Now that Peter Bart is on the ropes, it seems that everyone has a juicy story about him. I don’t. But I did meet him a few times back when I was the film critic for Vogue. And the same thing always happened. After politely saying hello, Bart would stare at me with slightly puzzled vanity, as if sensing that maybe he should know who I was but, then again, since he didn‘t, I obviously wasn’t important enough anyway.
I never took it personally. It was always one of Bart‘s strengths as Variety editor that he knew from the inside how to behave like a power broker — the rituals, the dick wagging, the deals within the deals. Still, I remembered that stare as I followed the details of his suspension in the wake of Amy Wallace’s killer-but-fair profile in the new September issue of Los Angeles magazine. For it was precisely the same blend of cluelessness and hubris that led him to tell Wallace pointless lies, finesse his ethical transgressions, and spout racist twaddle far more egregious than the stuff that got fuddled Al Campanis canned from the Dodgers.
Of course, the article‘s revelations weren’t altogether shocking. For years, the city‘s been filled with the low rumble of rumors about Bart’s bad behavior. When an editor talks of “cunts” or “fags” to a room of journalists — a group with all the discretion of Bunky on Big Brother 2 — word will get around. Yet that wasn‘t the worst of it. You’d hear that Bart had peddled screenplays or fiddled with Variety stories to help out his buddies and punish his foes. In fact, nearly all of this was published in a 1994 L.A. Weekly cover story by David Robb, the same reporter whose investigations sparked the whole George Christy farce at The Hollywood Reporter a few months ago.
So what suddenly made this particular story about Bart hit the L.A. Times‘ front page and go scudding across the Internet? For starters, Wallace nailed him on the most serious charge. Rumors are rumors, but she found the obligatory “smoking gun,” a script Bart had tried to sell, and she got him to admit that it was indeed smoking. Still, such transgressions might’ve remained buried in the business section if Variety‘s parent company, Cahners Business Information, hadn’t rushed to put Bart on involuntary leave. The suspension gave Wallace‘s article a hard-news hook — it was no longer just a profile — and Cahners’ striking haste made you wonder if its execs hadn‘t been waiting for an excuse to get rid of their 69-year-old editor. As a friend remarked, “If this is what they say they’re getting him for, I wonder what he really was doing?”
Beats me. I‘m still wondering how such a smart guy could’ve been so dumb as to talk all that smack to a reporter. (Maybe he thought he was dealing with the trades.) Bart‘s not a goofy old sad sack like George Christy, who spent a quarter-century at the Reporter glomming onto every freebie that wasn’t glued down (and calling to have the glue removed from some that were). No, Bart is a grandiose figure — he looks like a cross between an owl and Caligula — whose apparent fall may not exactly be tragic but is kind of, you know, resonant. Back in the 1970s, he helped Robert Evans take Paramount to heights it hasn‘t come close to matching since. Together they backed movies like Chinatown, Rosemary’s Baby and The Godfather. And it was Bart who persuaded Francis Coppola to make The Godfather Part II. But this success didn‘t continue, and by age 57, he was living by his pen in an industry where writers have always been treated as office furniture. What saved him was getting the job at Variety in 1989. He reinvented himself as major player — the braggadocio editor gassing on in his column — and brought his paper up to date. He made it livelier, more attuned to crucial trends and, in keeping with our times, softer.
But even as Bart plugged his paper into the new paradigm, he himself was still living in an old one. Like the 70ish Christy, who seems baffled that it’s now considered corrupt to take the same mingy kickbacks he‘s been getting for over 25 years, Bart misread the shifting ethos of the entertainment industry. He enjoyed playing the classic Hollywood grandee — colorful, profane, outside the rules — in a period when outlaw showmanship is being replaced by the bland, benevolent face of corporate liberalism. The Eisners and Spielbergs don’t cotton to insulting talk about “niggers” or Judaism; Bart‘s bosses at Cahners want their employees to at least have the appearance of integrity. For them, Variety is a cash cow that’s most contented when quietly grazing, and when its leader gets noticed for behaving like a racist grifter, it gets you the wrong kind of attention. It makes people angry and self-righteous. It interferes with the orderly making of money.
It is, of course, also wrong. But I don‘t want to get on my high horse about it. While I have no trouble believing that Bart and Christy are guilty of everything they’re accused of, I‘d hate to see them made into senior-citizen scapegoats who lose their jobs so that the industry itself can feel clean. For their peccadilloes are, like the footprints at Mann’s Chinese, an emblem of time-honored Hollywood culture whose very key signature is complicity. The corruption is open and people line up for their cut. You see it in the junket-whores who gobble free shrimp in exchange for blurbs, the foreign press hacks who want to be photographed with people they‘re supposedly covering, reporters who pass their scripts to actors during interviews. In fact, it’s a perfect expression of all this that Bart, who used to be a newspaperman, got into the industry after writing a flattering profile of his future boss Robert Evans.
The greater corruption is institutional. This is most obvious in the trades that get their revenue from the very people they‘re covering — all those flattery ads and Oscar campaigns — yet it’s just as pernicious in celebrity-fueled rags like In Style that guarantee a steady stream of stars for their pages by ensuring that the Gwyneths and Brads are never asked anything they don‘t want to be asked. At the highest level, of course, there’s the “synergy” of our corporate media. If Bart is guilty of conflict of interest for trying to sell a script, what do we call it when Disney‘s ABC plugs one of its films on Good Morning America, AOL Time Warner uses its Web site or magazines to promote a Warner Bros. movie, or CNN has its revamped Headline News promote shows on its sister channels?
The only sure winner from the Bart affair is Los Angeles, and I can only imagine the forehead-clutching mortification over at the L.A. Times, which has been scooped (again) on a hot industry story, this time by an ex–Times reporter at a monthly publication with nowhere near its resources. Saturday’s front-page coverage on Bart‘s suspension was written by Wallace’s successor, Rachel Abramowitz (“And what have you been working on, dear?” you can almost hear her editors hissing) and media critic David Shaw, who earlier this year wrote a portentously obvious four-part series on industry journalism that‘s fondly remembered for the laughter it inspired. That series did trot out some of the charges made against Bart, but unlike Amy Wallace, the Pulitzer Prize winner didn’t really investigate them. In fact, he seemed less concerned to dig up anything new than to assure readers that his new bosses at the Times were more committed to serious industry coverage than were his old ones (though I don‘t remember him criticizing those earlier guys’ slackness back when they were paying his check). Maybe the paper is trying harder, but given the Times‘ longtime fealty to the entertainment business, you have to wonder if its editors would have printed Wallace’s piece if she‘d handed it to them. I’m not convinced that they really want serious industry coverage.
Then again, who does? I sometimes like to picture the look on the studio bosses‘ faces if they suddenly heard that one of the trades had hired as its editor Seymour Hersh.
Not that this could ever happen. At the moment, we’re in the bizarre situation that both Variety and The Hollywood Reporter will probably be looking for new editors at the same time. One assumes that Variety will get the better one simply because, well, the Reporter‘s the Reporter — its niche is to be less good than Variety. The one sure thing is that neither paper will hire anyone whose editorial agenda might threaten its profits by threatening the industry. Because of the recent scandals, they’ll naturally be looking for someone with a good reputation — image counts for a lot here — but they‘ll also want this paragon to be a courtier, a journalistic softy with a taste for the good life. David Shaw, come on down!
Powers’ column on the media appears biweekly.