'sex, lies' and Morgan Mason

Times Staff Writer

There aren't many first-time Hollywood producers who have a film that wins the coveted Gold Palm Award at the Cannes Film Festival.

But, then, 34-year-old Morgan Mason--son of the late actor James Mason and Hollywood chronicler Pamela Mason, former child star, ex-playboy, one-time White House aide, husband of singer Belinda Carlisle, rock video performer and trendy restaurateur--isn't the average Hollywood producer. And "sex, lies and videotape" isn't an average Hollywood film.

It took five virtual rookies--producers Robert Newmyer and John Hardy, and executive producers Nancy Tenenbaum, Nick Wechsler and Mason--to get 26-year-old director Steven Soderbergh's screenplay made. The main problem was finding the financing for an actionless, talky, $1.2-million dramedy about masturbation and adultery. Plus the film's commercial appeal wasn't immediately apparent and the cast didn't include big names.

"It says something about the system that if this had been a $5-million action-adventure picture," Mason says, "it would have been a lot easier for everyone involved."

Eighteen months ago, two of Mason's friends--independent producer Nick Wechsler and Soderbergh's agent, the late Ann Dollard of Leading Artists--showed him the script for "sex, lies and videotape."

Mason thought it was "extraordinary."

"But the acid test," he says, "was whether my wife, who never reads scripts, would like it. So I asked her to read the first five pages and see if she got bored."

Carlisle couldn't put it down. "She told me I had to get it made," he says.

At first, Mason got a tentative agreement from Musifilm, where he is a member of its board, to finance the movie in partnership with Universal. But Universal passed. Then Mason arranged for Musifilm to put up seed money for preproduction expenses. Two months later Musifilm pulled out as solo underwriter.

Meanwhile, Newmyer, a former Columbia executive and co-founder of Outlaw Productions, found some interest at RCA Columbia Home Video. But the company wouldn't commit without a partner. So Mason enlisted Musifilm consultant Tenenbaum and they got Virgin Vision to put up 45% of the film's budget.

While Tenenbaum approached a friend at the film company, Mason went after an even bigger gun--Richard Branson, the billionaire chairman of the parent firm Virgin Group whose music division just happens to sell Belinda Carlisle's albums overseas.

"We had a relationship," Mason says offhandedly. "It was serendipity."

But this sort of thing happens all the time with Mason, who often seems to know almost everyone.

Mason says his Hollywood pedigree and far-reaching network of connections has given him a headstart in life. "People would say to me, 'Don't get all upset if you know somebody and can get your foot in the door. Use what little opportunity you have.' And I have sometimes," Mason says.

"But it wasn't as though my father was (MCA Chairman) Lew Wasserman and everyone went, 'Oooh, we've got to help this kid.' Because nobody was in fear of my parents."

Just 21 months old when he made his film debut, and 9 years old when he played Elizabeth Taylor's son in "The Sandpiper," Mason gave up acting in his teens when he realized he didn't have "that real driving craving" to be a star. (However, he recently co-starred in his wife's videos, "Mad About You" and "Heaven Is a Place on Earth.")

At 16, against his parent's wishes, Mason dropped out of Beverly Hills High. He spent two years knocking around Europe and New York, then returned to Los Angeles where he delivered pizza in his mother's Rolls-Royce before landing a job as a production assistant on "The Tonight Show" with "the help of a few friends."

His life was altered radically after his mother inherited a chunk of a major British textile company. Suddenly Mason was an international businessman, shuttling between Los Angeles and London and, he says, hating every minute of it.

To compensate, he ran with a fast crowd in Los Angeles, hanging out with fellow scions of celebrities and dating beautiful older women. Within a year, the 22-year-old playboy had moved in with the Oscar-winning fortysomething actress, Louise Fletcher, and made tabloid headlines.

Mason's entrance into politics was inadvertent. After hearing one of Ronald Reagan's political commentaries on the radio, he decided to write a fan letter. "I had never met him before, my family didn't know him, and Ronald Reagan wasn't even an announced candidate. But I thought to myself, 'Boy, this is a pretty smart guy.' "

One lunch and one election later, Mason went to Washington at age 25--a situation his father thought was "ridiculous."

Mason helped plan the celebrity entertainment for Reagan's 1980 inaugural and served briefly as deputy chief of protocol before moving to the White House as a special assistant for political affairs for the Western states.

After leaving the White House in 1982, Mason returned to Los Angeles to become executive vice president at the public relations firm Rogers & Cowan. He set up the introductions that led to the hiring of his White House buddy, Muffy Brandon, and brought on board such corporate clients as Gladden Entertainment, run by friends Bruce McNall and David Begelman.

In 1984, he joined Don King to promote the Jacksons' Victory Tour. A year later, Mason used his connections yet again--this time, to successfully pitch an idea for a film about the presidential advance team to McNall and Begelman. He was now in the film business.

Five years ago he met Carlisle at a restaurant opening when she was the Go-Go's lead singer with a reputation for drinking and drug abuse. They married in 1986.

Today, only their closest friends know how instrumental Mason was in Carlisle's transformation into the slim and successful solo artist and substance-free health nut she is today. "I would have ended up dead," Carlisle says. "But having a great relationship made everything more easy."

About the only setback Mason has experienced of late involves his Brentwood restaurant, Mason's, which opened a year ago. Though begun auspiciously enough with a long list of celebrity investors including Kenny Rogers, Barry Manilow and Olivia Newton-John, it received several bad reviews right away.

Meanwhile, he is savoring the success of "sex, lies and videotape," which will be distributed by Miramax in mid-August, and continuing to take advantage of his connections.

His wife will star in his second movie, a comedy entitled "Him," which is being financed by Musifilm. And he is co-producing "Man of the Hour" with Diane Keaton, who is also the star of the film being underwritten by Musifilm and Universal. As it happens, Keaton not only is a client of Mason's buddy Burnham, but also she directed two of Carlisle's hit videos.

And after that? "Literally 10 other projects in development. But how many of those will get made is unknown. And, anyway," Mason says with satisfaction, "I really enjoy the feeling that I don't know what's going to happen to me next."

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