In the Ongoing Sexual Abuse Scandal, the Myth of the Studio System Endures

November 13, 2017 § 6 Comments

Louis B. Mayer in his Office

Amid the daily revelations of sex abuse and harassment by entertainment executives, I’ve noticed a large number of online commentators asking, “Why aren’t all meetings held in offices at the studios?”, and “Why don’t actresses refuse to meet producers/directors/actors in hotel rooms?” The implication that everyone has an office in a studio is laughable; a couple of years ago, I read an article by a producer who worked out of his car, which he recommended because he was always driving from one office to the next. As for actors being able to refuse a meeting in a hotel, it’s hardly possible when agents send them there via written instructions on agency letterhead. That these assumptions exist at all is proof the enduring myth of the studio system.

From 1911–the year the Nestor Company set up shop at Sunset and Gower–until the early 1960’s, studios were vertically integrated businesses containing everything necessary for the creation of movies. Each studio owned its equipment– cameras, lighting, props and costumes. Crew members, actors, screenwriters, directors and producers were full-time studio employees. (This explains why credit sequences on old movies are so short: you don’t need a credit if you have job security.) If stars and directors wanted to make films elsewhere, they had to be “loaned out” by the studios that held their contracts. If they were not allowed, which was often the case, they had no recourse. The studio system favored those who preferred steady work to feast-or-famine opportunities. Though it often stifled creativity, it also fostered teamwork, consistency and an impressively large output.

Regardless of its merits and drawbacks, studio system has been dead for over fifty years, replaced by an army of freelancers, yet it’s alive and well in people’s minds. Until I convinced my mother that screenwriters now work at home, she thought they wrote in groups in cramped studio offices, probably on typewriters, but at least she’s old enough to remember when that was true. On social media, people with no memory of the studio system assume that “studios are mini-cities” where actors report for screen tests and meetings. In fact, casting is done by agencies, while meetings take place wherever people happen to be: at film festivals and press junkets, and on location. For a mobile population whose real office is often at home, doing business in hotels is unavoidable.

But let’s assume for the sake of argument that all meetings could take place in studio offices, as in days of yore. When Shirley Temple was summoned to Louis B. Mayer’s impressive office at MGM as a twelve-year-old, she probably thought she was safe. But Mayer, after telling Temple she would be the studio’s biggest star, promptly exposed himself to her.

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Creepy Hollywood A-Listers: A Personal History

October 16, 2017 § Leave a comment

Mike Ovitz

Kevin Costner

Ben Affleck

I first worked in the entertainment industry as a story analyst at CAA, a job I did part-time from late 1989 to around 1992. Though it paid horribly–$25 per script and $50 per book, as I recall-it was a good way to find out what other people were writing (crap, for the most part). Because this was before PDF’s, I had to go to Beverly Hills to pick up my assigned scripts, which I would read, synopsize and analyze overnight. Arriving at CAA’s brand new, I.M. Pei-designed building at Wilshire and Santa Monica, I would announce myself at the desk and wait under the giant Roy Lichtenstein painting until I was allowed to go down to the Story Department, a cramped warren of basement rooms that, in addition to unrelentingly tense CAA atmosphere, led me to refuse a staff position.

One night, after a last-minute call to pick up scripts, I had to bring my five-year-old son with me. As we crossed the lobby toward the elevator, I saw Mike Ovitz, then CAA’s Chairman. Peering out from behind a column, he was staring at me stonily. I glanced back; more staring ensued. Years later, I read that CAA employees were instructed to avert their eyes in Ovitz’s presence, but I never got that memo. Ovitz continued to stare until the elevator doors closed.

At that point Mike Ovitz was the most powerful and feared man in Hollywood, threatening, cajoling, and making and breaking careers. He also had an uncanny knack of being everywhere, including many of the places I went. Soon I was receiving the Ovitz stare at the Forum during a Lakers Game, and during lunch at Locanda Veneta and Maple Drive. Both Ovitz’s ubiquity and his staring came to an end when he left CAA for Disney, at which point he also lost his power. But before that fateful move, he presided over some staring by a client, Kevin Costner.

Costner, then at the height of his career, was having lunch with Ovitz at the latter’s special booth at Maple Drive on a day I was there for a business lunch. The booth was lozenge-shaped, allowing Ovitz almost total privacy and his client a view of the room. The woman I was meeting was an hour late, and I was too naive to take this as a sign and leave. Between the wait and the lunch, I spent nearly four hours at Maple Drive that day, making three trips to the ladies’ room. To get there I had to pass Ovitz’s booth, and each time I walked by Costner would stop talking and watch me. This was no flirty glance or admiring gaze but a fixed, unblinking stare, reptilian in its intensity and impossible to ignore.

Years passed, and I assumed my days of being stared at like prey by Hollywood stars were over. Then, in 2000, it happened again. This time I was having lunch with my then teenage son in the courtyard of Pinot Hollywood. It was a hot August day and most of the patrons had finished, leaving us and the couple at a neighboring table. At some point I realized the man had been staring at me for some time, and showed no signs of stopping. “That guy is making me very uncomfortable,” I said to my son, who turned around to look at him. “Mom,” he said, “That’s Ben Affleck, and he’s with Gwyneth Paltrow.” Affleck was wearing a baseball cap; his hair, dyed for “Pearl Harbor,” had masked his appearance, and all I could see of Paltrow was her blonde hair. In time they got up and left, leaving me to wonder why a movie star who was having lunch with his movie star girlfriend would bother staring at me.

More than two years later, I was stopped at a long red light at the corner of Rossmore and Beverly. Though it was a cold day, the young man in the convertible to my right had the top down. He wore a grey watch cap, and he was staring at me so intently that if he had been a cartoon character his eyes would have been out on stalks. His car was uncommonly beautiful and expensive for a young person, and I was about to roll down my window and say, “Hey guy, nice car–is it your dad’s?” when I realized it was Ben Affleck. The convertible was the blue Bentley Azure given him by Jennifer Lopez, who was then his fiancée. I said nothing, and a moment later the light changed. He turned right and I went straight, already certain he was never going to marry Lopez.

Though I haven’t seen Affleck since, the creepiness of these encounters has stayed with me. To the horror of my boyfriend at the time, I once tried to hide under a table at Matsuhisa when I spotted someone who resembled the actor. Even worse, my subsequent boyfriend’s parents lived next directly next door to Affleck, who by then was married to Jennifer Garner. Though walls and trees blocked all views of their property, I half expected him to appear out of thin air and start staring at me again.

Last week Affleck made news by claiming not to know anything about Harvey Weinstein’s sexual abuse of women. He was then accused of lying by Rose McGowan, who reported not only telling Affleck that Weinstein raped her but his response: “Goddamnit! I told him to stop doing that.” This, and the allegation that Affleck groped Annamarie Tendler after the Golden Globes in 2014, brought back memories his fixed stare, and not fond ones.

Harvey Weinstein, Bully For All Seasons

October 13, 2017 § Leave a comment

Harvey Weinstein

I’ve been out of town for the past week; what’d I miss?

Just kidding! The news of Harvey Weinstein’s rampant sexual abuse reached far beyond New York and Los Angeles. It spread like molten lava, and each new day brought another fiery stream of damning evidence against him. The list of women who have been assaulted in one way or another is enormous and stretches back decades. Was I surprised? Only at the way it happened, with an exposé in the New York Times unleashing an explosion of accounts from actresses, models, employees–in short, any woman who came within Weinstein’s thuggish reach.

I’ve only encountered Harvey Weinstein once, in a crowded screening room at the Cannes Film Festival in 1995. I was sitting next to a young man whose name I no longer remember; as I recall, he worked in acquisitions for one of the studios. When Harvey Weinstein sat down in the next row with his entourage, he turned to me and loudly said something like, “Hope, have you ever seen such an ugly man in your life? I mean, look at him” “Shh,” I muttered, “He can hear you.” At that point, Weinstein turned and glared menacingly at the man. Though that might have been his usual expression, I was terrified he would start a fight. Fortunately the lights dimmed, and Weinstein turned his head toward the screen. I never saw the either man after that festival, though I’ve often wondered what prompted the comment–and my involvement.

That year at Cannes, Weinstein bought scores of films, far more than he could release in the next couple of years. The rumor was that he bought many simply to spite other distributors, which only added to his growing list of enemies. Though I never heard anything about sexual abuses, the fact that Weinstein was already a feared and loathed bully made the allegations easy to believe. He was so powerful that he could make or break careers, which is why he got away with so much.

In the years since, I’ve often wondered why certain actresses, all promising and successful in their early and mid-twenties, seemed to work very little in what should have been their prime. It made no sense to me that Gwyneth Paltrow, Rosanna Arquette, Mira Sorvino and Rose McGowan had careers that stalled; now it does.

Next time: Encounters with A-List Hollywood Creeps

Remembering Sam Shepard

August 1, 2017 § Leave a comment

Sam Shepard, 1943-2017

My first job after college was an odd mix of performing arts and social work. Each week, San Francisco’s theaters, dance and opera companies and orchestras would funnel their unsold tickets to my firm, which would distribute them to social service groups that could fill seats on short notice. Our clients were low-income seniors, recovering alcoholics, pregnant teenage girls and the mentally ill, all of them living or receiving care in facilities.

It was a job that put me in daily phone contact with theater managers, social workers and, in the case of the seniors and alcoholics, the clients themselves. First came the tickets, then the matching of shows to clients: nothing violent for the mental patients, for example, and nothing depressing for the pregnant girls. The alcoholics were the most manipulative, missing their call-in deadlines and refusing all opera, symphony and ballet. The mental patients were the most frequent no-shows and disrupters, while the pregnant girls never wanted to see anything. The seniors were by far the most reliable, and game for almost anything. Consequently, they were our most frequent clients.

Each group was escorted by one of our volunteers, local culture enthusiasts who lacked the income to see live events. They went to most of the performances, but occasionally my boss would assign me a show she thought I should see. One of these was a revival of Sam Shepard’s “True West” at the Magic Theater, which had launched first production of the play in 1980. I had never seen a Shepard play before and probably would have been impressed by any of them, but seeing “True West” in the small theater where it originated was an indelible experience. As the brothers Austin and Lee argued, drank, fought and switched personalities, I knew I was seeing a work of genius.

Sam Shepard’s side career as an actor certainly garnered him more fame and money than his career as a playwright, and like most people I’ve seen a lot of his movies. Most put him in supporting roles, where his handsome, lone cowboy looks and quiet charisma had maximum impact. Each time he appeared onscreen, whether in “Frances,” “Crimes of the Heart,” “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” or any number of others, I felt a wave of excitement followed by a sense of relief. Whenever Shepard showed up, the film always got better.

Hearing of his death yesterday made me wonder who would fill his shoes, both as a playwright and actor. In the former category, comparisons to Williams and O’Neill are easier than those to younger American playwrights, whose work seems paler and less universal. And in an era where young American actors stay boyish throughout their careers, the Sam Shepard roles increasingly go to Australian, Irish, Scottish or English actors. Shepard himself was often compared to Gary Cooper, a Montana native he resembled both physically and stylistically, but who will remind us of Sam Shepard?

Women Transformed in Two Japanese Films, One Old, One New

June 29, 2017 § Leave a comment

Yoshio Tsuchiya and Peter in “Funeral Parade of Roses”

Koji Yakusho, Josh Hartnett and Shinobu Terajima in “Oh, Lucy”

Recently I had the pleasure of seeing two surprising Japanese films, one on the festival circuit and the other enjoying its first U.S. release since the early 1970’s. Although dissimilar in many ways, both involve women–cis and trans–who break out of society’s expectations in unexpected, sometimes violent ways.

“Funeral Parade of Roses,” by the late Toshio Matsumoto, premiered in Japan in 1969 but was not seen in the United States until 1970, probably because of its depictions of gay sex, drug use and violence. Matsumoto, who for most of his career was an academic and an experimental filmmaker, sets his story in the demimonde of Tokyo’s Shinjuku district. His characters are gangsters, filmmakers, student rioters and trans women. Most of the action takes place in a gay club whose gangster owner, Gonda (Yoshio Tsuchiya), is pitting Leda, the “mama” (Osamu Ogasawara), against a younger rival, Eddie (Peter), who aspires to succeed her as the hostess. As the lover of both Leda and Eddie, Gonda sets in motion a tragedy of Greek proportions.

“Funeral Parade of Roses” is at once an art film, a black comedy, a feature film, soft core porn, a film-within-a-film, a horror flick, a political commentary and a retelling of “Odeipus Rex”–and I’ve probably missed a few genres. It references Man Ray’s photographs and French Cinema, and is beautiful, messy and brilliant. The film was a major influence on Stanley Kubrick, who borrowed from it in “A Clockwork Orange” and “Eyes Wide Shut.” Despite being nearly fifty years old, “Funeral Parade of Roses” received a wildly enthusiastic reception from a mostly young audience at Cinefamily the night I saw it. It will be released on DVD and deserves its praise.

“Oh, Lucy” directed and co-written by Atsuko Hirayanagi, was well received at Cannes this year. The story of a 55-year-old single woman in Tokyo who unexpectedly changes her life, the film deals in Japanese themes (suicide by train, office ladies, yakuza) as well as universal ones (workplace politics, alienation and family relationships).

Setsuko (Shinobu Terajima) is a hoarder and office drone who witnesses a suicide off the tracks on her way home one evening–in fact, the man bids her goodbye before jumping. Soon afterwards, her niece Mika persuades Setsuko to buy a package of English lessons from her. Despite having no interest in learning English, Setsuko hands over the money and goes to the class which, oddly, is held in a yakuza establishment in Shinjuku.

“I’m a hugger,” says the American teacher, John (Josh Hartnett). He promptly wraps her in an embrace, christens her Lucy and makes her wear a blonde wig, all of which he claims will help her to learn English. Galvanized by his method, Lucy develops a crush on John as well as a tentative friendship with a fellow student, Tom (Koji Yakusho). When John abruptly disappears along with Mika, Lucy wastes no time in flying to Los Angeles to find him, accompanied by her estranged sister Ayako, Mika’s mother. Once they find John, they set out on a road trip to San Diego in search of Mika. There, liberated and unmoored, Lucy wreaks havoc on everyone around her. A black comedy that gets progressively darker before its hopeful ending, “Oh, Lucy” is as unpredictable and indelible as its heroine. It’s well worth seeing.

Hollywood, the Most Sexist Industry of All

March 8, 2017 § Leave a comment

The director who won:

Kathryn Bigelow


And those who didn’t:

Sofia Coppola

Jane Campion

Lina Wertmüller

On this International Women’s Day, it’s worth noting that the average American fire department offers more opportunities for women than the film and television industry. I’m not just talking about women directors, though the fact that only four women have been nominated for the Best Director Academy Award in the Oscars’ 89-year history looks really bad, as does the fact that only one has won. I’m talking about opportunities for women across the board. The statistics are not only deplorable but actually getting worse.

The 2016 annual report of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film states:

In 2016, women comprised 17% of all directors, writers, producers, executive producers, editors, and cinematographers working on the top 250 domestic grossing films. This represents a decline of 2 percentage points from last year and is even with the percentage achieved in 1998.
Women accounted for 7% of directors, down 2 percentage points from 9% in 2015 and 1998. Last year, 92% of films had no female directors. In other roles, women comprised 13% of writers, 17% of executive producers, 24% of producers, 17% of editors, and 5% of cinematographers.
This year’s study also found that only 3% of composers working on the top 250 films were women.

What is to be done? It’s not enough to increase the female and minority membership of the Academy, which remains overwhelmingly white, male and old. The executives who greenlight films and TV shows have to change too, both in their gender makeup and outlook. It’s one thing to have more women executives who embrace the status quo, and another to have female–and male–executives who champion women writers, directors, cinematographers and composers. Another factor plaguing film and television is the lack of urgency. As long as the powers that be think things are fine as they are, nothing will change.

Life In All Its Colors: Kenneth Lonergan’s “Manchester By the Sea”

November 18, 2016 § Leave a comment

Casey Affleck and Lucas Hedges in "Manchester by the Sea"

Casey Affleck and Lucas Hedges in “Manchester by the Sea”

Most American films about families–in fact, most American films–are about progress: in the course of two hours, happiness–or at least resolution–is achieved, and the characters move forward with their lives. But it didn’t used to be that way: before “Rocky,” films often ended unhappily, or at least ambiguously. These less-than-happy endings made movies a lot like life, and the lack of them is precisely what makes today’s films so unsatisfying and unreal. No wonder there are so many movies about superheroes today–an obvious fantasy is better than a contrivance disguised as the truth.

Happily, Kenneth Lonergan’s “Manchester by the Sea” is a bracing refutation of that style. When we first see its protagonist, Lee Chandler, he’s grinding through a series of long days as the super for four Boston area apartment buildings, doing everything from shoveling snow to fixing toilets and electrical problems. He lives alone in a basement apartment, talks as little as possible, and alienates everyone he meets with his unfriendliness. His social life consists of drinking alone in a bar until he lashes out for no reason, pummeling strangers with his fists. The grimness of his life seems self-imposed but we don’t know why, and won’t for some time.

Lee gets word of his older brother Joe’s sudden death, and this sets the plot in motion. He takes a week off to return to his Cape Ann hometown, Manchester-by-the-Sea, to make funeral arrangements and settle Joe’s affairs, intending to come back to Quincy afterwards. But Joe has a 16-year-old son, Patrick, whose alcoholic mother is out of the picture, and Lee discovers that the will names him as his nephew’s guardian. Unwilling to assume the role of father and son, Lee and Patrick embark on an uneasy new relationship marked by grief, anger and–because Patrick can’t drive–a lot of carpooling.

Lonergan, a playwright as well as screenwriter and director, is a master of realistic dialogue. His characters don’t make speeches and are sometimes at a loss for words; when they do talk, they talk economically. He is also a master of silences: several key scenes are filmed through windows without sound, but everything you need to know is conveyed by the actors, all superb. Casey Affleck, always excellent, gives the performance of his career as Lee.

Gradually, through a series of flashbacks, we learn the source of Lee’s violent anger, depression and self-exile. It’s a trauma so huge that there’s no way to rationalize, let alone recover from, it. Lee is in purgatory and always will be, as he knows. While he does his best for Patrick, it’s far from the resolution Joe (or anyone) would have hoped for. Yet the ending rings true, like everything in the “Manchester by the Sea,” including the accents. I can’t remember when I last saw a more satisfying film.

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