Nikki Finke

The Mysteries of Munich

There will be no press junket, no premiere and, most importantly, no blowout Oscar marketing campaign for Steven Spielberg's certain-to-be-controversial movie, Munich.

Given the immensity of today's spin-or-be-spun promotions to land Golden Boy nods, the decision to have little traditional publicity for the film before and even after it opens December 23 is dicey -- yet it is the director's decision alone. Right now, Spielberg doesn't intend to give press or broadcast interviews -- not even to the usual suspects, like The New York Times, Los Angeles Times and 60 Minutes. But the movie may create a big fanfare all on its own -- perhaps even international protests -- given its controversial subject matter.

"The official strategy is for the movie to speak for itself," an insider told me last week. "All they're going to do is just show the movie to people. You have to be Steven Spielberg to get away with that."

But competitors mutter that's because Spielberg's Munich may have snagged the coveted cover of Time magazine. (I'm told a final decision is pending.)

For months now, Munich has been touted as the Oscar front-runner, even when no one had seen the film.

The secret Mossad hit squad that over a period of years assassinated the Palestinian terrorists who directly or even indirectly carried out the massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics in Munich is the movie's subject matter and its political minefield. Specifically, it all comes down to how the film portrays its principal characters: Will the Israelis be seen as too bloodthirsty? Will the Palestinians be seen as too stereotypical? Insiders say Spielberg and his screenwriters, Tony Kushner and Eric Roth, worked hard to create multidimensional characters. But will that play in Peoria?

Hollywood has long been loath to portray any Arabs as villains, much less Muslim extremists, mostly because its movies make a lot of money in the Middle East. Needless to say, this has not gone unnoticed. Already I've been inundated with e-mails from civilians predicting Spielberg will "produce a watered-down, politically correct piece of propaganda that gives the Palestinian Olympic killers credibility" or "depict both the Israelis and the terrorists as morally equivalent. This will be done to hide the fact that the Israelis were totally justified and the terrorists were, well, terrorists (that is to say, bloodthirsty savages)."

As one messager put it: "Hollywood (including Spielberg) doesn't have the balls to tell the truth. Hollywood will give aid and comfort to the enemy, and they'll get rich doing it."

Spielberg has assembled a team of pro advisers to confront the protestations that are sure to occur.

The team consists of Dennis Ross, a well-known U.S. diplomat who played a leading role in shaping Middle East policy in the George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton administrations and is now the Washington Institute's counselor and Ziegler distinguished fellow; Mike McCurry, President Clinton's White House spokesman, now a for-hire political strategist; and Allan Mayer, a crisis PR specialist with Los Angeles-based Sitrick and Company who has advised Spielberg for several years.

The director has been deliberately vague as to the origin of the much-disputed facts conveyed in his movie. He has said it comes from multiple sources, and not just from "Vengeance," the controversial book by George Jonas. (HBO adapted that book in 1986.)

Both Palestinian terrorist Abu Daoud and Israel's former Mossad spy chief Zvi Zamir have gone public with their anger about not being consulted beforehand by Spielberg about the film. During the summer, Spielberg issued this carefully worded statement to an Israeli paper, an Arab TV station and The New York Times:

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Requiem for a Hollywood Reporter

In the movies, reporters are mostly made out to be sleazy louts (It Happened One Night) or bumbling fools (Absence of Malice). Hollywood moguls even portray good journalists (All the President's Men) as egotistical, obsessive, not-very-nice people. Or maybe it's just payback. After all, good journalists usually portray Hollywood moguls as egotistical, obsessive, not-very-nice people. Combine the two, and a good Hollywood journalist means a double dose of all those qualities that make a person insufferable.

That, in a nutshell, was veteran movie industry reporter Anita Busch.

"Was" is the operative word here because she has abandoned the profession she zealously plied for nearly 20 years. Not just because she was sniffing around a story that ended in her fearing for her life, not just because she burned her bridges at the major media outlets, but also because the Los Angeles Times and the Hollywood press corps turned their backs on her when she came under what we now know was a genuine threat.

"She told me she's never going to work as a journalist again," one of her closest friends told L.A. Weekly. "It's not so much what happened to her but the whole way this went down. How she was treated left a sour taste."

She is gone and, worse, she is near-forgotten, an inconspicuous end to an esteemed career. So I, for one, am going to apologize to Busch on behalf of everyone who covers Hollywood: Yes, we are at fault. Yes, we didn't take this seriously at first, second or third. Yes, we made the mistake of putting personality before principle. Shame on us -- especially now that this ongoing Hollywood puzzle is starting to fall into place.

On Friday, the Los Angeles District Attorney's office announced that celebrity private eye Anthony Pellicano, already in prison on federal weapons and explosives counts, was charged with conspiracy and threatening Busch. The man he allegedly hired to do the dirty work, Alexander Proctor, already had been charged with one count of making criminal threats against Busch in a case filed in 2003. Still unclear is who hired Pellicano. Busch, who's been in contact with the FBI and the D.A.'s Office all this time, has tantalizingly whispered to friends that her case could lead to a big Hollywood name.

Busch wouldn't return my phone calls. (Though a guy called me anonymously and warned repeatedly, "You're being monitored. Everything you say about Anita Busch.") Also not talking to me was the literary agent for the novel she's supposedly writing, and the lawyer for the civil lawsuit she filed two years after the incident against nearly everyone she claims was involved. Those who are in contact with her say she's obsessed with every facet of the ongoing Pellicano taping scandal and talks about it constantly.

She also hasn't worked for the Los Angeles Times in years, and left there disappointed that the paper's management "didn't back her up" more, according to one pal. "She didn't find them as supportive as she would have liked. They turned the matter over to the Human Resources administrative people. This was very offensive to her."

To refresh your memory, the long-time trade paper reporter-editor was newly hired as a contract writer by the Los Angeles Times when she was threatened while working on a story about has-been action star Steven Seagal's alleged ties to the mob. That's when Anita in LaLaland fell down the rabbit hole and never came out again.

Separating fact from fantasy seemed impossible given the wacko stuff that happened that June 10, 2002, involving an actor, the Mafia, a hit man, a note that said "STOP," a shatter mark on her car windshield -- alleged shenanigans by Proctor and Pellicano. The street where she lived was evacuated so the bomb squad could investigate the contents of the mystery package left on her auto; it contained a dead fish and a rose but no explosive device. "People didn't take it seriously because it sounded like a movie script," another friend says. "That's why few people felt sorry for her."

Blame that on Busch herself and her reputation first as a Hollywood queen, and then as a drama queen. Over time, she went from the reporter relentlessly pursuing stories to reversing course and becoming the story. She was schmoozing media writers for high-profile treatment in stories about Hollywood coverage, sitting for a portrait and profile in the LAT when she became editor of The Hollywood Reporter, or slithering around in evening dress for an Elle magazine feature on "Hollywood After Dark." The dead fish experience was seen as just another peril to befall Anita: She'd had as many as Pauline over the years, culminating in the bottle of MSG she claimed was sent to her by Michael Ovitz because of her lethal allergy to the food additive.

The Hollywood trades gave short shrift to the intimidation story. Why? Because Busch had worked for both Variety and The Hollywood Reporter, then left bad-mouthing the ethics of her former bosses. Not only didn't it endear her to them, but it started their vendetta against her.

Then, the Washington Post repeated LAT insider talk that Busch was "the Tawana Brawley of the newsroom," where her fish tale provoked eye-rolling.

Now-defunct alternative paper Los Angeles New Times even questioned Busch's veracity. "Do Gambino greaseballs read West Coast papers, and even if they do, why would they give a rancid cannoli about Anita Busch? The stuff she and [co-writer Paul] Lieberman were reporting was public record, part of a federal indictment and was also covered on June 5 by both the New York Daily News and The New York Times. The Busch-Lieberman team didn't break the story, nor any new ground."

It didn't help that several reports said she was staying at fancy hotels, at LAT's expense, and taking other extravagant security precautions. The Washington Post even had to issue a correction after a Times spokesman clarified that Busch "spent only one night at a hotel, and stayed at other locations afterward."

Damage was done to Busch's reputation because of it all. "People acted like she was a perpetrator, and in fact she was a victim," says one of her pals. "The publicity was devastating to her. She's a little paranoid anyway, and it made her more paranoid."

Busch also made enemies of almost every reporter who tried to write about her during this time by threatening libel suits and demanding top-to-bottom corrections. Then again, the high-strung journalist tended to come undone whenever anyone turned the tables and wrote about her. She was known as a wonderful friend to have, and a terrible foe; the only problem was that, somewhere during her career, the line blurred and she became increasingly combative. One of her biggest bête noires was early blogger Luke Ford, whose scathing online portrait of "rageaholic Anita" drove her to near-batty behavior.

It wasn't always so. A Midwesterner, she drove to Los Angeles in 1990, with her sister and cat for company, and described covering Hollywood in those early days like "being thrown naked into the heart of Times Square." From the start, she was known for her take-no-prisoners style of reporting and fierce spirit of competition on the entertainment beat. A stilted writing style and a mania for industry minutiae prevented her from successfully moving beyond the ghetto of the trade papers. When she did try gigs at Premiere and Entertainment Weekly, she didn't last long. When she scored the L.A. Times gig it was something of a shock. She was there less than a year.

Again and again, the rap on Anita was that she didn't play well with others, and complaints about her behavior from inside and outside the media mounted. A lot of this was just Anita being, well, Anita. Typical is this anecdote from a new employee at Variety, who on his first day tried to introduce himself. "I didn't know she was on the phone. I walk up to her and say, 'Hi, I'm . . . ' And just as I'm about to say my name, she starts shouting, 'Oh yeah? Well, fuck you. Fuck you. Fuck you.' Every time she says 'Fuck you,' she is slamming her headset on the desk. She flings it away and it breaks into 20 pieces. She puts her hand out and says, 'Hi, I'm Anita.'"

You either liked her or you hated her. There wasn't much room in the middle. But almost everyone respected her reporting. For a journalist, that's an epitaph to be proud of.

Really Big Packages

What unmitigated gall.

Entertainment Weekly suspended its usual pabulum spEWing to piss on celebrity perk packages in its recent, laughably titled article "NEW Age of Greed." In the piece, unnamed executives at movie studios, TV networks and record labels whine about unnamed stars who dare to demand $40,000 private-jet flights to carry their luggage and $35,000 basketball courts to entertain them on location. The article even gripes that celebrity perks add about 5 percent to the bottom line of a film's cost. "Given that the average studio film now costs $98 million to produce and market, that can be $5 million in perks," EW gasps. "Say a studio releases a dozen movies a year, that's $60 million -- enough to make a Sideways roughly every three months."

Forget, for a moment, the stupidity of an entertainment publication that is shocked to find that stars are wasting Hollywood's money. The same outrage was heard throughout the 1980s and 1990s over Demi Moore demanding vintage dolls for her collection or Tom Cruise a co-op in Manhattan. Forget the cowardice of magazine editors who won't finger-point for fear those celebs will refuse to do EW covers. (Even though documents filed in the ongoing lawsuit over the collapse of the Basic Instinct sequel made public Sharon Stone's five pages of demands including Pilates equipment, a $3,500 per diem for armed bodyguards, a chauffeured car with a nonsmoking driver, three nannies, two assistants, a presidential suite, deluxe motor home, and on ad nauseam.)

Instead, remember this: Hypocrisy, thy name is EW's parent company, Time Warner. Chairman and CEO Dick Parsons gave himself a perk that's a monument to ego: a 5,000-square-foot, 21st-floor, marble-and-rare-wood dream suite (a supposed $25 mil to build out) inside the swankiest and priciest NYC office space, the new Time Warner Center. Parsons and the other heads of the Mammoth Media conglomerates feeding America its infotainment -- Disney, Sony, Viacom, General Electric and News Corp. -- may gag on celebrity greed, but they never stop indulging their own corporate gluttony.

Wanna hurl? Look at the latest shareholders-be-damned headlines this week about Viacom -- owner of Paramount, CBS, MTV, VH1, and Infinity radio -- disclosing that it gave its top three moguls a 58 percent pay increase even though the company's stock price fell 18 percent in 2004. A Viacom spokesman noted that the bonuses for all executives were tied to operating income, not share price.

It's not just the arrogance of rich, old Viacom chairman Sumner Redstone claiming he cuts costs at every corner while at the same time lining his own pockets at the expense of investors that's so nauseating. It's also the profligacy of a public company shameless enough to reimburse Les Moonves, who lives in Los Angeles but also has a New York apartment, $105,000 for the period he stayed in New York at his apartment instead of at a hotel, or Tom Freston, who is based in New York but also has a residence in Los Angeles, $43,100 for the time he spent staying at his L.A. home instead of a hotel.

Talk about chutzpah: This is paying these guys to live in their own homes.

For that matter, departing Walt Disney CEO Michael Eisner received $735,000 for security services, personal protection and equipment. That's on top of the $8.3 million in salary, bonus and other compensation in the same year he was the target of a shareholder revolt.

The examples are legion. Besides the disputed $20 million golden parachute, French-based Vivendi Universal paid for all sorts of extravagant perks to chief executive Jean-Marie Messier before his ouster. Reportedly, Viv U picked up the tab for a $140,000-a-year butler, a $75,000-a-year chauffeur for Messier's wife, plus the heating bills in the $17.5 million Park Avenue duplex the company bought for him -- all while shareholders were kept in the dark about the extent of the conglom's financial problems.

Given such wretched excess, those toys for Hollywood A-listers seem like chump change.

Celebrities can make all the demands they want, but someone has to underwrite every perk. Whereas, when it comes to corporate gluttony, the execs are writing the checks to themselves. That's because, increasingly, the CEOs consider themselves celebs.

The monster of megabuck mayhem was the late Steve Ross, the Warner tycoon, who never spent a dollar of corporate money if he could spend a million. Freewheeling and free-spending, Ross single-handedly ushered in the show-biz era of extravagance (which raised the bar for copycat corporate masters of the universe in other fields) by showering stars and other big shots with trips in private jets and stays in Aspen chalets and Acapulco villas owned by the company. Of course, the studio bigwigs got as much as they gave. Ross' legacy of how a studio legend should live is still being emulated decades later.

It's why former Paramount Communications president Stanley Jaffe installed a screening room in his Westchester, N. Y., home at a cost to the company of $1.5 million. (When Bill Mechanic was president of 20th Century Fox, he eschewed that goody, telling one reporter, "I'd rather see movies in theaters, with real people.")

It's why Peter Guber, the onetime chairman of Sony Pictures Entertainment, saddled his employer with his Bel Air mansion, along with a laundry list of perks. Among the things Sony acquired for that staggering $5.5 million, besides the "Rolls-Royce of flotation tanks," was a $3.5 million loss on its books when the house was finally resold. Yet Guber, whose tenure resulted in $3.2 billion of Hollywood losses for Sony, had the nerve in his recent book "Shoot Out" (co-authored with Variety editor Peter Bart, who should have known better) to bitch about spiraling star demands.

What Ross was to the men, Dawn Steel was to the women. After she famously had a baby before taking over at Columbia Pictures, Steel was the first to negotiate all sorts of now-routine, child-friendly perks, like an on-site nursery, into her contract. It would be curious to see which of today's women execs griped to EW about the proliferation of $1,500-a-week nannies being paid by the studios for the offspring of celebrities making movies.

Some of these stealth forms of show-biz CEO compensation only come to light because of lawsuits. Indeed, it took Jane Welch to spill the beans about her husband's retirement perks in a divorce filing because GE had never disclosed the New York Knicks tickets, satellite television service, wine, country-club memberships, an $80,000-per-month Manhattan apartment along with continued use of the corporate jet, not to mention free toilet paper for life.

So unless Jane Eisner tires of Michael hanging around the kitchen all day in his Mickey Mouse PJs and suddenly divorces him, come September we may never know the lavishness of Eisner's Disney-funded retirement. Chairman George Mitchell stammers whenever the subject comes up, saying only that the company will honor Eisner's employment contract, which is reportedly being renegotiated. Of course, since he started at Disney in 1984, Eisner already has earned $1 billion in salary, bonuses and exercised stock options.

Yet isn't it ironic that Eisner, notorious for nickel-and-diming employees as well as stars, is such a penny pincher when it comes to everyone but himself? One of the most telling anecdotes in James Stewart's new book, DisneyWar, is how Disney's perk-addicted president Michael Ovitz came up with the absurd idea that the company should give a gift to Bob Iger, then the head of ABC television, to acknowledge his hard work.

"Why?" Eisner asked. "He's got a contract. He's not going anywhere."

"Don't you want him to be comfortable, happy in his job?" Ovitz asked.

"Not really," Eisner replied.

Recent newspaper and magazine articles purport to spot an industry trend that such iconic and iconoclastic show-biz megalomaniacs are being replaced by a breed of "pinstriped, buttoned-down brass" and "stoic, faceless suits," to quote Forbes. What a bunch of crap. The new guys have waited all their careers to be in charge just to bring home the same gargantuan package of bonus, stock options and perks as their craven predecessors. Especially when the boards of directors are still so packed with insiders, like Disney's. Does anyone doubt that newly-named CEO Iger will be vastly improving upon the $12 million he got as president, including a $6.5 million bonus and $3.45 million in incentive pay?

Then there's News Corp. president Peter Chernin, whose primary job by all accounts is baby-sitting the company until Rupert Murdoch's idiot sons Lachlan and James are ready to take over the public corporation's throne (that fact alone should make shareholders shudder). Though the company makes much of the fact that Chernin's new contract calls for his bonus to be tied entirely to improving the company's earnings per share, for fiscal 2004 he received an $8.3 million base salary, an $8 million bonus and 500,000 stock options valued at $1.79 million. But Chernin is also granted a severance package if he's terminated without cause, including a lump-sum payment of $40 million and the vesting of all his stock options.

Yes, it's Ovitzian, but at least Chernin has been on the job longer than Ovitz's 14 months at Disney, which included $300 charged-to-the-company breakfasts. The Delaware Chancery Court judge is expected to rule this summer in the Disney shareholders' suit over Ovitz's lavish $140 million severance payout. But it's comforting to know the money is going to such a good cause: Casa Ovitz, a 30,000-square-foot estate with a covered tennis court, a 13-car garage, an art gallery and a yoga room, which he is building in the posh Los Angeles enclave of Benedict Canyon much to his neighbors' chagrin.

But that pales in comparison to the media-elite lifestyle Chernin's boss Rupert Murdoch chooses to lead, with his recent purchase of Laurence Rockefeller's Fifth Avenue penthouse co-op at $44 million, the highest ever for a residence in Manhattan at the time. So listen, moguls, those who live in extravagant, perk-filled glass houses shouldn't cast the first stone.

Trailer of Tears

Adam Sandler looks like Albert Brooks' older brother. Nicole Kidman should have known better. And Christian Bale plays Batman not gay. Got that? NOT GAY!

Oh, the pratfalls and pitfalls of the latest movie trailers.

We all know the so-called summer movie season is as fake as everything else in Hollywood. That's because summer movies start bowing in spring, and if the moguls had their way, as early as the first winter blizzard (since summer ticket sales usually account for 40 percent of The Industry's annual revenue). The only thing stopping the suits from ordering a rewrite of the annual calendar -- hey, these guys are so power-driven and delusional they think they can cue a full moon whenever they want one -- is the fact that many of their films simply aren't ready any earlier. So what we have instead of wet prints are movie trailers (and, on the internet, lots and lots of lots of movie trailers) to handicap which studio stupidos are about to involuntarily spend more time with their families.

In an insanely unscientific business that guesses wrong more than it guesses right -- and given the lack of accurate alternative predictors -- trailers are as good an indicator of what is, and isn't, going to be a suckfest as, say, the quality of the craft services on a shoot. But a trailer is not only the public's first look at a picture, it's also the competition's first look as well.

So it wasn't the one-two punch of Spielberg and Cruise that suddenly gave Fox fits about the upcoming War of the Worlds. (After all, 20th had the same combo in the underperforming Minority Report.) Rather, it was the "wow" factor of the WOTW trailer that made Fox push Fantastic Four off the same June 29 release date and back to July 8. Score one for DreamWorks/Paramount. On the other hand, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory looked like a heavyweight since it had the buzzworthy Johnny Depp and the same release date as his two-year-old hit Pirates of the Caribbean. Then rival studios got their first glimpse of the kiddie classic's trailer and its creepy, psychedelic take and Johnny Depp in drag as Anna Wintour. Oops! Now New Line has moved its Vince-'n'-Owen romp Wedding Crashers onto the Chocolate Factory date, and Paramount followed with its Sundance rap saga Hustle and Flow.

Because we love the smell of Maalox in the morning, let's review some summer movie trailers and decide who's going to need an Rx for stronger stuff, like Thorazine ...

Bewitched: Ever since this trailer debuted on AOL, the whole town's been talking about it. And not in a nice way. Sony marketing czar Jeff Blake is one of the best in the business, but even he can't make a Prada purse out of this pig's ear of a film. (One word: Godzilla.) The trailer lets the cat out of the bag that this movie is not a remake of the TV show: It's a movie about the making of the TV show. Talk about a cockamamie concept. There's not one funny bit or line in the trailer, which makes us think there's not one funny bit or line in the movie or Sony would have used it. This is like a fun-house hall of mirrors, without the fun.

War of the Worlds: This trailer looks like Twister meets Independence Day. And since both of those ads were great, and the movies were monster hits, everything is going WOTW's way. Sure, there's something unseemly in a post-9/11, post-tsunami world about huge civic destruction, so when you see the people running from a somersaulting highway, it's not so much awesome as dreadful. Also, I kept looking for the Scientology "assist" tent, but guess it got cut out. Still, there's no way the wow factor of this trailer portends a movie battling the bow-wow factor.

The Longest Yard: I only counted one big laugh (Chris Rock's one-liner) in the trailer that's out now. Exactly when did Adam Sandler go from looking 25 to 55 years old? Something's very wrong when Burt Reynolds looks better than the leading man. (Yoo-hoo, Dr. 90210 ... ) I didn't know there were Jews in football, let alone prison.

Star Wars: Episode III -- Revenge of the Sith: After seeing the trailer, it should be Revenge of the Stiff.

Cinderella Man: Is anyone really in the mood for yet another earnest film about boxing? Especially after Hilary Swank demythologized this manly sport? The trailer makes this movie look like Seabiscuit wears boxing gloves, set as it is in the same Depression era, filmed in the same sepia tones, sending the same come-from-behind message. No matter how good Russell Crowe is in it (and how bad Renee Zellwegger looks in it), the trailer shows why NBC's The Contender isn't a hit.

Batman Begins: I had no wanna-see for this movie. Then I spied the trailer. God, Christian Bale is even more gorgeous here than he was in American Psycho. Finally, post-Kilmer and Clooney, someone is playing Batman as a manly man, and not as a fop. There's one good shiver-down-the-spine moment, otherwise the trailer is fairly routine. But it also leaves some nagging questions. Why is Batman being taught by Jedi knight Liam Neeson? And why is Batman strolling through Superman's ice planet?

Mr. and Mrs. Smith: The trailer makes this movie look like Prizzi's Honor with less talented actors. Of course, I spent the whole time looking for clues as to whether Angelina and Brad were getting it on behind Jen's back. If you ask me, we like these two stars looking their most slutty, yet the trailer has them in too many clothes. Not only isn't there any sizzle, there's not even any steak. Where's the beef(cake)?

The Interpreter: Thank god for movie trailers. This one will save you $9. Forget even such stale dialogue as "We've got a situation" and "Someone might get hurt." It clearly shows there's even less chemistry between Nicole and Sean in this Sydney Pollack whodunit than there was between Harrison and Kristin in Pollack's last try, the stillborn Random Hearts. Nice to know the old guy still hasn't lost his lackluster. Since this trailer seemed like a week long, then the movie will seem like a life sentence.

The Pink Panther: All I know from the trailer is that this movie must have been made for the foreign market, because it's all about a murder in a soccer stadium. But in a summer sorely lacking in comedy, Steve Martin paired with Kevin Kline didn't look too painful.

Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy: This movie trailer satirizes movie trailers, but it's too clever by half. The arch British humor isn't of Monty Python quality. Sure, sci-fi geeks know about Douglas Adams' classic book, but the rest of the audience won't have a clue what this incoherent trailer is hawking. It's like a dog's whistle that someone heard, but not me.

Goldberg Flies Air America

Maybe it’s just bad static or poor reception, but isn’t the new CEO of liberal radio network Air America soundbiting like a Republican?

Sure, he thinks Al Franken is a “genius,” but he admits listening regularly to Rush Limbaugh “because I was fascinated by his ability to be so entertaining.” He says Air America won’t take its cues from the Democratic National Committee, “because I hate to see people just lockstep following a political party.” He believes people in Hollywood should be “supportive of politicians, not a replacement for politicians, unless they actually want to run for office like Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger, and I hope we produce one of those in my lifetime.” He sees American media becoming more like “the European media now, where media is admitting who they favor, and I think that trend is not all bad because I think there was a bias anyway.” And he says his most immediate goal is to “make a lot of money for shareholders.”

Then again, 54-year-old Danny Goldberg has always defied conventional wisdom.

When the Gore-Lieberman campaign railed against rap in the 2000 presidential race, this longtime record-industry executive and bicoastal political activist accused the Democratic ticket of turning off young people with GOP-pandering tactics. (“Gore’s dramatic drop in the support of younger voters alone cost him the election. The statistics are clear.”) When lefties began writing books savaging the right wing, he wrote a book attacking the Democratic Party as too tone-deaf to popular culture. (Goldberg’s How the Left Lost Teen Spirit is coming out in paperback next month with a new introduction and additional chapters.) When the November election deeply depressed millions of John Kerry supporters, Goldberg not only wasn’t surprised, but also felt less disappointed than most because he saw “a silver lining” in the loss. (“Unlike any election in my lifetime, the campaign left an infrastructure of activists, media and organizations that have at long last begun the work of creating a true progressive electorate.”) When the music business in recent months started to return to growth mode through rising digital sales and stabilizing CD sales, this former top executive at Warner Music and Mercury Records suddenly stepped down as chairman of indie Artemis Records. (He left for what he says were “philosophical differences” with the new investors over the future of the company.)

So it’s not surprising that, just as HBO was scheduling a very warts-and-all documentary about Air America’s start-up and near bankruptcy, Goldberg last month decided to take the helm of the no-longer-struggling company, which had already burned through two CEOs. “It’s just the chance of a lifetime,” Goldberg tells the L.A. Weekly in his first interview since getting the gig. “I wasn’t miserable in the music business, but I’d done it for 30 years. And I’ve had this strong interest for the last 15 or 20 in politics, especially how it intersects with media.”

(Full disclosure: I am a regular unpaid contributor on Air America shows.)

But Goldberg won’t even get to enjoy birthday cake celebrating Air America’s first year of broadcasting nationally on Thursday. Instead, he receives that big fat pie in the face with the premiere of HBO’s Left of the Dial, which chronicles the dramedy of what happens when mayhem meets moola, or lack thereof, complete with bounced paychecks, unpaid health-insurance premiums, complaining creditors and confused staffers.

Especially riveting is the behind-the-scenes chaos as Air America was thrown off its Los Angeles and Chicago radio stations after only two weeks on the air, and the ensuing cover-up. (Then again, the documentary fails to make the point that Air America won’t go down in history as the first company to obfuscate its true economic condition. Yet we should expect better of any champion of progressive politics.)

“It covers the first six months or so, which included a period when a charlatan who said he was funding it flaked out,” sighs Goldberg. “In general, I think it demonstrates the commitment and politics of our on-air talent and reminds people that we’re there. It was an independently produced documentary, so naturally there are a few cringe-worthy moments from our point of view. But, overall, it’s a huge plus for the network.”

Well, only if you believe in the old adages that all publicity is good publicity and that it doesn’t matter what they say about you as long they spell your name right. “Somehow or other, these people got this thing off the ground,” Goldberg defends. “It defied the conventional wisdom of the radio business. It was troubled in terms of the financing issues. This is about the art of the possible, the kind of programming that nobody would have taken a year ago, because they didn’t believe there was an audience for it. This is very much a work in progress. There’s been almost a destiny to it and a dedication, not only the people on the staff but also the investors who have stuck with it.”

What Goldberg vigorously emphasizes, what the HBO broadcast only casually mentions, and what Rush Limbaugh and his echo chambers (Sean Hannity, Tony Snow, Bill O’Reilly, Michael Medved, Michael Savage, Laura Ingraham, Michael Reagan, Dennis Prager and Larry Elder, ad nauseam) purposefully ignore, is that Air America and its Bushwhacking stepsister in the radio business, Democracy Radio, are now not only on solid financial footing but also informative and — dare we say it — even fun. And not just because of the Grateful Dead bumpers.

That’s why liberal talk is the radio industry’s fastest-growing format. That success has been the catalyst for Air America’s sudden adoption by Clear Channel Communications, long despised by Democrats for hosting shows and promotions that bolster the Bush administration agenda (which is not just paranoia, since the Texas-based company CEO is a big GOP donor). For instance, the day before Dubya’s second-term inauguration, listeners tuning in to the Detroit sports station WXDX-AM were suddenly greeted by the sound of braying donkeys, according to AP reports. By the time Bush was taking the oath of office, the radio station had new call letters and a full schedule of liberal talk shows. It’s just one of 22 stations owned by Clear Channel, many of them registering mere blips in the ratings, that have switched to a liberal-talk format in the last year. “Listeners across the country are asking for more progressive talk radio,” said John Hogan, president of Clear Channel’s Radio Division, in a prepared statement on Jan. 19. On the other hand, ABC’s sizable radio network still is bucking the trend with a near-monolithic right-wing show schedule, even though former Democratic U.S. Sen. George Mitchell chairs parent company Disney.

“There’s a lot of attention to the fact that Clear Channel has done it because of the perception of Clear Channel. It’s from Texas, and some of the people there are friends with George Bush,” says Goldberg, picking his words carefully. “But it’s not just Clear Channel. The new stations in Texas — Dallas, Austin and San Antonio — are not Clear Channel stations. What simply happened is that the ratings have been good enough to demonstrate that there’s a frustrated talk-radio audience that’s not right-wing. So, faced with an underperforming AM station, this is a much better business decision for an owner than the other alternatives. And that’s where we’re getting the stations from.”

Not only is Air America now on in New York, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles (KTLK-AM 1150, another Clear Channel station), but it has also expanded from six to 51 stations, into 15 of the top 20 markets, into major red states like Texas, Arizona, North Carolina, Georgia, Florida and Alaska, and on XM and Sirius satellite radio. But will left-leaning listeners be able to hear? The truth is that many of Air America’s stations are low-wattage. For instance, in Dallas, where Air America replaced Spanish-language programming on KXEB-AM (910), static nearly drowns out the station in some areas. Even in Los Angeles, the signal can be faint, as opposed to Limbaugh showcase KFI, where the 50,000-watt blowtorch sounds more like 50 million.

Besides scoring well with women and young people, Air America currently claims 2 million listeners (and Goldberg predicts the size of its audience will double by 2006). One way the network is accomplishing this is by learning from the past mistakes of other syndicators of liberal talk who looked for national talent in all the usual — and dull — places.

Gone are the monologues and monotones of former politicians Mario Cuomo and Jim Hightower and even lawyers like Alan Dershowitz. Just as Democracy Radio sought out converted former Republican and ex–football player Ed Schultz, whose syndicated show has gone from two radio outlets to 77 in the past year, Air America also thought outside the box.

It offered gigs to liberally attuned comedians Al Franken, Janeane Garofalo and Marc Maron as well as media and politics veterans Marty Kaplan, Laura Flanders and Mark Riley. Expecting Franken to go head-to-head with Limbaugh in many markets was a huge risk for such a radio and political neophyte. Even liberals who had heard he would be the cornerstone of Air America’s programming feared Franken would make a fool of himself. But when Goldberg began listening to him, “I thought, ‘My God, Al Franken is really like a genius.’ He’s brilliant at taking complicated issues and, with a strict focus on the facts and logic, refuting conservative arguments. To be involved with somebody like that is such an honor.” And he also describes as “very good” Randi Rhodes, who, before Air America gave her a national platform, was beating Rush Limbaugh in the ratings in her Palm Beach County listening area.

Public Enemy rapper Chuck D and eight-time Grammy nominee Steve Earle have new shows. Given his background, Goldberg may want to see more confluence between music and politics, and possibly even Hollywood and politics, in Air America’s programming. “I do think that the war, and the election, brought out a level of intensity by a lot of artists that I hadn’t seen since the ’60s. A lot of those people who became politicized are still passionate. And that’s an asset that the left has, this support of a lot of very creative people in the arts and movies and television and especially in music. There ought to be some way of making those connections.”

And, on April 1, Air America will start carrying Jerry Springer’s syndicated talk-radio program. Yes, that Jerry Springer.

“As soon as I found out it was available to us, I jumped at the chance to get it,” Goldberg tells the L.A. Weekly. “I’m sure there will be some people who say that we shouldn’t run his radio show, because they don’t like his TV show. But the two shows are totally different, and I feel that Springer can reach an audience that we otherwise could not easily reach. He is a genuine celebrity in Middle America — including the so-called ‘red states’ — and has a gift for speaking in the cultural language of a wide piece of America. He is, in other words, a practitioner of exactly the kind of mass communications that I have long wished for in progressive politics. And his politics are truly progressive, on every conceivable issue. Of course, on a business level,” adds Goldberg, “it significantly strengthens us in our relations with affiliates and advertisers.”

But inside Air America, morale has been weakened by what is perceived to be a diversity problem on air and off. Even if the radio network’s management doesn’t practice what it preaches (Goldberg promises more airtime for people of color and women beyond what is currently scheduled), the fact that its programming is preaching at all is a godsend to progressives and their blood pressure. There’s something so soothing about switching from dittohead-targeted rants about “feminazis” and “godless atheists” and “the homosexual agenda” to hearing smart people make fun of all that. For the fair-minded who think National Public Radio has gone too far down the slippery slope and fallen on the side of right-wing bias, the antidote is Air America’s Morning Sedition.

And, for cable-TV-news watchers who’ve forgotten what a Democratic politician looks like, many of the network’s shows deliberately broadcast long and thoughtful excerpts (not just short soundbites that made her seem shrewish) from California Sen. Barbara Boxer’s poking and prodding of Condoleezza Rice at the recent confirmation hearings. (Says Goldberg: “As someone who’s supported Boxer and her campaigns, I’ve yearned for her to play this role. I was just so moved by the way she handled herself and really stepped into a national role at a time when we really needed her.”)

But perhaps Air America’s finest moment to date came during last week’s legal wrangling over Terri Schiavo’s feeding tube. That’s because the radio network repeatedly played for listeners that audiotape of closed-door addresses by House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist to the culturally conservative Family Research Council on March 17 and 18. Released by the nonsectarian and nonpartisan group Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the tape shows both politicians shamelessly exploiting the Schiavo tragedy to politically suck up to the religious right.

All of this speaks very personally to Goldberg and his own progressive views.

“This is really a once-in-a-lifetime chance to run a business that’s really affecting the conversation of the country. So, for me, it’s like a no-brainer. It’s definitely something that, if they didn’t pay me for it, I would probably do it for free. But as a matter of fact, they are paying me for it. I actually think it’s a fantastic business, and those of us who are shareholders, and I’m among them now, are going to make a lot of money.

“You can do well by doing good.”

Not So Young Frankenstein

In Young Frankenstein, Mel Brooks theorized in between scenes of slapstick that, as in the 1931 original, Dr. Frankenstein could never have indulged his insane belief in his godlike power without the unheralded grunt work of his hunchbacked henchman, Igor. Remember such priceless dialogue from the beak-nosed and bug-eyed Marty Feldman as: "My boss don't appreciate me either. To him I'm just a gofer. 'Igor! Go for brains! ... Igor! Go for dead bodies! ... Igor! Go for sandwiches!' " Now, life is imitating art, only this time the crazy guy in charge of the castle is Eisner, and he's installed his faithful flunky, Iger, to replace him at Disney.

So I've got to ask (and pardon me for continuing the analogy): Where are the angry villagers waving torches and pitchforks to storm the Burbank headquarters?

Hello? Is anybody out there trying to protest besides Roy Disney and Stanley Gold, who instigated last year's shareholders revolt, which led to Eisner's denouncement, demotion and decommissioning prematurely this fall? Sheesh, you'd hardly know from the overwhelmingly obsequious media coverage that, in reality, the Disney board's promotion of president Robert Iger was a monstrous move. We're talking here about shamefully rewarding a corporate executive who may be movie-star handsome but whose 10-year track record following in Eisner's footsteps is downright ugly. And, truth be told, for it to occur at this precise moment looks like mice behaving badly.

For, just as important as any analysis of Iger's demerits as Disney's Il Duce, is the unfortunate timing of his appointment. I believe it couldn't be worse, not just for Mouse House shareholders but for U.S. corporate stockholders worldwide. Here's why:

Right now, CalPERS, the acronym for the California Public Employees' Retirement System, whose board runs the state's largest public pension fund with $180 billion in assets, is under tremendous pressure to scale back its two-decades-old proactive campaign to force public companies to be more answerable to their investors. What began in the early 1980s as a fight to stop corporate raiders like T. Boone Pickens from scamming shareholders with practices like "greenmailing" evolved into a well-publicized push for better corporate governance.

What has that got to do with Iger? The fund holds a whopping 9.44 million Disney shares – half a percent of the Magic Kingdom's total stock. In other words, when a big institutional investor talks, even arrogant corporations listen. A shareholder who dabbles in the market can be ignored. But not CalPERS.

For the previous five years, CalPERS talked and talked (actually more like kvetched and kvetched) about Disney's dismal performance. But Eisner didn't heed the warnings. So last year CalPERS and more than half a dozen other pension funds announced they were siding with Stanley and Roy and withholding votes for Eisner's usually pro-forma re-election to the Disney board, thus helping set in motion one of the most thrilling, and certainly the shrillest, shareholder revolts in American corporate history. Disney's board finally got the message. Directors stripped Eisner of his chairman title, bestowed it on former Democratic Sen. George Mitchell, and pushed, pushed, pushed until Eisner announced last September that he would step down as chief executive when his contract expired in 2006. But that's when things at CalPERS started getting hinky.

Suddenly, CalPERS president Sean Harrigan was under predictably intense scrutiny from Republicans and lobbyists in Washington, D.C., and Sacramento, including party pals of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the pro-GOP U.S. Chamber of Commerce. During his two-year tenure, Harrigan had taken on the high-profile role of spearheading the fund's corporate campaigns against Disney et al. The attacks on Harrigan escalated when the supermarket union leader also targeted Safeway (Vons, Pavilions, etc.). Still, it was a shock when the activist lost both the CalPERS presidency and his board seat on Dec. 1 after the State Personnel Board voted to replace him as its rep. Harrigan is claiming a conspiracy among business leaders, the California Republican Party and the Schwarzenegger administration.

Since then, Harrigan is hoping his ouster won't stop CalPERS from using its portfolio power to pressure incorrigible corporations and/or their CEOs. But the problem now centers on the pro-corporate Republican cabal trying to remove other CalPERS board members who favor the fund's shareholder activism.

OK, so now back to Iger. Without a Harrigan-led CalPERS continuing to watchdog management, Disney shareholders won't be able to tell the corporate shit from Shinola and Disney's board has been all too eager to make suspect moves when nobody's standing guard. Egads, it's already started with Iger's appointment. First, Corporate America doesn't decide these things on a Saturday night and then announce it on a Sunday. Second, just because eBay co-founder (and Disney alum) Meg Whitman pulled out of the running for Eisner's job was no reason for Disney directors to cut short their candidate search by four months. Third, the board allowed Eisner to sit in on interviews with his prospective successors. Lastly, and most importantly, Iger wasn't the best and brightest for the job.

Iger blathered this week about the importance of "accountability" in his first post-selection interview with The New York Times' Laura Holson. But he said nothing about his responsibility for the fact that a once-great company is now better known for failing, flailing, firing good executives, freeing better ones to find work elsewhere, and fucking with business partners. There's been so much trouble at Disney during Iger's tenure that it's hard to select just one screwed-up area, but let's talk about the most costly: ABC.

In charge of the network before Disney bought parent company Capital Cities, Iger oversaw the slip from first to third place in the prime-time pecking order. (A former weatherman, he was fixated on the bottom line, exemplified by America's Funniest Home Videos, not because it was a quality product but because it was a cheap show.)

Iger remained captain of ABC's sinking ship after Disney bought the parent company. (Indeed, I still recall the joke making the rounds of Hollywood. Question: What's the difference between ABC and the Titanic? Answer: At least the Titanic had entertainment.) Everyone in TV thought he wasn't long for Eisner's world, but Iger's neck was saved by the 1999/2000 TV season when Who Wants To Be a Millionaire? became a short-lived, cheap fix that Eisner, with Iger's aiding and abetting, whipped like a dead horse.

By the 2001/2002 season, ABC had lost its lead, and, like he had in previous years, Iger pledged he was putting his reputation and career on the line if he couldn't turn things around. When it didn't happen in the 2002/2003 season, and certainly not by 2003/2004, Eisner and the rest of the Disney board should have rightfully kicked Iger to the curb, especially after he let Jerry Bruckheimer's TV juggernaut (e.g. CSI, Cold Case, Without a Trace, etc.) slip through his fingers. But Teflon Bob kept his job and even consolidated his power, successfully working behind the scenes to make his flack Zenia Mucha into Disney's No. 1 mouthpiece despite, or was it because of, her rampant reputation as a bitch-on-wheels.

Even now that ABC is finally experiencing an exasperatingly slow but steady turnaround, no reporter is giving Iger the credit. After all, he failed to foresee the success of the network's monster hit Desperate Housewives. (I'm told he didn't want to air the show because he was worried it would be another Twin Peaks: start out strong only to have the plot go nowhere and viewers wander off.) The only explanation for the staying power of this unexceptional executive is that, after the Mike Ovitz debacle, Eisner needed a warm body to present to Wall Street as a possible heir apparent. That Iger looks as great in a Speedo as he does at the podium of shareholder meetings continues to get him pass after pass from the journalists paid to hall-monitor Big Media.

So, OK, if the press won't speak up, I will. This week, the sun is shining on Disney because investors have voted their confidence in Iger by making the stock price rise. But do they know the real story or just the Disney version? Let's go back to another scene of dialogue from Mel Brooks' movie: [Dr. Frankenstein and Igor are exhuming a dead criminal.] Dr. Frankenstein: What a filthy job. Igor: Could be worse. Dr. Frankenstein: How? Igor: Could be raining. [It starts to pour.]

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 cliché 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'̻tre 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 Рtomorrow 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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Have They No Shame?

We've come to expect year-round insane decisions from those studio lunatics, like the fact that sources tell me Warner's at first refused to fund what became its best hope in eons for a Best Picture Oscar. But it's that loathsome time of year again when the inmates take over the asylum, so we're stuck ranting against our own Hollywood lunatics who came out with this week's sanity-defying Oscar nominations. So before we get to my projected winners, I have to ask: What the hell is wrong with you people?

Eleven nominations for a mess of a movie like The Aviator and a monster of a man like Harvey Weinstein is just incomprehensible, as is the snubbing of The Motorcycle Diaries, Fahrenheit 9/11, and even The Passion of the Christ. You hypocrites pretend that the Academy Awards honor motion-picture artistry, while always keeping an eye on popularity to stay in step with Main Street. Yet you overlook the year's three most talked-about movies that had the vision thing. And don't even try to argue that daring subject matter like humanizing commie icon Che Guevara or turning Dubya into a war criminal and Jews into the killers of Christ was too hot to handle, when you were willing to praise films about abortion (Vera Drake), euthanasia (Million Dollar Baby, The Sea Within), genocide (Hotel Rwanda), drug addiction (Ray), paranoia (The Aviator), pedophilia (Finding Neverland) and wild, monkey sex (Sideways).

That said, it's not just that passing on Passion (only three nominations, and only in the non-marquee categories of Art Direction, Makeup and Original Score) flew in the face of everything the Academy is supposed to reward. No other movie this year, rightly or wrongly, was as risky an endeavor, even if it did pay off. (Talk about arty. Much of the movie was made in the Aramaic and Latin languages, with few subtitles. Remember when Dances With Wolves won Best Picture because of its use of Sioux Lakota dialect?) Irony of ironies, because of its prejudice against Passion, Hollywood will have in its arsenal even less ammunition to fend off those anti-Semitic bigots complaining how America's entertainment industry is controlled and contaminated by "The Jews."

As for Weinstein, he appears to have been the beneficiary of an Oscar pity party after getting kicked to the curb by Disney. But I predict Harv's humiliations are only just beginning. (And I'm not only talking about the inevitable lawsuit with Disney over any realistic valuation of Miramax.) Recent history has shown that, while Weinstein can certainly score an Academy nomination, he can't steal the awards anymore. His movies, such as The Talented Mr. Ripley, The Cider House Rules, In the Bedroom and Cold Mountain, have come up virtually empty on Oscar night. I predict that same fate awaits The Aviator this time around. As for Harvey, he may have to rethink his moviemaking formula, which depends heavily on his amply demonstrated ability to sweet-talk talent into working for him for bupkis in exchange for Academy gold. Here's hoping the stupid stars wise up.

Meanwhile, Marty Scorsese deserves this year's Dumb and Dumber award, and I don't mean Best Director. You'd think he would have learned his lesson in 2003 when Gangs of New York was nominated, and he and Harvey were bitch-slapped by the Academy for not only dragging poor old Robert Wise into their over-the-top Oscar politicking, but then deceiving voters by having a Miramax publicist ghost-write a praiseful column on Scorsese that appeared under the beloved wrinkly's byline. (Kudos to John Horn of the Los Angeles Times for busting them on it.) Now, all of a sudden, Robert De Niro is talking publicly that Taxi Driver 2 is in the works with Scorsese. Sources tell me that Raging Bull 2 is also being considered, and that Harvey is going to eventually join Bobby and Marty in this sick joke, along with financier Graham King. (For the record, a Miramax mouthpiece played coy about Weinstein's involvement.)

I'm told this sequel mania is intended to remind Academy voters of all the great movies in Scorsese's body of work. But I think it will have an unintended effect: to remind Academy voters what disgusting moneygrubbers both De Niro and Scorsese have become in recent years, culminating in their even thinking about revisiting two great classic American films just to score a coupla bucks. It's Francis Ford Coppola all over again, and look what happened to him after the critical and commercial failure of Godfather 3. In Scorsese's case, this kind of overreaching is committing Oscar suicide.

I've reported in the past about people on the Miramax payroll launching verbal salvos against Saving Private Ryan and A Beautiful Mind. This year's badmouthing war is targeting Million Dollar Baby, which is up for Best Picture against Miramax's The Aviator. Granted you gotta have steel balls to take on Clint over anything, much less his movie and its euthanasia subplot, especially if you're a dickwad like Michael Medved and the rest of those right-wing wackos. Far more interesting than the usual mudslinging is that word from inside Eastwood's production company is that Warner's did not want to underwrite Million Dollar Baby. (But watch the studio gang preen come Oscar night.) That, more than any heavily financed campaign, should help the movie clinch Best Picture, since it makes Clint's project seem almost indie.

Now, for my peek inside the twisted mind of the Academy.


This ain't Johnny Depp's year, no matter how much we love him. That Leo scored a nomination, undeserved, since it robbed Liam Neeson of a spot for Kinsey, is reward enough for the Miramax machine. In a perfect world, Don Cheadle would win. But he ain't as cool as Clint or fine like Foxx. Now, about that upset. Foxx is expected to win. But who in hell really thought Eastwood could chew up the scenery when most of his contemporaries are gumming their food? Talk that it's the performance of a lifetime is Hollywood code for We'd better give it to the guy now, before he croaks. Foxx has struck just that right ass-kissing "I'm not worthy" chord wooing Oscar voters. I still think Jamie will win in this category, but if he doesn't, he won't come away empty-handed. Keep reading.


Spoiler Alert! In that same perfect world, the dumpy English broad from Vera Drake would be the winner, just like Judi Dench before her. But it's not Dame Imelda Staunton – yet – so forget her. No one on the planet saw Maria Full of Grace. Kate Winslet would have been a shoo-in for supporting, but not in this category. So the contest is between Annette Bening and Hilary Swank. Bening has the sympathy vote down cold. After all, she plays house with a has-been. But hers is a good performance in a lousy movie vs. Swank's good performance in a great movie. Besides, Hilary dies.


Paul Giamatti deserves this hands down, but he wasn't even nominated, because the category isn't called Best Annoying Actor, now is it? Alan Alda is best known as the new Huell Howser of PBS, not as a movie actor these days. With so many good American performances this year, no one's gonna give Oscar to Clive Owen, a Brit. It's between Thomas Haden Church, best known as a dreadful TV actor, and Morgan Freeman, who's played God, the U.S. president and Nelson Mandela. Only idiots would deny him the Oscar. But if that big upset we spoke of earlier happens, Foxx wins for his work in the wrong film, Collateral.


No one plays blind or deaf, although there is a lot of hair dyeing. If the Academy decides to pull a Marisa Tomei, it's Natalie Portman. But I doubt they can overlook her near-career-ending woodenness in Star Wars. This isn't Cate Blanchett's year. And Sophie Okonedo doesn't stand a chance. Laura Linney is Meryl Streep with a nicer nose. But Virginia Madsen will win, because Hollywood loves ex-sex-symbol survivors who, when their careers grew cold, had the good taste to avoid suicide.


There's a reason "hack" is part of his name, so don't consider Taylor Hackford for Ray. Alexander Payne is on the way up and Mike Leigh on the way down. What's needed is middle ground. The East Coast is pulling for Marty. The West Coast is clamoring for Clint. If the Academy trends to Eastwood for Best Actor, they may give Best Director to Scorsese as a sop. If not, Clint wins.


Not in my lifetime will a movie about wine win the Oscar. Finding Neverland should never have been nominated. We'll never know when the Academy will be ready to vote for a black film like Ray, or a blacker film like Hotel Rwanda, for Best Picture. (That's right; I'm saying racism is rampant in Hollywood.) C'mon, this town hated Howard Hughes – there are still actresses who won't admit they slept with him – plus, his Nixon slush-fund contributions make him non-P.C. The voters will cry Million Dollar Baby.

When Big Media Turns Right

On any given day, the major TV networks rarely demonstrate good judgment, much less morality, when it comes to accepting a litany of nauseating advertisements. Hemorrhoid creams. Vaginal ointments. Erectile dysfunction. Army recruiting ads that portray war as a gee-whiz video game. KFC’s claim that fried chicken is the new health food. And, lest we forget, Bud Light’s farting horse during the Super Bowl.

But ads for the Oct. 5 release of the new Fahrenheit 9/11 DVD?

Now that makes Big Media gag.

L.A. Weekly has learned that CBS, NBC and ABC all refused Fahrenheit 9/11 DVD advertising during any of the networks’ news programming. Executives at Sony Pictures, the distributor of the movie for the home-entertainment market, were stunned. And even more shocked when the three networks explained why.

“They said explicitly they were reluctant because of the closeness of the release to the election. All three networks said no,” one Sony insider explains. “It was certainly a judgment that Sony disagrees with and is in the process of protesting.”

And protest Sony did. (Michael Lynton, the onetime Pearson publishing executive who is now chairman and CEO of Sony Pictures Entertainment, has privately told people he hasn’t seen anything like this since his Penguin Group published Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses.) What especially galled the Sony suits was this: The networks had no problem having the DVD ads appear on their entertainment shows so long as the guidelines for R-rated content like Fahrenheit 9/11 were followed. However, Sony executives told L.A. Weekly they wanted only to market the movie’s DVD on CBS’s, NBC’s and ABC’s news shows. “But all three networks said no to straight news,” one Sony exec explained. “Then, suddenly, the networks were extending the definition of news programming to include the news magazines and the morning news shows and restricting access to those as well. That becomes very problematic to any advertiser trying to reach an adult audience.”

Finally, this week, Sony’s protests started having an effect. “We’re now getting movement,” a Sony suit told L.A. Weekly Monday night. Sony corporate senior vice president Susan Tick claimed Tuesday that the initial ban on the morning news shows was lifted, and time on an NBC Dateline had been made available. But she also confirmed that the early-evening news shows are still verboten, and ABC still remains adamant that the DVD can’t be advertised on its PrimeTime Live. Meanwhile, the DVD ads’ status on the other network news shows is murky at best. (Sony execs emphasize that Fox was not part of this cabal — apparently because no Fahrenheit 9/11 DVD ads were planned there.)

Just when we think Big Media’s handling of this election can’t get any worse, something like this comes along and we realize the situation is totally whack.

For all the hundreds of thousands of words broadcast and written about so-called Rathergate, the news of Sonygate hasn’t received any attention at all. Yet here is more bile rising in our throats as Big Media does yet another favor for Dubya. At the very least the networks managed to delay Fahrenheit 9/11 ’s DVD ads for several weeks by claiming they had to consult their attorneys to make sure the ads didn’t fall under the Federal Election Commission rules governing electioneering communications — a bunch of laughable hooey, especially considering the armadas of attorneys already on network payrolls keeping the Election Commission at bay. And speaking of lawyers, how interesting that Big Media spent so much time spanking — or, worse, ignoring — Kitty Kelley’s newly released The Family that dares to criticize the Bushies. When, by contrast, the networks fell all over themselves basically promoting the bejesus out of that Swift Boat book of half-truths and full lies, Unfit for Command. As if, in some parallel universe, the lawyers for Kelley’s publisher, Doubleday/Random House, are inferior to those of the Swifties’ Regnery Publishing.

Where is the level playing field? Gone, thanks to the shenanigans of Big Media. Nor is it an exaggeration to state that the networks increasingly look like they’re doing everything possible to help George W. win re-election. At least that wily old codger Sumner Redstone had the balls to come out this weekend and say what everyone already knows is true: “There has been comment upon my contribution to Democrats like Sen. Kerry. Sen. Kerry is a good man. I’ve known him for many years. But it happens that I vote for Viacom. Viacom is my life, and I do believe that a Republican administration is better for media companies than a Democratic one.”

Like, duh! Who else but Dubya and his FCC frown posse, led by Michael Powell, is never going to meet one media merger after another they didn’t like? And in return for all that conglomeration and consolidation, all Big Broadcasters have to do is fork over minor fines whenever they deflower the virgin ears and eyes of the public.

And with more money to spend on political ads this election year (hell, every election year), the Republicans are helping Big Media climb out of their recession-caused red ink. As Broadcasting & Cable reported this month, ad spending in markets across the country is “flat to down” this year. But thanks to all those GOP attack ads against Kerry and his own spots to defend against them, ad spending, especially in the battleground states, is “through the roof,” up 14 percent to 15 percent.

Once upon a time, large corporations and their executives typically avoided any public discussion of their politics because partisan positions alienated customers and employees. But all of that changed after GE bought NBC in 1986. The NBC peacock was literally flipped from left to right. As the story goes, this was done so the bird was looking forward, not back. Yeah, right. Maybe we should applaud Viacom’s Redstone for being aboveboard about his loyalties. So is News Corp.’s Murdoch. (Forget the little fact that Murdoch’s No. 2, Peter Chernin, has endorsed Kerry, or that Redstone’s co-president, Les Moonves, is an avowed Democrat. It’s meaningless because Murdoch and Redstone are media owners, not renters.)

And Time Warner’s chairman and CEO, Dick Parsons, doesn’t need to articulate his politics since he’s a Republican insider from way back. After Parsons nailed the top score on the New York state bar exam, he caught the eye of the late Nelson A. Rockefeller and even lived in Rockefeller’s compound for a time, eventually becoming a trustee of the former vice president’s estate after Rockefeller’s death in 1979. Parsons also is a former law partner of Rudy Giuliani and even managed Giuliani’s transition into the NYC Mayor’s Office. Who better to have at Time Warner’s helm than a GOP insider when the SEC is investigating your company?

Officially, GE (NBC’s parent company) chairman and CEO Jeffrey Immelt has yet to publicly declare himself politically. But anyone who spends time with him knows which way he blows. “He’s as right-wing as they come,” an insider tells L.A. Weekly . “Just as bad as Bob Wright.”

Wright, now GE’s vice chairman but also NBC’s long-term boss, never tried to hide his Republican partisanship because he never had to. For seemingly eons, his mentor and Immelt’s predecessor, Jack Welch, was a rabid right-winger. Welch used to boast openly about helping turn former liberals Chris Matthews and Tim Russert into neocons. And Los Angeles Representative Henry Waxman is still waiting for GE to turn over those in-house tapes that would prove once and for all whether Welch in 2000 ordered his network and cable stations to reverse course and call the election for Bush instead of Gore that election night.

As for Immelt, he uses all the Republican buzzwords with obvious ease. Complain about GE’s job outsourcing and he labels it “class warfare.” And he declared to Fox News’ business anchor, Neil Cavuto, that he wished his own network’s MSNBC talk TV could be “as interesting and edgy as you guys are. I think the standard right now is Fox.” MSNBC and increasingly CNBC as well are Fox News clones.

In return, Immelt is beginning to bag Republican perks, like appointment to President Bush’s Commission on Social Security. Besides all those lucrative U.S. defense contracts, his GE has snagged $450 million of orders in Iraq alone in 2003, and an apparent $3 billion more over the next few years. Plus, more than half of Iraq’s power grid is GE technology. Even before the fighting there started, Immelt told CNBC it was a GE business opportunity. “We built about a billion-dollar security business that’s going to be growing by 20 percent a year, so we’ve been able to play into that.”

Nor does it hurt that GE recently installed Anna Perez, a former Bush adviser to W. and Condi who also served as press secretary to former first lady Barbara Bush, as NBC Universal’s executive vice president of communications.

Then there’s Disney’s Michael Eisner. As the longtime chairman and CEO, Eisner was never in the league of MCA/Universal’s Lew Wasserman, inarguably the most active Democratic activist of the media-mogul crowd. In contrast to Wasserman’s huge effort to get Hollywood-wide support for Jimmy Carter back in 1976, Eisner, while a Democrat, made just a small personal effort on behalf of the primary campaigns for his buddies Bob Kerry and Bill Bradley.

But that was then and this is now. Disney has turned most of ABC’s extensive radio network and owned-and-operated stations into a 24/7 orgy of right-wing talk. Disney’s chief lobbyist, Preston Padden, is not only one of Washington, D.C.’s most infamous Republican lobbyists, but he used to work for Rupert Murdoch. And Padden was set to use all of his considerable influence in Congress and the White House on Disney’s behalf if that big bad Goliath, Comcast, really tried to gobble up the Mouse House. As a result, no one thought it just coincidental when W. pleaded just days after 9/11 for Americans “to return to the kind of lives we were leading before [that], especially air travel. Get on board. Do your business around the country. Fly and enjoy America’s great destination spots. Go down to Disney World in Florida; take your families and enjoy life the way we want it to be enjoyed.” It was as close to a White House commercial for Disney as any corporation could dare hope.

Then Bush followed that up weeks later with a PR visit to Orlando, Fla., where the Magic Kingdom had suffered a 25 percent drop in ticket sales, where a national photo showed the theme park’s deserted entrance. And since then, in addition to the usual tax breaks from W’s brother, Jeb, Disney World has benefited from special security measures, including extra protection and a federally declared “no flyover zone.”

Given all of the above, when Eisner was replaced as chairman by former Democratic senator George Mitchell, nobody seemed perturbed, not even when Mitchell sounded off in Kerry’s corner during the Boston convention this summer. And why should they since Mitchell is at best a short-timer? And let’s not forget that Eisner had already given the Bushies the biggest gift of all: pulling the distribution plug on Fahrenheit 9/11 even though stockholders were starving for movie-division profits after everything else on Disney’s slate in the first half of 2004 fell flat.

Apparently, Eisner didn’t care that this beleaguered company would miss out on one of the most lucrative films all year. But it certainly made Disney watchers sick to their stomachs. Perhaps Big Media’s advertisers have a cream or ointment or pill to cure that. Not to worry: We hear Moore’s next movie is Sicko, about the health-care industry.

Angel of the Youth Vote

Hollywood is so self-obsessed that it tends to associate words like voting and ballot with Emmy and Oscar, not presidential elections. Only no one ever admits that. Except for Drew Barrymore.

Bizarrely, the actress who’s made a career as the boob-baring, so-crazy-God-knows-what-she’ll-do-next ditsy blond is brutally honest about her past years of political ignorance.

Her naiveté changed after she joined Declare Yourself, a voter registration campaign spearheaded by entertainment activist Norman Lear and aimed at the 18-to-30 demographic that usually sits out Election Day. At a Washington, D.C., rally, Barrymore was asked to make a speech. But she had no clue what to say and felt like a phony. Thus began her journey of self-education and, since this is Hollywood, where any such superstar odyssey is accompanied by cameras, so started her documentary, "The Best Place To Start." The hourlong special was shown on MTV Sept. 21 through 28, Oct. 1, and will be shown again several times before the election.

So why am I writing about this? Well, Drew's people wouldn't take no for an answer (I told them "I don't do celebs" over and over...). And they emphasized that she wanted to be in LA Weekly and not the Los Angeles Times. But, most of all, what makes Barrymore’s small film less than nauseating, and even revealing, is that she doesn’t make herself the center of attention, but rather uses her political awakening to drive a larger narrative about voting in America. It’s also aided by a distinctly nonpartisan message. But, best of all, it’s not often that an actress wants to go on the record describing what a dumb-ass she was.

Nikki Finke: So how stupid were you about politics?

Drew Barrymore: I didn’t have a family that spoke to me about it, and I didn’t go to school. I was interested in literature and films and traveling, and, weirdly, politics or voting was never in the repertoire of things I wanted to study. Being 27, 28 years old and not knowing what a primary or the Electoral College is — I was that person. So I got invited to this rally to encourage young people to vote. And I don’t know what it was in my instinct that made me go do it, because I don’t normally do things like that, because I’m so anti–celebrity on a soapbox. I just don’t think it works for me. And I walked away from this rally saying, I know voting is supposed to be important, but why? I felt like I had cheated myself by going out there and trying to talk about something I didn’t know whether I understood it or not, or whether I even cared about it or not. Certainly, I wasn’t able to articulate it, because I wasn’t educated. I wasn’t informed.

And a writer for the Washington Post slammed you as a celebrity who can’t even put a sentence together on a subject as facile as voting.

Well, you know, she wasn’t wrong.

So, suddenly, you want to make a documentary about it?

I had always wanted to direct a film and just direct anything, whatever. It’s all I’ve wanted to do in my life. It’s all I’ve tried to work towards in acting and producing. This one big goal lay ahead of me. And something inside of me, out of total instinct, picked up the camera and started filming myself. And I started studying at night about our politics, our government, our voting, and the more I grew interested in the subject and tried to understand it, the more I was having fun and enjoying the process of filmmaking. And I started out with this little baby camera in my hand by myself, and eventually I had like a three-person crew, and eventually I had a five-person crew with a professional camera. And there we were, traveling throughout the United States and kind of trying to figure this out for what ended up taking 10 months.

So how did you educate yourself?

The first book I read was on the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. I started there. It was a tough read, and I got through it. Then I asked some of the people I work with to start pulling some statistics. I was finding out all these angering facts along the way, and coming across one in particular. Forty-some-odd million voted for American Idol. No, they can’t bracket the ages specifically. But when you compare that to the 36 percent of voters 18 to 24 who voted in the last election, you think, whoa. That just baffled me. You’re capable of doing this. Why only in this category of the fun stuff are you applying yourself? And then I found that a lot of the stuff I was reading was liberal. So I wanted to go over to the conservative side and see what they were saying. Then I wanted to get away from the opinions of the parties and get down to the brass tacks of what our history was. A few weeks into my research, I was coming across personal stories about a young white man, Andrew Goodman, who went to crusade for civil rights and was killed in the process.

And you went down to Alabama and to the National Voting Rights Museum.

That was my favorite part of my journey. That was the place I always aimed to get to. Selma was the place that affected me the most in my research, because of what people went through there to ensure themselves and everyone the right to vote. The selfless acts they did. I was so inspired and so moved.

And you explored the suffragist movement.

Because of hearing stories about the suffragist movement, and having Bill Maher tell me, which didn’t make the documentary either, that his mother was unable to vote. And realizing that women didn’t have the right to vote until 1923.

It’s unbelievable when you think about it.

It’s fucking crazy. I’m still really not sure that young people understand how recent all of this was.

How much of the documentary did you write yourself?

I wrote all of the voice-overs for the documentary. I tried to keep them very short and, again, very un-opinionated. Except when it came to things about myself. I’m free game with myself.

The documentary shows you on the Wesley Clark bus, during the New Hampshire primary, reading a Washington Post article about you with the headline “Get Off the Bus, Angel” and looking very upset by it.

Well, when I read it, I was really discouraged. My God, this hurts. This feels raw. I don’t want to be a celebrity doing this. I got a lot of those headlines. That just happened to be my favorite one.

And in the next scene, you’re looking out the window, and we see your eyes, and you almost look like you’re going to cry. Was that at the time your reaction to this article?

That was a true moment. I had just gotten off the phone with my publicist, who said to me, “All this shit’s going down. They’re ripping you apart. And they want an explanation as to what you’re up to.” And I said, “I don’t know what I’m up to. I’m up for learning. I don’t want to exploit this.” Because I have this theory that if you tell people what you’re doing before you do it, it takes the air out of it a little bit. I think it goes back to that theory that the more you talk about something, the more you give it away. And I think if I talk about it too much, I could get stuck in a fear of what people think about it. I just want to stay true to myself. So if I’m quiet, I’ll stay closer to my instincts that way.

So you made the decision to just keep your mouth shut and do the work.

I was just processing it in that moment. The thing is that after my first reaction, which was "Ouch," I felt, “This is exactly what fucking politics does to you. It tries to make you feel stupid. And it tries to disenfranchise you.” And I said to myself, “I swear to God, I’m going to do exactly what I’m supposed to do, which is keep going, keep learning, keep staying on this journey. Do not get sidetracked by this bullshit.”

So you think the political process wants to make voters feel stupid.

I can’t figure out why. It’s so ridiculous. You have one side of it where people are trying to disenfranchise and repress voting. Or be so highfalutin that they’re alienating everyone. On the other side, you have the most soulful individuals in our history, doing the most brave things human beings can do within their capacity to ensure and enable the right to vote. And it’s an incredible dichotomy. They should come together. They should not battle each other.

Back to the documentary, I can’t imagine you had a hard time getting people to talk to you, given who you are.

Oh, you’d be surprised. I got turned down more than not. I swear to you, there were so many people who wouldn’t accept us. We had a lot of requests where people were like, “No, I don’t get politically involved.” “No, I don’t have time.” We were turned down a lot. To the people who did show up? God bless them. We were like, “Really, you’ll do us?” We were so bowled over by that. My producer would chase people into the bathroom.

Where did the money come from for the documentary?

I financed it myself.

How much did it wind up costing?

It ended up costing just a couple of hundred thousand dollars. I certainly know that when you look at Michael Moore’s credits, he made certain films for $50,000, and his more recent films have cost in the millions. We all traveled very economically, mostly by trains and automobiles. We all took the cheapest flights we could find. We all stayed in motels, and I can’t tell you how fun that was. We just had a real intimate vibe. Everyone did this for no money. I’m more used to producing anywhere from a $5 million to a $150 million film. You just don’t see people doing things for free that often, even the nicest people in the world.

Oh, please. It’s like, “Sony is paying the tab. We want to go first class.”

Exactly. We tried to keep ourselves at a low-enough budget so that if there was a chance someday, and only when we really had something to present, we could pitch ourselves to some networks. And we got on the network that was our first choice. And we were very lucky, because MTV easily could have said no. And the reason they were my first choice was because they are, in my opinion, the lion’s mouth of youth.

How long did it take you to edit?

Three months. Myself and my three producers were really just new to it, and trying to find our way. So we just kept trying to figure out how to do it. Our first early cuts were good, but we felt that when we really sat back and watched it, there was just no element of the journey. I had been so focused on the other subjects that I had almost cut myself out of it entirely, because, as a director, I wasn’t interested in myself. I know myself. I live with myself. I’m sick of myself. But it really lost the narrative thread. And I also wanted there to be humor and emotion there. So the first cut took a month, and then we went back for another pass for a second month and worked on my journey. We had 80 hours of footage, so by the second month, we were down to a two-hour version. And then, for the third month, we just really spent whittling it down and taking this piece of marble and making a little sculpture out of it. By then we had no objectivity. It crawled up our butts and died. I mean, we were just so stuck in it. And this new editor made us sit down and talk about stories. And he really came in and just helped us hone in.

You had a big learning curve to be a Hollywood producer. Was it the same with producing a documentary about politics?

When I started my production company, and I don’t know if I did it subconsciously or not, it was exactly the way I started this documentary. I funded my own production company for two years, until I felt that we could go to a studio and have something to offer them. When I started my production company, I had been making films for 20 years. But that still doesn’t give you the experience of how a budget works, or how the casting process works. So I went on a learning curve. And I did this documentary exactly the same way. I just like to do things without other people’s expenses and expectations.

And the major difference in making a film versus making a documentary?

The thing that really baffled me about this experience was that I’m so used to working with a script, and using it as a guide, and we did not have anything like that. We only had the opportunity to know what we wanted and to try to capture them and to go to the places we thought they would happen. But you never know. Like when we drove through Selma, we saw people playing at a baseball field. And it wasn’t planned. And I had butterflies in my stomach because I had so much fear of coming in and in any way disrupting anyone’s life or making anyone at all uncomfortable.

It’s a very foreign world from yours.

And I had so much respect for it. I remember that day I was very nervous, and we decided to go stop at the baseball field and interview some people. And it was all spontaneous. And we sat there for 20 minutes watching their game and eventually started talking to people. And that’s where the guy came from who told us he was in the march, and he became like our angel. So we really did things spontaneously. We did things from our hearts. We did things instinctively.

Had this boom in documentaries started yet?

No, none of it. It was really a quiet thing when we started. We weren’t even in editing yet when we saw an early screening of "Super Size Me," and I just walked out of there going, “Fuck, I want to throw in the towel. That is like one of the most wonderful things I’ve ever seen. What am I doing in this world? How dare I even attempt this?”

And your reaction to "Fahrenheit 9/11"?

I went to the premiere. I hate going to premieres, and I ran past the red carpet. I didn’t even want to be photographed. I said, “I’m only here as a learner.” I went with one of my producers, and we just sat there as the credits rolled up. And we looked at each other. And we were just silent the whole ride home. And we went into the editing room the next day, and we were so inspired. And I watched "Roger & Me" a lot while I was making this documentary. And that was a real narrative piece. And then I watched "The Fog of War." And I was just studying documentary after documentary, and being so inspired by what people were doing. I didn’t want to copy, but I was just trying to be more informed. And I’ve always liked documentaries. I just ate them up like a delicious meal all the time.

What was the most surprising thing for you that you captured on film?

I’d say my desperation to have a better understanding of things. I’m just so utterly, gluttonously passionate about wanting to be smarter about things. And the thing that I feel like I learned most from this experience was that politics is about getting to know yourself and figuring out what you want and going out there and expressing that. And there’s a reason that voting is anonymous, because there’s something very alone about it. It was fun for me to share something that, in the end, I learned was very private.

You realize this is all going to hurt your image as the boob-exposing, so-crazy-God-only-knows-what-she’s-going-to-do-next ditsy blond ...

I wouldn’t have expected this of me either. So I can’t wait to surprise myself again. I don’t know what the hell I’ll be up to next, but it’ll be really fun.

Strange Love

Editor's Note: Satire alert.

Griffin Mill’s opening remarks at Wednesday’s Motion Picture Meeting:

We don’t normally start these sessions with a discussion about civilian news. But I’m sure you’ll agree that a change in direction this exciting deserves a few minutes of everyone’s time. I’m pleased to announce that, starting today, this agency is going to break with Hollywood tradition and start boosting George W. Bush’s presidential campaign.

We do not make this decision lightly. But this week, five national polls came out that show Kerry slipping and Bush in the lead. And my wife, who’s in the same Kabbalah class as Mel Karmazin, tells me Don Imus just switched from being an early Kerry supporter to officially “undecided.” So we’re taking this one step further. We’re going to do for Dubya what Warner Bros. is doing for George Clooney: shove him down the public’s throat even if anyone with half a brain can’t stand him.

This may appear like rats deserting a sinking ship, but try to think of it as market-savvy positioning. As Arnie, Bruce and Tom (Selleck, that is) know, this isn’t about being Democrat or Republican; this is about survival. Besides, as an ex–studio mogul myself, I know this is how Hollywood has worked since the days of Goldwyn, Warner, Cohn and Mayer: There’s a long tradition here of kissing the asses of winners and shitting on losers. After all, when Dolgen was in power at Viacom, weren’t we his biggest fans? And when he got the boot, it became "Dolgen Who?" and "Don’t let the door hit you on the way out." And that’s how it should be. As Hyman Roth said in Godfather II, “This is the business we’ve chosen.” And who here doesn’t believe, like I do, that our mentor Michael Corleone voted Republican?

Remember back when we put a million-dollar bounty on the head of Julia Roberts? So I’m ready to pony up $5 mil for each capture of a bona fide Hollywood Republican. Okay, it’s not anywhere near the $25 mil being offered for bin Laden — and still they can’t find a 6-foot-6 Saudi who walks with a cane — but the good news is that Hollywood actors are dwarfish. That makes them easier to wrestle to the ground. For instance, I don’t want Stephen Baldwin leaving the GOP convention without his signature on one of our contracts because we can get him better than Celebrity Mole 1 and 2. Though I gotta admit, I couldn’t remember which Baldwin he was: the pot-bellied one, the sleepy-eyed one, the drugged-out one, the dumb-and-dumber one. My assistant reminded me that he’s all four!

I’m pleased to announce I’ve got the ball rolling already. We’ve just signed Ron Silver for representation in all areas. His speech at the Republican convention on Monday was pure genius. Of course, I didn’t hear it, but I got the coverage. My reader boiled it down to this quote: “I find it ironic that many human rights advocates and outspoken members of my own entertainment community are often on the frontlines to protest repression, for which I applaud them, but they are usually the first ones to oppose any use of force to take care of these horrors that they catalog repeatedly.” I’m not sure what this means, but I think it’s Hollywood-speak for, How come the only part I could get recently was as a pornographer in a Fox series that Rupert’s boobs cancelled after three episodes? We’ve got to do better by Ron. If Mel Gibson makes that movie about the Maccabees, I see Ron as King of the Jews.

I also saw Bo Derek before the Republican convention. I hear she’s worried about an interview she gave to Alan Murray on CNBC’s Capital Report supporting marriage only for a man and a woman. Let’s immediately start to find Bo a new hair and makeup artist, preferably someone from Salt Lake City, or someone Amish. Ask the tools at UPN.

Angie Harmon was also hanging around. Does anybody know what’s she been up to since Law and Order? See, that’s what I’m talking about. We could have put her up for The Hours. Nicole isn’t the only pretty face who can wear a fake nose and win an Oscar.

My spies tell me that Lara Flynn Boyle is the new Gwyneth of the GOP and, unfortunately for us, just as poisonous at the box office. And congrats to the TV talent department for getting still another Republican actress, Shannen Doherty, back to earning commissions for us. She’s going to be a wonderful addition to the Las Vegas cast. Or is it Hawaii? Not that one either? It’s North Shore? Is that even a show? Oh, it’s on Fox, no wonder. Let’s see if we can get Republican Rick Schroder some quick cameo work as his character’s evil twin on NYPD Blue. Bochco would love to kill him all over again.

It’s our belief that our new “right is right” attitude will prove effective in luring other clients who’ve previously been in the closet about their conservative politics. Did any of you read that recent article in Details magazine about the Republican Party’s “bubblegum star power” in Hollywood? No one? Of course, we must look upon the piece with skepticism since legal tells us that the author, Ruth Shalit, was busted for cribbing when she wrote for The New Republic. How perfect that she’s writing about the biz now.

According to the article, the GOP is claiming Freddie Prinze Jr., Jessica Simpson, Nick Lachey and Mandy Moore. No high-fiving just yet. Because Mandy’s publicist went postal and told Shalit, “Mandy is not, nor has she ever been, a Republican.” The wording of that statement sounds really familiar, like dialogue from that old Sydney Pollack/Bob Redford flick, The Way We Were. I smell remake, with Mandy as Babs, fighting the 9/11 Commission which wants to blame W. for everything, and Adam Sandler as Redford. You haven’t heard that the article claims Sandler and his entire production company are rednecks, I mean, Republicans? Who better to support a born-again Christian president than an actor who got famous for singing “The Chanukah Song?”

Not that this new strategy is not going to have setbacks. We told the Bushies to ask Britney Spears to the convention after she said this to CNN’s Tucker Carlson about the war in Iraq: “Honestly I think we should just trust our president in every decision he makes and should just support that, you know, and be faithful in what happens.” But the damn religious right — I meant to say our friends from Bible study class, which from now on will be mandatory — didn’t want no slutty-dressing, Madonna-kissing whore parading around with them. Too bad, I wanted to go after the Bush twins next.

Outfoxing the Conservatives

He's as creatively talented as Michael Moore and even more of a political activist, but to this point practically unknown by comparison. Now, though, his documentaries are about to become just as controversial as those of Moore. He's Robert Greenwald, the Hollywood movie and television director/producer/provocateur. Unlike Moore, Greenwald stays behind the camera, but suddenly this week his name is everywhere because of the ambush-style release of his latest documentary, "Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism."

After premiering Tuesday in New York (it's set to debut July 19 in L.A. with a live introduction by Howard Dean), the expose has Dick Cheney's favorite news network snarling at Greenwald, at The New York Times (which, on Sunday, published a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the video), and at its fictitious nemesis, the "biased liberal media." Journalism and political Web sites, not to mention that trade bible, Editor & Publisher, are following the attacks and counter-attacks with undisguised glee. (Except for the Washington Post's media reporter Howard Kurtz, who is not just leaning over backwards but actually tying himself into contortionist knots to take Fox News' side, probably because Kurtz knows he could be accused of conflict of interest since he still has that shameful "Reliable Sources" gig with rival CNN.)

Yet, this is only the start of what will be a hat trick for Greenwald this year.

His 2003 video, "Uncovered: The Whole Truth About the Iraqi War," is being expanded into a full-length documentary feature with added footage and global distribution for release in mid-August right before the Republican convention. ("I'll personally offer free tickets to delegates who are bored of listening to canned speeches and happen to be poor," taunts Greenwald.)

In September, Greenwald comes out with the third in his "Un" series of documentaries, "Unconstitutional," which purports to look at how the Bush administration has cynically used the 9/11 tragedy to erode civil rights and quash dissent. Meanwhile, his first installment, "Unprecedented: The 2000 Presidential Election," is praised as a video primer on the precise mechanisms used by the Republicans to steal the White House.

"Doing these documentaries has just taken my faith in movie-making to a whole other level," he tells L.A. Weekly, "because when you make a film that doesn't put people to sleep, the response is extraordinary."

All well and good, but the question remains: Why in the world would someone as successful in the entertainment industry as Greenwald jeopardize everything he has worked so hard to build – his career, his reputation, his finances – to dabble in the dirt-poor field of documentary-making? And not just in can't-lose, do-good documentaries on say, American Indians or Holocaust victims – but down-and-dirty, let's-get-those-sons-a-bitches, provocative-on-purpose-and-to-the-max documentaries.

After all, this is no newcomer like Moore who, when he burst on the scene with the anti-corporate Roger & Me, had everything to gain and nothing to lose. By contrast, Greenwald easily could have – and still can – become blackballed by the Big Media networks and studios whose bottom lines depend upon toeing the lines drawn by the FCC, the FTC and the Bush administration. He'd already run afoul of Wal-Mart, the world's single biggest seller of show-biz product, when the chain giant's supplier refused to carry "Uncovered." That is, until a big stink was made about Wal-Mart stocking videos of Leni Riefenstahl's Nazi propaganda film, "Triumph of the Will." So the supplier buckled and bought 2,000 copies of "Uncovered" to sell online.

"By doing this, I've saved all this time in therapy," jokes Greenwald, who'll be 59 in August and is the father of four. He's only half-joking.

Born and raised in Manhattan, educated at Antioch College and the New School for Social Research, Greenwald came from a family of psychologists: his father, his mother, even his brother and sister. "I was the only one who went to the other side," he laughs. After setting up a career in New York theater, Greenwald moved to Los Angeles 25 years ago and transitioned into directing at the Mark Taper Forum. Though some of the plays had political messages, he was a long way from thinking of himself as a full-fledged activist.

"Yes, I had been working with prisoners in New York and out here, but I wasn't particularly politically involved then. And, while I certainly cared, what I did wasn't taking 80, 90 percent of my time," Greenwald says. "Then two things kicked me into this next gear."

First was the death of his father, who had been part of the civil rights, anti-war and labor movements and who had been following in the footsteps of his father, who'd been an organizer for the barbers' union. "So, that got passed down. And I consciously wanted to take some of the best things my father gave me and build on them," Greenwald explains. "One was a commitment to social justice. It wasn't like orthodoxy or a specific political agenda. It was just an assumption that if you're able to, you work for social justice for everyone, not just yourself."

Then came 9/11. "Right after, I felt this enormous isolation. Because so many of my countrymen and women responded so quickly with rage and revenge, none of which I felt was going to make us safer. And I wanted, in whatever small way, to work against that ferocious militaristic response both emotionally and practically and create alternatives," he says.

By this time, he'd made some 40-odd feature films, television movies and miniseries – interspersing such forgettable work as "Katie: Portrait of a Centerfold" in 1978 and "Xanadu" in 1980 with "21 Hours in Munich," a 1976 drama about the terrorist murders of 11 Israeli Olympic athletes; "The Burning Bed," a 1984 wake-up call about battered wives; and "Steal This Movie," a 2000 biopic about Abbie Hoffman. During this period, he won every major professional award except an Oscar.

Greenwald had never done a documentary when he took on "Unprecedented." But "doing it gave me enormous satisfaction knowing it was something I really believed," he explains. "Because democracy is not a spectator sport; it's a participatory sport. People in a democracy should be involved."

Meanwhile, he'd worked and made pals with Hollywood's most out-there celebrity activists, like Martin Sheen (whom Greenwald directed in three films) and Mike Farrell (whom Greenwald eventually produced in the 2003 CBS movie "The Crooked E: The Unshredded Truth About Enron"). When the invasion of Iraq was being debated, Greenwald didn't just voice his opposition in the safety of Arianna Huffington's living room salon. Instead, in December 2002, he joined with Farrell to start the Hollywood anti-war group Artists United To Win Without War.

At first, only 10 celebrities signed the call for peace. Soon, though, Artists United's membership expanded to dozens of celebrities, including Sean Penn, Susan Sarandon, Tim Robbins, Ethan Hawke, Jake and Maggie Gyllenhaal and Kirsten Dunst. Its opponents argued that all this star wattage seemed childish, even churlish. But they took notice when the actors' fortunes paid for newspaper ads and TV spots, and their fame attracted invitations to speak at anti-war rallies and on cable news. Led by Greenwald and Farrell, Artists United fought back against right-wing attempts to have its members blacklisted by Big Media and its advertisers.

Greenwald also joined with activist/music industry exec Danny Goldberg to launch a politically progressive publishing company, RDV Books. Among other projects, they co-edited "It's a Free Country," an anthology on civil liberties post-9/11.

Given the serious drought besetting what was once his lucrative bread-and-butter work – made-for-TV movies that paid at least $200,000 producing fees – Greenwald may have inevitably expanded into another line of work.

"It's hard to get any TV movie made now. If it's perceived as serious, it's even harder," he says. "But if we're making a film that's political in a system that's based on profit, we can't complain, 'Oh, poor me.' Our job as creators of this material is to present to the powers-that-be how it can be successful in terms of profitability." Even so, he says his documentaries, which cost on average $250,000 apiece to make even though almost everyone above and below the line volunteers, wind up costing him money.

"Unprecedented" was financed in part with pittances from and the Center for American Progress and other liberal groups, and the upcoming "Unconstitutional" received ACLU help. For "Uncovered," Greenwald had to take out a personal loan to cover extra costs until enough DVDs were sold so he could pay it back. In June, more sales meant Greenwald could send 1,000 copies free to those military families who've bravely spoken out against the Iraqi war, and provide 10,000 gratis for DJ Phatmike to hand out during punk band NOFX's tour. "Whenever there's a little bit of money, we use it to expand who sees the film," Greenwald says, explaining his guerrilla-style distribution system.

Still, the question must be asked, especially since his "Uncovered" is soon headed for movie multiplexes where Fahrenheit 9/11 may still be playing: Does Greenwald feel competitive with Moore? "Maybe there's a part of my unconscious that is," he admits. "But consciously, I am thrilled for him. I think Michael is the real deal: committed, provocative, smart. And Fahrenheit 9/11 is a great film. We both want to tell these stories that the primary media is not telling. There's certainly room for everybody."

Poker with The Simpsons

So everyone not in showbiz is focused on the final episode of Friends Thursday. Admit it, didn't we in the know stop watching ages ago? When Rachel was still blond? And Joey still svelte? They may have gotten older and they may have gotten fatter, but they did it together, always negotiating en masse so that no one actor could be picked off come contract time. More recently, The Grim Programmer had been threatening to pull the plug on that cooler cast of TV characters -- Homer, Marge, Bart and Lisa.

The voices behind the animated Simpson extended family learned from Friends that there was strength in numbers, but their negotiations still turned into a true bloodletting because Fox at first assumed that since the characters were animated, the actors behind them were expendable.

Even though there wasn't any yelling and screaming or Ovitz-ian "You'll never work in this town again," the implied threat was always hanging in the air like a guillotine, not just for the actors, but also for their reps. Bargain too hard and, to paraphrase Bart, your shorts will be eaten. Not only would the plug be pulled on the Fox series, but also on a Simpsons appearance scheduled for the 2005 Super Bowl. (Yes, these things are planned that far in advance.)

It was so tense at one point that, when the two sides broke for lunch, they sat at opposite ends of the studio commissary. (The actors' reps plotted how to get Fox to pick up the tab, but they couldn't even persuade the suits to do that.) There were final offers, absolutely last final offers, and positively and absolutely final, final, FINAL offers. And when it was nearly and mercifully over last Friday around 7 p.m., about a dozen different Hollywood toughs hung on the phone together for as long as 45 minutes and, to kill time, told agent and lawyer jokes.

That was the situation behind the scenes at the bargaining to renew the contracts for The Simpsons' six principal voice-over actors: Hank Azaria, Nancy Cartwright, Julia Kavner, Dan Castellaneta, Harry Shearer and Yeardley Smith. All had lawyers, most had managers, a few had agents, and some even had multiple lawyers, managers and agents -- 20 or more in tow. After nine years of staggering the contracts, Fox had somehow let the actors' pacts expire simultaneously six years ago. Two previous collective bargaining episodes -- in 1998 and 2001 -- had been bumpy, sure, but nothing like what happened when the contracts expired at the end of 2003. "Before, the actors had a different resolve. But now the The Simpsons was the longest running sitcom ever, and the show was making history," explained one participant. Months of on-again/off-again talks had stalled, culminating in a March 19 letter from Fox stating, in effect, we don't think these negotiation are in our best interest and we're suspending them. Now Fox wasn't even returning the reps' calls.

A flurry of small press snippets, obviously planted, began portraying the actors as ungrateful SOBs who were striking, walking off the job and refusing to attend readings because they weren't being paid gazillions for their so-called one-hour-a-week's worth of work. This followed a series of threats that the actors would all be replaced. Furious and getting more furious, the thesps realized they were losing the PR war. After all, they had started on The Simpsons earning just $3,000 an episode. (One insider groused, "The guy who gets the coffee at Fox gets paid more than that.") So they hired the crisis ghouls at Sitrick and Company and had a few of their reps sit down with The New York Times. The newspaper's April 14 article announced to the world, and most problematically to Wall Street, that The Simpsons family had their yellow feet almost out Fox's door.

Now the stakes were huge -- not just the actors' livelihoods, but also for what parent company News Corp. chairman Rupert Murdoch often greedily refers to as "Fox's greatest single asset." That was backed up by a forensic accounting report paid for by the actors, and then pooh-poohed as inaccurate by Fox, that The Simpsons represent a $2.5 billion pot of platinum. Though the name of the accountant who prepared the study was kept secret, Fox nevertheless suspected one guy and read him the riot act.

Also looming was a supposed May 1 deadline because the Writers Guild contract was ending, and even though negotiations were continuing to prevent a strike, the show felt it had to lock up writers by then if there was going to be another season. On top of that, the upfronts would start 16 days later, and before the network could present its fall schedule to advertisers in an orgy of presentations and parties, Fox had to lock in The Simpsons. Finally, and most bizarrely, the series' voice-over actors had to record their characters' 2005 Super Bowl bits like, yesterday, so the animators had enough time to create magic, baby.

Little wonder that the weeks of phone conferences were torturous enough to bring on irritable bowel syndrome in each participant.

Add this to the litany of horrible negotiations in Hollywood's rich and sullied history of horrible negotiations. In the days of the studio slave system, renegade talent and their reps were blackballed. In more recent times, TV moguls have famously kicked to the curb "money-hungry" stars like Suzanne Somers, Valerie Harper and nearly Don Johnson.

Then, like now, every bargaining quagmire is a headline. We all know that the last Sopranos negotiation for James Gandolfini went down to the wire. NBC tried to convince the Seinfeld cast to accept parent company General Electric stock options. Frasier's renewal talks were going nowhere until NBC's then-West Coast head Don Ohlmeyer stepped out of the Betty Ford clinic and into negotiations. Taking it to an extreme, Law & Order and its spinoffs replaces actors rather than negotiate. It's all symptomatic of the way in which Hollywood has gone from creative to corporate.

"It boils down to credibility. The trust is gone," said one participant. "Now it's playing angles, getting an edge, and a handshake is useless in this business unless you're doing business with friends."

Today's arid Hollywood landscape has made every studio and network and production company even more tightfisted in this ad-challenged environment. And while no negotiation with any of the suits is ever pleasant, dealing with Murdoch's bunch in business affairs is like having a root canal without Novocain.

But this is Hollywood, and no one's claiming to cure cancer here. Which is why these negotiations are like a game of five-card stud, all about who's bluffing, who's buying the pot and who's leaving money on the table. "If you memorialize the process of playing poker, and let everybody else at the table know how you played your hand," one participant explains, "that makes you a less effective poker player for the next game. It's simple pragmatism."

The New York Times PR salvo had its intended effect. A day after the story, Peter Chernin, News Corp.'s number two, told the actors' reps that even though the article had damaged the negotiations "beyond repair," he was nevertheless going to meet with Simpsons producer James L. Brooks to save the day. Twenty-four hours later, Fox put an offer on the table. But, before that could happen, Brooks' ICM agents demanded the actors send Brooks a letter of apology for putting their interests ahead of the Simpsons "community," including writers and animators. Grudgingly, a non-apology apology was sent.

Over the next two weeks, inch by inch, point by point, the negotiations began to move, culminating this past Thursday in that all-day face-to-face at Fox, followed by a one last-ditch effort by the flop-sweated reps to see if more money could be wrung from Fox. It could. By the time of the Friday night conference call, the mood was more of relief than revelry. No, despite their clamoring, the actors did not win any lucrative back end percentage. Nor did they improve their credits issues, like asking for their names to come at the start of the program (instead of the close), and to appear somewhere on the DVD box (they're not on the packaging, although the names of guest stars like Jose Conseco and -- yikes! -- Michael Jackson are). But they did double their salaries (reportedly from $135,000 to $250,000 per episode) and they did get a signing bonus. Over the weekend, an email from Nancy Cartwright, (the voice of Bart among others) sent kudos all around: "Although we didn't get everything we were going for, we certainly made HUGE strides, not only for ourselves personally, but for the entire voice-acting facet of the industry."

Just a few days later, on Tuesday, a Fox business-affairs honcho let it be known that he wanted the actors' signatures on their contracts in two days max, before the scheduled table reading.

"They don't trust us," one rep said with the kind of sadness that, in Hollywood, you can take all the way to the bank.

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Dave the Brave

Leno may be the ratings winner. Stewart is the critics' darling. But, day in and day out, Letterman is the hands-down leader when it comes to unabashed Bush bashing. One reason is that his Late Show has the brass balls to go where the cowardly White House news corps and corporate suck-up Leno fear to tread: presenting Dubya in all his dumb-ass glory.

During their work week, executive producer Rob Burnett and his octet of writers often begin their morning by wondering, What's George W. doing today? So they glance through his schedule and look for an interesting presidential public appearance. Then they contact CBS News or the local affiliate for the Bush raw footage and examine it in a process that often induces stupefying boredom. "We start out having no idea it will yield anything," Burnett tells L.A. Weekly. "We put it on only if it's funny. It's not, 'Oh, it's Wednesday and we need Bush footage.'"

But the end result is really something. Enough fodder for the show to spotlight snarky segments like "George W. Bush: Inspiration to America" featuring the president flippantly telling a classroom, "Look, I didn't like to take tests either, but that's too bad." Or, wearily listening to a business speech, nodding like a bobble-head doll and repeatedly checking his watch. (Déjà vu, anyone? Remember Daddy Bush checking his watch during the 1992 debates, a move that helped cost him the election?)

This past Monday, Dave's people labeled a segment "Who Does George W. Bush Remind You Of?" and, while Hail to the Chief played loudly in the background, Shrub, talking about taxes, was shown stuttering, "the market . . . the market . . . the market . . .," followed by a cut to a cartoon starring Porky Pig.

These undoctored snippets show Bush being Bush: a stumbling and fumbling orator, a why-can't-I-just-take-the-money-and-run campaigner, or worse. This, of course, is in stark contrast to what happens to the footage once it's edited by the news media. Miraculously, Bush's actual inarticulate ramblings or arrogant posturing are prettied up to the point where he's made virtually coherent and semi-mature.

Just look at the startling difference between Bush reading a prepared text at the start of his April 13 live news conference and the long pauses, repetitive phrases and overall pathetic-ness of his replies when he tried to parry the press during the Q&A portion. But by the time the footage reached the nightly news, Bush seemed and sounded smooth. In his monologue Letterman even joked about the president's poor performance: "Bush's press conference was such a big deal that Fox pre-empted American Idol. That makes sense: You don't want too many amateurs on TV the same night."

Which is why Letterman's Stupid President Tricks segment is so deliciously subversive: because it's truthful. Truthful, at a time when the news media are engaged in unsettling arguments over how much unvarnished truth about the war in Iraq -- from footage of the desecration of American victims in Fallujah to photographing the rows of coffins of U.S. soldiers on their sad voyage home -- is palatable to the public. Truthful, when Bush's image makers have been editing the official White House transcripts to make the president and his people sound more presidential. (Remember that low point in the aftermath of 9/11 when Bush mouthpiece Ari Fleischer warned that Americans "need to watch what they say"? Those Big Brother tactics were edited out of the official White House transcript.) Truthful, when the Bush administration has been purging government-issued facts and statements, like last year's deletion from cyberspace of the gross understatement made by the head of the U.S. Agency for International Development that U.S. taxpayers would not have to pay more than $1.7 billion to reconstruct Iraq, or like the gutting of a chapter on global climate change from a 2002 government study on the state of the environment.

It's this kind of hypocrisy that the Letterman show is headlining. And the White House is noticing. (So is W.'s daddy, who recently got all teary-eyed about how "It hurts an awful lot more when it's your son that is being criticized." Didn't Republicans accuse Clinton of murder, thievery, fraud and rape?) Hollywood remains a huge headache for all the president's men, and not just because the TV-movies-music industry gave 78 percent of its millions in political donations to Democrats in 2002. The Bushies hate the anti-Bushisms creeping into prime time on Whoopi and Law & Order and Curb Your Enthusiasm (where Larry David backed out of sex when the prospective partner turned out to be a Bush supporter).

So it stands to reason that Rove et al. fear Leno and Letterman because the duo proved pivotal last time out. A Pew Research survey before the 2000 presidential election found that almost half of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29, and more than a quarter of all adults, often gained their info about the campaign from late-night comedy shows. "I don't think this is the place you want to get your news, but it's probably more entertaining than other places," Burnett tells the Weekly.

Yes, the openly liberal Jon Stewart's Daily Show has more Bush bashing quantitatively but not necessary qualitatively. Besides, his cable audience is at best minuscule. Leno, meanwhile, damaged any aura of political impartiality he may have claimed when he slobbered over Ah-nuld's California gubernatorial candidacy and then emceed Schwarzenegger's victory party. The Letterman folks were aghast. They knew that Jay had taken a step where no host had gone before. Johnny never would have done that. But they also knew it was quintessential Leno, that he runs The Tonight Show like a political campaign. When he sees something hot, he jumps on it. Forget reputation and credibility as a host: Jay wanted to get a nice number. It's Leno vs. Letterman in a microcosm: Jay leads in the ratings, but Dave has the legacy and Emmys. And a lock on inventiveness, like having a Nobel Prize winner tell "You might be a redneck" jokes in a recurring bit recently.

Leno was steamed when L.A. Weekly, the Washington Post, and The New York Times accused him of political partisanship following l'affaire Arnold. But shortly after I blasted the comic for becoming yet another Republican political pawn, one of Leno's best friends in comedy assured, "I think you got it correct." There are reasons Leno turned right. First, of course, was 9/11, followed by the invasion of Iraq. Add to that the May 2001 departure of The Tonight Show's so-called vice president in charge of monologues, longtime head writer Jim Brogan, who at one time worked for the late, ultra-liberal New York Congressman Allard Lowenstein. Finally, those incredibly lucrative corporate gigs that book Leno for $100,000 to $150,000 each (plus a chartered jet) where the fat cats don't want to hear anything bad about the guy cutting their taxes. (These events, along with his Las Vegas appearances, allow Leno to boast he can bank his Tonight Show salary.)

Both Leno and Letterman wished Clinton could have a third term, and while Jay is still flogging really old blow-job humor, his Bush jokes aren't nearly as biting as Letterman's. Even Dave's tired Top Ten lists include more truthfulness about the Bush presidency than most newspapers' front pages: Top Ten Signs Bush Is Considering Dumping Cheney: "When Cheney says, 'We're gonna win in November,' Bush snarls, 'What's this we crap?'" Or, Top Ten Surprises in President Bush's Address to the United Nations: "Usual smug smirk even smugger and smirkier." Or, Top Ten Questions You're Afraid To Ask Condoleezza Rice: "What kind of job will you and Bush be looking for in January 2005?"

Burnett claims his show operates in a completely apolitical atmosphere even though Letterman introduces the Bush-bashing segments with obvious glee. Says Burnett: "As close as I am to Dave, I honestly have no idea what his politics is. I know he votes religiously, but I don't know who he votes for." As for the Bush bashing, the executive producer shrugs it off: "There's no agenda. We're not a news show and don't have the need to convey information."

But as Stupid President Tricks has gained in popularity, it's become more controversial. Witness the March brouhaha between Letterman, the White House and CNN over the accuracy of footage of a Florida Republican organizer's kid hilariously yawning and squirming while standing behind Dubya at an Orlando campaign appearance. "It was one of those 'You're not going to see that anywhere else but on Dave' kind of moments," Burnett recalls. His team noticed that Bush had a speech scheduled and couldn't find anyone national covering it, so they went to the CBS affiliate in Orlando for the raw footage. Then a writer said, "Hey, look at the kid in the back."

After the video of Orange County, Florida, Chief Executive Rich Crotty's dead-on-his-feet son Tyler aired under the title "George W. Bush Invigorates America's Youth," CNN reported it had been told by the White House that the child was edited into the video by the Letterman show as a joke and was never standing directly behind the president.

Dave went Full Metal Jacket. He stared into the camera and called the White House assertion "an out-and-out lie" not once but twice. Then he warned his viewers, "When you cast your vote in November, just remember that the White House was trying to make me look like a dope!"
Immediately, everybody backtracked, CNN apologized and the White House was cleared of ever having complained. But the Letterman folks still believe the Bushies did try to attack Dave. When Letterman made a stink about it, the White House turned and ran. (Tyler was a guest on Dave's show and scored cans of Red Bull.)

It's not easy bashing Bush in today's political climate, especially when the FCC has the Big Media Behemoths by the tin balls. Just look at what's happening to Howard Stern, though Howard's longtime Infinity boss, Mel Karmazin, now Viacom's number two, is fighting those indecency fines. (Interestingly, now that Howard has gone from supporting Bush to bashing him, WBCN in Boston claims 72 percent of its Stern listeners say they'll vote differently because of it.) Right now on the web site there's a behind-the-scenes video clip headlined "Human Kleenex" from an appearance by Bush on the Letterman show. It reveals Bush, during the commercial break, leaning over and, without asking permission, wiping his eyeglasses on the sweater of one of Dave's female producers. "That's how arrogant our president is," notes the Web site, which doesn't say how the footage was obtained.

Unlike Leno's Tonight Show, which is owned by NBC, Letterman's Late Show is owned by Dave's company, Worldwide Pants, which affords him near-total immunity from corporate pressure. But to Viacom's credit, says Burnett, "They leave us alone. They know better than to tell Dave what to do. They know it's futile."

Box Office Bonanza

In a semihilarious Back Page send-up in The New Yorker, Steve Martin imagines studio notes to Mel Gibson. Besides trying to change Mary Magdalene's first name to Heather ("could skew our audience a little younger"), mogul "Stan" suggests: "Could the rabbis be Hispanic? There's lots of hot Latino actors now, could give us a little zing at the box office. Research says there's some justification for it."

Imaginary or not, this may be the first time a studio note was even remotely right.

L.A. Weekly has learned that, according to research exit polls, The Passion of the Christ is attracting a gargantuan 40 percent Latino audience in the cities tested. Until now, there has been only anecdotal evidence that Latinos, as well as Asians and African-Americans, are flocking to the film. The research shows that Latinos are rating Passion higher than does any other ethnic group, and 76 percent say they're inclined to pay to see the movie again. Not only do 86 percent of Latinos say the film is excellent, but 80 percent say the movie is better than they expected. And while a whopping percentage of the overall audience says they would definitely recommend it, that figure among Latinos is a startling 91 percent.

For too long now, Hollywood moviemakers, who have forced on us countless casts of blond and blue-eyed bimbos and himbos, have been stumped on how to appeal to Latinos, the largest ethnic minority in the country. Is Hollywood idiotic or what? Here, television empires have been built on the gazillion dollars flowing from Latino viewers. G.E. even bought Telemundo because of this. Yet it's been eons since La Bamba and Selena were big hits, and Jennifer Lopez is the first genuine Latina movie superstar (though probably not for long, post-Gigli), even if Salma Hayek and Rosie Perez are far more talented. But Chasing Papi, released a year ago, was a surprise bomb for 20th Century Fox despite high hopes for the low-budget, high-concept comedy. And Latino-themed small films, like Empire and Real Women Have Curves, barely registered a blip at the box office. There is, however, hype for Columbia's Spanglish coming later this from James Brooks and starring Adam Sandler and a Latina newcomer. This, at a time when African-American movies are making major crossover numbers.

So here's Mel, not just pulling in Latinos but even Latino families. He did what no one else has been able to. Frankly, it never occurred to the godless Hollywood liberals -- as the folks at Fox News Network and wacko right-wing Web sites refer to us -- to use religion as bait for Latinos. And it never occurred to the Democratic Party, pal of most Hollywood filmmakers, to embrace Gibson or his movie. Big mistake. Huge! Because in the 2004 presidential race for Latino votes, any advantage at all could be the difference between winning and losing.

Instead, the conservative propaganda machine is embracing Gibson and The Passion with, well, passion, and it's become a cornerstone of the Republicans' strategy to divide this country culturally between the supposed elites they're so fond of criticizing (tell us, are the rich who get all of Bush's tax breaks not also the elite?) and just regular Americans, whom they presume to be on their side along with God. GOPers who never found anyone in Hollywood they liked besides Ronald Reagan (and, barely, Ah-nuld) are fawning over Mel and his movie because they smelled a hit in the making. They smelled right: You can't argue with a box office that will hit $250 mil this weekend.

In one fell swoop, Republicans established a strong bond with the most religious members of those ethnic groups who are supposed to vote Democratic (even if right-wing Republicanism is overwhelmingly anti-immigration). Is that enough for Bible-thumping Latinos, African-Americans and Asians to change political sides? It may not matter: Just having made such a significant inroad could be enough for conservatives to build on in the future since Latinos are expected to grow to 14 percent of the nation's population in 2010, and half of that population is younger than age 26, and 40 percent is under 18.

In turn, Gibson was brilliant in the way he courted conservatives, first by showing the movie to groups of Republican and Christian VIPs (often one and the same; though it took him ages to show it to Jewish leaders). Then he announced their reactions to the film on the widely read Drudge Report, first stop on the conservative media bandwagon. On the ultra-right-wing, meanwhile, Gibson's book about the film is selling for "just 99 cents! That's right, save $24 off the cover price! Just order this book below and accept a four-month trial subscription to NewsMax Magazine." Elsewhere on the site, a Web poll invites you to weigh in on Gibson, and a news section keeps track of all the anti-Passion articles and reviews in the so-called liberal media.

While estimates put the free media given Gibson and Passion at $50 million to $80 million (double even what most films pay for promotion and advertising), the Fox News Network has been Mel, Mel, Mel almost 24/7. Just look at what, of all people, Fox News political analyst Newt Gingrich had to say about the film and its significance: "I think all the way back to the election of Ronald Reagan, there's been a real gap between what The New York Times and CBS News think they can accomplish and what the average American believes in, talks about, listens to . . . You're seeing with Mel Gibson's movie an enormous outpouring of Middle Americans who are organizing themselves, talking to each other, using the Internet, watching Fox News, listening to radio talk shows, coming together, despite the elite media and despite the best efforts of CBS News and The New York Times. And, as a result, this is clearly the most successful film ever launched in February, and my guess is it's going to continue to expand and grow in its impact around the country."

Yes, it's true that Bill O'Reilly has injected a note of caution by pointing out that, even though entire families are going to see the movie, Passion, because of its R rating, may not be suitable for young children. On the other hand, O'Reilly is so sycophantic in his coverage of Gibson and so forgiving of the movie that he's virtually replaced Alan Nierob, of Rogers & Cowan, as Mel's personal publicist. (At one point in an interview, Gibson and O'Reilly joke about going out for ice cream later. Gag us with the spoon.) Little wonder why: Gibson has optioned O'Reilly's rather forgettable novel, Those Who Trespass. Mighty Christian of him.

Boycott the Oscars

As they said during the Vietnam era, "What if they gave a war and nobody came?" So think of the significance, with this insoluble invasion of Iraq coinciding with the insipid Oscars, if they gave the biggest awards show in the world and nobodies came.

By Wednesday, neither ABC nor the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences nor the rest of Hollywood made plans to even delay this Sunday's broadcast of the always-narcoleptic ceremony -- not with commercial time selling out a month in advance, the average price for a 30-second spot approaching $1.4 million, and mega-more dollars generated globally for all the studios with Oscar winners. Instead, the powers that be rolled up the red carpet so everyone creeps in the way of the Kodak Theater. This decision not only cancels all that live-arrivals hoopla covered by 500 media outlets and consumed by the world, but it also effectively muzzles any impromptu soapbox speeches by the anti-war celebrities.

What a wake-up call! Just one more reason why star activists should boycott this 75th Oscars. Kick the infotainment conglomerates and the companies who advertise with them where it will hurt the most: in the wallet. Big Media -- because its moguls promote the war agenda of the Bush administration (whose FCC just happens to be deciding the fate of further media consolidation) while its on-air talking heads ridicule those actors who oppose the hawks. Corporate America -- because Oscar sponsors like American Express, Anheuser-Busch, Charles Schwab, General Motors, J.C. Penney, MasterCard and PepsiCo exercise too much power over the kind of content going out to the public.

Imagine an Academy Awards stripped of all glitz and glibness, that is nameless and faceless, that is muted and mute. Moviemakers could make their biggest statement by shocking everyone and not showing up, or stopping by and not saying anything at all.

Think of the world tuning in to the sight of silence: a night of peace amid war.

Think of all the fleeing viewers and lost moola.

It could give new meaning to the battle phrase "shock and awe."

The Weekly has learned that, already, several prominent past Oscar winners are secretly organizing a symbolic protest for that segment when the show gathers all of the living honorees of the acting awards onstage to commemorate its diamond anniversary. A few have already told friends they're planning individually not to participate; several others are trying for a mass walkout. The Academy and producer Gil Cates are clueless.

As for the actors: damned if they do, damned if they don't. Showing up in borrowed Tom Ford threads and Harry Winston gems while U.S. bombs rain down on Baghdad will only reinforce the world's image of the Ugly American. Even dressing down will be deemed hypocritical. Besides, once the fighting starts, all will be decried as unpatriotic Americans, morale blowers for the troops, traitors to the country, by the Limbaugh-Hannity-O'Reilly-Elder-Prager-
Coulter-Ingraham-Savage-Scarborough cabal of conservatives who control the airwaves. The time is right for the moviemakers to grab back the microphones and simply lay them down Oscar night.

The 4-month-old Hollywood anti-war group, Artists United To Win Without War, isn't proposing an Oscars boycott. But it's vowing to keep its activism going.

The Weekly has learned that Artists United will be distributing its own lapel pin -- a peace symbol inside a circle -- to be worn at the Academy Awards. Dustin Hoffman, Ben Affleck and Julianne Moore are among those already committed to wear it.

"All of us support the soldiers so much we want them to come home," says one of the spokesmen, actor Mike Farrell (M*A*S*H). "We continue to believe the war is wrongly imposed, inappropriate and unnecessary. Having said that, we understand the duty of people in uniform is to obey their commander in chief. So we support the troops -- in spite of the fact we believe the commander in chief to be wrong."

When the acting community's anti-war sentiment began to be organized by director-producer Robert Greenwald in December, he had only 10 celebrities as signatories to a call for peace. A small news conference was held at Hollywood's Les Deux Cafe.

To everyone's amazement, the French bistro was jammed with global media.

Soon Artists United's membership expanded to 50, then 75, then 100, now even more. Its opponents argued that all this star wattage seemed childish, at best churlish. But they took notice when the actors' fortunes paid for newspaper pages and TV spots opposing a strike on Iraq, and their fame provided invitations to speak at anti-war rallies. Then cable called on Sean Penn, Jessica Lange and Janeane Garofalo -- who came up with the Zeitgeist-iest zinger: "I would much rather they talk to Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn, who certainly know a lot more than I do, but I have access to the media."

People, Us and MTV led the glam clan clamoring for interviews with Young Artists United founders Jake Gyllenhaal, his girlfriend Kirsten Dunst and his sister Maggie, whose anti-war Sundance Film Festival chatter led to talk-radio comparisons to Jane Fonda.

With anti-war activism threatening to look cool again, conservatives sought to close down the actor backtalk. In February, suspiciously worded polls surfaced claiming 80 percent of Americans were not being swayed by celebrities. Artists United's Greenwald demanded the surveys be reworded to measure who became aware of anti-war sentiment as the result of exposure to something said by a celebrity. "That's the key," Greenwald insists. "If you frame it that way, we have touched millions of people."

To counter Martin Sheen's TV spots, right-wingers funded ads starring ex-Senator Fred Thompson, now the new D.A. on Law & Order. Articles claimed NBC was worried that President Bartlet's activism was watering down West Wing's ratings, while Visa pulled those popular card ads starring father and son Marty and Charlie. (Little wonder that once-upon-a-time similarly embattled Bill Maher looked straight into the camera on his new HBO hour and begged, "Lay off Martin Sheen!")

At the Grammys, musicians were warned to keep their mouths shut about politics, so Sheryl Crow had to content herself with a "No War" guitar strap. But this is the Academy Awards, where a long line of bigmouths have had their say on big issues, from Susan Sarandon (Haiti) to Richard Gere (Tibet) to Sacheen Littlefeather (Native Americans). And this is the sector of show biz that generates the most buzz.

Or at least it did. This year's Oscars was over before it ever began. The Fat Man sang early. With Chicago a sure thing, there was hardly a nasty down-to-the-wire campaign to cover, since, with producing credit on four out of the five Best Picture nominations (Chicago, Gangs of New York, The Hours, Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers), Harvey Weinstein couldn't get medieval with himself. (That would have been sadomasochism, and the Miramax magic is all about causing pain to others.)

For a brief time, there was the faint smell of an Oscar upset by The Piano. But it was wishful thinking or swamp gas. You've got to hand it to Harv: He'll have a near-sweep. Too bad it's increasingly likely the hosannas hound will just be a picture-within-a-picture competing for TV time with U.S. military leaders at that new $200,000 Hollywood-created set for the U.S. Central Command base in Qatar (courtesy of top Tinseltown art director George Allison).

If that happens during the broadcast, then The Fat Man becomes one very small footnote, even more so if there's one very big boycott by the movie community. As they also said during the Vietnam era, "We had to destroy the village in order to save it."

Email Nikki Finke.

All About Me

No wonder the rest of the country hates Hollywood. It doesn't take much to see that the entertainment industry's non-cash contributions to the post-9/11 world don't amount to a hill of beans, to use "Casablanca"'s World War II-era parlance. Remember last September's celebrity telethon for the terrorist victims? It turned into a one-time gig whose afterglow was destroyed by ranter-for-ratings Bill O'Reilly. And how about last October's confab at USC's Institute for Creative Technology, where legendary and/or cutting-edge screenwriters and directors all tried to top one another devising doomsday-terrorist scenarios? That group never met again. "I'd say we had most of it covered. But a few things they thought of were unique," Army chief scientist Mike Andrews said. Like what? "I'm not going to tell you."

Which brings us to Hollywood 9/11, that committee dominated by big-media suits and led by Jack Valenti, the chief lobbyist for the Motion Picture Association of America. P. Diddy keeps better track of his posse than Valenti, whose office claims he doesn't keep a list of Hollywood 9/11 members. Perhaps there's no need since those much-touted conference calls have dwindled from twice a week to once a week to every two to three weeks, and accomplished so little that the supposedly major successes anyone mentions are the timely delivery of first-run movies to soldiers everywhere, some PSA spots spurring volunteerism, and sporadic show-biz visits to warships and military bases. (Just what Osama bin Laden fears the most: fossilized producer Jerry Weintraub and the cast of "Ocean's Eleven" entertaining the troops live and in person).

Even in this town, where failure is an art form, that's a lousy track record. Little wonder Valenti's leadership of Hollywood 9/11 deserves more scrutiny. (Valenti went AWOL for a scheduled phone interview with the LA Weekly.)

"Everybody had their own ideas about what they thought it would be. But Jack has been nothing but a great driving force in all of this," insists panel member Rob Friedman, vice chairman of Paramount Pictures. "I still haven't seen anyone else stand up." That anyone even takes Valenti seriously is a bigger mystery than the recent renewal of his reputed $1.2 million-a-year contract to preside over a nonsensical film-ratings system and fight the puerile perils of online piracy. Still a spry anachronism with French cuffs and silver pompadour, Valenti, who turns 81 on September 5, was expected to do a slow fade as soon as Lew Wasserman took his last limousine ride. But then all jostling for Jack's job was postponed when Valenti found a new protector in Viacom chairman and CEO Sumner Redstone, who also is determined to rule forever.

Valenti wasn't included when, back on October 17, a grassroots Hollywood gaggle including creatives, TV honchos, the guilds, the academies, even agents and craftsmen, met with three Bush administration operatives in the conference room of entertainment überattorney Bruce Ramer's law firm. At the time, the 9/11 sentiment was strong and the ideas symbolic, like when "Bobbie G" (Bob Gale) said pal "Bobbie Z" (Bob Zemeckis) wanted to remake Frank Capra's "Why We Fight" film series to stir the public's patriotism. Friedman's boss, Paramount Pictures' movie chieftain Sherry Lansing, was unable to attend because of a schedule conflict with a meeting of the California Board of Regents, where she is vice chairman. Sources say it was her relationship with fellow Regents board member Gerald Parsky, a Los Angeles venture capitalist and George W's controversial political point man in California, that took Hollywood-Washington cooperation on the war on terrorism to the next level with senior Bush adviser Karl Rove. Next thing anyone knew, a meeting was scheduled November 11 at the Peninsula Hotel, with Lansing and Parsky seated at the head table with Rove and Valenti, who saw to it that, while Redstone and other Viacom/Paramount execs sat in first-class, most of the other Hollywood moguls were relegated to coach.

Sources say that Valenti hijacked the Hollywood 9/11 publicity process even before the start of the meeting when his office wrote a news release on MPAA letterhead containing Rove's seven talking points, a direct Rove quote and other information -- none of which had been vetted in advance by the White House. A journalist alerted some Hollywood Republicans to Valenti's shenanigans. Then, as soon as the Peninsula meeting ended, Valenti grabbed the spotlight again by handing out another press release about what had just happened to the waiting media. "It was a true Hollywood moment," one attendee recalled. When a week later the Los Angeles Times ran a suspiciously timed story quoting Hollywood creatives as questioning whether the Bush administration would keep repeated promises to take content off the table in 9/11 talks, sources say Valenti was suspected as sparking the report.

So what happened? One theory is that Valenti, a lifetime Democrat, was intent on protecting the interests of his party by keeping conservative guru Rove at arm's length from the entertainment business to ensure the 9/11 cause didn't translate into Republican cash. Even hardcore Hollywood Democrats admit that, in the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks, and for months afterward, a lot of rhetoric poured from big Democratic donors in praise of Bush -- though a year later, these same fat cats who now find their stock options under water blame Bush for the drowning economy. Another equally convincing explanation is that Valenti was merely doing what he always does: taking his marching orders from the powers who pay him that gargantuan salary and whose egos have to be constantly placated. "By all accounts, that first meeting was a disaster because the wrong people were in the room. Which is why you saw a follow-up meeting with Valenti that attempted to bring in all the studios at a much higher level and engage in a more productive and meaningful dialogue," said a longtime Democratic operative in the entertainment business.

This would mean Hollywood politics wasn't at work; it was Hollywood elitism, which is worse. And this explains why the output of Hollywood 9/11 was so feeble. What a huge mistake to take this campaign out of the hands of creative people and into the maw of the infamous studio and TV-network systems known for skewering every new idea and slowing to a crawl all progress forward. "What do they mean 'the wrong people'? The whole idea was inclusion, and that remark speaks to exclusion," complained veteran screenwriter and director Lionel Chetwynd, a well-known Hollywood Republican and new appointee to the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities. "It's like they tried to fight a war with only generals and not ground troops."

Chetwynd blames Valenti for this: "Jack's agenda is the industry agenda with a capital I. But some of us who work within the industry with the small i wanted to be part of something to help America too."

Maybe it was a fantasy to think that national tragedy could show the entertainment industry at its most noble. Or maybe it was just Jack Valenti taking a cue from Rick in "Casablanca", who said aptly, "I'm the only cause I'm interested in."

Media Salesmanship or Snake Oil?

Nothing about the current fervor to fight corporate sleaze is more amusing than the notion that big media and entertainment will obey the Leahy Amendment. Attached to the Senate's accounting-reform bill and sponsored by Vermont Democrat Patrick Leahy, the provision establishes a new 10-year felony for any attempt to defraud shareholders through "scheme or artifice." Now, those are vague terms -- too murky, probably, for most business executives to wrap their minds around. But to a media magnate, they amount to a philosophy of management.

This is, after all, an industry in which perception has always mattered more than reality, in which the salesmanship has been more important than the contents of the snake oil, and which has produced a string of polished con artists, from Steve Ross to Jerry Levin. Speaking of AOL/Time Warner, take the example of fall guy Bob Pittman. The real reason that the onetime MTV and Six Flags showman was shoved out as COO last week is because he saw the company's future ad-revenue glass as half full when, in fact, it was leaking buckets. (As opposed to onetime politician-lawyer-banker Dick Parsons, still in place as CEO for seeing the glass as half-empty and admitting "I'm desperately in need of a strategy" to a group of Ivy League business students trying to figure out how to fix the media giant as its stock price was tanking in April.)

Yes, Pittman was in denial. But there has never been a successful mogul who wasn't. It's a job requirement. Remove the hucksterism from big media and entertainment, and what's left is celluloid and videotape. It's unimaginable what could happen if optimism were reinterpreted as artifice and the pitchmen ended up being punished.

But we can dream, can't we?

A reverie of platinum handcuffs, say, for that rich idiot Edgar Bronfman Jr., who just this January patted himself on the back for steering his patriarch's liquor empire into the entertainment business, then handing the reins of Seagram's/Universal to a French water-and-sewer company. "At the end of the day," he boasted to Forbes magazine, "I had to do what was right for shareholders." Yeah, they gave Edgar a big high-five when the stock dropped from $60.28 to $13.40 after Vivendi's Jean-Marie Messier messed up big time. Now it may be the authorities who'll decide whether Vivendi accounting, which shrunk Seagram's $6 billion mega-empire to a pittance, was just engaged in a bit of family fun, or in some real finagling.

Or a dream of a Pirates of the Caribbean–themed jail for Disney chairman and CEO Michael Eisner and his henchman, president and COO Bob Iger, for slowly but surely bringing the Magic Kingdom's stock price back down to its post–9/11 low. The twosome keep promising they'll fix foundering ABC prime time and California Adventure, but don't know how. They pretend to the press that losing the Pooh lawsuit isn't possible; then, after 11 years of litigation, Disney informed shareholders -- on May 15, in a quarterly 10Q filing with the SEC -- that an adverse judgment could mean damages totaling "as much as several hundred million dollars" or worse. And even though recently departed executive Steve Bornstein was Disney's designated fall guy for the dumped, Eisner should be on the hot seat for buying forerunner Infoseek in the first place, at the height of the Internet boom, â hyping how the portal was the Second Coming for Mickey and friends, then taking a second-quarter charge of $790 million in 2001.

Or of an exile to a Survivor deserted island filled with angry shareholders for Viacom No. 1 Sumner Redstone and No. 2 Mel Karmazin, who took home obscene $15 million paychecks in 2001 even though the company's stock price kept (and still is) falling. True, a special hell should be reserved for these head honchos, who hurled barbs at those mere mortals having the temerity to confront the duo at Viacom's May 23 stockholders' meeting. But Redstone especially, being the prince of self-promotion, should have to pay the biggest price, for destabilizing Viacom stock on Wall Street by privately badmouthing Karmazin to both The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal last January and once again roiling the successorship issue at Viacom.

Or of a cellmate like American Idol's Simon Cowell for Rupert Murdoch, because of his embrace of nepotism after his recent disclosure to the Financial Times that he will one day place his $64 billion News Corp. in the still questionably capable hands of his two sons -- at a time when eldest Lachlan, 30, is about to take the stand in an Australian courtroom to explain his role investing $320 million of the corporation's money in a now-collapsed telco. (Full disclosure: I am in a legal dispute with Disney and News Corp.)

So much blundering, so little bluntness. We still don't know what "restatements" the media conglomerates will have to make in their accounting before the SEC-ordered August 14 deadline, when every chief executive officer and chief financial officer at the nation's biggest companies has to swear under oath, in writing, that the numbers in their corporate financial reports are correct. Let the perp walk start here.