Vanity Too Fair
BARRY DILLER FOUND IT PATHETIC. RON Meyer considered it foolish. And David Geffen loved it in the way a lion king relishes the kill. The blurry faxed and re-faxed feature article whirred its way around Hollywood last weekend (one mogul even enlisted his wife to send it hither and yon). Officially, the August issue of Vanity Fair doesn’t hit newsstands until next week, but the moguls wanted an early copy before heading for the July Fourth long weekend in Hawaii, followed by the July 9–13 Camp Allen investment conference in Sun Valley. Still, the timing was disconcerting as Gay Pride Month drew to a close. That’s because, no bromide this, Bryan Burrough’s apocalyptic interview with Michael Ovitz consisted of page after page of the one-time most powerful man in Hollywood blaming a “Gay Mafia” for his professional demise and obvious personal dementia. What astonished was not that Ovitz was saying such appalling stuff, rather that Graydon Carter’s magazine didn’t bother to challenge any of it.
Welcome to journalist-as-microphone substituting for journalist-as-skeptic, the print media’s even more embarrassing equivalent of Lisa Myers’ sit-down with Kenneth Lay’s wife — just as bizarre and, in the end,just as unbearable. Inconceivable especially at a time when all business executives, Hollywood or otherwise, can expect to face heated grilling by journalists, Barbarians at the Gate author Burrough abandoned his reputation for hard-hitting reporting and instead became, in Ovitz’s presence, just another Southern gentleman whose courtliness demanded he sit and listen quietly to an eccentric uncle raving about them thar faggots and their friends who are controlling American culture just as the Trilateral Commission controls world commerce.
If Ovitz had ranted about the Jewish Mafia, Vanity Fair would never have floated his allegations without weighting them down with at least a little context for ballast. But since it’s the Gay Mafia, the article just lets Ovitz hang himself (giggle, giggle). What’s next? WorldCom CEO Bernard Ebbers fingering phone-fetish fiends? The point is not supposed to be just The Get, but The Get It Right.
In response to the L.A.Weekly’s query, Vanity Fair spokeswoman Beth Kseniak released this statement: “The primary value of the article was in getting Michael Ovitz’s viewpoint. If his views clash with those of others, that’s hardly surprising. Various principals of the story were contacted. Several declined to respond to Ovitz’s comments. The story was thoroughly fact checked.” Actually, the article contains more than 22 non–Gay Mafia factual assertions coming from Ovitz’s mouth that, if investigated, could have been exposed as false.
For instance, the average Hollywood insider knows full well that David Geffen has not always hated Ovitz, but that the Geffen-Ovitz schism dates back to 1982, when Ovitz represented screenwriter Robert Towne, and Geffen and Towne were battling over the movies Personal Best and Greystoke. Or that Michael Eisner didn’t abandon Ovitz at Disney first day out but, because of that peculiar mogul-bred trait of absolute certainty bordering somewhere between obsessiveness and megalomania, the Disney chairman/CEO demonstrated stubborn optimism about Ovitz’s prospects as president longer than any semisane person would have. Or that Ron Meyer didn’t turn on Ovitz because of Geffen’s persistent prodding; it occurred when new MCA owner Edgar Bronfman Jr. walked away from Ovitz’s outrageous CEO compensation demands and ran toward Meyer, only to have Ovitz leak the news to the press to try to queer the deal, thus earning his CAA partner and best friend’s eternal enmity. Or that Livent didn’t represent some piddling investment for Ovitz, because he was not only a board member of a publicly owned corporation but also the chairman of its executive committee and thus responsible to shareholders. Or that Ovitz didn’t just meet the Yorns on his own but was introduced to them by none other than New York financial manager–turned–convicted jailbird Dana Giachetto.
According to sources who talked with Burrough, there also were accusations from Ovitz that VF deemed too offensive to run, targeting any tough journalist as being either in the pay of or in bed with (literally)Hollywood’s powers that be. But those were heterosexual sex charges. Somehow it was okay to print Ovitz’s repeated claims of how Geffen had spread rumors about Ovitz’s family and “went after” Ovitz’s kids, and, get this one from Ovitz, if Geffen’s cabal “could have taken my wife and kids, they would have.” It’s not inconceivable to see an alarming subtext that homosexuals are predators or, worse, pederasts or priests (Ovitz does draw that direct connection, saying Geffen “is totally immoral, and he paints himself like this priest”). For that matter, the Gay Mafia can’t be blamed for Ovitz’s many other much-ballyhooed failures, from losing what he promised was an in-the-bag NFL franchise for Los Angeles, to falling behind on that $25 million pledge made back in 1997 to UCLA Medical Center, to failing a Canal Plus audit of his APG production company, which proved the death knell for his entertainment career.
Vanity Fair should have balanced Burrough’s article with reporting about heretofore-unpublished allegations of Ovitz’s homophobia. Like the time in 1993 that then–HBO chairman Michael Fuchs took Ovitz to task for not helping cast the film of Randy Shilts’ AIDS best-seller, And the Band Played On.
“William Morris and ICM, they all stepped up to the plate. But not CAA. Why was that?” Fuchs chided Ovitz.
“We don ’t have any gay agents,” was Ovitz’s smug reply. Many in Hollywood witnessed that Ovitz, despite his repeated denials, was extremely uncomfortable around homosexuals socially or at CAA. In VF-speak, the article could have begun with an amusing anecdote about the time Geffen chartered a yacht for a Mediterranean sea voyage off the coast of Italy with Terry Semel, Ron Meyer, Irwin Winkler, Ovitz, and their respective wives and girlfriends. Until Ovitz found out Geffen had brought along a male lover and suddenly was manic to get as far away from them as possible. “And he got all the way to Rome to get a plane, but the airport was closed, so he had to come back to the boat. We were on the floor laughing,” remembers shipmate Cyndy Garvey. Or an in-the-know tale about how, sick of hearing about Meyer accompanying Geffen to this or that lunch or dinner, Ovitz would snap, “What, Ron, are you gay?” Or how, during fits of anger, the agent would refer disparagingly to the target of his tirade as a “fag,” the worst epithet he believed he could call someone, and which he did over and over and over.
His obvious awkwardness around homosexuals at work was hard to hide. There was the day a group of CAA agents were gathered in the conference room for a meeting with client Dolly Parton and her effusively gay manager Sandy Gallin, when Parton took off her earrings and necklace, and Gallin put them on himself. Inside and outside the glass walls, agents laughed at the sight of Gallin vamping until that moment when Ovitz walked in, and the room immediately fell silent. Ovitz continued the meeting without once acknowledging the joke. “And Gallin knew this and loved seeing Ovitz squirm. He did it strictly for reaction,” recalled former CAA agent Tony Ludwig. Ovitz’s own dislike of homosexuals had become institutionalized for the first 10 years at CAA, where the climate was tantamount to an anti-gay employment policy. Why homosexuals did not fit the CAA mold had nothing to do with gays themselves and everything to do with Ovitz and his carefully crafted image of the agency as a monolith of conformity.
By the late 1980s, unbeknownst to Ovitz, CAA was employing several gay but closeted agents. One day, Alan Hergott, the openly gay entertainment lawyer with a powerful list of clients including Tom Hanks, took a huge career chance and told CAA with utmost candor that the agency needed to hire more openly homosexual agents or at least let the ones already there come out. A sputtering Ovitz offered to hire Hergott as CAA’s homosexual consultant. Hergott declined. But a month later, Hergott was shocked to see a blurb in Time magazine that he had been hired as a gay guru to CAA. Ovitz claimed to be surprised by the magazine item and argued it was just another example of the media’s inaccurate reporting.
But then, when it comes to Ovitz, no one can get it right. Least of all Mike.
For a long time now, how the media wrote about Ovitz has been a litmus test of their journalistic integrity. Those who wrote honestly and accurately about Ovitz paid a big price in the form of punishment. Those who didn’t were rewarded. And that’s the primary reason why, whenever anyone talks about Ovitz as the most hated man in Hollywood (an appellation that Vanity Fair repeats), details are few and far between. Because if you make money for people in Hollywood, or for that matter sit for interviews that will sell magazines for media conglomerates, they'll overlook a lot of character flaws. It took real courage for both show-biz denizens and the reporters who follow them to lay bare the profound and lasting effect that Ovitz had on Hollywood for 27 years through threats, intimidation, bullying, blacklisting and destabilizing. Burrough’s article skips over that. Instead, it claims “the ultimate story about the dark side of Ovitz” is the stale tale about Ovitz buying a Malibu property out from under Meyer. As if Ovitz’s gay bashing on its own pages isn’t even in the running. Hollywood villains have gone from naming names in the 1950s to name calling in the year 2002.
Once again, it ’s business as usual.