Sunday, January 30, 2005

The New York Times explains why I left Hollywood

New York Times
January 30, 2005
14 Years Later, My Hollywood Ending


I CAME to Hollywood in 1991 thinking I knew quite a lot about the world and its ways. As a young reporter, I had been to Vietnam. Later, I covered Northern Ireland, several political campaigns and the White House under President Ronald Reagan and the elder President George Bush. On arriving, I was fresh from a sudden assignment in India after the assassination of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. But only in my 14 years here - most of it spent covering the movie industry, the rest covering television and music - did I come face to face with some of the more startling, and not always pleasant, truths about human behavior, my own included.

On retiring (officially, this is my final week at The Times), it seems best to sort through this Hollywood tour. It began in a string of modest, even shabby, apartments - one of them, on Martel Avenue in West Hollywood, best remembered for the cluster of police cars, drug dealers and prostitutes on the corner. Along the way I married a studio chief, Amy Pascal, now chairwoman of Sony Pictures. For both of us, the liaison opened a rare two-way window on the inner workings of two worlds, moviedom and the press, that have long been locked in a messy but symbiotic struggle. But our marriage also changed the game. I won't speak for my wife and her own way of coping with career complications born of an alliance with a reporter, but I can say that our wedding, in August 1997, brought to the fore some of my own shortcomings. Clearly, I stayed too long on my beat, clinging to a notion that I could sidestep conflicts of interest by avoiding direct coverage of Sony, and learning too late why wiser heads counsel against even the appearance of conflict. But my marriage, and some of the events that tumbled out of it, also taught me something about the ferocity of a culture in which the players can be best friends one day and savage you the next.

When I finally asked to be taken off the movie beat in 2000, I laughed and said I felt like the Duke of Windsor. But I quickly caught a lesson in how chilly life as a former movie correspondent could be. In the past, I'd written about Jeffrey Katzenberg, then president of the Walt Disney Company. He returned every call quickly and often phoned me; he dished over pasta at Locanda Veneta about all the studios in town and became such a pal that I once showed him off-the-record comments made about him by Michael Eisner. That was wrong and foolish, and years later I still regret it. As soon as I stopped covering movies, Mr. Katzenberg stopped responding to phone calls. I was surprised but shouldn't have been.

Not every Hollywood moment involved operators like Mr. Katzenberg, nor were they all somehow tied up with my marriage. Fellow journalists contributed their share. In one remarkable episode about two years ago, Robert J. Dowling, the publisher and editor in chief of The Hollywood Reporter, threatened to punch me during a charity event. He was upset by an article I had written about two years earlier dealing with staff resignations after his newspaper failed to print an article about an inquiry by the Screen Actors Guild into whether the Reporter columnist George Christy had received pension and health benefits to which he was not entitled. Mr. Christy's column was soon suspended. (Peter Bart, the editor of Variety and a former Times Hollywood correspondent, went beyond Mr. Dowling: he sought to get me removed from the job because of an article I wrote saying that The Hollywood Reporter was catching up with Variety.)

The Hollywood Reporter scandal was, in fairness, pathetic and hardly on the level of Watergate or Iran-contra. And it wasn't akin to the unfortunate way even more serious journalists are co-opted by the overtures of a Michael Ovitz or the charm of a Joe Roth. Mr. Roth, a top Hollywood player, seems available at any time and is willing to schmooze with eager reporters as if he had all the time in the world.

Mr. Ovitz went a step or two further. Shortly after I arrived in Hollywood and met him, when he was at his zenith as chairman of the Creative Artists Agency, he offered to help if my children needed to attend private school or if I needed to find a hospital. I never took him up on the offers.

MY first day here, as I recall it, was in early September 1991. Having just come back from India, I was struck almost immediately by the prevalence of money, and the crazy economic gap between journalists and the people they covered. It was like dropping into Marie Antoinette's France. In Washington, reporters often lived next door to the people they covered. Whatever the income gap between a reporter and a lawyer or lobbyist - and it's considerable - your lives intersected. In the neighborhood. On the subway. At private schools. At parties.

Journalists in Washington do not feel diminished by their lower salaries. In Hollywood, many do. I did. Waiting for a valet at the Bel-Air Hotel to bring my company-leased Ford, I once stood beside a journalist turned producer who said, "I used to drive a car like that." Though I'm ashamed to say it, I was soon hunting for parking spots near Orso or the Peninsula Hotel to avoid the discomfort of having a valet drive up my leased two-year-old Buick in front of some luncheon companion with a Mercedes.

For many of us on the press side, the money gap leads to resentment and envy, compounded by a conviction that studio executives and producers are no better or smarter than the journalists who cover them. Initially, I was simply amazed. My first real Hollywood acquaintance was Dawn Steel, a producer and onetime studio chief, and one of the more dynamic figures in town. (Ms. Steel died of a malignant brain tumor in 1997 at the age of 51). Before leaving New York, I was in the office of Warren Hoge, then the editor of the Times Magazine, who said Ms. Steel would open the gates of the movie world for me. He called her on her car cellphone, which was still uncommon enough that I was dazzled. She insisted that I see her as soon as I arrived. I did so. Her house off Coldwater Canyon, behind gates and atop a winding road, was a sprawling, ranch-style home with panoramic views of the city on a huge plot of land. I had never seen a home like this.

What made it strange was that Ms. Steel was a girl from Long Island - smart, funny, neurotic. She had no airs. She and so many others in Hollywood seemed like people I knew. I grew up with them. And yet they earned bizarre amounts of money that lifted them into a different universe.

My first reaction was to write about that difference. Early on, for instance, I wrote about movie stars and executives trooping into a specially designed soundstage at Sony for the Hollywood Hunger project to benefit Oxfam America. Instead of simply writing checks, the celebrities sought what the caterer, Ruth Hedges, told me was "the actual experience of being poor and hungry."

So the likes of Danny Glover, Jackson Browne, Daryl Hannah, Whoopi Goldberg, Susan Sarandon, David Byrne and Graham Nash drew lots: 15 percent represented high-income countries and dined at fancy tables on stuffed breast of chicken, sun-dried tomatoes and radicchio, and salad with shrimp; 25 percent represented middle-income countries and sat on benches at wooden tables to eat rice and beans and tortillas off paper plates; and the majority, sat on the floor on a mat and had rice and water, as many people in the world do.

Almost as shocking (at least for me) were the gala events to raise money for ecological causes in the early 1990's. At one such event, 700 of the town's elite (Barbra Streisand, Robert Redford, Ted Danson, Jane Fonda) showed up at a soundstage in Mercedeses, BMW's, stretch limos and other gas guzzlers to celebrate Hollywood's commitment to the environment. The invitations said, "In the spirit of the event, we urge you to car-pool." It didn't appear that anyone did.

Detachment from the real, I soon learned, was closely bound up in the culture of stardom, and star behavior, alas, has a way of rubbing off on those of us who come in contact. At first, as I now hate to admit, I was fascinated by the idea of meeting movie stars. (After meeting a few, the fascination ended.) Maureen Dowd in Washington made me promise I'd interview Michelle Pfeiffer soon after arriving. As it turned out, she was my first star interview. She was promoting the film "Frankie and Johnny," in which, bizarrely, she was playing a frumpy waitress.

I met Ms. Pfeiffer at her office in Century City. I was tongue-tied. She talked about her character's loneliness and how she identified with the waitress. I nodded at whatever Ms. Pfeiffer said. She told me it was a fantasy that beautiful people couldn't look unattractive or weren't lonely or hurt. "It doesn't matter what you look like or how old you are," she said. "That's not relevant." Right. For a moment, I believed it.

At another point, at the Toronto Film Festival, I rushed through an interview with Billy Bob Thornton and Bill Paxton about their film "A Simple Plan." It was important for the two actors to promote their offbeat film and get an article in The Times. I cut short the interview and said, "Look, I've got to interview Cameron Diaz." The pair were dumbfounded. She was prettier and a rising star. She was more important. The fact that I had hurt the actors and embarrassed myself still rankles. Not a high point but perhaps the beginning of real understanding about a world that obsessively chases what's young, what's new, what has heat.

My most embarrassing moment in Hollywood was an interview with Jim Carrey that at least absolved me of star fever. The comedian, in a suite at Ma Maison Sofitel, was promoting his film "The Mask." I had taken medicine for a bad cold. The interview began. I was settled into an easy chair, facing Mr. Carrey with my feet crossed in front of me. As he began answering questions, I fell asleep. The next thing I knew, I was feeling somebody kick the bottom of my shoe with his foot. I woke up, mortified. Years later, I met his manager Jimmy Miller. I told Mr. Miller I had a confession: that I fell asleep while interviewing Mr. Carrey. Mr. Miller exclaimed: "So you're the guy! He talks all the time about a reporter who once fell asleep on him."

IN 1996, I met Amy Pascal for a business breakfast at the Peninsula Hotel. She had just been named president of Turner Pictures, a new company founded by Ted Turner.

Not even 18 months later, the company was folded into Time Warner.

As we began dating, I rationalized that I could avoid any hint of a conflict of interest by avoiding any coverage of Turner Pictures. By the time we were married, the next year, my wife had been appointed chairman of Columbia Pictures. I should have left the movie beat right then, if not sooner.

But with the agreement of my editors, who were confident I could deal with the issue, I felt I could continue covering the movie business, avoiding coverage of Columbia and its parent company, Sony, and leaving that to a colleague. It was a delicate balancing act that seemed to work for a while. But I underestimated how closely I would be watched, or how quickly Hollywood would jump on my marriage as way to get an edge in coverage by The New York Times.

Warner Brothers, once a high-flying studio, was at that time beset by a string of expensive movie flops and its parent company's music operation had a weak track record. With a colleague, Geraldine Fabrikant, I covered the failures at Warner, whose co-chairmen were Robert A. Daly and Terry S. Semel. The two eventually resigned.

Mr. Daly was furious and told friends and others that I should not write such articles because of my marriage, a view I came to share, though I remain convinced that the coverage was accurate and fair. Soon enough, an article appeared in Brill's Content, a magazine covering the news media, by Lorne Manly (now a reporter for The Times). It said that "two Hollywood sources" said Warner had offered my wife a production deal instead of "the high-ranking job she sought," and that "instead she headed to Sony." As I read it, the implication was that The Times's articles were written because I was personally peeved at Warner and not because the studio was experiencing failures like "The Postman" and "Sphere."

I wrote to Bill Kovach, the ombudsman for Brill's Content and a former Times Washington bureau chief for whom I had once worked, to complain about what I called the cheap and inept journalism at his magazine, which was itself financed by Barry Diller, George Soros and others. Would the magazine ever write about Mr. Diller or Mr. Soros? I asked in an angry note. Mr. Kovach responded with equal anger. In retrospect, the nastiness of journalists toward The New York Times - and me - should have been a warning that this was a losing battle.

Mr. Ovitz, who began complaining to The Times about my coverage shortly after I arrived, was soon trying to use my marriage as a lever to oust me. He visited The Times after I had written about his troubled management company, which he formed after his dismissal from the Walt Disney Company. At the time Mr. Ovitz was also facing problems because of a failed Broadway investment and a vain effort to start a football franchise.

"What does The New York Times have against me? Mr. Ovitz asked Joseph Lelyveld, then the executive editor, according to New York magazine. "Your football writer hates me, your theater writer hates me and Bernie Weinraub just killed me."

Mr. Lelyveld said: "What are you talking about? If I got all three writers in a room they wouldn't even know each other."


In a later phone conversation, Mr. Ovitz urged The Times to dismiss me and finally shrieked at Mr. Lelyveld: "You don't know anything about our business! I can't talk to you!"

In mid-1999, Mr. Lelyveld came to Los Angeles. I began our lunch by saying that I wanted off the movie beat. Not because I was tired of it, but because it was being used as an excuse to attack me and the newspaper I loved. Mr. Lelyveld was visibly relieved. I had saved him from saying it was getting difficult for the newspaper. I asked about covering television and other entertainment. He agreed.

IN December 2001, less than three years later, I received a call from Julia Phillips, the once-hot producer of films like "Taxi Driver" and "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," who had drifted from center stage in Hollywood long before she wrote her classic tell-all, "You'll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again." To my regret, I asked her to hold on one minute while I finished on another line. As soon as I returned, Ms. Phillips said: "I'm dying. And I want an obituary in The New York Times."

Shortly after arriving in Hollywood, I had met Ms. Phillips late one chilly afternoon at the Polo Lounge at the Beverly Hills Hotel. I wanted to write about her as the author of a slash-and-burn chronicle that detailed the selfishness, duplicity, nastiness and greed of the Hollywood stars and executives she knew in the 1970's and 1980's. The book also revealed her own plunge into cocaine addiction.

Ms. Phillips said she was a pariah in town. "I saw these people for what they were," she said. In the years that followed I became friendly with her: she would call me periodically to either congratulate me on an article or criticize me, saying I was naïve or had been duped. At dinner at Orso, her favorite restaurant, she was brutally honest about herself and about the Hollywood crowd. "Don't trust these people," she warned me numerous times. "Don't trust anyone here."

I laughed and didn't really believe her. But with time I came to realize that she, more than Dawn Steel, had become my most reliable guide to the ways of what insiders still like to call "the town."

Responding to her call, I immediately drove to see her in her apartment looking out onto West Hollywood and, on a clear day, downtown. I said I wanted to tape-record some interviews for an obituary. And I asked if she wanted anything else. Ms. Phillips said she adored George Clooney and would love to see his latest film, "Ocean's Eleven." (Warner Brothers, which had tapes of the film, sent her a copy the next day.) I spent several days visiting and interviewing her.

Because of her book, Ms. Phillips was an outcast among Hollywood's elite. "At first it bothered me because I really didn't expect that kind of reaction," she said. "I thought people had a sense of humor. I really did.

"Understand, I wasn't a pariah because I was a drug-addicted, alcoholic, rotten person and not a good mother," she said. "I was a pariah because I lit them with a harsh fluorescent light and rendered them as contemptible as they really are."

Ms. Phillips died of cancer in the early days of 2002. I went to her funeral service on the rooftop of her apartment building and thought of what she said while dying. Was it an overstatement? I wonder. I'm part of the Hollywood world now. I can't deny it. I drive a Range Rover. I live in Brentwood. Not everyone is contemptible. Perhaps Julia Phillips was wrong. I hope she is.

If you can't brag on your own blog, then where can you?

Is Simon's head superimposed in this picture? It looks too big to be real. Or not. Posted by Hello

Here's a link to the NY Post's TV Week, where I sold a story this week. My story, with my byline and everything, is right on the cover!

A friend in LA said to me: "isn't the rule that if you get three stories in the New York Post, you get to write for the New Yorker?" I said "no, I think the rule is that if you get one story in the New York Post, you are forever forbidden from writing for The New Yorker."

So don't look for me there.

Friday, January 28, 2005

Buster's friend has two mommies

Buster visits Wind River, Wyoming Posted by Hello

Buster goes rock-climbing in Boulder Posted by Hello

In case you were wondering whether the Bush Administration actually is an evil cabal of would-be dictators who are pretty sure that they know how everyone else should live, the following article should clear that up.

Written by the hilarious Lisa de Moraes, TV columnist for the Washington Post, the article discusses how PBS, in its all-too-familiar role as eternal political punching bag, caved completely to the Education Department (aka Bush Administration’s czar in charge of how schools should be run even most of the government’s money is going to Iraq).

DOE recently became aware that in one episode of PBS’ Postcards from Buster, the animated bunny visited real-life families in Vermont and learned, shock of all shocks, that two of his new friends had two mommies. The episode wasn’t really about that—it was about how to make maple syrup and cheese and how to speak English—but the two mommies were present and visible. In response to pressure from the Administration (a constant refrain of ‘if you don’t behave yourselves and portray the country in the way we want you to we will pull your funding’), PBS disintegrated like a wet cardboard box and decided not to distribute the episode.

This is not new behavior from PBS. And I have to say I don’t blame them, even though I do think they are pretty much a bunch of lily-livered cowards (what exactly is a ‘lily liver’? Does anyone out there know? And does lily have one L or two?).

The service gets only about 10% of its funding from the government – aka taxpayers. That’s not so much, but it gets the remainder of its money from corporate sponsorships and public fundraising. Constantly accused of having a strong liberal bent, PBS proves Republicans correct when it pulls stunts such as admitting that there are gay people in America. It also faces constant criticism from TV writers and other media watchers who gripe any time anything like a commercial shows up on PBS’ air. That means that if a voice-over comes on after a show saying “this presentation of Nova sponsored by Juicy Juice,” someone has a problem with it.

So, with Republicans looking for any opportunity to kowtow to conservative constituents and liberals watching closely for creeping commercialism, that doesn’t leave PBS with many places left to go to get its money. They end up having to kowtow to someone just so they can keep funding themselves.

According to what I infer from DOE’s objections to the Buster episode, this type of information could be damaging to pre-schoolers’ fragile brains. According to what I infer from preschoolers that I know, they could care less. Preschoolers don’t know that two women or two men or a black man and a white woman or an alcoholic and an enabler aren’t supposed to meet and mate. They just see kids and parents, fun or no fun, love or no love. It’s when the adults, with their closed minds and absolute certainty that things are supposed to be a certain way, get involved that things get complicated.

Of course, I am bringing my own closed mind to this debate, as I am demonstrating by writing this. My closed mind believes that it’s no one else’s business if two women or two men want to have babies. If you are opposed to that or if that disgusts you, that’s your business. What I don’t understand is why people feel so obligated to impose themselves and their way of thinking on others.

With regard to TV programs and kids, I always make two points: 1) there’s an off button and 2) there’s a First Amendment. That means that in this free country of ours most material—other than that which can be proven patently offensive, and that’s not much—should be free to be consumed. It also means that if you have chosen to be a parent, that requires parenting. And parenting requires monitoring a child’s TV watching.

For every parent that’s opposed to kids knowing that some people are gay, there are other parents who are all for it. Why should the pro-gay constituency be penalized by the anti-gay one? Why can’t the anti-gay constituency just change the channel? That's what we liberals do when we accidentally come upon Fox News.

Now, granted, it’s a lot to ask for parents to know the content of every PBS program and episode before their child sits down to watch it. And parents need to have channels where they feel safe letting their children hang out.

But it seems to me that this could be quickly handled by distributing episode information for TV guides ahead of time, and also issuing a warning statement prior to and maybe inside of the program. Even that seems a little Draconian to me, but in fairness, I don’t think parents should be ambushed by potentially objectionable content.

While I think that all the hullaballoo about Janet Jackson’s stupid breast is the most overwraught, pointless, useless debate practically in American history, I also think that Janet and Justin and whatever producers knew about the stunt ahead of time (and whatever they say, at least the two performers knew good and well what they planned to do), and that their 'impromptu' performance took away millions and millions of parents’ right to choose what their children see. That’s where the huge mistake was made. I wonder if Janet and Justin would make the decision again if they knew ahead of time that exposing her breast would threaten our freedom. And I don't think I'm being overly dramatic when I say that, given the debate and censorship that has taken place in this post-Janet world.

I believe people should be given information that allows them to make a choice. What I definitely don’t believe, and the constitution backs me up on this, is that material should be censored just because the party in power objects to it.

PBS's 'Buster' Gets An Education
By Lisa de Moraes

Washington Post
Thursday, January 27, 2005; Page C01

PBS was surprised to receive a letter from new Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, warning the public TV network against airing an upcoming episode of the kids show "Postcards From Buster," because PBS had already informed her office it would not send the episode to its stations, programming co-chief John Wilson says.

"We made the decision . . . [Tuesday] afternoon, a couple of hours before we received the letter from the secretary of education," Wilson told The TV Column yesterday.

"It came at the end of many days, maybe even a few weeks, of looking at rough cuts of the program and deliberating."

Spellings, who has been charged with the difficult task of fixing the nation's troubled public education system, took time out on her second day on the job to fire off a letter to PBS CEO Pat Mitchell expressing "strong and very serious concerns" about the "Postcards From Buster" episode. Specifically that, in the episode, called "Sugartime!," the animated asthmatic little bunny visits Vermont and meets actual, real-live, not make-believe children there who have gay parents.

For those of you unfamiliar with the spinoff of the popular children's series "Arthur," which combines animation and live action, each week, 8-year-old animated Buster and his animated dad travel to another locale, where Buster, armed with his video camera, meets actual, non-animated people, who introduce him to the local scene -- clogging in Whitesburg, Ky.; rodeo barrel racing in Houston; monoskiing in Park City, Utah; doing the Arapaho Grass Dance at the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming. Additionally, Buster meets a family from a different cultural background.

In the episode that knotted Spellings's knickers, Buster goes to Vermont and meets children from two families, who show him how maple syrup and cheese are made.

At one of the homes, Buster is introduced to all of the children and to the two moms. One girl explains that one of the women is her "stepmom," whom she says she loves a lot.

One of the women asks the kids to get some maple syrup and some cheese for dinner, and to stop by the other home to borrow a big lasagna pan. In the other home, Buster is introduced to the whole family, including two more moms. Then the kids head off to get the ingredients, and Buster learns where syrup and cheese come from.

In her letter, Spellings reminded Mitchell that the show is being funded in part by the Education Department and that a principal focus of the law authorizing such "Ready-to-Learn" programming is "facilitating student academic achievement."

In the conference committee report for fiscal year 2005 appropriations, Spellings continues, Congress reiterated that the unique mission of Ready-to-Learn is: "to use the television medium to help prepare preschool age children for school. The television programs that must fulfill this mission are to be specifically designed for this purpose, with the highest attention to production quality and validity of research-based educational objectives, content and materials."

"You should also know," Spellings says, "that two years ago the Senate Appropriations Committee raised questions about the accountability of funds appropriated for Ready-To-Learn programs." A bit ominous, we think.

"We believe the 'Sugartime!' episode does not come within these purposes or within the intent of Congress and would undermine the overall objective of the Ready-To-Learn program -- to produce programming that reaches as many children and families as possible," Spellings wrote.
Why, you might wonder, given that preschoolers who watch the episode learn how maple syrup and cheese are made, not to mention useful English-language phrases (the series is also designed to help children for whom English is a second language).

Because, Spellings explained in her letter, "many parents would not want their young children exposed to the life-styles portrayed in this episode." She did not say how many is "many," or cite a source for that information.

Congress's point in funding this programming "certainly was not to introduce this kind of subject matter to children," she added.

Au contraire, says WGBH, which produces "Postcards." The Boston public TV station says it will air the episode and has offered it to any station willing to defy the Education Department, which, in fairness, did shovel out major bucks for this series and, therefore, understandably feels it has the right to get in its two conservative cents' worth.

According to Brigid Sullivan, WGBH's vice president of children's programming, the RFP -- that's government-speak for request for proposals -- on the show said Ready-to-Learn was looking for a program that would "appeal to all of America's children by providing them with content and or characters with which they can identify. Diversity will be incorporated into the fabric of the series to help children understand and respect differences and learn to live in a multicultural society. The series will avoid stereotypical images of all kinds and show modern multi-ethnic/lingual/cultural families and children."

Except, it would seem, children who have two mothers.

"We have produced 40 episodes," Sullivan said. "We have tried to reach across as many cultures, as many religions, as many family structures as we can. We gave it our best-faith effort. We have received hate mail for doing [an episode] about a Muslim girl. We've also received mail from Muslims saying thank you."

Buster, Sullivan said, has visited "Mormons in Utah, the Hmong in Wisconsin, the Gullah culture in South Carolina, Orthodox Jewish families, a Pentecostal Christian family -- we are trying to do a broad reach and we are trying to do it without judgment."

According to Sullivan, the "Buster" brouhaha started in December when, during a routine meeting of representatives from WGBH, PBS and the Education Department to discuss upcoming episodes, a WGBH rep mentioned that there might be some "buzz" on "Sugartime!" PBS insists that although it made its decision not to distribute the episode on the very same day that the newly appointed Spellings decided to fire off her letter, the decision had nothing to do with the kerfuffle brewing at Education over the episode.

Which, we've said before in similar situations, sounds great if you were born yesterday; otherwise, not so much.

"Ultimately we came to the conclusion that what was meant to be the background or backdrop of two families that happened to be headed by two mothers continued to find its way into the foreground," Wilson said.

"It's too sensitive to raise in a children's program," he added. "We know we have a number of kids . . . who don't have a parent or caregiver in with them watching to put it in context. At the end of the day what was meant to be a sort of background context of who this family is and who the parents are, overshadowed what the episode was really about, which was going to this part of America and learning about things that are uniquely Vermont.

"Yesterday afternoon we literally decided that it was an issue best left for parents and children to address together at a time and manner of their own choosing."

We asked all parties involved what they would say to the children who were filmed for this episode, and who expected to be seen on national TV and are now being told by the federal government that their families are not fit for other children to see on national TV -- at least not on any show that has received federal funding.

"That's a difficult question," Sullivan responded. "I guess I'd have to say from the producers' standing . . . it was our intention to include, not to exclude, anyone who is part of our society, and that for children to see a reflection of themselves on TV is an important part of their development."

"I've been thinking about that today," Wilson said. "Honestly, I feel for these families because they're real people, not actors cast and paid to do this, and I do feel bad that through no fault of their own and ultimately no fault of the producers they have been put in a situation they never imagined themselves in. To that end, I'm sorry for that."

An Education Department spokeswoman responded in a statement: "The episode is inappropriate for preschoolers. We are funding an education program for preschoolers, and one would be hard-pressed to explain how this serves as educational material for preschoolers. It's up to parents to decide for their children, not the government in a taxpayer-funded video for preschoolers."

We asked her to clarify what it was the department felt should be left to parents. She explained: "To decide when they want their kids to know about the lifestyles depicted in the film."

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

The Passion of the Right Wing

Today, two interesting things happened.

The Passion of the Christ, to the surprise of no one who follows these things, was not nominated Best Picture of the Year.

And Ted Turner compared the popularity of Fox News Channel to the early popularity of Hitler.

So we see the country’s dividing lines pretty clearly.

On the right we have: Jesus and Hitler.

And on the left we have: Ted Turner and film critics.

Who knew things would fall out that way?

While I am not among those that believe The Passion of the Christ should be considered Best Picture of the Year just because it’s about Jesus, I have to admit a few things. First, it made more money than almost any other movie this year (ok, the third-most, according to CNN). Second, film critics and others among the Academy’s voting elite tend to be liberal, erudite and not religious. So I can’t deny that possibly some bias kept the Passion off the best-picture lists. Finally, I didn’t see the film (see comments below re: The Pianist) because I couldn’t rally myself to watch a two-plus-hour movie in Aramaic about someone getting beaten, tortured and ultimately killed. That is the way the story goes, and I’ve heard it plenty of times, but I didn’t feel like I needed to experience it in the movie theatre when I’ve experienced it in church all these years.

As for Ted Turner’s comments at the National Association of Television Program Executives in Las Vegas today: are we surprised? Ted Turner is always saying such things. What surprises me is that the outrageous comments of a washed-up media mogul continue to make news. But I’m writing about them, so I guess I have to take some responsibility too.

Here’s the thing. Just because a movie is about Jesus doesn’t mean it’s the Best Picture. Just because George Bush calls himself a Christian doesn’t mean we all need to vote for him. Just because Fox News is popular among the country’s redneck Republicans doesn’t mean its Hitleresque in stature. And just because film critics think that Closer is a good movie doesn’t mean that it is.

A little perspective, people.

It's Oscar Time

Hooray! Hooray! The Oscar nominations are out!

I admit I have an unnatural enthusiasm for the Oscars. I don’t know why. I don’t feel the same way about any other awards show. The Grammys – out of touch and random categories. The Golden Globes – who cares what a bunch of foreign journalists think? The Emmys – the spoils go to the established so the voters don’t have to seek out any new television. The People’s Choice Awards – what do the people know? But for some reason, I have always loved the Oscars. In fact, it still annoys me that they moved Oscar season up a month (to put the high-rated show right at the end of February sweeps). It gives me less time to see the movies.

This year, I have already seen quite a few. After my stint in Hollywood, I learned that if you follow all these critics’ awards, by the time Oscar rolls around you pretty much know who is getting nominated. This year, I’ve already seen four out of five of the best picture nods (still need to see Million Dollar Baby). What I love about the Oscars is that it forces me to see movies I would never get myself into the theatre to see. I have to admit I still haven’t managed to make myself watch The Pianist, for which Adrien Brody became the youngest Best Actor winner ever, even after my Netflix DVD of it sat on my TV for something like five months. This year, my “I know I should” movie is Hotel Rwanda. Don Cheadle is a brilliant actor, and I’ve thought so since Traffic, but the topic is tough. That’s probably why I should see it.

One of the tragic things about moving away from Los Angeles is that I probably won’t have the opportunity to see all the nominated foreign films, documentaries and short films. Those get airings in LA (and DC) but most of the folks in Colorado are more interested in climbing the nearest mountain and skiing down it than going to the movies.

But enough of that. Since I have a blog this year, I’m going to go out on a limb and predict the winners of the major categories. Normally this is an activity I save for Oscar night, when I work hard to win the pool.

Leading Actor: As we already know, I believe Jamie Foxx is a lock to win this. Paul Giametti didn’t even land a nomination! And Kinsey, starring Liam Neeson, is scarcely on the nomination list, except for Laura Linney’s nod in the supporting actress category. I guess that’s a movie I don’t have to see, which is a good thing because it’s not here anymore.

Supporting Actor: Thomas Haden Church for Sideways. Why not? He’s won everything else. And it’s rare for an actor to be nominated twice (Foxx in Ray and Collateral). It’s unprecedented for him to win twice. Finally, if Closer (Clive Owen) wins anything, I’m going to throw up. No matter how very hot Clive is. (My vote for the next James Bond, by the way, although no one listens to me on such matters.)

Leading Actress: Hilary Swank for Million Dollar Baby. The actress once again transformed herself into another person, going so far as to drink glasses of egg whites in the middle of the night to help put on 25 pounds of muscle. This Oscar will confirm Swank as one of Hollywood’s top Actresses, not just a one-time winner.

Supporting Actress: Cate Blanchett for The Aviator, although she will have heated competition from Virginia Madsen for Sideways. Madsen has been the critical darling this year, but Blanchett is overdue and the Academy loves her. What’s more, Blanchett is a major leading lady and Madsen is scarcely known. Still, I’d give both actresses 50-50 odds. Natalie Portman is too young and she’s got a long career ahead of her, plus did I mention how much I hated Closer?

Directing: Martin Scorsese for The Aviator. Scorsese’s sweeping biopic about a subject that terrifies him is the most-nominated film this year. And, as mentioned before, Scorsese is probably the most overdue person in Hollywood. He probably should have won for Gangs of New York, but competition was tougher that year.

Adapted Screenplay: The most awarded film of the year got there because of a beautifully written script. Sideways should win this tightly-contested category.

Original Screenplay: If there is an Oscar god, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind will win this category. Was there any movie more original last year?

And finally, Best Picture: With 11 nominations, The Aviator is likely to win this one. No other movie nominated this year is as broad in scope or as commercially viable. Ray is largely a one-man show; Finding Neverland, while delightful and whimsical, doesn’t showcase big enough performances; Sideways is too small and intimate; and not enough people have seen Million Dollar Baby.

As a postscript, here’s what I want to know? Where is House of Flying Daggers in the Best Foreign Language Film category? That gorgeous movie deserved to be nominated.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005


the cast of Sideways Posted by Hello

Note to Steven Soderbergh and George Clooney: Critically-lauded Sideways is a textbook example of how a movie can feel natural and effortless and still be guided by a great script and a great director.

In the movie, oenophile (I’m proud to say I got this word right on the first try!) Miles (American Splendor’s Paul Giametti) and aging actor Jack (Wings’ Thomas Haden Church playing a character whose life story mirrors his own) travel to Santa Barbara wine country to celebrate for one last week before Jack gets married. Along the way, they meet two women—Virginia Madsen’s wine-loving and luminous Maya and Sandra Oh’s exuberant wine-pourer Stephanie—and two affairs ensue. Threaded through the story is a study of two immature and dysfunctional men as they go about lives they can't stop messing up.

The acting in Sidewaysis so seamless that the audience doesn’t even know it’s happening. That’s why Church and Madsen are cleaning up all the critics’ awards thus far this year. And while his performance clearly was this critically-adored film’s heart and soul, Giametti is once again the victim of bad timing. He has no choice but to sit on the sidelines and watch Church and Madsen sweep up the accolades because Jamie Foxx has no peer this year. But without Giametti at the center—playing the sad-sack role he was born to—the movie wouldn’t have been the same.

After seeing Sideways, my sister Ashley noted that the mark of a great director is no sign whatsoever that he’s been there.

examples that prove that theory are Soderbergh’s focus-free Ocean’s 12 or disasterously boring K Street, a failed unscripted, unplanned series on HBO which featured real-life, not-too-attractive political consultants James Carville and Mary Matalin talking on their cell phones in the back of DC cabs while running from meeting to meeting. Both projects demonstrate that even visionary directors like Soderbergh--who unfortunately has fallen in love with this free-form filmmaking--benefit from a tight script, a carefully constructed plot and meticulous planning. Reality TV is fun and all, but even Survivor has writers. Alexander Payne’s quiet ensemble dramedy takes advantage of all those things. That allows Payne to turn a small, intimate piece into a legitimate contender for this year’s best picture Oscar.

No question, Miles and Jack are not honorable characters. At about the film’s halfway point, I was pretty sure that if I had been on such a trip with either of these people, I would have packed up and bailed on about day two, never to return a phone call from either of them ever again.

But Payne surrounds these two with women who make watching the disasterous pair more than tolerable, and even enjoyable. The dynamic between the group of four gives this film depth and warmth that Mike Nichols’ Closer, also a film full of unredeemable characters, lacks. We see growth, albeit miniscule, in both men, and more importantly, they reveal their vulnerability and insecurity to each other and to us. In Closer, Clive Owen has a marvelous breakdown at the strip club where Natalie Portman works, but that’s about it in terms of revealing moments.

My friend Tina said she didn’t think she was old enough to fully relate to Sideways. I don’t think I’m alcoholic enough to fully relate to it. The film is a lush portrait of Santa Barbara’s gorgeous wine country where Mom and I have twice enjoyed wonderful trips. But we drank far far far less than our hapless heroes, due not only to lack of desire but sheer physical impossibility. During the movie, I pondered whether I really really wanted a glass of wine or if I never wanted to drink again.

Still, I don’t think this movie is as much about age as it is about failure and fear, and somehow forcing yourself to take just that one little step that lets you climb out of all that.

As I said in my previous blog about Ray Charles and Howard Hughes, Payne likes to explore the life of the little guy: Matthew Broderick’s flailing high-school teacher in Election, Jack Nicholson’s doddering retiree in About Schmidt, and now Jack and Miles, two men no one should date, much less marry.

Still, through careful crafting, Payne comes much closer to showing us real life than any director out there I can think of. And his biggest trick is this: we love watching it.

Letterman strikes again

I usually find Letterman overrated but this is hilarious, particularly because Letterman works for CBS, thus making it his favorite target.

Top Ten Proposed Changes At CBS News

Stories must be corroborated by at least two really strong hunches.

9. "Evening News" pre-show staff cocktail hour is cancelled until further notice.

8. Reduce "60 Minutes" to more manageable 15-20 minutes.

7. Change division name from "CBS News" to "CBS News-ish"

6. If anchor says anything inaccurate, earpiece delivers an electric shock.

5. Conclude each story with comical "Boing" sound effect.

4. Instead of boring Middle East reports, more powerball drawings.

3. To play it safe, every "exclusive" story will be about how tasty pecan pie is.

2. Not sure how, but make CBS News more like "C.S.I."

1. Use beer, cash and hookers to lure Tom Brokaw out of retirement.

Sunday, January 02, 2005

Howard and Ray

Leonardo DiCaprio as Howard Hughes in The Aviator Posted by Hello

Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles in Ray Posted by Hello

I feel a little weird blogging about movies when the statistics from Southeast Asia keep getting more mind-boggling by the minute, but since I’ve been going to the movies during the holidays while relief workers bring in food and supplies and bury bodies, I guess that’s what I’ll write about.

Ray and The Aviator – probably the two movies with the most collective Oscar buzz between them – offer the life stories of two talented, charismatic geniuses who tend toward self-destruction. Both stories illustrate the notion that burning too bright often comes with a heavy price, that genius and madness are frequently two sides of the same coin. Neither address the opposite question, the one that most of us deal with: is the price of a more careful life, the one that most of us live, a long, slow, uneventful ramble toward death and anonymity? And which is preferable?

I’m tempted to say that movies usually don’t deal with the quieter of these two inquiries, but occasionally they do. Alexander Payne’s About Schmidt tackled it – what does the end of a quiet, risk-free life look like? Feel like? Is it satisfying? But usually, the common folk aren’t interested in watching their own forms and foibles wander across the screen, they have enough of that every day. It takes big risk-taking, big gambles, to warrant an entire feature film about a life.

And both Howard Hughes and Ray Charles were big risk-takers, each of the sort that American society worships. Nevermind the costs: Hughes ultimately paid in madness, drug dependency and complete social ostracization; Charles in heroin addiction. One was overrun by his demons, the other ultimately redeemed himself, but to some extent, the stories run on parallel tracks. While both men faced the world’s challenges head-on, at the end of the day they each seemed not to have enough left within them to handle the trivialities of their lives. Hughes escaped into mental disorder masquerading as order and control; Charles escaped into women he didn’t love and a drug that clouded his exuberant and musical mind.

In one interview, Aviator star and self-made Hughes expert Leonardo DiCaprio says that when Hughes crashed a test flight into Beverly Hills apartment homes, it was like Icarus flying too close to the sun. Hughes never really brought himself all the way back after that one, and the injuries he sustained in that catastrophic wreck eventually led him to become addicted to painkillers, an issue the movie, chronicling the younger man, doesn’t address.

Ray Charles also had his Icarus moments, flying high, crashing low. He went from churning out number-one hits and negotiating for himself the most lucrative record contract the industry had yet seen to getting busted for heroin possession and eventually having to wean himself off the evil substance, a process that in itself should deter anyone from trying that drug.

Maybe such big personalities require huge counter-measures to balance them out. While the average 9-to-5er can smooth out the edges with a glass or two of wine at the end of the work day, maybe it takes much more to settle these types down.

And maybe it’s a requirement that such folk be forged from difficult circumstances. Hughes, although he inherited a fortune, was an orphan by the age of 17 and an only child. His mother, as portrayed in the movie, was overprotective and overintimate. Charles was the son of a poor but strong single mother, and he watched his little brother drown in an accident when he was 7, an incident that haunted him throughout the rest of his life. Soon after, glaucoma took his eyesight, leading him to discover his other gifts.

Without the risks these men took, there’s much that society would be without. Hughes helped pioneer commerical transatlantic flight and jet air travel, while Charles gave us an entirely new form of music, fought successfully against segregation and proved one more time that all races are created equal.

Perhaps we get some solace from sitting in a dark theatre observing the lives of people who beat down such adversity and go on to live so largely – see, we can say, if we live likewise we too will face madness or drug addiction, disasterous marriages or no marriages at all. If we take no chances, at least we won’t pay big prices.

But maybe it’s the combination of all of the above factors that led Hughes and Charles to seem so fearless and take such big chances. They placed big bets because they felt they had nothing to lose, and it was just those bets that made them feel like they had any place on this earth at all. Both men seemed fearless on the outside, while demons gnawed at them from within. Hughes was engulfed, while Charles fought past his scratching and clawing. It’s not lack of fear that defines courage, it’s the willingness to face that fear and proceed anyway.

Both movies also embrace some fearlessness: Martin Scorsese has such a fear of flying that the title alone of The Aviator nearly dissuaded him from doing the movie; Leonardo DiCaprio has dreamed for ten years of bringing Howard Hughes to the silver screen, with himself in the title role, making a potential public failure that much more intolerable; and Jamie Foxx took on a beloved icon and inhabited the man so completely that there’s no sign left of Foxx.

Since it’s but two months away, let’s address my favorite awards show of the year, the Oscars. The Aviator could win the Oscar for best movie, but Scorsese has a better chance of walking away with Best Director because he thoroughly deserves it, and Oscar often awards statues to greater artists in lesser projects if they’ve been overlooked in the past. (See Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe). Scorsese is probably the most overlooked, legendary director working today. (Quentin Tarantino would be another one, but he’ll get his soon enough.) DiCaprio will be nominated but won’t win, but Cate Blanchett, playing Katherine Hepburn, will achieve both.

As for Best Actor, Jamie Foxx’s time has clearly come. No other performance this year even comes close. What Foxx does in Ray is closer to channelling than acting.

As I said, I’ve seen a lot of movies over the break, so besides the above-mentioned picks, here are a few more. Both Johnny Depp and Kate Winslet will be nominated for Finding Neverland, which also should be nominated best picture. Winslet also has a shot at a nomination for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which also will likely win Best Original Screenplay and should. If there’s any justice in the world, Eternal Sunshine also will be nominated best picture, but it was a quirky movie released a long time ago and both factors could hurt it.