Monday, April 18, 2011
People often tell me that I should collect some of my best blog posts and publish them in book form. Sometimes I get this advice from friends; sometimes I get it in comments. In the last month there have been three people I respect who have strongly urged me to do it. A friend of mine who teaches a class at NYU even said that if my book existed he’d assign it to his class.
The fact is, I have one of the least-read blogs from as long as the record-keeping of bloggery as been chronicled. PhDers have noted that it is less read than cave paintings and Sumerian cuneiforms were at the time of their publication. I am not a modest man, but I am a realist and I must accept that this is not the kind of raw material that is displayed at Starbucks, praised by Oprah, lands on the NY Times best-seller list, is downloaded on iTunes, narrated by Robert Evans on an audiobook, or download on torrent sites.
Still, I’m frequently told that there are not many things written about the film industry that are exactly like this blog. If that is true, perhaps it is because people who are currently in the middle of working in the industry, as I am, don’t think they should write about it. They think it would be career suicide. Some people go from a career in the industry to because hard-nosed journalists, as Anne Thompson has done. As a former publicist, she has special insight and knows better than most journalists how to suss out the bullshit publicists try to feed her. But that doesn’t mean that she’s telling tales from her past, as these former colleagues are now sources.
I have lost some friendships with because of this blog. They thought it was a kind of betrayal. How dare I write about things that were supposed to be private? I was on the payroll and keeping my mouth shut was something, while never overtly stated, was tacitly understood. That’s how they could feel comfortable to be their unguarded selves in my company. My question is: if there is an earthquake and it happens that a well-known actor is standing next to me at that moment, do I cede the experience to the actor? Does that moment no longer belong to me? Should I go through my life with a memory pen and scratch out all the interesting bits where a celebrity was in the vicinity? This is not a hypothetical question, as I have been instructed to use such a pen, and I have complied. And sometimes I choose to use an eraser on my own. There are people I wouldn’t even think of writing about. If I am worried, I sometimes ask people for permission. But it would be impossible to do that all the time; this blog might be unwritable.
On the other hand, it is understood that celebrities can write about their careers without getting release forms from everyone they collaborated with. Well-known writers can do the same. Nora Ephron famously said, “everything is material.” I cling to the naïve belief that the worth and justification for my writing will stand for itself. If I write well enough, if my opinions are well considered, then the enterprise of “My Life as a Blog” is legitimate.
The truth is that sometimes I write something that strikes a chord with people and sometimes I write something that falls flat. Sometimes the personal stories I tell display the wisdom of my actions; sometimes they prove that I am an idiot. But that is an excellent description of me: a smart guy who often is an ignoramus. To be clear, I’m not saying I have acted like a jackass; I’m saying I am often am a certifiable jackass. And those moments are my favorites. For example, my instructing Jim Jarmusch that he should leave an excellent short film he made as a short—in other words, that he should not make Stranger Than Paradise. I absolutely love that story and have dined out on it for decades.
I remember I was working on a project with Lily Tomlin and I was saying something and she looked at me quizzically—and she’s a super nice person and liked me--but she said, “Isn’t that… stupid?” She had no intention of being insulting, she was just confused, as I normally had the ability to forge intelligible thought. And she was right on the money about that moment—dumb as a plank I was.
Every Sunday night when I have to push the “enter” button and put my latest post up on my site I tense up and wonder: Will this be a Lily Tomlin week? Or will it mean something to people? Even if it’s a few people.
One of my favorite books is “Joe Gould’s Secret,” written by the great Joseph Mitchell (and made into a movie by Stanley Tucci.) For a New Yorker story, Mitchell writes a portrait of a guy who tells everybody in his circle that he’s writing the Great American Novel. SPOILER ALERT! Gould’s secret is he isn’t writing anything at all, just intriguing scraps that fool people into thinking he is up to something that will send the literary world in to a new orbit. When Mitchell finds out, he is of course dismayed that his article seems to be in disarray, but after some reflection, he gets a vision of the mind-numbing amounts of books: bookstores, libraries, archives, remainder bins, etc.---rivers, oceans, galaxies of books, books, and more books. Thank heavens, he thought, that there is one less book littering the world’s mental landscape.
Jean-Luc Godard said that a story should have a beginning, a middle and an end--just not in that order—and without me consciously being aware of it, both a narrative and themes have been emerging in this blog. Some of these stories have been written already; some have yet to be written, but I know they are coming. It’s the story of a Midwestern kid who given an extremely stern moral education by his Rabbi when he was growing up. And also in culture—he memorized all of Bob Dylan’s songs, and they were Biblically judgmental of hypocrisy and other moral foul play. He loved movies, so he set out for Manhattan, or as it is also known, Sodom. His moral background proved a grievous disadvantage as he tried to fit into the film industry. It confused people who lacked these deficiencies. They correctly understood that the purpose of life was to screw over as many people as possible in as gratuitously nasty a way as they possibly could. I remember having a conversation with an independent film producer (I think it was Ted Hope) and we both agreed that the people in the specialty film world were much meaner than those in the Hollywood world. (My guess is that it is like an academic environment—when there are less riches to be had, people rabidly chew each other like the dogs at Michael Vicks’ house.)
But he discovered that there was a miracle in the midst of all this. Some of the people he encountered were so spellbindingly talented and beautiful and kind and funny that his eyes misted over every time they entered the room. In fact, as I write this description of my story I am literally weeping thinking about some of these people. I’m getting pictures in my head and they are vivid.
Did these folks make up for everything else? There are those who have their lives elevated by religion or politics or art. For me it is those human beings; they were and continue to be my salvation. And for some reason I feel the need to spread the gospel. But this involves talking about all the bad stuff, as they only exist within that larger context.
And the question is: what is constructive information and what is merely gossip? Most blogs are filled with gossip. I love reading gossip; I just don’t want to write it myself, and will be very disappointed with myself if I do. If what I write is taken out of the electronic sphere, printed and bound, will they be cleansed somehow? As a publicist I know that context is all.
I have made this promise to myself that I will write an essay every week. I know that under the deadline I will make mistakes and there will be very bad ones that I will regret. Moreover they will make some people angry and may lose me work. And I need work to survive. On the other hand, many great opportunities have come out of it, like this past weekend when I was put up at a ritzy resort in Sarasota for a festival panel on the blacklist.
Do these stories have value or would it be better to toss them into the dustbin of film history? There are those who have told me I’m courageous for writing this blog the way I do, but as Lily Tomlin noted, maybe I’m just stupid.
So tell me, my tonstant weaders, all the vast dozens of you… assuming I could get it published, do you think I should I write a book?
Sunday, April 10, 2011
A few weeks ago I wrote a post about Elia Kazan and the blacklist and discovered I had hit a raw nerve. Some people felt that I had left Kazan off the hook for some terrible crimes; others were filled with rage that I would take it upon myself to judge Kazan. A long-time friend took her name off my mailing list. A respected critic wrote only three words “Who are you?” followed by a list of all the books he’d written, the festival juries he’d served on, etc. His point, as I understood it, was: where did I, a total nobody, get off making a judgment on Kazan, one of the greatest film artists in history?
After reading my post, Tom Hall, the Artistic Director of the Sarasota Film Festival, invited me to serve on a panel on the blacklist, along with Peter Askin (Trumbo), and Joshua Marston (Maria Full of Grace). (The panel will take place this coming Sunday, April 17th at 3pm at the Sarasota Opera House.) While Tom recognized I wasn’t an expert, based on my blog he felt I had something to contribute. As this is coming up a week from today, I’ve been thinking about what my contribution might be.
Rightly or wrongly, Kazan is the epic face of collaboration during the blacklist, in the same way as his counterpart, screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, is the monolith of righteousness. As he was the most successful director in the theatre as well as movies, everyone felt Kazan had little to lose by defying the committee. He could keep working. As Kazan chose not to take that road, he was judged to be a greedy opportunist who sold out his friends for riches. While many were wracked with conflicts about their appearances before the committee, Kazan paid for a full page ad in the New York Times explaining why he did the right thing. There was a tone-deaf, Marie Antoinette quality to the way Kazan presented himself in the midst of all the broken lives, lost marriages and suicides wrought by the blacklist.
On the other hand, what was Kazan’s crime? Was he the only one who named names or behaved dishonorably? What about the grandstanding congressmen like J. Parnell Thomas who started the mess? What about the studio executives who actually created the blacklist? It wasn’t Kazan’s fault that he had to choose between losing his career or giving names of Communists to the committee. And as Richard Schickel wrote in his book on Kazan, there is a very solid argument that the 1950’s left could be strongly condemned for ignoring and/or defending the activities of Stalin, who had already killed almost a million people in his purges and cleansings, and sent fourteen million people to his Gulags by the time Kazan gave his testimony in 1952. Why stand up for people who were defending one of the worst butchers in history?
Things are never as simple as people would like to make them.
There are many things you can say in defense of Kazan’s actions, but there is no getting away from the fact that Kazan will always remain a very potent symbol. Those for whom the blacklist is still a living thing will never forgive him. Shortly before Kazan was presented with his honorary Oscar in 1999, blacklisted writer Abraham Polonsky told Entertainment Weekly that he was hoping someone would shoot Kazan, saying “it would no doubt be a thrill on an otherwise dull evening.” That kind of hateful talk is of course unacceptable.
On the other hand, there are people who aren’t curious about what Kazan did--they simply support him unconditionally because of his talent. I’m not at all comfortable with that. Should geniuses get a free pass? Do they live outside morality?
And this leads me to Roman Polanski. Is it okay to drug a 13-year-old girl and have anal sex with her against her will? And then leave her crying in your car, waiting for you to drive her home? And then say that the judge was just jealous—he would have liked to do the same thing? And never apologize?
Here are a few of the people who think that is fine and dandy: Martin Scorsese, Natalie Portman, Tilda Swinton, Jeanne Moreau, Jonathan Demme, Pedro Almodovar, Woody Allen, David Lynch, Paul Auster, the Dardennes Brothers, Wim Wenders, David Lynch, Guillermo del Toro, Wes Anderson, Mike Nichols, Darren Aronofsky, among many others.
Would these people want somebody to drug and anally rape their own 13-year-old child? Of course not, they simply feel that great artists must be defended at all times, no matter what they do. And it is this lazy, knee-jerk response that troubles me.
The blacklist was a nasty, cruel, ugly, disgusting, vicious, and appalling time. And just as Polanski should not get a free pass for what he did—neither should Kazan for the role he played in the blacklist. We need to think these things through, and not let extraordinary talent blind us to larger issues. I believe that how honorably we live means as much as the way we tell our stories. Which is not to suggest that I think “good” behavior bears any connection to better art—I far prefer Kazan’s movies to Dalton Trumbo’s scripts—just that these things matter.
Kazan’s films were always praised, but he was often denied awards, including the American Film Institute’s Life Achievement Award, and prizes from the San Francisco Film Festival, and LA Film Critics. There were too many people around who remembered the evils of the blacklist to get majority votes on these award-giving juries. It took nine years for Karl Malden to talk the Academy into giving Kazan an honorary Oscar and when he finally succeeded, it set off a firestorm. There was a movement to get people not to applaud, which at the end of the day proved unsuccessful. The 90-year-old Kazan got a standing ovation, with only a few, including Nick Nolte, sitting on their hands. If I had been there, I know I would have been with the people standing up and applauding.
But would I stand up and cheer for Roman Polanski? No, I would not.
Sunday, April 03, 2011
My Mom died on Tuesday morning, March 22nd, in Madison, Wisconsin. She was 90 years old.
After my Dad died a few years ago, Mom had moved three times: from her apartment to a small room in Assisted Living to a large and sumptuous one at Hospice. Each time she moved, she got rid of more of her belongings. Hospice doesn’t allow you to bring furniture, so all she had with her when she died was a few articles of clothing, some family photos, some posters, and a handful of knickknacks. There was so little in the room that my sister Bonnie was able to pick it all up in less than an hour and put it in her car.
“I’m running a race,” she told Bonnie. “And I don’t want to win.” That was why she was at Hospice. She was tired of all the drugs and tests and treatments that she had been putting up with for so many years. She was ready to go, and she wanted to have as much comfort as possible for her last days. My sister and brother made the arrangements. It costs a fortune to get into Hospice, but Mom had saved all her life. When it was cold—and it is very cold in Wisconsin—she didn’t turn on the heat; when it was hot, she didn’t turn on the air conditioning. When I phoned her from New York, within a minute or two she tried to wrap up the conversation, as long distance was expensive, and she continued to believe this long after I was paying flat rates for my phone service. Mom had lived through the Depression and that formed the way she would always see the world. But that lifetime of frugality meant that entering Hospice was no problem. My sister Bonnie, who is a saint, went to see her every day. My brother Harry also carried his end, dealing with taxes, legal and financial issues, down to the tiniest detail. I moved to New York and rarely called her. I called her so rarely that I am ashamed to say how rarely I called her, it’s so appalling.
Of course, I was her favorite.
Once she got into Hospice I tried to call her every day. I wondered if she thought it was weird that after all that time her errant son was suddenly becoming so dutiful. It was pretty obvious why. As the weeks went by she stopped talking during these phone calls. There was no interchange at all. I had to try to give a speech about all the things that were going on in my life and my wife Melissa’s life. It’s not an easy thing to do; it was really difficult to think of things to say. And I would ask her, “Are you still there, Mom? Do you want me to stop talking?” and she’d always say, “no, don’t stop, I enjoy listening.” It was unnerving having these one-sided conversations. Eventually she didn’t even say anything at all. But on one of my last silent phone calls with her, Bonnie tried to take the phone away from her but she wouldn’t let go.
Melissa and I had booked a trip to Madison for early April, but on Tuesday the 15th I got an email from a Hospice representative that ended with:
If you are expecting to have a meaningful visit in early April when you arrive, you may not fulfill that expectation. As she continues to not eat or drink, she will become weaker and less responsive. Her ability to survive until then is questionable.
I quickly made plans to fly to Madison on Saturday. My first sight of my Mom in the Hospice room will stick in my brain forever. She wasn’t wearing her wig. She had lost her hair years ago, and I had rarely seen her without it for more than a few moments. She was very proud and always wanted to make a dignified impression. But I guess she just didn’t care anymore. Bonnie said she had stopped wearing her wedding ring too.
Mom had been agitated recently and had tried to get out of bed. One night she fell out of bed and dislocated her hip. I couldn’t sleep for days after that happened. Harry set up a conference call with Hospice. They were nervous. Another family might have sued, but that’s not the way it goes with us. All we wanted was for her to be safe and comfortable. They got her a lower bed and put a pad on the floor. I told them I wanted more drugs for her, and they listened to me patiently, ignoring every word. They have a protocol and that’s what they follow.
It was pretty clear to me why my Mom had been trying to get up. She was trying to get out of there. If God wouldn’t hurry up and take her, she was going to take matters into her own hands.
Mom still had all her faculties right up to the last days before she became unresponsive. What was going on inside her head? Was she dreaming? Did she know I was there? I remembered how I had worked on Pedro Almodovar’s movie Talk to Her. The hero of the film spoke to a woman every day when she was in a coma. And eventually she woke up. Could Mom hear me? Could she understand?
I held her hand and talked to her. But there was no response at all.
After an hour or so, Harry came in. He had driven down from St. Paul. We sat there all day watching her. There was no response at all from her. She didn’t open her eyes, respond to my hand, or say anything.
Later that day, Bonnie and her husband David (who also had been making enormous sacrifices through this time) showed up. As often happened when the family got together, we were also happy to see each other that we didn’t address to many questions to Mom. My brother would talk about the various issues she needed to deal with and we would all have fun together. It was easy to not have much direct interaction with Mom. And so it was that night, We were having fun and our mother was just in the back of the room, breathing quietly.
As I was leaving, I went up to my mother and said goodnight. Her face twitched and she made a little sound. I asked my sister if that meant she had responded to me, and she told me the Hospice people said that that kind of thing didn’t necessarily mean anything. As I left with Harry, we both agreed that something had definitely happened. There was no doubt.
The next morning, Harry and I returned to our mother’s bedside. Harry started telling her how important she had been to him, the profound way she had changed his life. After Bonnie arrived, I decided to try a different approach. I started telling funny stories about our youth. One story led to another and soon the three of us were sharing our memories.
Suddenly Mom’s face twitched and she made a noise. It was like, “mmmm” or “ummmm.” It was an expression of sensual pleasure, like she had just eaten something delicious. This really shook us up. With this encouragement, we continued to tell stories and Mom continued to respond to us. If she really liked a story, she’d make a bigger noise.
During those hours, the three of got to say everything we always wanted to say to her. If she had been her usual self, she probably would have shushed us up, but we were able to go on and on without interruption.
One of the Hospice women had told us that people won’t die when there’s a family vigil around. They don’t want to disappoint everybody. So Bonnie took charge: she told Mom that we would miss her and we would be very sad without her, but if she wanted to go, she could go, and not worry about us.
I flew back to New York that night. Two days later, she was gone.
Sunday, March 20, 2011
If you’ve ever left a comment on my blog, you’ve probably noticed that you don’t have to retype any letters to leave a comment. These things are called Captcha and I find them annoying when I encounter them. Sometimes I can’t get them right and I just give up.
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Thursday, March 10, 2011
Normally I post every Sunday night on this blog, and normally it’s about movies, but this week is different.
I decided that tonight, after Peter King began his Homeland Security Committee Hearings on “Radicalization in the U.S. Muslim community was the time to put out my new video, “American Muslims.” I didn’t want to wait until Sunday.
This is a slideshow of very accomplished, successful, and in some cases, legendary American Muslims. They are actors, comedians, musicians, athletes, writers, scientists... even Miss USA 2010.
Because I used Yusuf Islam’s (Cat Stevens') song, “The Wind,” the video can’t be watched on this site from everywhere in the world. It’s okay if you’re in the U.S. (Unfortunately it means that YouTube also run ads.)
Most of you will be familiar with some or most of the people in the video, but as we all are knowledgeable in different areas, here’s some background on people you might not know.
KAREEM RASHAD SULTAN KHAN was a U.S. Army Specialist who died in Iraq. Inspired by 9/11, he wanted to show that Muslims, like him, were patriotic Americans willing to lay their lives down for their country. He enlisted immediately after graduation and was sent to Iraq in July 2006. He received a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart for his service, and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
LEWIS ARQUETTE is best known for playing "J.D. Patrick" on "The Waltons." He is the son of Cliff Arquette (aka "Charlie Weaver") and the father of Rosanna, Patricia, David, Alexis, and Richmond Arquette.
Comedian/Actor AASIF MANDVI is currently the "Middle Eastern Affairs Correspondent" on "The Daily Show."
IQBAL THEBA plays Principal Figgins on "Glee."
MARA BROCK AKIL began her career as a writer for "South Central" and "Moesha," and then became the Supervising Producer of "The Jamie Foxx Show." She created and executive produced "Girlfriends" and "The Game," and is currently a consulting producer for "Cougar Town."
KAMRAN PASHA co-produced the TV series "Sleeper Cell," and produced "Bionic Woman" and "Kings."
PARVEZ SHARMA' s debut film "A Jihad for Love" has won five international awards and has been seen by over eight million people in 49 countries. Even though the film has faced theological condemnation and has been banned in a number of countries, Sharma remains (in his own words) "fatwa-free" as he has become a leading spokesperson on defending Islam and yet being able to speak for urgent reform, as a Muslim. He has conducted and led more than 200 live events across the world talking about Islam and in part its relation to homosexuality.
FAZLUR KHAN, more than any other individual, ushered in a renaissance in skyscraper construction during the second half of the twentieth century, and has been called the "Einstein of structural engineering," His most famous buildings are the John Hancock Center and the Willis Tower (formerly Sears Tower), which was the world's tallest building for several decades.
AHMED ZAWAIL won the 1999 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work on femtochemistry. He is the Linus Pauling Chair Professor Chemistry and Professor of Physics at the California Institute of Technology.
HAKEEM OLAJUWON – If you’re not a basketball fan (like me) then you should know that . Hakeem "the Dream" Olajuwon of the Houston Rockets is in the Basketball Hall of Fame and is considered by most experts to be one of the top 25 basketball players of all-time.
MICHAEL WOLFE is a poet and author who is a frequent lecturer on Islamic issues at universities across the US including Harvard, As a small press publisher, he published Jim Carroll’s The Basketball Diaries, as well as works by Paul Bowles and others. Wolfe has made and continues to make numerous award-winning short and long films for PBS and worldwide release.
Rightly or wrongly, I chose not to include members of The Nations of Gods and Earth, also known as the Five Percenters. Some people consider the Five Percenters to be Muslims, but mainstream Muslims do not. This is why I left out people like Busta Rhymes, Nas, Rakim, etc., although no one would argue that I short-changed rappers in this video.
IMAN was born a Muslim, and is cited in Wikipedia and in other places online as being a Muslim, but I have no idea if she is still a practicing one.
Her name in Arabic means "faith."
Sunday, March 06, 2011
This is a video I did of Tom Cruise’s famous Scientology video with commentary from Charlie Sheen, taken from his GMA interview
Which of these two men is the most disconnected from reality?
Sunday, February 27, 2011
Me, Madonna, Jellybean Benitez, and Tim Ransom at Limelight in September 1984.
This photo by Patrick McMullan appeared in his 2003 book So 80s
My friend Tim Ransom wrote a few comments to my last blog on Madonna. His words were so impassioned that Kenneth M. Walsh wrote another post about Tim’s comments on his blog, followed by another one by Matthew Rettenmund on his blog.
Anyway sharing correspondence with Tim made me think of the photo above with Tim, the Divine Ms. Madge and me taken by another well-known photographer I introduced to Madonna, Patrick McMullan.
Orion Pictures, the studio behind Desperately Seeking Susan, was setting up a theme party at Limelight for their film, “Amadeus.” The concept was that he was that Mozart was pop star of his day, so they wanted to get as many well known young singers and musicians as they could. I asked Madonna if I could take her to the party, expecting her customary insolence, but she said that would be fine. That wasn’t the answer I was expecting, so I added, “why don’t you bring [her boyfriend] Jelly too?”
Tim, who was the stand-in for Aidan Quinn, was on the set every day, and was close enough with Madonna to give her regular foot rubs. She adored him and eventually he was cast in the role of the Bellhop and played a brief scene with her. (Photos can be seen here.) Tim asked if he could come too, so I asked Orion to put him on the guest list.
Madonna lived a few blocks away from me in those days. My place was on Centre Market Place in Little Italy, across the street from the old Police Headquarters, which was deserted then. (Now it is a very upscale condo). She had a Soho loft on Broome Street, on the northwest side of West Broadway, a few flights up. Her buzzer didn’t open the door, so she had to throw the keys down from the window. Oddly, I had actually looked at this very loft when it was up for rent. It was more than I could afford, but not that much more. Her debut album, Madonna, had been out a year, and while it had done very well, I’m pretty sure she hadn’t banked much money yet. She told me she’d already completed the tracks for her follow-up, Like a Virgin, but Warners/Sire had pushed back the release because sales of Madonna continued so steadily. She did her infamous “Like a Virgin” dance rolling around the stage at the MTV Awards during an off day from Desperately Seeking Susan shooting. She told me that Cyndi Lauper wouldn’t even look at her that night, which bothered her (!!!) because she said she wanted to be friends with other women singers.
As Madonna didn’t work every day, I’d go over to her place every now and then so she could do her photo approvals. Madonna’s loft was a long rectangle, around a thousand square feet, with a large mirror on the far end and a Roland keyboard (probably the JX-3P heard on so many of her songs of that period) near the door. I don’t remember there being much else; it looked more like a dance studio or a gallery than a home.
True story: the very last time I went to pick up color slides and contact sheets from Madonna, she didn’t feel like letting me upstairs, so she threw them out the window, and they went flying into traffic, The contact sheets didn’t matter (we could make more), but the original slide were priceless and irreplaceable. If you consider how well known the film became, you can imagine what a big deal it would have been if these images had been lost forever. I practically got killed saving those pictures. When I told this story to Desperately Seeking Susan set photographer Andy Schwartz, he nearly died too.
Despite all her MTV fame, a waitress at the Hard Rock Café on 57th tried to kick us out during an interview she was doing with David Keeps for Star Hits. “We’ve got to clean your table!” Madonna was dressed up in her costume with all the accessories, looking the same as when she was performing. (I was always impressed with her professionalism.) Needless to say, when I told the waitress, she was pretty embarrassed, but please--this was the Hard Rock Café, not Sardi’s! It was lame enough that we were doing the interview in their dumb tourist joint, without this nonsense. Who was the moron who set it up there? (Ummm… that would be me.)
Another indication of Madonna’s heat level at the time: when I went to Tower Records to buy her album, there weren’t any in ”M” bins in the rock and pop section. Eventually a guy directed me to the mezzanine where the “dance” music was.
Also, Orion insisted that Desperately Seeking Susan open in March 1985 even though it was shot in the fall of 1984—a hastily accelerated post-production schedule. Why? Because they feared that Madonna might be a flash in the pan and they wanted to pop the film out before the interest in the material girl dematerialized. This despite Madonna having two best-selling records, mountains of press, parades of teen girls dressed like her, and five videos in power rotation on MTV. (The “Into the Groove” video featuring Desperately Seeking Susan clips became the sixth.) Better rev up to hyper-speed with the opening date! Full-blown obscurity could hit Madonna any second!
I remember having difficulty getting a cab on the night of the Amadeus party. Soho wasn’t the madhouse it is today; it was often deserted at night. I was getting pretty stressed out. I finally got a cab and had to beg the driver to wait at the curb while I waited for Madonna and Jelly to come down.
In the cab up Madonna told me about her future plans. She wanted to do a contemporary adaptation of The Blue Angel. I could see real possibilities in the idea, but I admit I also thought, “Madonna saw The Blue Angel? “
If you’re not a New Yorker, Limelight was a club that was built in the former Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion, at 6th Avenue and 20th Street (it’s now a mall). The club had just opened a year before, and I had actually set up one of the first parties there, for “The Fourth Man,” a movie I mentioned in my last post.
Patrick McMullan (photo by Steven Ekerovich)
The first person I saw when we came in was Roger Daltrey. Honestly I don’t remember anybody else famous being there, but that was cool, although he was a lot shorter than I imagined. Tim Ransom came over and we started to hang out. I figured I had to do my job so I went looking for journalists. Eventually I saw Patrick McMullan and he shot the photo above, as well as a few singles of Madonna. When his coffee table book So 80s came out in 2003 McMullan told Interview:
I was at this Dallas Boesendahl party for Amadeus at Limelight (September 12 1984), and a publicist named Reid Rosefelt said to me, “You should come meet this girl Madonna.” I said, “Sure, I'm very happy to meet her,” but I didn't know who she was. So I met her and took a few pictures of her. She couldn't have been sweeter. It was just a very simple, unguarded moment.
Perhaps because I introduced Patrick to Madonna, he included a photo of me, along with Tim and Jellybean in his book. Right behind Madonna you can see a violinist dressed up in (17)80s finery for the party. A very sharp-eyed person can see that I’m wearing a button for Stranger Than Paradise, featured in this post.
When we decided to leave, things got a little complicated. For some reason we didn’t go out the front door, and started wandering around the church’s meandering hallways looking for another exit. But we couldn’t find one-- it was like that famous scene in Spinal Tap—we kept circling around. Finally, totally exasperated, I said the one thing I ever said that made Madonna laugh:
“Who do I have to blow to get out of here?”
She liked that.
Sunday, February 20, 2011
“Is he gay?” asked Madonna. “Gay men take good pictures of me.”
When I worked at the PMK PR firm in 1980, every time we signed a new client, Michael Maslansky (the “M” in PMK) used to have them photographed by Herb Ritts. I’m sure this had more than a little to do with Herb being represented by Michael’s wife Marysa, who had a photo agency called Visages, but the photos were always wonderful. I never met Herb until years later when I had my own company and was handling Paul Verhoeven’s “The Fourth Man.” For an Interview photo, Herb tiptoed me and the film’s Dutch femme fatale, Renée Soutendijk, up to the roof above the dilapidated structure that sat on the site of what is now the Chelsea Piers. It was obvious that we were trespassing and that made it fun, but you couldn’t help but wonder, “How much time had he spent prowling around all that broken glass and torn metal, before he found that perfect spot?”
“I have no idea if Herb Ritts is gay, Madonna,” I said. “But I promise you will like his pictures.” As usual, Madonna was busting my balls, but the important thing was that she and Rosanna Arquette were willing to give up an entire Saturday off from shooting “Desperately Seeking Susan” for the special photography shoot. Ann Lander, the Orion exec in charge of photography had assigned Herb to create some portraits that I could circulate to magazines. If all went well, maybe there would be a poster in there too.
But what should the poster be? What would be a solitary image that would capture the story? If you haven’t seen it, the film is about this bored New Jersey housewife named Roberta (played by Arquette) who follows the personal ads, and is obsessed with a free-spirited type named Susan who uses the personals to keep in touch with her boyfriend. Roberta decides to follow Susan around and when Susan sells her jacket at a thrift store, Roberta buys it, setting in motion a mistaken identity plot. Through the jacket (and a case of amnesia), in a lot of ways Roberta gets to become Susan. The jacket is the engine that makes the whole plot go. So I knew I wanted to display the jacket in a significant way in the poster.
Madonna and Rosanna had totally different kinds of bodies, so Production/Costume Designer Santo Loquasto had made two jackets. But nobody was supposed to know that there was more than one—it would defeat the whole purpose. But something told me that having them both of them in the “Susan” outfits was the way to go. It didn’t make literal sense, but I convinced myself it made metaphorical sense: Roberta and Susan were twins, two sides of the same coin, sisters. Both of them stepped into the other one’s lives, and tried them on for size.
Nowadays photo shoots like these are a big deal, with limos for talent, and a gaggle of publicists and studio executives, but the only people from the movie were me and the wardrobe supervisor Melissa Stanton (who brought the jackets, costumes and accessories), Herb’s crew, and Madonna and Rosanna, who cabbed over themselves. [Why am I so sure they didn’t get cars? Because afterwards Madonna complained that she couldn’t take the subway anymore. She had only recently reached the level of fame where people hassled her on the trains, and she was pissed off about this intrusion on her freedom.]
Upon my entry to the studio, I was greeted by the sight of Madonna whipping off her shirt to change into another outfit. Nothing modest about this girl. I thought to myself, “that’s something very few people will ever see.” Little did I know. Melissa was there with the costumes, but Herb didn’t seem interested. All day long he put the two of them through pose after pose, none of which had nothing to do with the movie.
Rosanna and Madonna had a peculiar relationship. On one hand they were friends and even hung out together outside of work, but on another… Madonna had a way of sucking all the air out of the room. It’s my understanding that the movie was greenlit because Rosanna, red-hot after “The Executioner’s Song” and “Baby, It’s You,” had agreed to be in it. Rosanna was unquestionably the lead and worked practically every day, while Madonna’s role was much smaller in terms of actual scenes. But there was no denying that Madonna was Madonna and she was “Susan,” in a movie called “Desperately Seeking Susan.” Once, when somebody on the street asked who was in the film, I heard Rosanna say, “Madonna.”
The truth was, Madonna had the kind of brash confidence that could overwhelm a lot of people, and certainly a more sensitive type like Rosanna. This photo shoot was a perfect example.
At one point, Ritts was shooting some sultry glamour shots of Rosanna posing against a cloth backdrop, when Madonna came over. After gaping at Rosanna for a minute she said, “You look so good I’d like to fuck you myself.” It was funny, but you could almost hear the air—sssssss!—slipping out of Rosanna’s confidence, as her moment was stolen, and it became all about Madonna. And come on! This was Rosanna Arquette, after all—a true fantasy figure for a good portion of the men in America! Moments later, Madonna grabbed the backdrop, commandeered the same pose… and Herb shot an image that became a famous poster.
Eventually it was time for lunch so Melissa and I went out and got some sandwiches. That was catering. “Who wants the tuna?” Madonna played me a track, “Sidewalk Talk,” for a compilation album “Jellybean Rocks the House,” her boyfriend Jellybean Benitez was producing. She seemed pleased that I liked it, which made me feel good. She often made fun of me on the set, but the truth was I spent a lot of time with her alone, going over pictures in her trailer and in her loft (she lived a few blocks from me) and we got along very well. Her instincts for publicity were amazing even then and I have always considered her one of my mentors. (I’ve learned a thing or two from other publicists, but the best training comes from natural born salesmen like her.) My favorite story about her was about how she got her manager. She asked who handled Michael Jackson and when she found out it was Freddy DeMann, she called him. Who would have the chutzpah to do that? Freddy signed her.
Legendary style-setter Andre Leon Talley turned up unannounced and wanted Herb to shoot a photo of Madonna for Vanity Fair. Before I could say anything, Talley put a pair of multi-colored men’s boxer shorts on top of Madonna’s head and started twisting them around.
This put me in a tough spot because neither Freddy DeMann or Madonna’s publicist Liz Rosenberg had approved this. Madonna said I should call Freddy at home and if he said it was okay, she’d do it. As bratty as she could be, in the important ways she was pretty easy to deal with in those days. I’d say, “look, you have to do this now so that you won’t have to do it later,” and she got it.
It was starting to get pretty late and I decided it was time to put my foot down--I told Herb it was time to shoot the “Desperately Seeking Susan” costumes. After a very long day shooting pictures completely unrelated to the movie, I think he spent an hour or two doing it. But those few frames turned out to be gold.
As we were getting ready to go, I really did see something that I think very few people have ever seen, at least for a long time. Madonna called Jellybean and they were in the middle of some kind of argument. For a few moments I saw her impregnable shell break away: she appeared to be a normal young woman unsatisfied or hurt by whatever her boyfriend up to. As I had learned that day, showing her breasts wasn’t a big issue to Madonna, but showing vulnerability definitely was: as soon as she spied me looking, she tucked that honest emotion back into whatever place she kept them in, and was “Madonna” again.
Herb Ritts’ Rolling Stone Cover of Madonna and Rosanna
The only picture of them on this page not shot on that first day.
Early the next week, Herb turned up at Madonna’s trailer with several hundred dollars worth of extraordinary photos. Platinum Prints. Museum quality stuff. I’d never seen anything like it. I surmised that he was hoping to photograph Ms. Ciccone again. I think it’s an understatement to say that’s exactly what happened. He became one of Lady Madonna’s top court photographers, shooting many of her most memorable images, until his untimely death in 2002.
Sometime after the film wrapped, I happened to be at the New York Orion office for a publicity meeting when the ad agency was making a presentation. The focus was on the New Jersey housewife part of the movie. Rosanna’s face was on a toaster and Madonna’s face was on a piece of toast. Something I can’t remember with a microwave oven. Each one was more terrible than the one before. As it happened, I had brought a set of the slides from the Ritts photo session to the meeting. I pulled them out and said, “have you guys seen these?” They hadn’t. Ann Lander had gone on vacation and locked the photos up in her safe. Seriously. There was a hush in the room.
This wasn’t the end of the story, however. Some people at Orion thought that the image would make people think it was a lesbian movie. Thankfully the film’s producers, Midge Sanford and Sarah Pillsbury, were able to make their case and the result is the poster as you can see it above.
Pretty much every “Desperately Seeking Susan” slide Herb took during that hour got used thousands of times. One of them even became a Playboy Cover.
Years later I visited the London Film Museum… and there it was! My poster! I was truly proud. I felt that in this tiny way, I had been part of the history of film. After all, that image would not exist if I hadn’t thought it up! Okay, okay, Herb, Rosanna, Madonna, Santo, Melissa, Susan Seidelman, screenwriter Leora Barish, and even Ann Lander had something to do with it too.
As Rosanna Arquette is still someone I have kept in touch with and I believe reads my blog now and then, I apologize for once again making this story ALL ABOUT MADONNA. She has always had a way of making everything about her.
Years later I ran into Madonna at Lee’s Art Shop on 57th Street. I introduced myself and said that I worked on “Desperately Seeking Susan.” “A lot of people worked on ‘Desperately Seeking Susan,’” she said, as she walked past me.
MORE ON MADONNA this coming Sunday
Sunday, February 13, 2011
Donald Rugoff with Robert Downey, Sr. (LIFE photo)
In my blog last week about Miramax, I said I’d never worked for anybody like them, which was literally true. But I failed to mention that there was a razzle-dazzle showman in the art film business long before the Weinstein Brother turned up. I just never worked for him.
His name was Donald Rugoff.
Like my old boss, Dan Talbot, Rugoff booked his films into his own New York Theatres. But Talbot rarely had more than one screen, and it was usually a small, if beloved,cinema.
Rugoff, on the other hand, owned the town. His empire included nearly all of the most desirable screens in the city: Cinema I, Cinema II, Cinema III, Paris, Plaza, Sutton, Beekman, Paramount, Murray Hill, Gramercy and Art theaters. These were the palaces in which he launched the New York releases of his distribution company: Cinema 5..
I doubt many people in the new generation of the specialty film business today have ever heard Rugoff’s name. But he was a star! Just look at a few of he films he brought out: “The Cool World,” “Nothing But a Man,” “Morgan!” “The Endless Summer,” “Elvira Madigan,” “The Two of Us,” “Z,” “More,” “The Sorrow and the Pity,” “Putney Swope,” “The Firemen’s Ball,” “Alexander,” “Trash,” “The Garden of the Finzi-Continis,” “Marjoe,” “Gimme Shelter,” “The Hellstrom Chronicle,” “WR: Mysteries of the Organism,” “On Any Sunday,” “A Sense of Loss,” “The Trial of the Catonsville Nine,” “Greaser’s Palace,” “Cesar and Rosalie,” “The Tall Blond Man with One Black Shoe,” “State of Siege,” “Scenes From a Marriage,” “Distant Thunder,” “Going Places,” “Swept Away,” “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” “Seven Beauties,” “The Man Who Fell to Earth,” “Volcano,” “A Slave of Love,” “Man on the Roof,” “Harlan County U.S.A.,” “Coup de Grace,” “Providence,” “Pumping Iron “Jabberwocky,” “The Man Who Loved Women,” “A Special Day,” “Padre Padrone,” “Outrageous!” “Iphigenia,” “Viva Italia!” and “The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser.”
This is the point in my post where I would normally tell a personal anecdote or two. But while he was somebody who was constantly in my thoughts throughout my early years in the business, I’m sad to say I never met the man. Not once. So let me reprint a letter that was written to the New York Times upon the occasion of Rugoff’s death in 1989, by Dan Talbot, someone who knew him well.
DONALD RUGOFF: In Memory of a “Wild Genius”
As an old colleague of Don Rugoff's, I'm compelled to write about him upon the occasion of his death last month. I was involved with Don from the time he started in our business in the early 1960's. He was, of course, impossible to make do with. As the head of the best group of theaters in Manhattan until 1979, he was in a position of great power and, given his spiky personality, he had the capacity to make people furious with him.
On the other hand, he was an uncommonly generous soul, without the foggiest notion of the normal uses of money. Don was a stand-in for the guy who stood on street corners throwing away $100 bills. One of the mad ones. Naturally, directors and producers loved him, thought of him as a wild genius. Relished his stew of unpredictability and showmanship. Once he staged a $35,000 champagne party for Dusan Makaveyev at the Plaza Hotel for the opening of Makaveyev's brilliant movie ''WR: Mysteries of the Organism.'' He liked doing things on the spur of the moment. ''Yeah, let's rent a boat tomorrow and stack it with flags announcing our new film. Call Glorious Foods. Get a steeplejack who'll climb up the sails. We'll circle Manhattan two times. Invite Norman Mailer and Andy Warhol.''
For you who have come to the city only in the past 10 years, I can tell you that you missed a Golden Age of cinema-going before Don lost control of his theaters in 1979. You cannot imagine how thrilling is was to stand on line at the Beekman, waiting to see the new Woody Allen movie. Virtually all Don's theaters played films on an exclusive basis, so that you had the sense of an event taking place at each theater.
Don visited his theaters daily. He would catch ushers picking their noses and yell at them, check the bathrooms, hold long conversations with the projectionist and the manager, scowl at the slightest mis-frame or sudden drop in the sound level.
And what wonderful theaters! He put together the team to build Cinema 1 and 2, model theaters of our time. He shoe-horned Cinema 3 into an impossible space in the Plaza Hotel, and it came out a beauty. Each theater had its own identity, separate and apart from the others, because Don liked to experiment with color, fabric, wall design, lighting, floor covering, bathroom fixtures, door handles, the box office.
For a number of years Don dropped put. Then, about a year ago I got a call from him from Martha's Vineyard. He was opening a film society in a cafe in Edgartown. Would I supply him with films? I never visited him in Edgartown but I have to believe that he did something special there, that he had made good purchase on his audience and treated it honorably. He booked tough films from us. He must have stood in the lobby discussing the films with his audience. He surely wouldn't allow popcorn in the theater. There were probably Jasper Johns and Milton Avery prints on the walls of the lobby. One could go on imagining all sorts of things. But the curtain's down and I shall miss Don. He was an original.
While I didn’t know Rugoff, some of the people who did have posted some comments, including Ira Deutchman, Fabiano Canosa, Don Krim, and Susan Pile. Check them out. If anybody else has something to share, please contribute.
Don Rugoff was a great man and a great New Yorker. Attention must be paid.
Sunday, February 06, 2011
“The King’s Speech” is the most recent example of what the Weinstein brothers have done countless times: produce or acquire a film that their instincts tell them has Oscar potential, and then vigorously promote it as if their life depended on it. Their connection to this particular film is only of the moment because they have done this so many times before and will no doubt do it many times in the future. Next year it will be on to the next one.
Trying like hell to get a bucketful of Oscars for movies like “The King’s Speech” is just what they do. It’s actually “The Social Network” that captures who they are.
In the summer of 1983, I noticed a brief item in Variety. A company called Miramax had picked up rights to a Brazilian film called “Eréndira,” based on a story by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, directed by Ruy Guerra, and starring Irene Papas, that was set for its US premiere at the New York Film Festival. I had never heard of the company, but the film seemed right up my alley: Marquez was one of my favorite novelists, I knew Ruy Guerra’s work, but most of all my profession to that date had been working with the kind of modest foreign art films that had their US debut every year at the New York Film Festival. I called them up right away and set up a meeting.
Ruy Guerra as Don Pedro de Ursua in Werner Herzog’s “Aguirre, the Wrath of God”
Their office was a small apartment in a residential building across the street from the Citibank on 56th and Broadway. Miramax turned out to be a secretary, Harvey Weinstein, Bob Weinstein, and Robert Newman (now a celebrated agent with clients like Martin Scorsese, Guillermo del Toro and Danny Boyle.) The Weinsteins had made some money producing rock concerts in Buffalo, but as longtime film fans, were moving into the film business, first with rock concert films like Paul McCartney’s “Rockshow,” and a horror film called “The Burning,” (the film debut of future Oscar winner Holly Hunter and “Seinfeld star Jason Alexander. But their biggest success was “The Secret Policeman’s Other Ball,” a concert film they had created by editing the rights to two films of Amnesty International benefit shows into one movie. “Eréndira” was to be their first venture into the foreign art film arena.
I’d been through this kind of publicity job endless times before. The Film Society of Lincoln Center would bring in Ruy Guerra and put him up at the Algonquin Hotel, where I’d set up interviews. The cost of his publicity schedule would be cab fare and some meals. After eleven years working in the New York art film business, that was all I knew. Everybody I worked with cut their costs to the bone, and I had no reason to believe that the Weinstein brothers would be any different.
Talk about being wrong.
There was nothing out of the ordinary at the start. Ruy Guerra and his nectarious blossom of a girlfriend, Claudia Ohana, who played Eréndira, came to town and I put a publicity schedule together. These stories would be held until the release the spring of the following year. But then, Harvey and Bob began a campaign to bring Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who was also a co-screenwriter into the country. Although Marquez had become a Nobel Laureate the year before, he was still painted as a Fidel-loving subversive by the US immigration services and denied visas. At first I thought this was just a publicity stunt, but I gradually realized that they were completely serious. It didn’t bother them one bit that so many powerful cultural organizations had failed to bring Marquez in—they were going to be the ones to do it. I ended up working on the film for almost a year and I don’t remember them ever giving up for a second.
This was different. I wasn’t aware of any major studio films that were willing to take on the US government in such a fiery, relentless way.
But that was nothing until I saw the poster. They had taken the Brazilian artwork, unbuttoned the top button of Eréndira’s blouse and added extra cleavage to Claudia Ohana’s chest. Cleavage! I died laughing. I had never seen anything so crass. Would art filmgoers want to see the film more if they believed that Claudia had slightly bigger breasts? And it seemed so off the mark as the essence of Claudia (and Eréndira’s) sensuality, emanated from her barely ripe sensuality. But then I thought about it and I realized that this was a truly erotic movie, and the Brazilian poster was sort of prim. It didn’t signal the pleasures the film offered as well as Miramax poster did. I had to give them credit. They were showmen, paying attention to every detail. Maybe it was cheesy, but who was I to say? Maybe it would help. (And significantly, every poster I can find on the web from other countries used the Miramax art.)
Claudia Ohana in “Eréndira”
In the spring, they brought in the internationally famous Greek actress Irene Papas (“Z,” “Zorba the Greek,” “The Trojan Women,” “The Guns of Navarone”) and the brothers set me to work all over again. Papas was a legend, and you couldn’t put her up at the Howard Johnson. You have to go first class in everything and I was astounded to see this kind of cash outlay for what most other distributors would consider a little film. Obviously she was on a whole other level than Ruy Guerra and I booked her everywhere-- newspapers, magazine, big TV shows, the whole works. Even during my brief stint at PMK I had never got coverage like this. The brothers also set up fancy parties. I got to meet Anthony Quinn! Their belief in the film was boundless.
Eventually Irene left town and I figured that was it for me, “Eréndira”-wise. Wrong again.
When the summer came, Harvey called me and said that Claudia Ohana was coming to New York to do a commercial photo shoot. Could I get her in Playboy? I could and I did. I also set up a lush schedule photo shoots with Claudia in lots of other places. Finally, I took Claudia to the airport and finally, finally, finally, I was done with “Eréndira.” With all the time I had spent on the film I figured I’d been paid less than a penny an hour.
Claudia’s Latin American Playboy Covers
I have no idea if Miramax made money on “Eréndira,” but it was beside the point as they had taught me a crucial lesson. These two outsiders came in and reinvented the entire business as I had known it. They weren’t trying to do it better than everybody else did; they didn’t give a damn about what anybody else did. They were looking straight up. As Christopher Lloyd’s character said in “Back to the Future”—“Roads! Where we’re going we don’t need roads!” The sky was not the limit for them because they didn’t consider the notion of there being a sky. Harvey had kicked my ass, made me work harder for less money than I ever had in my life, but he had made a real publicist out of me.
Don’t ever let ANYBODY ever tell you a film is small.
There are no small movies, only small imaginations.
There is no limit to the amount of passion and care you can put into a movie if you love it.
NEVER give up. There is never enough that you can do.
You want to know some of the business people who think this way? Looks at the world with no top? Steve Jobs. Rupert Murdoch. Bill Gates. Steven Spielberg. Michael Bloomberg. Mark Zuckerberg.
And when he’s on his game… Harvey Weinstein.
Hubris like this is very rare in business executives, but it is quite common with visionary artists. People often use the same kinds of words to describe people like this: uncompromising, arrogant, difficult, controlling, demanding, and sometimes… cruel. Something extra is inside these people and something is missing too. They’re probably born that way, lucky or cursed, and no doubt spurred by something chemical.
Like everybody else, I was fascinated to read the reports of Harvey’s bad behavior. I didn’t know that guy. The guy I knew was a charmer. When I ran into him (on the extremely rare occasions where he remembered who I was), he was always gracious. I only encountered the cruel Harvey second-hand, through the way some of the people who worked for him treated me. That wasn’t fun.
I was pretty good at my job before I worked with the Weinstein Brothers-- passionate, hard-working, and movie mad—but afterwards my outlook changed. It opened up. Shortly after “Eréndira,” I publicized “Stranger Than Paradise” and “Desperately Seeking Susan,” the biggest successes I had ever had after thirteen years in the business.
In the subsequent years I worked for many people who loathed the Weinstein brothers. I imagine it will make them furious if they happen to read these words of praise. But it’s a fact that when those companies hired me, they got a publicist who was schooled and inspired by Harvey and Bob Weinstein.
If they liked the results, then they owe him, whether they want to accept it or not.