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The NYT Goes Way Off-Broadway and Other Big Hits

The Los Angeles Times ain’t taking it lying down: Its management is fighting back from its talent losses to the NYT. Today, the newspaper named recently hired TV critic Carina Chocano as its new movie reviewer, and show-biz columnist Paul Brownfield to be Chocano’s replacement as TV critic. Meanwhile, Los Angeles magazine’s star writer Amy Wallace confirmed to L.A. Weekly that she is being considered for the key entertainment industry beat position vacated by the NYT-defecting Michael Cieply. The moves come just days after LAT managing editor Dean Baquet went ballistic upon learning that Cieply was next in line to be body snatched by the NYT.

Chocano’s job switch follows the LAT’s recent loss of film reviewer Manohla Dargis to The New York Times. In many ways, Chocano has the same pop-culture sensibility and edgy writing style as Dargis, which may well be one of the primary reasons why the LAT selected her. Also, Hollywood can breathe easy because Chocano has real-life movie experience: In 1997, she directed a short film, Samuel Beckett Orders Out, which was screened at the Los Angeles Independent Film Festival and elsewhere. As for Brownfeld, he joined the LAT as a TV reporter back in 1998, so he’s a beat veteran.

The LAT also stole away the well-regarded New York Observer features editor Maria Russo and gave her the new Calendar title of assistant entertainment editor for criticism. Russo will report to Calendar’s deputy entertainment editor Betsy Sharkey, who leads film coverage and helps oversee television reporting.

Chocano was hired by the LAT in October 2003 after a tortuous and prolonged hunt to replace Pulitzer-winning television critic Howard Rosenberg. Candidate after candidate turned down the position. The paper even lost columnist Brian Lowry to Variety when he wasn’t offered the job. It got so bad that TV editor Jonathan Taylor had to camp out at the July meeting of the Television Critics’ Association and then begin interviews by saying, "We don’t want to get burned again. So we want to know that you’ll take the job before we offer it to you." Judging from that experience, if it was to fill the movie critic’s job quickly, and then the TV critic’s slot after that, the LAT knew it would have to look in-house for both candidates.

When the LAT first hired her, Chocano was an Entertainment Weekly staff writer and critic, and well known on the Internet as the TV critic at Salon.com. There, the former children’s-CD-ROM writer rode the reality-show wave to fame from 1999 to 2003. A 1990 Northwestern graduate with a B.A. in comparative literature, Chocano wrote Do You Love Me or Am I Just Paranoid?, a book published last year and billed as amusing relationship advice for the perpetually entangled, and contributed to a humor anthology, More Mirth of a Nation. Her work will appear in the forthcoming Border-Line Personalities: A New Generation of Latinas Dish on Sex, Sass and Cultural Shifting.

Kenny Turan will continue, an LAT memo said, as "our cinematic eminence."

Brownfield, a UCLA graduate, has long been a favorite of LAT deputy managing editor John Montorio, even before receiving the showplace "Here and Now" column. Returning to the TV beat, it’s assumed he’ll display his trademark humor. He’ll critique alongside former L.A. Weekly reviewer Robert Lloyd. Russo, a veteran New York City–based editor and writer, has a Ph.D. in English and comparative literature from Columbia.

"As you know, recent decisions by (soon-to-be-former) colleagues have left us with a couple of empty critical chairs. Where others might have seen only loss, we also saw an opportunity to create significant new showcases for two of our own most gifted writers and thinkers, and to augment our talent pool by recruiting for them an editor of equal brilliance," Montorio said in the announcement memo. "These appointments are the first in a series of initiatives designed to take our already strong entertainment coverage to even higher levels as the summer progresses."

There’s no anarchist facing execution, no convict escaping from prison and no journalist hiding in a desk — yet. But this Los Angeles Times vs. New York Times war is beginning to mimic that madcap classic about newspaper rivalry The Front Page. Given the defections of four superstar journalists in one week, LAT editors are understandably mad as hell at the NYT. Last week, cool, calm and collected LAT managing editor Dean Baquet threw a temper tantrum upon learning that entertainment industry editor-writer Michael Cieply was even considering a job offer from the NYT. So Cieply went on the lam to the L.A. Times’ famed Globe Lobby and paced around deciding his future.

What was all-out war went nuclear on Spring Street last Friday after the NYT pillaged Cieply to be its new movie editor, robbing the LAT business section of a prized byline. “It was just an absolutely great job. It was a life opportunity. And anybody in my spot in my life who didn’t look at that would be crazy,” Cieply told L.A. Weekly on Monday. (See our Web Exclusive.)

 

In just seven days, the NYT had also body-snatched film critic Manohla Dargis, music business writer Jeff Leeds and architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff. But Cieply’s departure was filled with intrigue. Cieply’s pals say he received a phone call two weeks ago inviting him to come to the Big Apple on the NYT’s tab and lunch with culture news editor Jonathan Landman. Cieply told LAT business editor Rick Wartzman about the overture. Instead of chaining Cieply to the computer, Wartzman said to check it out.

The informal meeting turned into a full-court press, with Cieply led around the NYT offices for meetings with newsroom managers. He left with a job offer but no specific salary. The position would be a big promotion for him; at the LAT, he supervised only half a dozen writers, whereas at the NYT he would be the movie czar, period, with anyone covering film and the film industry reporting to him.

Meanwhile, all hell was breaking loose back at the LAT because of the NYT’s poaching. Hearing Cieply might be next out the door, Baquet went ballistic. After all, the LAT managing editor himself was a NYT defector: he'd been national editor when he left in 2000 and promptly organized a "Go West" migration of a handful of prominent reporters and editors from the paper. Now, the exodus was back to the East, so Baquet's anger may have stemmed from wounded pride.

The buzz around the business section had Baquet threatening to throw Cieply out of the building or, at the very least, insisting Cieply go home pronto until he’d decided what to do. That’s when Cieply sought refuge in the Globe Lobby. Calling on his cell, Cieply told Landman that if the money was good, he wanted the job.

At that point, Cieply wasn’t sure whether he was supposed to stay or to scram. Wartzman didn’t know either. So Cieply left. (It may be hyperbole but his pals say he fled so quickly he left his jacket behind.) He wrote his next story from home. Finally, Wartzman gently suggested Cieply pack up his office over the Fourth of July weekend when the bosses wouldn’t be there to see him.

Cieply declined L.A. Weekly’s request to discuss or fact-check the circumstances of his departure. “I’m not going to talk about the process. There’re some mangled details there, and Baquet never said to leave the building. It was much muddier than that.”

A veteran of Forbes and The Wall Street Journal, Cieply was in the midst of his second LAT stint. In the early ’90s, he left a high-profile job in the LAT’s Calendar section after having too many run-ins with then-in-charge Shelby Coffey III, known for his Industry cronyism. Telling friends he’d rather work for whores who at least knew they were whores, Cieply tried moviemaking. But after a decade he found the taste of Hollywood failure far worse than any frustration journalism could dish up.

He was coaxed into overseeing the L.A. office of Inside.com. When the start-up flopped, he wrote freelance articles for Esquire, The New Yorker and the NYT, who nearly hired him then. But budget pressures and management changes caused the new slot to be put on hold. Instead of waiting, Cieply was given total freedom and a fat salary when he rejoined the LAT, by then under new ownership.

Now the NYT is looking to fill a TV editor position. Just in case the paper steals from the LAT again, we suggest getting that Valium prescription ready for Baquet now.

 

Back in 1949 and well before Jere Henshaw became a well-known Hollywood exec, he was working his way through college at a Los Angeles messenger service. A call came in to pick up and deliver a huge roll of industrial carpet to Cahuenga between Melrose and Santa Monica boulevards. It was heavy work, and Henshaw, then 18 years old, couldn’t do it alone. “I need somebody to help unload this damn thing,” he begged to the receptionist.

Watching Henshaw’s predicament was a young guy dressed in khakis, T-shirt, white socks and loafers. “I’ll help ya,” he offered, and together the two lugged the carpet to the proper place. “What are they doing here?” Henshaw asked, looking around.

“A movie,” the helper answered.

“What’s it about?” Henshaw persisted.

When the helper said “paraplegics,” Henshaw didn’t know what those were. “Guys that get crippled in the war,” the
guy explained.

 

“Is it going to be any good?” Henshaw asked.

“I don’t know,” said the guy, and wandered off.

Henshaw hung around for a signature. “So what do you think of our leading man?” asked the receptionist. “That was him who just helped you unload the carpet.”

That guy’s an actor? What’s he doing helping me?”

The receptionist explained that the actor was starring in his first movie. Henshaw asked the actor’s name. “You’re outta your mind,” Henshaw told her. “That guy can’t be an actor with a name like ‘Marlon Brando.’”

Eight months later, Henshaw went to a preview of The Men to see how Brando had fared. “And I thought, ‘The movie’s not bad. And he’s pretty good in it.’”

Obviously, it’s impossible to let Brando’s death go unremarked. So we share a few of our favorite — and unpublished — stories about his early career. Like how his first-ever screen test, set up by 20th Century Fox, consisted of the actor sitting on a stool in various positions. Brando was so bored that he pulled a yo-yo out of his pocket and played with it while the camera ran. He was ordered to stop. Then, in the middle of the next take, Brando pulled an egg out of his pocket and did a magic trick.

At that point, Fox threw him out.

Soon after, Tallulah Bankhead, then 44, was looking for a young leading man to star with her on Broadway in The Eagle Has Two Heads. Brando got the part. But when Bankhead kept making unwanted advances toward him, he wanted out. Luckily, his contract had an escape clause, and he was immediately considered for the lead in a play whose final draft Tennessee Williams was finishing in Key West.

With agent in tow on the way to the audition, Brando was intent only on harmonizing barbershop style with his rep on an old vaudeville favorite, “Dear Old Girl, the Robin Sings Above You.” Next, Brando’s agents paid his train fare to meet with Williams about The Poker Night, later re-titled A Streetcar Named Desire.

After Brando became an overnight sensation as Stanley Kowalski, Hollywood beckoned. Stanley Kramer was casting The Men and considering Brando for the lead. So the actor came to California. The two young agents who met his train in Pasadena found not just Brando but also his pet monkey, which had torn up the upholstery on several seats during the trip and was declared pet non grata on the rails.

Soon, Brando was living in a ménage à trois in the Valley with another man and a woman, and . . . oh, enough already.

 

So we got to thinking: What does Bill Clinton say about Hollywood in his memoirs? Sorry, but our job description does not include plowing through all 957 pages. Like any crafty slacker, we headed for the index looking for anything faintly show biz, aside from stuff about the Bloodworth-Thomasons (who cares about their silly sitcom careers anyway?).

WHAAAAT? No Geffen. No Katzenberg. Not even Spielberg. Didn’t these guys get everyone in Hollywood to bankroll Clinton? Talk about ingratitude. But, phew, there are seven pages on Barbra Streisand, including this nugget: Seems that after he was elected president, Clinton introduced Babs to his mother at one of the inaugural balls. “I told them both I thought they’d get along. They did more than that. They became fast friends, and Barbra called my mother every week until she died.”

E-mail at deadlinehollywood@gmail.com.

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