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annals of communications
The New Yorker - May 17, 1993

what won't they do?

Hollywood decision-makers discuss the social impact of the big screen and the small screen--and where the entertainment industry's responsibilities end.

by ken auletta

The producer Lawrence Gordon was convinced that his movie "The Warriors" would be a major success. The research told him. Word of mouth told him. The year was 1979, before Gordon had produced such hits as "Die Hard," "Predator," "Field of Dreams," and "48 Hours," and he thought that "The Warriors"--a movie about street gangs--was his ticket to producer Heaven. When the movie opened, long lines at theatres across the country seemed to confirm his hopes. But Gordon's euphoria was short-lived. When teen-agers left those theatres, violence erupted. In the first week, three killings were linked to the movie. "People went out and pretended they were warriors," Gordon says. He and Paramount recalled the film.

It was certainly a humbling experience for Gordon, who would no doubt prefer to be remembered for "Field of Dreams." Though Gordon still produces action-adventure movies, when he speaks of the impact of on-screen violence he does not sound, as some others in Hollywood do, like a cigarette manufacturer insisting that there is no conclusive proof that smoking causes cancer. "I'd be lying if I said that people don't imitate what they see on the screen," he said in a recent interview. "I would be a moron to say they don't, because look how dress styles change. We have people who want to look like Julia Roberts and Michelle Pfeiffer and Madonna. Of course we imitate. It would be impossible for me to think they would imitate our dress, our music, our look, but not imitate any of our violence or our other actions."

Compared with our current movies--or TV fare, music, books, or advertisements--Gordon's "The Warriors" was tepid. The average American child, watching around three hours of television a day, has by seventh grade witnessed eight thousand murders and more than a hundred thousand other acts of violence, according to the American Psychological Association. In 1991, the Motion Picture Association of America rated only sixteen per cent of American movies as fit for kids under thirteen. The irony is that a PG film is more than three times as likely as an R-rated film to gross more than a hundred million dollars at the domestic box office. Twenty-two of the forty-six films that did so between 1984 and 1991 were PG rated--yet the percentage of films with a PG rating has dropped, according to the media-research firm Paul Kagan Associates.

If PG movies generally do better at the domestic box office, why are there so many gruesome action-adventure films? Profit is the chief reason. For a blockbuster movie, the studio makes more money from foreign rights, video sales, and rentals than it does from domestic movie theatres. Larry Gordon's "Die Hard 2," for instance, is expected to gross nearly five hundred million dollars, only a third of that total from domestic theatres. "The action genre travels well around the world," Gordon says. "Everyone understands an action movie. If I tell you a joke, you may not get it, but if a bullet goes through the window we all know how to hit the floor, no matter the language."

Of course, another reason for the genre is that America, the country most strongly addicted to the moving image, is perhaps the most violent of Western societies. On average, a violent crime is committed here every seventeen seconds. The entertainment industry alone cannot be blamed for this, any more than guns alone, and not the people who pull their triggers, can be blamed for gun-related deaths. But the connections are inescapable. If there were fewer guns, fewer people would be shot to death; if there were fewer violent images, fewer people might be moved to seek violent solutions. Last year, an American Psychological Association report entitled "Big World, Small Screen" concluded, "Accumulated research clearly demonstrates a correlation between viewing violence and aggressive behavior--that is, heavy viewers behave more aggressively than light viewers. Children and adults who watch a large number of aggressive programs also tend to hold attitudes and values that favor the use of aggression to solve conflicts."

The people who shape our culture are often questioned about their success but rarely about their values, except by the likes of former Vice-President Dan Quayle, whom they comfortably flick aside as if he were a flea. Quayle's motives were dismissed as political, but "family values"--as any desperately poor teen-age mother trying to raise a couple of kids while battling the influence of the streets and the TV screen knows--are not some right-wing confection. Bill Clinton, in an interview with TV Guide which was published just after he was elected President, said he was "mortified" by much of what is created in Hollywood, and he urged the industry to lead in "deglamorizing mindless sex and violence." It can be argued that the entertainment industry as a whole has probably given more thought to the pollution of rivers than it has to the pollution of minds. "They don't even think about what they put in movies," a key figure at one of the six major studios says of his colleagues. "The same people who are so enlightened and socially responsible don't even think about it."

Don't they? And, if they do, what limits do they put on themselves? I interviewed a cross-section of the managers and artists who decide what we watch, asking each of them, "What won't you do?"

RUPERT MURDOCH, who is the chairman of Twentieth Century Fox and owns media properties on four continents, paused a long while before answering my question, his eyes closed. "You wouldn't do anything that you couldn't live with, that would be against your principles," he said, sitting in his office on the Fox lot. "It's a very difficult question if you're a man of conscience," he went on. "If you thought that you were doing something that was having a malevolent effect, as you saw it, on society, you would not do it. We would never do violence such as you see in a Nintendo game. When I see kids playing Nintendo, and they're able to actually get their character on the screen to bite his opponent in the face, that's pretty sick violence. And you watch the kids doing this to each other and they're yelling and laughing for hours on end. Is it all fantasy, and is it all harmless fantasy? I don't know. There has been violence in movies that we put out. Some of it I dislike. . . . But is violence justified? Is the violence of 'Lethal Weapon' O.K.? I think so. If it involves personal cruelty, sadism--obviously, you would never do that. The trouble is, of course, that you run a studio, and how free are you to make these rules? The creative people give you a script and are given last cut on a movie. The next thing, you have a thirty-million-dollar movie in the can which you may disapprove of."

Murdoch's Sun, in London, publishes a photograph of a bare-breasted woman every day, and he regards that as harmless fun, but he was critical of the sexually prurient movie "Basic Instinct," saying, "I wouldn't have made that picture. The violence, the homosexuality, the varied aspects that were added just for shock effect--it was a film of no redeeming moral values." He is nettled that a "generally flattering" article in The Economist suggested that his newspapers had contributed to a "coarsening of British public life."

I asked him if he thought a tabloid TV show like Fox's much imitated "A Current Affair"--some of whose recent segments have been headlined "Hollywood Sex," "Topless Haircut," "Killer Doctor," "Sexy Calendars," "Superbowl Hookers," "Felony Nannies," "Teacher Pervert," and "Sex Addiction"--had had a coarsening influence on American life.

Murdoch acknowledged that the show "got out of control in the early days," and went on, "Coarsening? I don't know. If you were to say there had been occasions when 'A Current Affair' has treated some subjects sleazily in the past, I'd have to say yes." He added, "If you want me to get up and defend every film, every program, I won't do it."

Such a defense would be hard. Segment titles indicate that, of the hundred and eight half-hour shows of "A Current Affair" between October of last year and February of this, in only less than ten per cent of them did the viewer have to survive without at least one story about sex or violence. John Terenzio, at the time the executive producer for "A Current Affair"--he left his job in March to move to Florida--told me in a separate interview that Fox was planning to clean up the show, so as to attract quality advertisers and respond to research suggesting that some people were tired of gratuitous sex. What wouldn't Terenzio do? He had been accosted by so many sleazy people who wanted money or publicity or retribution that he seemed to have thought more about the ques-tion than many of the people I interviewed. He ticked off a list: He wouldn't pay a convicted felon when there was a victim of the crime, or if there was a homicide. He wouldn't invade the privacy of a child. He wouldn't invade the privacy of an adult to identify someone as being H.I.V.-positive. He wouldn't out a homosexual. He wouldn't "do anything that makes fun of the average guy--like the story I killed about the controversy in a little town in Kentucky over the fact that a guy had followed the local sheriff around and got a picture of him necking with a woman other than his wife."

Murdoch is more concerned about inadvertent censorship occasioned by Hollywood group-think than he is about the issue of government censorship. He sees Hollywood as a town populated by too many insecure, eager-to-please people, who probably spend too much time consulting their psychiatrists. "This town has a very monolithic view of life," he said. "You mention things like family values, and they're terribly suspicious that you're talking sort of religious rules. It really is very hard to have a discussion here with people of a different opinion about things, the way you can in New York." In Hollywood, he said, "certain things are accepted as absolute givens--abortion, gay rights."

How does he reconcile the two Murdochs--the citizen who embraces "family values" with the publisher and programmer who sometimes undermines those values?

"Without being specific or apologizing for anything--I'm sure I've made lots of mistakes in the last sixty-two years--I'm not going to spend my life looking back," he said.

Referring to Gerald M. Levin, the chief executive officer of Time Warner, he said, "I'm not going to do a Jerry Levin, and say, 'Hey, everything's fine under the First Amendment. We publish anything and anything by everybody.' We don't. We reserve the right to edit. I think you should not give offense to people's religious beliefs. For instance, I hope that our people"--at HarperCollins, the Murdoch-owned book publisher--"would never have published the Salman Rushdie book. It clearly went out of its way to give great offense to a lot of people. Now, obviously, I'm not supporting anyone saying, 'Let's kill him for it,' but I think it went to the point of being an abuse of free speech."

OLIVER STONE, the director of "Wall Street" and "JFK," is a First Amendment absolutist. He wrestles only briefly with the question "What won't you do?"

"Off the top of my head, I'd pretty much do anything," he said at his office, in Santa Monica. "I don't view ethics from the outside, only from the inside. What you would find shocking I probably would not. For me, it's a question more of taste."

For example?

"Lurid, sexual, kinky stuff which I might like privately I don't necessarily want to do publicly. As Oscar Wilde said, 'I just don't subscribe to your bourgeois morality. It bores me.' You can do anything as long as you do it well. I think Hitler would make a great movie."

Does he believe, as Bill Clinton does, that Hollywood is too preoccupied with violence and sex?

"That's an old issue," Stone said. "I don't believe that government has the right to legislate art or censor it." A movie is "a limited art form that sells for three to seven dollars and fifty cents a ticket, and it's a person's choice whether to buy it or not," he went on. "It's like buying a book. Buying 'Ulysses' in 1922 made you commit an illegal action, made you subject to fine and imprisonment. So where is this going to go? Is Tipper Gore going to be our cultural commissar? I resent that. Bill Clinton is talking through his asshole. He's just catering to the body politic. Nobody's forcing anybody to go see 'Bad Lieutenant.' But thank God that Abel Ferrara made it. It was an act of liberation. As is Madonna's 'Sex' book. She has a perfect right. And if Ice-T wants to say what he wants to say about cops, he's got a right."

Since few say that Madonna or Ice-T doesn't have that right, why does Stone equate criticism with censorship?

"It depends on what form the criticism takes," he replied. "Aesthetic criticism is fine. If you're saying, 'I don't like the subject matter and I don't think you have the right to say that,' you're engaging in a form of criticism that borders on censorship."

Does Stone reject the argument that there's too much violence in movies?

"Yes and no," he said. "Yes, there's too much violence when the violence is badly done. I go back to my aesthetic defense. If it's badly done, it becomes obscene. It's not real. If it's well done, it has impact, it has a dramatic point, then it has meaning. It's valid."

Some people--Rupert Murdoch among them--have accused Stone of dishonesty for promulgating conspiracy theories as facts. How does Stone justify putting words in the mouths of famous men, as he does in "JFK"?

"It comes out of a context," Stone said. "If you examine the movie, you'll see that nothing is factually put in. It's surmised. Donald Sutherland describes a scenario: 'This could have happened. And that is possible.' And he lays out a paradigm of possibilities. And you choose. In fact, Lyndon Johnson was quoted in Stanley Karnow's not necessarily great book as saying, 'Just let me get elected, and then you can have your war.' " The quotes from Chief Justice Earl Warren, Stone added, were taken from a transcript of an interview Warren had had with Jack Ruby. "I didn't put anything in Warren's mouth."

But does the movie not put words in people's mouths?

"In the suppositions, I put things in Oswald's mouth," Stone said.

The movie leaves the clear implication that Lyndon Johnson was part of a conspiracy to murder John F. Kennedy. Does Stone think that questioning that implication constitutes "bourgeois morality"?

"It is a restriction and it is a form of censorship to demand of history a fact-only basis, because history is subject to interpretation, and reinterpretation," he said. "And the facts are often in dispute."

Stone believes that the movie-ratings system--a voluntary system--amounts to a form of censorship. "There is a natural law of ethics that operates as a money law," he said. "There is an economic ethics where if you don't make the R rating you get the NC-17, and you get kind of frozen out of the theatre business. They're all afraid of that."

Does Stone oppose any ratings system for movies?

"Oh, yeah," he said. "I think the ratings system is a consumer label that is put on the package to deal with an age-old fear from the nineteen-twenties, of Hollywood being satanic and taking over the minds of the young."

THE man who perhaps more than any other is in charge of the minds of the young is Michael Eis-ner, the chairman of Disney, and he agonizes very little about morality in films. While he has not made many violent movies, he said of studios that do, "It's not a moral issue. I'm glad they do it. It brings people to the movie theatres."

What does Eisner say to Bill Clinton and others who urge Hollywood to tone down the sex and violence, and who quote from more than three thousand studies showing that television affects the behavior and attitudes of viewers--particularly young viewers?

"There are studies that say the opposite, too," he said. "That it's a release from built-in tension. I do not think the President of the United States has an obligation to encourage censorship. There's nothing wrong with his expressing his opinion. I don't disagree with that."

Why is Eisner raising the spectre of censorship? Even when Quayle criticized "Murphy Brown" last May, he was not advocating censorship.

"The majority of people don't want the government to tell the writers of 'Murphy Brown' what to write," Eisner said. "I'll tell you what I am offended by. I'm offended by those who get on a platform and berate Hollywood for violence in the movies, on the one hand, and ignore the proliferation of handguns--something that they could do something about--on the other. That hypocrisy really annoys me."

What about the assertion that people in Hollywood don't think about the social consequences of what they do?

Eisner responded heatedly: "What is Hollywood? I personally think that I'm very responsible. And I think our company is very responsible."

Does Eisner agree with a producer who said he would not allow his ten-year-old to see any of the movies he made?

"I would never make a movie that I would not allow my ten-year-old to go to," he said. "I find that disingenuous. Now, maybe ten is not the line. Maybe it should be twelve or thirteen."

Would he encourage a child of ten--or thirteen--to see Disney's violent and scary "The Hand That Rocks the Cradle"?

"To me, 'The Hand That Rocks the Cradle' was a complete fantasy," Eisner said. "It was a fantasy. It ended up being pro-social, in that there was a whole re-look at the question of leaving your children with people who haven't given you decent references. That was a silly movie. A fun movie."

Does Eisner see a distinction between real and cartoon violence?

"I don't think that anybody thinks that movies like 'The Terminator' are real," he said. "I'm not sure that they don't relieve pressure more than they create it. I don't know the answer to that. I don't want to sit in judgment. I don't think about it that much." Eisner does get upset, however, "when Hollywood is lumped together in a homogenized group," he said. "I object when they depict everybody as kind of striving for that last dollar. It's very easy to hide your own lack of action by blaming some film producer who's made some action movie that doesn't fulfill all the moral criteria that a perfect society would dictate. That's an easy shot."

THE producer who says he wouldn't let his ten-year-old see any of his movies is Martin Bregman, who has produced such films as "Sea of Love," "Scarface," "Serpico," and "The Seduction of Joe Tynan." Bregman works in Manhattan, in an office overflowing with movie scripts.

What won't you do?

Bregman looked over at a table beside his desk, where there were photographs of his family, and said, "I have a ten-year-old daughter. She's never seen any of my movies. I have no complaint with the R rating. I don't let my kids see any R-rated film."

Still, Bregman, like many people in the movie business, is torn by contradictory impulses. As a moviemaker, he believes that the voluntary ratings system is a form of censorship. "I don't like someone telling me what I can say," he said. As a parent, however, he welcomes it. "If there were no ratings, I'd first have to go see each movie before allowing my daughter to go," he said.

THERE are people who say that Columbia Pictures' "Lethal Weapon" was too violent and might have had a bad influence on kids. Mark Canton, who has been the chairman of Columbia since 1991, is not among them. He speaks of his movies as if they were about art--were sweeping narratives with profound messages. "It is true that I would not want to make movies that are so socially irresponsible that they could cause real harm," he said. "I approach each day by thinking that the art form, that the opportunities that lie within the process of making a movie are almost limitless. . . . Often, movies anticipate what society is about rather than merely reflect what it's about. You end up on both sides of that equation. I think that by and large there are several messages in the first 'Lethal Weapon.' Dick"--Richard Donner, the director--"had a little thing about 'Don't eat tuna.' And he got that in. And there was also a message about condoms, which he got in. There were a lot of messages within the drama, and that is part of the reason people felt it was very accessible to the real world. So I think if you can have stories, and I think 'Lethal' is one of them, in which the bond, the relationship between the cops and Danny's family, and Mel as a loner, was such that you had an emotional connection--when you have that, you succeed. When you have movies that are violence for violence's sake, you don't succeed."

So what won't Canton do?

"I would not consciously involve us in any motion picture that I really felt was without any logical component to the story, any redeeming overt value."

So what movies does he think went over the edge?

Canton declined to name any. Instead, he retreated to the high ground, saying that he sensed--and that Columbia's research confirmed this--that "PG movies, by far, have become more popular." Perhaps this was why the new Arnold Schwarzenegger feature, "Last Action Hero," would be more like a James Bond movie, without blood, without graphic violence or language. "I believe there is starting to be a turn toward the family movie," Canton said--a "new mood" in Hollywood. Yet a second later he said, "What I don't like, what I won't allow myself to be, is censored by the critics--the Michael Medveds."

Hollywood has a "bias for the bizarre," Medved wrote in his 1992 book "Hollywood vs. America," which catalogues one gory detail after another in mass-marketed films, videos, and records--episodes in which performers drink urine, rip toenails out with pliers, and torture women. Why is it "censorship" if a movie critic and author like Medved urges--as he does, and as Canton seemed to be doing at one point in our conversation--that moviemakers think more about the consequences of what they put on the screen?

In reply, Canton mentioned his own liberalism. "We were the people in the sixties who were advocating peace," he said. "We were out there. We worked at the social issues. And we are the responsible citizens and leaders now. I believe we know how to manage ourselves."

A SMALL studio that has managed it- self well, both making money and producing or distributing quality movies, is Miramax Films, which was recently acquired by Disney. Its output includes "The Crying Game," "Cinema Paradiso," "My Left Foot," "The Grifters," "Mr. and Mrs. Bridge," "Passion Fish," "Reservoir Dogs," and "Enchanted April." Miramax is the creation of two brothers from Queens, Harvey and Robert Weinstein.

What won't you do?

"I wouldn't put violence for violence's sake on a movie screen," Harvey Weinstein said in an interview in his office, in Tribeca. But he added that his wife thought "Reservoir Dogs" was excessively violent, and walked out when Miramax screened it. "It was too real," he said. "It wasn't cartoon violence." Still, Weinstein feels that the movie accurately depicted the banality of the lives of six small-time hoods with hair-trigger tempers. To his wife,it was gruesome. "At the end of the day, it's back to your own personal taste," Weinstein said. "Is Clint Eastwood's 'Unforgiven' art, or is it gratuitous violence? I thought it was a great film. Yet I know a lotof women who felt it was gratuitousviolence."

AS the mother of a six-year-old boy, Debra Winger gets livid when she hears that Oliver Stone calls movie ratings a form of censorship. "That's bullshit!" she exclaimed in a telephone interview. "He gets to do whatever he wants. We just want to let people know by some code what it is, so they can decide whether to take their six-year-old or not. Where's his conscience?"

Unlike Stone, Winger finds "gratuitous violence" and kinky sex in too many movies. Like Murdoch, she has not always lived up to her professed standards. But her attitude changed when her son, Noah, was born. "I don't have any nannies, or anything," said Winger, who left Los Angeles to bring up her son alone in upstate New York. "So when I go out to the movies I usually have to go see something he can see, unless I have a night out. But when I want to see something that's going to entertain me as well, I find it sort of startling." She scans the small boxes in movie ads searching for PG ratings, which are uncommon. She worries about violence. She worries about foul language. She worries about explicit sex. As an actress in pursuit of interesting roles, she saw these ratings as a threat. Now that she is a parent, she sees them as a guide.

Sometimes she won't let Noah see films that carry a PG-13 label. "I wouldn't let him see 'Home Alone,' " she said, of the movie made by Murdoch's Fox studio. "I hate films where the parents are idiots." She also hated the joy that the son, played by Macauley Culkin, took in committing acts of violence. "I took Noah to see 'A River Runs Through It,' which was great," she said. "But, my God, getting him through the coming attractions--I had to throw a body block!"

What won't Debra Winger do?

"Gratuitous violence, to me, is not entertaining," she said. "A lot of people can file it as pure entertainment. I have not been without violent moments in my films, but they're limited, and they're very specific. And, even then, it's my least favorite thing. I mean, somebody blowing away fifteen people in the first reel!"

Why do so many Hollywood figures get defensive about what they view as censorship?

"They're all killers," she said. "They go from being devoted to their families to being killers. They're cutthroat. When I talk to them about their kids, this is where I find a big defensiveness comes up. They're doing things out in the world that are very, very questionable. And they're all these sort of liberal Democrats. It's all very confusing. It'salmost as if they never paused and looked at the whole picture. I see people who go along and their kids are gathered like assets--you know, 'I have threechildren now.' " In Winger's view, Hollywood itself, with its insularity and its comfortable way of life, shields peo-ple from reality, and that may explain why there is a disjunction between the movies made and the individuals who make them. "I'm a strong believer inadversity, and, with the weather there being what it is, and everybody with three cars, and everything there for you, it's sort of tragic, in a weird way," she said. "There's no feeling of how the world really works."

STEVEN SEAGAL writes, produces, and stars in the kind of violent action adventures that Debra Winger shields her son from. A former martial-arts instructor, Seagal has now starred in five popular films, often playing the role of an avenger who takes the law into his own hands to crush the forces of darkness.

What won't you do?

"The no-no's for me certainly include making pictures that are simply exploitive," Seagal said while relaxing in an office bungalow on the Warner Brothers lot, in Burbank. "I've been forced to make movies that I didn't care for, and tried to turn them into something that they originally weren't. And I'm finally getting the power in my career to make the kind of movies that I want to make." He mentioned "Hard to Kill" as a film he "didn't want to make," as if he had been forced to make it. The film was "about nothing," he said, and was "a piece of shit."

Does he worry about the impact of the violence in his films?

"Absolutely," he said. "The only thing I can say is that I get thousands and thousands of letters from all over the world--I guess probably hundreds of thousands." Most of those who write look upon him "as a positive role model," he said. "So I must be doing something in my films to give that impression. I never did violence in any of my pictures that was unjustifiable." He defended the vigilante roles he has played, saying, "The judicial system is very flawed, and it's very seldom that the bad guys really get their come-uppance. We're living in a world where the evil and the strong prey upon the innocent, and get away with it, in a large sense."

Is he concerned that his movies might encourage vigilantism?

"No, because I think history has sort of proven that if people were more rebellious in their thought the system would have to change for the better, because it's not working," he said. "History has proven that people are so complacent that they are being slowly devastated by urban life the way it is."

MICHAEL OVITZ, who is the chair- man of the Creative Artists Agency, one of the three major Hollywood talent agencies, was once one of Seagal's martial-arts students. He made the deal for Seagal's first film role.

What won't Michael Ovitz do?

"Let me start by telling you how we operate on a day-to-day basis," he said. "We have meetings every single day. All the projects--incoming rights materials, ideas, newspaper stories, magazine articles--are reviewed." Of the case involving Amy Fisher and Joey Buttafuoco he said, "In the context of one of those meetings, it came to my attention that we were offered by the lawyer for one of the principals the rights to put it together as a movie or a television movie. And I declined to get involved. I really thought that it was not something this company should associate itself with. Now, by the way, three networks did movies on it. And reasonable men differ. I'm not sitting here passing judgment."

Why did he make that choice?

"I was just exceedingly uncomfortable with the whole story and the reality of it--the tabloid reality of it. That's not to say that some of the fiction that we get involved with is better or worse."

What other projects would C.A.A. decline to represent?

"I can't say in a blanket statement like that," Ovitz replied. "I would never comment on creative people's work. It's not our job to do anything but advise and attempt to be almost pre-editors for them. It's not our job to tell creative people what not to do--unless we think it's morally reprehensible. These are not legal, or even ethical, issues. We are the agents, not the principals. We're not a studio."

What about Madonna's "Sex" book, which many critics dismissed as pornographic? Did Ovitz have qualms about representing the book?

"I think she is brilliant," he said. "I have to tell you that. So I have a personal bias. Whether I agree or disagree with the content of what she does is not relevant. That's a personal issue. When she described the book to us, I thought the whole concept was quite well thought out. The idea of a book being sealed, so it took on a certain taboo, if you will--I'm using her words." He said that C.A.A. represented Madonna on the basis of her oral description of the book. "This was her vision. I had no sense at all of what the content of the book was going to be like. It covered a subject that's as old as the hills, just in a different way. This is a woman who consistently reinvents herself every year. That doesn't happen by accident. I think she's really smart. Did I agree with all the pictures in there? It's not relevant. I didn't know what was in her mind. I only had a vague sense of it when she laid it out for us."

He has three young children. Would he let them see the book?

Ovitz hesitated, seeming embarrassed by the question. Then he declared, "I'm not going to get into it. I don't believe that anyone's forced to go see anything. No one was forced to go see Madonna's book, by the way. And it was in a sealed cover. In order to see it, you had to buy it. Or see somebody else's. That's a personal choice. It's like going to see movies. It's self-choice."

Does he believe that violence has an impact on audiences, particularly kids?

"Yes and no," Ovitz replied. He said that seeing a violent film was a question of choice, and that the violence in movies was often "not real." He continued, "People aren't really getting killed. When you were a kid, people said, 'Let's make believe.' "

When he was asked again if he thought that movie violence had any impact, he said, "I absolutely think it has an impact on kids. It becomes a framework on which children build. I remember all the things of my childhood. They've been my framework for my own value system, and I grew up in the fifties in Los Angeles."

Ovitz believes that the movie business corrects its own excesses, and that if there are too many violent and too few PG movies the situation will change. Yet he also believes that what drives the rush for action-adventure movies is the need to top the other guy with slam-bang special effects, with often expensive novelty, with big hits that can help subsidize other pictures. Then he says, "I don't believe this has to be a business of hits. I believe it is possible to have a very mixed business. I think Warner Brothers has proven that very nicely. Warners has had its share of hits, but nowhere near what a lot of other companies have. It's hit a lot of singles and doubles. It has a real mix of movies, and it's to be complimented for it. The same company can do 'Driving Miss Daisy' and 'JFK' and 'Batman' and 'Lethal Weapon.' "

Of course, "Batman Returns" is a grimly violent film to promote to children in McDonald's, as Warners did, and the body count in "Lethal Weapon" rivals that of the Vietnam War. But Ovitz still believes that Warners is special, because it has been managed by Robert A. Daly, its chairman, and his president, Terry Semel, for more than a decade, whereas most studios change their management far more often. "In a lot of companies, there's an enormous amount of turmoil and turnover," Ovitz said. "And what that creates is short-term thinking. And one of the things that have hurt our business the most is the lack of people who have the ability to work through their convictions over long periods of time. They're always worried about quarterly reports, and about getting thrown out of their jobs. That instability creates bad product."

HOLLYWOOD may traffic in violent movies, but it doesn't traffic in public criticism of fellow-members of the colony. Few executives speak on the record of actual movies they wouldn't have made or actual performances they wouldn't have produced. An exception, in addition to Rupert Murdoch, is the record and movie producer David Geffen (who sold his Geffen Records to MCA in 1990). When he was asked what he wouldn't do, he answered instantly, "Rather than talk about what I wouldn't do in the abstract, I wouldn't put out the Geto Boys record or Andrew Dice Clay," because he felt that they "celebrated murder" or were "homophobic"--though he did produce albums by Guns 'N' Roses that were widely regarded as containing homophobic material. He disagreed with Time Warner for producing an album by Ice-T: "I'm not going to put out a record about killing policemen."

What would Geffen say to those who claim that he threatens artistic freedom?

"They're free to go make these records," he said. "And other companies are free to distribute them. I'm not going to do it. I'm not saying they don't have the right to do this. I'm simply saying I have the right not to sell them. It's about responsibility. It's not about artistic freedom or censorship."

Geffen is quick to emphasize that he does not advocate censorship--that he believes "there are a great many people" in Hollywood "who really do care" and think about quality. But he also believes that the limitations--and the excesses--of the entertainment business spring from the weaknesses of the people in charge. "Too many people who are involved in the world of making movies don't read, don't have a sense of the written word," he said. "They have no sense of story, and so they're not burdened by seeing a movie that has no story. They have one overriding concern: Will it make money?"

THE director James L. Brooks is bur- dened by a quality that seems foreign to, say, Oliver Stone: ambivalence. He has written and directed "Broadcast News" and "Terms of Endearment." He is an executive producer of "The Simpsons," on the Fox network, and was a co-writer of such television classics as "Taxi" and "The Mary Tyler Moore Show." Yet when Brooks was asked "What won't you do?" he said, "I'm confused. There's almost nothing I can say that I could not contradict. There's no question in my mind that, as the parent of two young children, I have to wait a long time to find movies I can take them to. Yet the movie I'm making now--'I'll Do Anything'--I wouldn't want to take my kids to."

As an artist, Brooks concurs with the belief of Oliver Stone and Michael Eisner that any strictures would place a ceiling on his imagination. Yet he applauds the Federal Communications Commission's recent announcement that it would more strictly police the content of Saturday-morning cartoons. "We wouldn't question it for a second if the government moved against drunk driving," he says.

SOMETIMES, as Larry Gordon learned with "The Warriors," it's impossible to anticipate audience reaction. Should a filmmaker think about how the audience may respond? No, says John Landis, who worries that such thinking contains the seeds of censorship.

At forty-two, Landis has directed thirteen feature-length movies, many of which have fared better with audiences than with critics, including "National Lampoon's Animal House," "The Blues Brothers,"The Moncler ,"An American Werewolfin London," and "Three Amigos." He has also directed two Michael Jackson videos. In discussing one of those videos--"Black or White," made in 1991--Landis inadvertently provided ammunition to those who claim that Hollywood indulges itself too much and thinks too little of consequences. In making this eleven-minute video, Landis recalls, Michael Jackson looked at some footage and said, "It's not dazzling enough."

The last half of the video "was basically an improvisation," Landis said. The video was being shot outdoors in downtown Los Angeles, and Jackson had the idea of letting the music and his mood lift him away. The intensity mounted. As Jackson danced, he noticed a garbage can, and he impulsively grabbed it and heaved it into a store window, shatter-ing the glass. He picked up a crow-bar and smashed up a parked car. The violence was unscripted. Landis liked it. "Any Saturday-morning cartoon show has more violence than that," he told me.

But then Jackson further indulged himself, grabbing his crotch and simulating masturbation. He rubbed or squeezed or pulled down the zipper of his fly a total of thirteen times. The choreographer applauded, mentioning that Madonna and Prince did this as well. It was but one example of a Hollywood culture that often exalts self-gratification, from liberated language to sex, drink, and drugs.

Landis was uneasy. "I pointed out that it's not Michael," he said. But Jackson felt that this was "what he wanted to do," Landis said, and Landis went along. At least, it was a bold attempt at self-expression, he said, adding, "Who's to say that's a bad thing?"

Thousands of parents said it was a bad thing. The public furor prompted Jackson to apologize and Landis to quickly sanitize the video.

Landis has no trouble with the movie-ratings system, believing that it was established "to prevent government censorship" and pointing out that "the M.P.A.A. doesn't say to you, 'You can't do this.' " But, like Oliver Stone and others, he seems to believe that censorship is a real danger to Hollywood. "Right now in America, people are taking 'Huckleberry Finn' off bookshelves," he said. When he was asked about Dan Quayle's criticism of Hollywood's "cultural elite," he said, "The last time I heard that was in Berlin."

TED HARBERT is the president of the entertainment division of ABC, which finished the season in second place in the network-ratings system. (CBS was first.) I interviewed him at his office in Century City, in Los Angeles.

What won't Harbert do?

After a long pause, Harbert said that recently he had refused to approve a made-for-TV movie--"I don't want to name it, because it would be unfair to the producer," he said--because it was about nothing but "titillation." He was convinced that it would "get a big number," he said, but he refused to make it, because he felt that doing so would be "pandering to the audience."

Why, then, did ABC broadcast an Amy Fisher movie?

"Good question," he said. He conceded that the networks had no reason to be proud that they had all done Amy Fisher movies. "Yet that's not the full analysis," Harbert said. The real question, he said, is why more than a hundred million people watched these movies. "Part of me--I'm not sure how big a part of me, probably a small part of me--was hoping that after NBC put on the first one the audience would say, 'O.K., I've seen my Amy Fisher story, and ABC's and CBS's I'm not gonna watch.' This would be a good message to network television if the audience said, 'One's enough!' "

Why do viewers display such fervor for these stories?

"My perception is that Americans don't talk to each other very much," Harbert said. "People used to sit on the back fence and talk to each other. They'd sit on the front porch and neighbors would talk. Television has replaced the back fence. Americans love to gossip. It's just something that's part of who we are. We get our gossip from television. . . . Americans now use made-for-TV movies as a way to look in their neighbors' window. That being the case, then what's the programmers' decision about whether or not to do Amy Fisher?"

What's Ted Harbert's decision about what he won't do?

He pointed to the picture of his daughter, Emily, on a bookcase. Emily is three, and a son, William, was born in April. "Emily's entrance into the world totally changed the way I look at television," he said. "I have a massive problem, a personal problem, with violence now on television. I am working very hard to minimize the amount of violence on our air. Frankly, I already think we do a pretty good job of it."

Why did the arrival of a daughter alter his thinking as a programmer?

"Because when she sits there in front of the TV with me (and, fortunately or unfortunately, it's going to be a fact of life in my home that the TV is going to be on a lot), if a promo comes on that I would never let her sit there and watch, or if something comes on that is violent, or the news comes on and she looks at it and this look of bewilderment comes across her face--'What is that man doing, Daddy?'--I don't have a very good answer."

ABC recently broadcast a movie, "Between Love and Hate," that ends with a youth firing six bullets into his former lover. Harbert's defense is that a network, like a newspaper, offers choices. "I'm a firm believer that there is adult time, and adults get to watch adult programs," he said. "And adults can handle that kind of television. Children can't. This will sound like a paradox, but I don't believe we have to program the network and absolve the parents of responsibility, as if it were our problem and not the parents' problem. Parents have to be responsible for what their kids watch."

Parents might agree with that, while also stressing the responsibility of Hollywood programmers for what they generate. Many Hollywood programmers lead two lives--a truth they avoid by complaining about government censorship. "We all know they're good citizens," observed Grant Tinker, the founder of the MTM Enterprises studio and the former chairman of NBC. "They give generously. They're good parents. Then, on the lot, they make creative decisions for the wrong reason--to save their job. They are schizophrenics." (c)


© 1996-2002, Ken Auletta - all rights reserved
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