Hollywood Reporters and Gatsby Envy
Rarely has one article caused such a commotion on both coasts as journalist Bernie Weinraub's goodbye to the Hollywood beat in The New York Times on Sunday. It was as if narrator Nick Carraway were given space in The Paper of Record to write honestly about the swell set, only this time he surprises us by revealing that he longed for the green light of status and money as much as Jay Gatsby did. Yet, as an ink-stained wretch and damned proud of it, I've got to say, Huh?
First, let me fully disclose that I won't be attacking my pal Bernie personally over what is a beautifully written, though emotionally befuddled, look back at his 14 years inside and outside the entertainment business. (I'm especially sad that he revealed that incident in which he fell asleep during an interview with Jim Carrey, because I used it to blackmail him almost daily.) But for days now, my answering machine and e-mail have been filled with "What did you think of it?" messages, so I feel compelled to publicly examine Bernie's 2,800-word tale of his Hollywood-style seduction.
And what oozes from it is the gunky notion that a journalist wanted to live like the people he covered here. And he isn't alone. The studio and network parking lots are filled with the Porsches and BMWs of reporters and critics who jumped the fence (though, to Bernie's credit, marrying a mogulette instead of writing your way into The Good Life remains a novel route, nonetheless). How abnormal I must be then. Because, clearly, I'm missing what appear to be the essential chromosomes composing the entertainment-biz reporters' DNA: the Hollywood Envy gene.
As Weinraub writes, when he arrived here to start the gig, "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." But doesn't anyone remember that Ol' Mary was decapitated in the end? And that Gatsby got a bullet in the back as well? That's exactly why I don't lust after the trappings of Tinseltown: Everybody's success and the conspicuous consumption that accompanies it bear too high a psychic price tag.
It's because the fame and fortune are so fleeting for people in this town that they make such bigger-than-life grabs for the pomp and power. It's the job of the journalist to see the cushy life or crazy money here for exactly what it is: compensation for the fact that, at any moment, Hollywood types can fail in the most publicly cruel and humiliating ways possible. Sure, they have spectacular moves in their high-wire acts, but they also take spectacular falls. For perspective, consider that every Monday morning, the CEOs at Coke and Pepsi don't suffer the media announcing the numbers of bottles of soda they sold over the weekend, while Hollywood CEOs know their mothers back in Brooklyn have heard the weekend box-office receipts on the Today show. How it must feel to be Jonathan Dolgen these days: One minute, The Bad Cop at Paramount is the toast of the town for his cost cutting while also producing a string of profitable pics, and the next he's a total turkey for cutting costs too deeply and producing a series of loser movies. Or, God forbid, Michael Ovitz, since bets are being taken at well-situated tables inside the Grill on just how much longer it will be before he puts a gun to his head and pulls the trigger.
Their private lives are public fodder. Forget, for a sec, about the stars. For years, Bob Daly deliberately denied himself a seat on the Time Warner board just so no one would know the vulgar excess of his compensation as co-head of Warner Bros. Yet newspapers got hold of his divorce papers anyway and revealed every dollar to the world. We journalists know who uses penis pumps, and who gets blowjobs under the desk and who interrupts meetings to be serviced by a hooker. We're like the eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg staring down at them, only it's not "God sees everything" but now also tabloid-trending magazines and snarky blogs. We're what Nick opines "is what preyed on Gatsby, what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams that temporarily closed out my interest in the abortive sorrows and short-winded elations of men." For chrissakes, that icon Johnny Carson wrestled with Hollywood's most omnipresent devilry, that of massive insecurity caused by the constant hyperscrutiny. Here the comedian had all the money, all the prestige and hardly any enemies (except ex-wives), yet after he retired he turned down offers not because he didn't want a second chapter but, sadly, because of vanity: he told intimates that, because of age and illness and corpulence, he "no longer looked like what people remembered."
And you say you want their lives?
Oy, it's such a clichÃ© to chide Hollywood denizens as manipulators and monsters. Of course, they are; not only is that a job requirement, it's a defense mechanism. Only an astonishingly naive journalist would take being treated badly by Jeffrey Katzenberg so darn personally.
As for me, I say thank God the majority of moguls et al. are miscreants, or else I'd have nothing to write about week after week. After all, my first taste of Hollywood mistreatment occurred before I even got to town. About to be transferred to Los Angeles from Washington, D.C., by Newsweek, I was invited to Kay Graham's home for one of her famous dinner parties. Anticipating that I'd be covering some aspect of Hollywood, she introduced me to Jack Valenti, who focused 15 minutes of schmoozing on me until the guests were seated. Just as I found my table, I turned around to find that I'd been placed next to Valenti. I'll never forget that undisguised look of disgust on his face when he realized he'd already "done" me. But I understood, though didn't excuse, why he kept his back to me for the rest of the evening.
I don't get why reporters here often feel in competition with those people. I still can't get over the specter of Bernie cowering in the corner at Industry functions because the car he was provided gratis by his newspaper wasn't fancy-schmancy. "Though I'm ashamed to say it," he wrote, "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 2-year-old Buick in front of some luncheon companion with a Mercedes." Hell, I'd think nothing of standing at valet parking in front of all of Hollywood and yelling loudly, "It's the Chevy!," then turning to the crowd and crowing, "Plus, it's free!"
Even on a scale of intelligence, the raison d'Ãªtre behind the rivalry goes something like this: After meeting hundreds of show-biz executives, many of them of medium or below-average intelligence in the larger scheme of things, the scribblers suddenly decide they have at least as much smarts to make movies and TV shows as anyone else in town. But for all the success they're having and the money they're making, these former journalists in pursuit of that "orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us" ("It eluded us then, but that's no matter – tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther . . .") have mutated into organ-grinder monkeys amusing the masses.
Bernie himself, and others, have suggested that the reason I don't have the Hollywood Envy gene is because I grew up with money. It's true that Hollywood homes can't ever impress me, since I hung with a crowd of old money in grand houses where threadbare arms on the living-room sofa were considered a badge of honor among families having the good taste to redecorate only every other generation. It's also a fact that my mother's insufferable snobbery so infected me that I look down my nose at Hollywood people who make up in the pushiness department what they lack in pedigree. But even Nick, the middle-class Midwesterner, remembers his dad giving him advice to live by: " 'Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone,' he told me, 'just remember that all the people in this world haven't had the advantages that you've had.' " And that's the point. Journalists, with the rheumy eyes of the outsider, are the self-appointed arbiters of integrity. So I've always considered us to be cuts well above anyone in Hollywood.
Believe me when I say that downwardly mobile doesn't begin to describe the kind of life I've led. But I've never been embarrassed when a Hollywood type has walked into my Westside apartment, glanced around and then proclaimed, "Gee, you people don't make much money, do you?" Or when I've shot back, "No, I don't, but thank you for being polite enough to point that out."
Now that's exactly the kind of Hollywood ending Nick Carraway would have appreciated.
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