NOT LONG AGO, JIM CARREY WISECRACKED THAT “NO actor had considered talking through his ass” before Ace Ventura. Maybe not, but now actors are acting like asses. That's the only reasonable conclusion given the current self-annihilatory conduct of the Screen Actors Guild.
Think the baseball players' union is nuts? From do-over elections to do-nothing on runaway production, from delays on residual checks to deficits on health care, not to mention that strike against the ad industry nearly two years ago, SAG not only is the most inept union in Hollywood but also the most ridiculed and reviled by many of its own members and administrators. Just consider that the guild group of hardliners who keep disrupting everything is dubbed “The Taliban.”
This week, ballots arrive to trim down SAG's absurdly large 107-member national board to only 71 members. Yes, that's right: Nearly every seat is up for grabs. But now the lame-duck panel is going to meet for an emergency session September 5 and, in all likelihood, demand that SAG's most-elite members choose between their guild and their unfranchised agents by January 1. The agents were shocked, shocked, shocked, that this manufactured crisis smacks of electioneering. They're not alone. “Only in the twisted logic of SAG could you do something like this,” a union insider said with an audible sigh.
Deciding who's right — actors or agents — is like deciding between the rack and a whip: They're both torture. While agents are united in a way these land sharks never thought possible, SAG has been Balkanized into mortal combatants. Once upon a time, SAG was led by well-known actors with the power and prestige to help make labor union activism palatable to the masses far beyond Hollywood. Even when SAG passed an anti-blacklist resolution that was more talk than action against the House Un-American Activities Committee, the trade union still managed to hold together. More recently, whether fighting film colorization or strengthening child labor laws, SAG was the more sensible sister of the Writer's Guild of America, which for years was straitjacketed by crazies.
It was only after 1988's disastrous strike against the studios and producers that the WGA, fed up with its extremists, decreed that only working writers could vote in elections. The Directors Guild of America does it, too. But not SAG. After all, where else can that cliché of the out-of-work actor not evince an eye roll?
Go back to 1992 when some 20,000 Hollywood extras — uh, make that background performers — were absorbed into SAG, whose membership is now about 110,000. The vast majority haven't worked a day in the last five years. And at any given moment 93 percent are unemployed and unhappy about it. Bitching by the hoi polloi translates into bitchy SAG voting, recently as bungled as Palm Beach County's. The Weekly has learned that SAG's legal bills because of recent bollixed elections total more than $1 million.
That's because, starting in 1999, SAG's status quo was challenged by a dissident clique led by William Daniels (yeah, the broom-up-his-butt geezer from St. Elsewhere and Boy Meets World). But the real powers behind the throne were the fame-challenged, like voice-over actor David Jolliffe, the onetime tall, skinny redhead from the early 1970s sitcom Room 222 who's either an articulate activist or “that big and fat and bald loudmouth,” depending on who's talking. By all accounts, it was Jolliffe's gang who convinced Daniels to unseat thenSAG president Richard Masur, who campaigned the hardest for a strike against advertisers, who challenged and re-challenged SAG's presidential election of middle-of-the-roader Melissa Gilbert, and who accuses the agents of every crime imaginable via the bulletin board on a Web site called www.idotvads.com.
It's true that SAG negotiators sufficiently screwed up the agent talks so that deadlines came and went, extensions came and went, and, ultimately, the agents just went. Ever since January 20, many of Hollywood's major agencies — including the so-called Big Five: WMA, CAA, ICM, UTA and Endeavor — have been off the leash: doing business without bothering to be signatories to SAG's master franchise agreement for the first time in 70 years (not counting periodic exemptions). Without Rule 16g, agencies can partner with any corporation or financial entity whose primary business is not entertainment production. By the time SAG got back to the bargaining table, time was on the side of the agents, who won looser rules enabling them to compete on a more level playing field with managers.
But that new pact was rejected by 54.5 percent of SAG's general membership who voted. Of these 25,000, a whopping 16,000 did not have agents, and 75 percent of them made under $2,000. Rabble-rousers without a chance in hell of ever getting an agent were intent on reining in the agencies. It smacked of sour grapes.
But SAG is missing the point here. The problem is not what conflicts of interest may arise out of what the agencies do in the future especially now that the skidding stock market has curbed corporate America's appetite for strategic investments, alliances and takeovers (though Hollywood still attracts an endless supply of global suckers). The problem is what they are doing already. Michael Ovitz may be dead in this town thanks to his gay mafia delusions, but his imprint on the agency business is still very much alive.
It was back in 1991 that Coke hired Ovitz's agency as a consultant to advise on marketing strategies and advertising campaigns. Today Coke is back on board at CAA, along with Kmart, Motorola, Procter & Gamble and Boeing. SAG was wrong to shut up about it then, and it's still silent now. What do these consulting contracts with agencies actually say? Do they compromise the talent? Where are the Chinese walls? Also suspect was Ovitz's unofficial executive outplacement service to find new Hollywood jobs for studio suits and then negotiate their contracts. This CAA tradition is still being carried on, though not with the same self-serving publicity. Not to pick on CAA, but it's just a matter of time before some agent begins brokering entertainment business acquisitions just like Wall Street Mike did.
None other than that jackass Marlon Brando said, “The principal benefit acting has afforded me is the money to pay for my psychoanalysis.” It's high time SAG stopped hiring attorneys and put some shrinks on the payroll.