Spy in L.A. Unsettles ‘Industry’
Who is Celia Brady and why is she saying all those terrible things about Hollywood?
Brady is the pseudonymous show business columnist for Spy magazine, the 2-year-old New York-based satirical monthly that startled the journalism world with its cutting-down-to-size exposes about the Rich and Famous. And some of Brady’s recent jabs at moviedom’s high and mighty published under the heading “The Industry” include claims that:
--"Die Hard” movie producer Joel Silver is a “taste-free bullyboy” whose “involvement in the movies is justified on the dubious grounds that one needs a larger-than-life producer (read: manipulative despot) to deal with the industry’s larger-than-life talents (read: manipulative despots).”
--Creative Artists Agency chief Michael Ovitz is a “personality-free” power monger, who rarely deserves mention without his stock epithet: “The Manipulator.”
--NBC executive Brandon Tartikoff was plotting with “short-fingered vulgarian Donald Trump” about taking over a studio.
--And Columbia Pictures Entertainment CEO Victor (The Briefcase) Kaufman “has apparently begun to weary” of Columbia President Dawn Steel’s “tirades. Next stop for Steel: an independent production deal within 12 to 15 months.”
The question of Brady’s identity isn’t just a matter of bemused speculation. So caustic has been Brady’s pen and so high-placed her victims that one powerful agent is widely rumored to have put a private detective on her trail. (After all, Brady frequently ends her columns with the teasing line “See you Monday night at Morton’s.”)
E. Graydon Carter, editor of Spy along with Kurt Andersen, claims Ovitz offered Rupert Murdoch’s publication about the movie industry, Premiere magazine, “an interesting internal document” in exchange for Brady’s identity, apparently thinking that journalists could ferret out the information. But a Premiere editor believed the offer was actually made by only a “CAA underling,” who was apparently bucking for a promotion. A Creative Artists Agency spokesman denied that the document incident took place.
Still others, in particular Hollywood producers, screenwriters and even some journalists, worry that they are unjustly under suspicion of complicity with the column and their projects will suffer as a result.
But Andersen and Carter, both former staffers at Time Inc., boast that the real reason for the furor is that “The Industry” column is finally providing the hard-ball reporting that Hollywood’s megalomania deserves. And they can get away with it, Carter says, “because Spy was designed as a magazine that could exist without the access that most celebrity-driven magazines must have. We don’t need Morgan Fairchild’s publicist to be friends with us to put out this magazine each month.”
Although the magazine has only 130,000 subscribers, its articles make the rounds by word of mouth among the trendier folks in New York and Los Angeles. And what gets their attention is Brady’s irreverence toward the sacred cows of Hollywood--studio executives and producers.
But much as the magazine editors claim to loathe Hollywood, they also seem to be embracing it. Since its inception, Spy has retained the International Creative Management talent agency for its book tie-ins. But only within the past year and a half has the magazine used that firm’s L.A. office to pursue production deals.
Already, Spy is planning an HBO television special to spotlight the magazine’s caustic/comic subject matter, according to Esther Newberg, an ICM agent in New York.
“They’re a very strong client. We consider them one of the hottest items in town,” says Newberg.
And it remains to be seen whether producers will try to dangle fat deals before the magazine in hopes of avoiding Brady’s lash. For instance, editor Andersen says it was “purely coincidental” that Brady’s May, 1988, column actually said something nice about producers Jon Peters and Peter Guber after their representatives had met with Carter and Andersen last spring about, in Andersen’s words, “possibly doing a TV show together.”
“Before, during and since then, we’ve had unkind things to say about them,” Andersen says.
But the editor does acknowledge that the possibility of conflict of interest is a real issue. Making Hollywood deals, he says, also “makes it more difficult to be utterly impartial if we do indeed have any kind of ongoing involvement with TV. It would be disingenuous to say there would be no applied pressure. It gets dicier, certainly, when you’re not entirely an outsider. And it’s something we’re concerned about and will endeavor to not have cloud our judgments.”
What makes it easier, he notes, is that the Brady column “is not written by us or generated in-house, which keeps it at arm’s length from our discussions.”
Carter and Andersen swear up and down that Brady, whose name is taken from the narrator in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Last Tycoon,” is “one person” and not a composite.
They also say the columnist is not a Hollywood agent, despite widespread speculation to the contrary, and even claim the individual is writing a screenplay under the Celia Brady name.
Associates of the editors say the pair closely guard the identity of the columnist even from magazine insiders.
“I’ve asked (Gray and Andersen) many, many times, and they won’t tell me,” says contributing editor Paul Rudnick, who has occasionally been fingered himself as a possible Brady contributor--which he says he isn’t.
Even so, several other Spy insiders say they are virtually certain that Brady is a composite--essentially, a voice invented by the editors, who do most of the writing, based on reports drawn from a number of sources, including at least a couple of “Deep Throats” from Hollywood’s agency and executive ranks.
“The fact is that this column seems to me like a composite,” says Lynn Hirschberg, a Spy contributor who edited the magazine’s Los Angeles “Life-Style Hell” September issue. Hirschberg denies being Brady, but will neither confirm nor deny whether she contributes to the column.
Susan Lyne, editor of Premiere magazine, says it is her understanding that Spy is using a “Harvard Mafia” (Andersen went to Harvard) and also some prep school connections on the West Coast to “deliver lots and lots of choice morsels to them. There are, in fact, 15 or 20 people feeding into it every month.”
Carter acknowledges that he does “weave” stories from people other than the alleged Brady into the column. Entertainment executives and journalists say they’ve received calls from males and females identifying themselves as “Spy’s Celia Brady.” Andersen says the calls were probably from members of the magazine’s fact-checking staff.
Claiming the column, as the rest of the magazine, is carefully edited, Spy’s editors like to boast that “The Industry’s” mix of unattributed reporting and vituperative comment has yet to be hit with a libel suit.
But it certainly isn’t perfect. To begin with, Fitzgerald’s mythical narrator was actually named Cecilia Brady. And, on close examination, other factual misfires do occur.
For instance, a potshot at New York Times entertainment writer Aljean Harmetz in the December column appears to miss the mark. Brady accuses Harmetz of foolishly quoting Variety’s Art Murphy to the effect that any picture grossing $30 million or more at the box office at the time of its video release would be a financial success.
“I guess it would have been too taxing for Harmetz to think through this assertion and consider, say, pictures that cost more than $30 million to make,” sniped Brady.
Guess again, Celia.
What Harmetz actually wrote was: “Mr. Murphy considers $30 million to be the threshold for success when a movie is released on videocassette.” In other words, $30 million in ticket sales usually means a successful run at the video store, which is a pretty innocuous and seemingly correct assertion.
And, in the latest issue, Brady’s column contains a glaring oversight when it claims Lorimar film chief Bernie Brillstein and “his arch-nemesis” Michael Ovitz at Creative Artists Agency are still feuding. Actually, if Brady were as hooked into Hollywood as she would have people believe, she would know that the two men smoothed over their feud last fall.
Still, those Hollywood types who are reading Brady--or the multiple Bradys--are doing so avidly and/or angrily. “I laugh along with everybody else. It’s fun to make fun of powerful people,” says the president of one talent agency.
Just as clearly, Hollywood is churning with a certain amount of fear of being ridiculed by Brady and Spy. “Please don’t mention my name,” says the same agent. “I have this nightmare that I’ll be the only agent quoted in your story, and they’ll come after me.”
(Some of the journalistic set seem to share the apprehension. “If you write about (Celia Brady), they’ll come after you next. . . . And forget my name,” warns one Vanity Fair staffer, who claims to know “exactly” who the columnist is.)
Ironically, the column may be giving less grief to its subjects than to those people suspected, rightly or wrongly, of contributing to it. Among those who complain they are being hurt by false suspicion of involvement with Brady are:
--Producer-journalist Lynda Obst. “I have not been and never will be a gossip columnist,” Obst (“Adventures in Babysitting”) says angrily of the persistent rumor that she is Celia Brady. A former New York Times editor who still writes occasionally for Premiere and other magazines, Obst says she doesn’t believe in “unattributed gossip” and finds it “upsetting” that Hollywood peers have questioned her about writing for Spy. “I pray you get (Brady’s identity),” she adds.
-- Journalist-screenwriter Bruce Feirstein. “This is a terrifying thought. . . . I earn my living in Hollywood. . . . How do I clear my name of this?” Feirstein (“Real Men Don’t Eat Quiche”) said when informed that four movie producers had privately expressed suspicion that he was contributing and had been a major source for Brady’s Joel Silver column. The suspicion seems natural: Feirstein is listed on Spy’s masthead as a contributing editor, and he has stayed in touch with Silver since the two went to high school in Maplewood, N.J.
But Feirstein, who also writes for movies and TV, said he doesn’t contribute to the column, doesn’t know who does and doesn’t really like Spy’s uglier side, despite his friendship with Spy editor Carter.
-- Warner Bros. executive Lisa Henson. The rumor mill has similarly tried to tag Henson apparently because she went to Harvard with Spy executive editor Susan Morrison. Henson, the daughter of muppeteer Jim Henson, didn’t return calls. But one friend explained that she doesn’t contribute, because she doesn’t want to compromise her position at Warner Bros. or in the industry in such an obvious way, and that she is “deeply distressed” by the talk.
-- Journalist-screenwriter Jean Vallely. “Everybody thinks it’s me. I swear it’s not!” says Vallely. A contributing editor to the Los Angeles Times Magazine and former columnist for GQ magazine, Vallely is working on a TV movie for CBS and a fiction book about Hollywood. She attributes the suspicion to her once having “sat next to Graydon (Carter) at dinner.”
Meanwhile, some are eager to meet Brady for other reasons.
Paul Corkery, another journalist-screenwriter and a sometime Spy contributor who makes a few of the suspect lists says, “I hope she’s real. . . . I’d like to date her.”
And Premiere’s Lyne says: “If you find out who it is, tell me. I’ll hire her.”
Got that, Celia?
See you Tuesday night at Trumps.