Exorcising Demons

What a week it was. But not because of Sunday’s Oscars, which will go down in history as arguably the worst ever. It’s as if everyone involved got together, gave the secret fraternity handshake, and conspired on how to lose the public’s confidence in the ability of the movie industry to amuse, intrigue or generate one genuine laugh. To what lengths must we go to make this broadcast at least sufferable? File a lawsuit asking the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for those three and a half hours of our lives back? Put a stop to The Billy Crystal Show that went from his self-promoting seven-minute movie to his even longer singing overture, all to announce “I’m back” when no one even noticed he’d been gone? Ban Ben Stiller from the show in perpetuity because he’s the unfunniest small white guy on the planet next to Danny DeVito?

For chrissakes, it doesn’t take an army of Hollywood moguls or a lone gunman to fix the show for next year. First, let Jason Biggs emcee, since his Diet Pepsi commercial during the broadcast was funnier than anything inside the Kodak Theater. Next, have a paparazzi reel so Us and E! can’t hog the best video of Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt looking disheveled and desperate trapped inside their $75,000 Range Rover. Then, stop giving honorary awards to wrinkly geriatrics who can barely breathe, let alone mouth coherent acceptance speeches. (Just recall 1991’s downer deathbed footage of Satyajit Ray.) Instead, start doling it out to young-pretty-healthy actors like Jessica Biel and Chris Klein for being able, so early in their brief careers, to walk, date other young-pretty-healthy actors and recite lines at the same time. Finally, show us the money — unveil what each of the year’s movies cost and ultimately took in at the box office. That kind of Hollywood humiliation is guaranteed to be a laugh riot.


Instead of talking about Adrien Brody and his Binaca blast, or Bill Murray and his televised temper tantrum, everyone partying post-Oscar in Hollywood was consumed with the past: Mel Gibson and his fixation on events that happened 2,000 years ago, and Michael Eisner and his secret 1996 letter to Michael Ovitz.

It’s because Mel Gibson rediscovered his religious faith that we’re stuck with The Passion of the Christ. A normal person would have spent time working out his problems by talking to a psychiatrist, or at least a priest. But this is Hollywood, so Gibson made a movie of his angst and inflicted it on the rest of us. God bless Gibson’s right to make and distribute whatever movie he wants, and the non-goyim’s right to refuse to see it. Too bad, though, that Gibson’s Passion is feeding many Hollywood Jews’ paranoid nightmares — you know, the ones where the entire Christian world hates us Jews for “killing” Christ (though such Super Jew bona fides are undercut by having shiksa wives).

The notion that some moguls who run Hollywood will not hire Gibson, as The New York Times claimed last week, is ridiculous. Let’s get this straight: Actor-director, singlehandedly responsible for a multitude of hit movies, won’t be hired by executives and officers of public companies whose duty it is to make the stock price go up? Boys and girls, can you pronounce the phrase “shareholders’ lawsuit”? Or, because of the attempt to blacklist, “You’re being sued”? Anyone who doesn’t believe this town would do business with Hitler if he could guarantee a $40 million opening weekend is hopelessly naive. And all because they dislike the movie’s content or Gibson’s sit-down with Diane Sawyer? How come we didn’t hear a peep from any bigwig in Hollywood about Quentin Tarantino’s head-splitting Kill Bill violence while they’re skewering the violence in Gibson’s take on the Passion play?

But that sort of hypocrisy is hardly rare for Hollywood. Since everyone’s dwelling on the past, it calls to mind the Jane Fonda–Michael Cimino controversy. There was Hanoi Jane, virtually blacklisted by the studios after devoting herself full-time to protesting the Vietnam War and alienating much of her moviegoing public, having to wait until 1977 and Julia before becoming a bankable star again. So she used her rediscovered clout to get backing for the anti-war saga Coming Home. Fonda’s pet project earned eight Oscar nominations, but it was competing against the nine nominations for Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter, which showed GIs captured and tortured by the Viet Cong. That both films were up for Best Picture took on an allegorical significance and exposed Vietnam’s bitter scars. Outraged that anyone from the Hollywood community could make anything that wasn’t an outright condemnation of the war, Fonda branded Cimino a racist and Pentagon dupe. But, when the dust settled, Cimino took home five Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director; Coming Home captured three, including Best Actress and Best Actor. Now that’s a proper demonstration of creative freedom, Hollywood-style.


Vietnam, the son of God . . . it’s all about exorcising demons. Which brings us to last week’s disclosure of the 1996 Eisner-to-Ovitz letter, in which the Disney chairman complains about his then-president’s incompetence, mendacity and arrogance. More than that, the two Hollywood antichrists are shown to truly deserve one other. (For more background on Eisner-Ovitz, see "Eisner’s Embarrassment" [February 21 - 27, 2003].)

That it involved two of the most hated men in town and that its release came just days before Disney shareholders’ referendum on Eisner during this week’s annual meeting in Philadelphia only made the missive all that much juicier and more scandalous. And while the tattling was aimed at Ovitz’s hijinks, the tittering was about Eisner’s utter lack of judgment in hiring the jerk in the first place.

What few people know is that Eisner received from people he trusted many warnings not to hire Ovitz. The most illustrative came from Joe Roth, who at the time was running Disney’s movie and television business. Roth had been on vacation on Martha’s Vineyard when he received word from Eisner just days after the Capital Cities/ABC merger announcement. “Joe, I want to tell you that I’m going to have a president, and I think I’ve hired someone,” Eisner said. Roth was shocked to hear it was Ovitz.

Roth immediately flew to Aspen to meet alone with Eisner. There, he tried hard to convince the Disney chairman that he was making a big — perhaps the biggest — mistake in his life by bringing in Ovitz.

Eisner was taken aback by Roth’s intensity. After all, weren’t Ovitz and Roth pals? Hadn’t Ovitz done Roth’s Caravan Pictures deal at Disney a few years earlier? There was a discussion about agents and studio heads, both general and specific to Ovitz. Roth opined that Ovitz wouldn’t know how to operate in the corporate arena. But Eisner was adamant. Sure, their goals were different across the negotiating table, but “Mike can change,” Eisner argued. “He could be like Lew Wasserman, who went from an agent to a studio head.”

“No, he can’t,” Roth replied.

Eisner wouldn’t budge.

“Well, I hope you’re right,” Roth said. “I don’t want to piss
on this.”

Roth flew on to Los Angeles, resigned to the idea that Ovitz was coming to Disney and resolved to give Eisner the benefit of the doubt.

Later that day, a transatlantic phone call tracked down Roth. On the line from a yacht in the Mediterranean where he was vacationing was power attorney Jake Bloom. “So, let’s do Brad Grey’s film deal,” Bloom bellowed cheerfully, referring to the well-known manager.

“What are you talking about?” asked a puzzled Roth.

“Brad’s film deal. You know. Ovitz called me about it,” the lawyer replied.

“I don’t know anything about it,” Roth said.

Roth barely knew Grey. Though Grey is a great piece of manpower, Roth had never been pitched by him in the 15 years Grey had been a manager. More to the point, Ovitz was treading on Roth’s turf before the new job was even announced publicly. Roth phoned Eisner pronto. “Six hours!” fumed Roth. “SIX HOURS! That’s how long it took Ovitz. Do you still think he’s going to change?”

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