: I think your experience on the other side of the fence gives you an inside knowledge of the process that posers like myself will never have. And since I am the one always asking for stories about The Godfather and all the 70s movies you got to be part of, my comment would be that “John” has his head up his arse. Next. In the 9/27 column on films about journalists, “kevinwayneharris” opines that “This article can best be described as verbal masturbation…” Peter, what’s your stance on verbal masturbation? Actually, let me rephrase; that sounded like a graphic inquiry. I don’t get the whole verbal masturbation thing or how it’s accomplished; it doesn’t sound like the gratification is worth the work. But believe it or not, in all those years at Variety when you were writing your “Memo To” column addressed to this industry figure or that one, I heard “verbal masturbation” ascribed to you on occasion. How about a tutorial?

BART: However you want to describe the Memos, it was remarkable how many people responded to them. Arnold Schwarzenegger wrote an elegant rebuttal to one. Leonardo asked his agent to bark at me years ago when I suggested in a Memo that he should take a hiatus from acting and get a college education — then he’d find better scripts. Okay, here’s one directed toward you, Mike, this from “I don’t know,” responding to the 9/6 column on Spielberg’s Disney exit: “I’ve always thought these guys write their “discussions” not actually sit and chat. While I enjoy Bart and have watched him in many things, it would be unbearable for this Deadline reader to have to watch Fleming.”

FLEMING: All I’ll say is that when my wife writes things like that, I realize it is a marvel we’ve lasted three decades. Next comes a sour salvo, in response to our 7/12 column on Comic-Con, when we lamented the lack of masculine male movie stars. “Whatever dude” opined: “These two bloviated gas bags get paid for this whining tripe? Well I guess that’s what you do when you can’t actually write or create new thoughts or ideas. What a couple of lame posers.” Apparently he was onto something, because “True” took up his crusade with: “Have to agree. These guys often sound way out of touch, but today is next level foolishness.” And then “Bbob” piled on, adding: “Agreed. It’s like listening to Angry Old Men. And they don’t even know it.” Then “JohnDoe:” “That awkward moment when the two old white guys get together and lament the “shortage” of old white guys and then just praise some other old white guys. Sorry boys, I came into this with an open mind, but this article is painfully out of touch. At least you’ll always have “the good ol’ days.” Finally, “Chris” went for the KO: “Hey, I think it’s a great commentary! ‘Cause I’m close to sixty and these guys are so ludicrously out-of-town they make me feel like I’m 19! Can’t wait for their next piece whining about why American men stopped wearing leisure suits.” I mourn the death of seersucker but not leisure suits. Peter, what do you think, and do you lament the demise of the leisure suit?

mupBART: What’s a leisure suit? I’m in New York this week and the city is changing so fast no one remembers “good ol’ days.” The Pope just left, Obama and Putin arrive and the city is packed and buzzes with excitement. It’s appropriate that Bob Zemeckis’ The Walk opened the Film festival last night because it’s about a high wire act — getting anywhere in Manhattan is a high wire act. Folks who fought their way to the Opening Party at the Tavern On The Green deserved a Purple Heart. Here’s another for you. On the 9/9 column asking why the press is lathering Ryan Kavanaugh’s bum, “Dant” opined: “Oh Please! Fleming, you are the biggest kiss up in the biz! The only time you take on anyone is if they are on the way out (or, apparently, scoop you on a story). I guess someones back is a bigger target. At least the old deadline challenged the status quo. The Kavanagh story in THR was truly riveting reading and the best interview I have read in a looong time.”

FLEMING: All I can say here is that if Ryan Kavanaugh had spent less time writing comments on Deadline and more time making watchable movies and TV shows, his company wouldn’t be insolvent. Here’s one for you, after you blasted my favorite actress, Melissa McCarthy in the 6/7 column. A “RodanJCopilot” writes: “I can’t believe that Peter Bart called McCarthy the Princess of Pudge. I don’t know why they publish these chats. They almost always show Peter Bart being out of touch, sexist and apparently a fat shamer.” Well, you all but called me fat in a recent column. On the serious side, as a father of two girls, I continue to feel that McCarthy, and Lena Dunham for that matter, are important role models and a godsend toward showing young women they should feel comfortable in their own skin even if they don’t have supermodel measurements. What do you say?


BART: Lena Dunham is great at playing a character who is not at all “comfortable in her own skin.” I never thought someone could make such a success out of discomfort. As for Melissa, she’s a superstar. We all agree on that.  Here’s another one, from 7/27/14, about Comic-Con. I’m not sure who gets it worse. You called for Comic-Con to establish a regal private bathroom for those who dress up in elaborate superhero costumes, after witnessing a Caped Crusader go through the indignity of stripping down to use the urinal. You noted that his prowess was underwhelming. Said “WTF Man:“ Hold on. Is Fleming saying he checked out Batman’s junk at the urinal? WTF.” Mike?

FLEMING: In the pursuit of that important story, I plead guilty. But it was only a peek at Bat Junk, not a lingering look; I am no superhero groupie. Maybe this isn’t as much fun as I thought it would be. Let’s try one or two more. In our 9/27/14 column on the late Joan Rivers, “Jay” helpfully points out that “If there’s one thing these Bart and Fleming posts do, it’s prove what a tool he is.” I’m going to hope the commenter’s last name isn’t Penske, but I will assume “Jay” meant me, because “feio” follows up with “The more you “talk,” Mike, the more you reveal yourself to be a true hater of women. Get over it.” Peter, if you were going to be a tool, which tool would you want to be?

muppets 4BART: Is this where I have to do a version of “If I Had A Hammer?” I’m glad you’ll be floating around Hawaii, Mike — the clean air and the quiet will be good for you. And on cruises things are very quiet. I produced a movie in Kauai once (called Islands In The Stream) and it was so pleasant I didn’t want to stop shooting — except we ran out of money. The cast and crew loved the beaches, the landscape, the hospitality of the locals and, yes, also the weed. I remember one take when the director forgot to yell ‘cut.’ The scene could have gone on for days. Enjoy yourself, Mike, and don’t read any more reader comments.

FLEMING: One last one, which I think finally captures the secret behind our column chemistry. “James” followed our 5/12/14 discussion with:

Fleming: “Oh, Peter Bart, you were such a brilliant mastermind behind the renaissance of American cinema in the 1970s…”

Bart: “Oh yes, I was. Thank you for promoting my ancient career, Michael. Good thing I was your boss at Variety.”

BART: We will be back for more abuse in two weeks.

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