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THE OSCAR PLUNGE : The Glory Days : Reporting about the movies used to be lightweight and fun, but big money and big business put a different spin on Hollywood news

<i> Sean Mitchell is a regular contributor to Calendar. </i>

Reporters still used typewriters and had barely heard of tape recorders. Men (and women) wore hats. The gates to the studios were open to the press, and many of them stayed for lunch. A press agent was someone who fed “news” items to columnists rather than repelled access to the stars. A scoop was announcing that Clark Gable was getting a divorce.

Nobody was counting weekly box office grosses, and the place to be seen wasn’t Morton’s but Romanoff’s. Print was king, and Hedda and Louella were queens. The movies were a magic kingdom where actors and those who wrote about them lived happily ever after--or so it seemed.

In the 1940s and ‘50s, writing about Hollywood was very different from today. But then, of course, Hollywood itself was different. America was different. Today, for many of the men and women who cover the movie business, the recent sight of the war-damaged national press corps trying to squeeze a few drops of hard information out of the Pentagon didn’t look all that unfamiliar.

In the ‘40s and ‘50s, it wasn’t that Hollywood was so open-minded about the press as that it was simply open. The big studios viewed the press as a useful and friendly partner in commerce. Editors on the East Coast and some closer to home viewed the movie colony as a playground where no self-respecting reporter would be found except on vacation. And vacation rules obtained. It was the breakdown of the old studio system in the ‘60s and the ascendence of film to the status of art that changed everything.

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Survivors of the Hollywood press corps from that earlier era say things used to be a lot more fun out here. Meanwhile, younger reporters with shorter memories tend to think there was no real journalism in Hollywood before “Indecent Exposure,” the 1980 book about the David Begelman scandal by Wall Street Journal reporter David McClintick that cast a cold eye on the rapacity and conceits to be found behind the walls of Oz. Not quite true.

“I’m not nostalgic about the old days,” says Bob Thomas, the veteran Associated Press film columnist who arrived in Los Angeles in 1943 and is still on the job almost 50 years later. “Sure there’ve been a lot of changes. Some have been good, and some have been bad. But it’s always different, and I enjoy that.

“Where it’s difficult today compared to then is that everybody used to be available for interviews. You’d be able to go over to MGM and they’d be making 10 pictures and there’d be 25 stars who would be available. And some of the stars were great interviews. Joan Crawford, if she didn’t have a story for you, she’d make one up. Bogie was the same.”

Humphrey Bogart, Thomas remembers, used to call him up late at night from his boat in Newport Harbor with boozy bulletins. “ ‘Hey, Thomas,’ he’d say, ‘let’s touch a nerve.’ Then he’d say something like, he could never figure out how Ray Milland won an Academy Award. Nothing was terribly serious in those days. It wasn’t until the blacklist and the onset of television (and its financial threat to movies) that there were more serious things to write about.”

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James Bacon, an AP reporter from Chicago who landed in Los Angeles in 1948 and went on to become a Hollywood columnist for Hearst’s Herald-Examiner until 1986, recalls, “It was so much easier back in the ‘50s, the end of the golden era. Stars loved the press and the press loved stars. You’d go out to the studio and sit down with Gable and Tracy and people like that, you’d have a column in a minute. You didn’t have to deal that much with press agents.

“It was a lot more fun in those days because every studio was a big family. You’d go over to Warner Bros., and they had Bogie and Errol Flynn and Jimmy Cagney, Ronald Reagan on the second team. Nowadays, a lot of the stars are pretty much inaccessible. Back in those days they were very accessible. The studios wanted their stars to be publicized. If I wanted to talk to Ava Gardner, I just called up and talked to Ava Gardner, that was it.

“Of course, in those days, they didn’t have television, didn’t have ‘Entertainment Tonight’ or anything else. The print medium was the big thing.”

There were six daily newspapers in Los Angeles in 1948 and their movie columnists wielded a kind of influence that is hard to imagine today, even for their talking-head television counterparts. Louella Parsons, the movie columnist and critic for the Examiner and the Hearst syndicate, held court daily at Romanoff’s, near the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, where anyone who was anyone made a point of stopping by her table.

Her chief rival was the somewhat younger, though equally feared, Hedda Hopper, whose column appeared in The Times. Hopper, a former actress, couldn’t type, but she dictated her daily column to someone who could.

It was standard procedure for stars to notify Parsons before getting married or divorced. Her contacts were such, she apparently learned that Debbie Reynolds was pregnant (with Carrie Fisher) before Reynolds herself knew and was able to scoop the doctor. (She got word from his nurse.)

This was a special kind of journalism, to be sure.

Ezra Goodman, a Time magazine correspondent who lived through those years, wrote in his memoir “The 50-Year Decline and Fall of Hollywood” in 1961, “The 500 working press corps members are a second-rate fourth estate subsisting--with negligible exceptions--on press agent handouts of mostly trumped up tales, freeloading . . . and general incompetence.”

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Goodman was one of the few, along with writers for Rob Wagner’s literary magazine Script, to whom it occurred to question the underlying values of Hollywood, what gossip columnist Sheila Graham later called “the Faustian nightmare of stardom” that produced as many casualties as box-office legends and sometimes both at once.

Aljean Harmetz, who was the New York Times’ correspondent in Hollywood from 1978 until 1990, had occasion recently to examine in detail all the Hollywood coverage from 1942 and ’43 that appeared in The Los Angeles Times and the trade papers for a book project. She reports, “I was appalled. It was all columns. Nothing else. And if you see the press releases from that time, they were basically the same. No matter what you say about coverage today, it’s not just a mouth organ for the studios. It seems to me it’s infinitely more professional.”

More professional perhaps, although somewhat more difficult. Bruce Willis hasn’t been calling up many columnists, young or old, lately and offering them a story for the next day’s paper. In fact, to get to Bruce Willis or Jessica Lange or Jack Nicholson today, not to mention the leading directors and producers and screenwriters, a reporter (or his editors) usually has got to first navigate the channels of high-powered independent publicity firms that only make their star clients available when they have a new film coming out.

The Hollywood press may have loftier ambitions and a greater notion of independence today, but it is waging a battle for control of the entertainment news with a formidable new army of public relations managers who have largely supplanted the old studio publicity departments once regarded as so friendly.

“A lot of these press agents control their clients,” says Jerry Pam, a 35-year veteran of Hollywood publicity. “They want to control everything. They’re really ‘suppress’ agents more than press agents.”

“Today, you have to fight to get to the stars, you really do,” says James Bacon, a gregarious sort who in his heyday wrote of closing saloons with Richard Burton and once described in print the night he bedded Marilyn Monroe. “In the ‘50s you went to parties at their houses. I doubt there is a columnist today that’s ever invited to a star’s house for a party. Back in those days, you’d go to a party at, like, Kirk Douglas’ house and there’d be Louella and Hedda and myself and two or three others. And we were guests. We weren’t ‘media.’ There was no barrier.”

How much of the real Hollywood was getting out to the public as a result of such camaraderie others have questioned, along with the ethics of some of Hollywood’s more outgoing scribes.

“I think for many years the coverage of Hollywood was pretty much what the system wanted, and I think that actually extends to the so-called gossip press,” observes film journalist David Thomson, the author of the book “Warren Beatty and Desert Eyes” and an upcoming biography of producer David O. Selznick. “I think there was a good deal of control one way or another of what got out. I think in the ‘60s, just as there was a new sense of investigative journalism in general, it applied itself to Hollywood, and people thought, ‘Well, it’s up to me to get inside.’ It’s always a very difficult thing to do, but there was an attempt.”

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Writers as esteemed as Truman Capote and James Agee had done illuminating Hollywood profiles. The New Yorker’s Lillian Ross had written the surprisingly candid (especially to executives at MGM) “Picture,” about the making of John Huston’s “The Red Badge of Courage” in 1950. John Gregory Dunne infiltrated Darryl Zanuck’s 20th Century Fox to write “The Studio” in 1968. But these were rare nonfiction reports smuggled out from inside the dream factory.

“The film business in Los Angeles is an amazing human organization,” says Thomson. “And I have always had the feeling that it would do the public a great deal of good to have a greater understanding of it. But the whole journalistic angle is so tied to what’s opening and whether someone will talk when it’s opening, it’s very difficult to really get across the quality of life in the film business. And in a way that is the thing that most seriously affects what happens in the films because it’s when you understand how these people think all the time that you understand the kind of movies they make.”

One of the last chronicles along these lines was “Outrageous Conduct: Art, Ego and the Twilight Zone,” Stephen Farber and Marc Green’s behind-the-scenes account of the 1982 helicopter crash on the set of Warner Bros.’ “Twilight Zone--The Movie” that killed three people. With its sobering glimpses of megalomania and hubris among directors John Landis, Steven Spielberg and producer Frank Marshall, the book attempted to show, in Farber’s words, “how the movie business really operated rather than how the publicists would like you to believe it operated.”

Not that puffery is dead, by any means. As Farber, now the film critic at Movieline magazine, notes, “Ironically, my impression is that we’ve come full circle. Because there was a period when people did want to be very cynical about Hollywood in the wake of ‘Indecent Exposure’ and the Begelman case, but what I see in the last few years is a return to boosterism and flackery. Vanity Fair, I mean, which once had a reputation for being a little bit more sophisticated, now has these personality profiles that are so ga-ga they might have come from Photoplay.”

At the same time, Hollywood reporting now routinely takes in scrutiny of its financial markets and arcane executive strategies that once would have been considered exotic even for the trades. The recent widespread publication, for example, of Disney chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg’s lengthy in-house memo about budget trimming would once have been unthinkable, says Arthur Knight, the former Hollywood Reporter and Playboy columnist who now teaches at the Australian Film, Television and Radio School in Sydney. “In the past,” says Knight, “the intricacies of production didn’t seem to be of general interest--or editors didn’t think so.”

As in professional sports, money has been a big factor in the changing relationship between Hollywood and the press. Money and the rise of the corporation. “If you wanted to know something about Warner Bros. 20 years ago,” says Peter Bart, editorial director of Weekly and Daily Variety and a former New York Timesman, “you called up the president of Warner Bros. You were writing about a small film studio run by a family. Today you’re writing about something entirely different: a multinational corporation, and all that that entails. It’s a big difference.”

Money has also come between reporters and the people they’re writing about.

“If somebody makes $12 million a picture and has a jet, you can’t very easily sit down with them and have a beer,” says Bart, who remembers “just having a beer” with Steve McQueen one time at the invitation of a studio publicist. “And what about Jack Nicholson? What did he make from ‘Batman,’ $50 million? You can’t just sit down and chat.”

But with all the problems posed by money, access and ethics, reporting on Hollywood may be more in demand now even than it was in the yesteryear of Hedda and Louella, when a much higher percentage of the public went to the movies but possibly took them less seriously. “The centrality of Hollywood to American culture is what has changed,” says Leo Braudy, the author of “The Frenzy of Renown: Fame and Its History” and a professor of English at USC.

“The status of film criticism and books about popular culture are an indication of this and how the perception has changed,” Braudy says. “People like Fred Astaire who were once thought to be just entertainers have become icons. Since World War II, the salient vocation in America has been performance. No matter what you do, you measure the standards of your success by those of a performer. Go to a real estate awards ceremony, and you realize it’s modeled on the Oscars.”


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