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Horsefeathers II

The Wall Street Journal came. So did the Washington Post and wire-service reporters. A dozen TV cameras filled the back of the room. The ordinarily overlooked Keck Auditorium at Occidental College brimmed to capacity. As the U.S. attack on Afghanistan slid into its third week, a panel of experts prepared to tackle the thorniest of issues. Veteran movie director Sydney Pollack, West Wing creator Aaron Sorkin, Traffic producer Ed Zwick, How Stella Got Her Groove Back director Kevin Sullivan and seasoned producer Sean Daniel sat busily distracted on the dais, scrawling last-minute notes.

The camera lights switched on like a barrage of Bengal flares as syndicated columnist Matt Miller, who organized the Oxy forum, took the podium, hushed the crowd and, staring steely-eyed at his assembled panel, asked them the question that has haunted so very many of my sleepless nights since last month’s bloody catastrophe: What impact will September 11 have on Hollywood?

I was hoping that Daniel would answer first. How could the collapse of the Trade Center towers not leave some sort of indelible, fiery brand on the aesthetic of the man who brought us not only Animal House and The Breakfast Club, but also The Mummy and The Mummy Returns?

And yet, it was West Wing‘s Sorkin who spoke up. ”Everything has changed,“ he said glumly. A rather strange response, as Sorkin had been having trouble with random airport suitcase searches even before September 11. But after that date, Sorkin continued, ”Actors, writers, directors . . . all became instantly irrelevant.“

Perhaps. But, somehow, I don’t think so. I took notes during the rest of the panel discussion, but it was damned hard to follow any thread. Occidental College had long ago been used as a set in the Marx Brothers‘ classic Horsefeathers, and this discussion could have made a nice sequel.

The word confusion seemed to roll repeatedly off the lips of the assembled glitterati. Confusion as to what they would write or produce or direct, or be able to sell to ranking studio and network executives, who, they suggested, were, no doubt, even more bothered, befuddled and, yes, confused. Especially about what audiences would plunk down $8.50 a head to see after September 11. Which means that, in fact, probably nothing at all has changed in Hollywood.

Except, of course, how the studio executives are dying to cash in on the patriotic surge without its becoming too obvious. Not much of a change there either.

Sydney Pollack provided the few moments of clarity. ”The worst thing possible,“ he said, ”is everyone in Hollywood will now try to rush out and try to do something about [September 11].“ In other words, the last thing any of us really want to see is a Hollywood movie -- or, God forbid, a TV movie -- about 911.

From Sydney’s lips to the ears of all the Suits taking meetings at The Ivy.

But we may not be so lucky. Neglected by any reporting in the L.A. Times, more than three dozen film and TV executives, producers, and various Hollywood hangers-on huddled behind closed doors last week in Beverly Hills with White House officials to chart what role the entertainment industry might play in the new war against terrorism. Organized by two Hollywood conservatives, producer Craig Haffner and writer Lionel Chetwynd, the confab drew Peter Roth, president of Warner Bros. TV; Les Moonves, chief of CBS Television; the presidents of HBO Original Programming and HBO Films; the president of programming for Showtime; the chair of the TV Academy of Arts and Sciences; and former flying nun Sally Field, among others.

Said CBS honcho Moonves after the meeting: ”I think you have a bunch of people here who were just saying, ‘Tell us what to do. We don’t fly jet planes, but there are skill sets that can be put to use here.‘“ Well, yeah. Bin Laden, you won’t be eating lunch in this town anymore -- not so long as Moonves has you sequestered in Development Hell.

But the Hollywood Brigade has more grandiose plans. Perhaps, as in WWII, they could make some earnest training films. Or documentaries (you know, the category they want to cut out of the Academy Awards). But mostly the Hollywood contingent says it wants to help the Bush administration ”get out its message,“ to do a better job on selling America‘s image abroad. Maybe then so many people around the world will stop hating us.

All of which leaves me rather confused. I’ve always thought Hollywood, more than any other institution, did a great job of accurately projecting true American values. And that‘s why I suspect the world would be a safer place if we started sending those folks over there fewer, rather than more and improved, episodes of Baywatch. On the other hand, if you’re among the 60 percent of the world population that has never made a phone call, or the 50 percent that gets by on less than a dollar a day, maybe 13 episodes of Married With Children dubbed into Urdu is precisely what‘s needed to lower the hostility level.

Either way, I confess profound doubts about Hollywood’s efforts to meld productively into the war machine. I‘m not convinced that very many of us want to crowd the cineplexes on Saturday nights to watch Adam Sandler in updated versions of Why We Fight. And one thing Hollywood has taught us well is that profit always trumps patriotism.


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