"I am a classic battered and abused wife," Roseanne said when she filed for divorce in April. The TV star accused her husband, Tom Arnold, of physical and emotional abuse, claiming he "hit me, struck me, threw objects at me, pushed me against walls." The sensational charges made headlines everywhere.
But three days later, Roseanne changed her tune. She dropped divorce proceedings and withdrew her abuse charges, saying: "I must apologize for letting nasty gossip and lies break me down. I just lost it."
When the TV star filed for divorce again three weeks later, her fans, not to mention people concerned with the issue of domestic violence, were left confused and outraged. Was she really a battered wife? Was she emotionally unstable? Or were the charges just a publicity stunt to help her TV show's ratings?
Here's the awful truth: In Hollywood, the truth doesn't count for very much. It has become a casualty of the increasingly fractious skirmishes between the media and Hollywood celebrities and studio brass, overwhelmed by an onslaught of image- making, spin control and tabloid-driven gossip-mongering.
In show business, where the game is truth or dare, veracity has many delicate shadings--the half-truth, the white lie, the damage-control denial and the publicity-stunt whopper. This is the town where the truth comes in more varieties than the cappuccino at Starbucks.
One day it's a studio marketing chief inflating his new film's opening-weekend box-office numbers. Another day it's a publicist's claim that all's well with actress Drew Barrymore's marriage--a claim that came mere hours before the 19-year-old starlet filed for divorce.
It might even be a bogus cover story, like the one Nirvana's management firm put out that described group leader Kurt Cobain's champagne-and-pills collapse in Rome in March as an accidental overdose--when in fact it was a suicide attempt, the latest flare-up in a tragic downward spiral of drugs and depression that led to his shotgun suicide the following month.
The media's skepticism has now become part of the story. When Washington Post columnist Lois Romano printed a Roseanne "apology" statement in April, Romano began the item: "Not that we believe anything she says at this point. . . ."
A Newsweek story last August about hypocrisy in Hollywood quoted a telling conversation between two industry executives, overheard at breakfast at the high-tone Four Seasons Hotel. "Damn it, you're lying to me!" said one exec. "I know, you're right," said the other. "But hear me out."
Of course, if you're looking for the high-road approach, you can't depend on the celebrity-obsessed, tabloid-driven entertainment press either. Publicist Michael Levine, who represents Michael Jackson and other celebrities, said the media have sunk so low they now offer "a proctologist's view of the world."
Other celebrity-handlers say it's no longer unusual to see mainstream publications pursuing unsubstantiated, anonymous-source-fueled speculation about what executive jobs are in jeopardy, what movie will be the big summer flop and who Julia Roberts might be dancing with while hubby Lyle Lovett is out of town.
"Journalists are much more cynical, much more prying and much more desirous of causing a sensation than actually getting a good story," said Pat Kingsley, whose PMK public relations firm represents a host of top stars and film directors.
"Let me ask you: Why was the New York Times the first mainstream publication to print the name of the alleged William Kennedy Smith rape victim? Why would the Los Angeles Times put Roseanne Arnold's divorce action on the front page of the paper? It's all about the press becoming more tabloid-driven."
With the explosion of media interest in celebrity profiles and entertainment insider stories, relations between Hollywood and the press have become charged with hostility.
"The environment is as toxic as it can get," said Columbia Pictures publicity chief Mark Gill. "Every time a new reporter comes to the Hollywood beat, they get immediately overwhelmed by the cacophony of lies. One of the consequences of the lack of truth-telling is the enormous level of hostility between Hollywood and the press.
"There's so much distrust now that it's dehumanizing. It makes it easy for many reporters to write something extraordinarily nasty about someone, to a large degree because they don't think of them as real people anymore."
To hear entertainment reporters and gossip columnists tell it, the climate of cynicism and distrust has cast a dark cloud on the way they cover virtually every aspect of the Hollywood scene.
"Of the 40 people I speak to every day," said Anita Busch, a respected entertainment writer formerly at the Hollywood Reporter and now at Daily Variety, "39 of them are lying to me, and the other one is my mother.
"I've had a top executive swear to me on the head of his daughter that he was telling the truth. And knowing what I know about Hollywood, my first reaction was 'Hey, maybe he doesn't even have a daughter.' "
When Garrison Keillor recently gave an address to the Radio and TV Correspondents Assn., he said that when he was 16, his parents were uncannily similar to the media of today:
"They felt they were entitled to know a great deal more about my life than they knew. They were watching me at all times, and whenever they saw anything unusual, they always read something dark into it. They were journalists--you couldn't talk to them because they kept dragging down the conversation to new depths of suspicion."
The media have always covered celebrities. From 1930s fan magazines to "Entertainment Tonight," the public has had an insatiable curiosity about the lifestyles of the rich and famous.
What's different today is that show-biz reporters have adopted the aggressive Woodward-and-Bernstein-style mind-set, which evolved out of the '70s-era boom in investigative journalism, even when the particular topic--the tawdry relationships of Ted Danson or Burt Reynolds, to cite two recent examples--hardly seems to have the same heft as Richard M. Nixon's bungled attempts to subvert the democratic process.
"I'm as staunch a supporter of freedom of speech as anyone, but it's ridiculous to lump celebrities in with politicians when you deal with the public's right to know," said Danny Goldberg, president of the ACLU Foundation of Southern California and before that president of Atlantic Records.
"If entertainment reporters think they're going to become Woodward and Bernstein because they find out the goods on Roseanne and Tom's personal life, they're crazy. Morally, it's just on a totally different page."
Often the problem is as much a matter of style as ethics. Mary Matalin, the celebrated political consultant who handled George Bush's failed 1992 reelection campaign, says an "adversarial wall" has gone up between reporters and campaign operatives.
"I don't lie when I talk to the press," she said recently while talking to--surprise--the press about her upcoming book, penned with James Carville, her husband and '92-campaign foe. "But if you come in with an attitude and try to beat me up with every question, I'm going to spin you--I'm gonna give you as little as possible."
Pat Kingsley contends that the media have more than just an attitude problem.
"The press lies over all sorts of things," she said. "It can be when they're going to run a story or whether they've pulled a story that they've promised they were going to run at a specific time. I can't tell you how many times a magazine has taken one of my clients off their cover after we'd had an agreement that the piece would be a cover story."
The fact that the press is willing to make such deals is a useful reminder that much of Hollywood reportage isn't only journalism--it's marketing. For magazines such as Vanity Fair, a celebrity cover is a valuable trade-off: The star gets to promote his or her movie, the magazine uses the star to attract readers.
As Tom Selleck explained to a reporter at a recent Washington press banquet, "My business and your business, they should be mutually beneficial."
In his new book, "The Kid Stays in the Picture," Hollywood producer Robert Evans boastfully recounts how he conned a reluctant Sharon Stone into playing the lead in "Sliver," 1993's much-hyped erotic thriller. Desperate for Stone to lend her sexual swagger to the part, Evans set about stoking the actress's competitive instincts.
First he told her manager that Demi Moore was desperate for the role. It was a total lie, Evans cheerfully admitted. When Stone turned him down, he concocted an even bigger lie. He sent her a copy of Vanity Fair with Geena Davis on the cover, saying Davis (labeled by the magazine as "Hollywood's new femme fatale ") would be in makeup on the set the following Monday.
Amazingly--if you actually believe Evans' story--the ploy worked. Stone caved in and took the part. As it turns out, Davis had turned down "Basic Instinct," the movie that made Stone a star. So, as Evans put it: "Sharon didn't want the part, but she sure in hell didn't want Geena to have it." Stone, through her publicist at PMK, said she had no comment on the incident.
In a business defined by hype and self-promotion, where you are judged as much by image and relationships as by actual achievements, the temptation to lie is enormous.
"Everybody lies in Hollywood for a simple reason: It works," said John Richardson, a senior writer at Premiere magazine and author of the serialized Hollywood novel "Blue Screen." "Every day, the trades are full of stories about guys touting projects that'll never be made. But a lot of people who read those stories think, 'Gee, that guy must be a player.' "
During the Heidi Fleiss media frenzy last year, Richardson did a lengthy piece in Premiere asserting that the alleged Hollywood madam was largely a creation of her own hype.
"She never had 10% of the clients she claimed--she made up all sorts of ludicrous claims," he asserted. "But it made her a star--it gave her a buzz. That's the lesson she learned from Hollywood. An effective lie has far more impact than a carefully modulated truth. She created the image that, in her world, she was a player."
This strategy also applies to the art of creating an image for your movie. As Hollywood coverage increasingly focused on the spiraling cost of movie budgets, the rule of thumb became: Inflate your box-office gross, downplay your production costs.
"Since the basis of everything here is money, not art or creativity, almost all of the lying in Hollywood deals with movie budgets," says Bernard Weinraub, who covers Hollywood for the New York Times. "Producers, agents, studio executives--everybody constantly underestimates the cost of a film. Does anybody really know how much 'True Lies' cost?"
Filmmakers expend enormous energy persuading journalists to report a low-ball budget estimate, knowing the lower the number, the less likely their film will be portrayed--as "Last Action Hero" was last summer--as a symbol of bloated Hollywood excess. Weinraub points to a movie legend whose upcoming film was recently described by two prominent show-biz columnists as having a modest $22-million budget, excluding above-the-line costs (such as actor and director salaries).
"Of course, when you add in the actors' fees on this film, it really becomes a $35-million movie," Weinraub notes. "But by skillful manipulation, the figure that has surfaced is $22 million, which will be quoted by all sorts of reporters, without any reference to the added above-the-line costs; $22 million becomes the perception, and if enough reporters repeat that perception, then it becomes the reality."
Control the perception--and you control the information. Celebrities routinely deny revelations about their personal life--that is, until they can offer the scoop to a friendly columnist or give it the appropriate positive spin.
"Paula Abdul and Emilio Estevez denied breaking up--and then filed for divorce the next day," recalled Linda Stasi, who writes the New York Daily News' Hot Copy column. "Julia Roberts and Lyle Lovett denied being involved--and then got married a few days later. It happens all the time."
Once burned, twice shy. Montreal Gazette columnist Doug Camilli gave big play to the tabloid tales of Roberts' "dancing-smooching outing" with actor Ethan Hawke earlier this year. After running Roberts publicist Nancy Seltzer's explanations, the columnist impishly added: "Seltzer is the same hired hand who told reporters 10 months ago there was nothing going on between Roberts and Lovett--and three days later they got married."
Seltzer said the only wedding-report denial she made was to Time magazine. "And at the time I talked to Time, I didn't know about the wedding myself."
Celebrity publicist Kingsley admitted having lied to the press in her "younger years" but said it was done out of inexperience.
"I've learned that it doesn't do any good to lie, because you always get caught," she said. "If one of my clients doesn't want to answer a press inquiry, then I'll just say, 'We're not going to comment.' "
A "no comment" is better than a lie, but a "no comment" rarely prompts a reporter to back off from a story. When a powerhouse Hollywood deal is in the works, industry moguls often issue denials to steer a reporter away from a story until the studio can orchestrate its own announcement of the event.
Much of this lack of candor derives from the high-pressure atmosphere that pervades Hollywood executive suites.
"The ground is so unstable that it creates an absolute fidelity to the moment," says Newsweek reporter Charles Fleming. "If it's smart to tell a lie right now, you just do it. A week later, when you have to deal with the consequences, you apologize, you threaten or you lie again--but you worry about it a week later."
Hype and untruth have also become part of the Hollywood marketing machinery. Associated Press entertainment reporter John Horn pointed to the widely covered announcement last year that the steamy Madonna thriller "Body of Evidence" would be released with an NC-17 rating. The story gave the film an instant aura of controversy. But Horn contended that the film's producers never had any intention of releasing the movie with an NC-17 rating.
"It was a naked publicity stunt," Horn said. "When the producer got on the phone with me, I offered to buy him lunch in any restaurant in town if they put out the film as NC-17 because I knew they'd never do it. It would've been a totally implausible business decision. But to say they were going to do it created a great news story."
Other media observers focus on the practice of airing stories filled with charges leveled by unidentified sources, which by nature of their very anonymity can't be verified.
"Reporters will often tell me they hear a film is in trouble, but when I ask who's told them that, they say, 'Oh, I can't reveal my sources,' " said Harry Clein, whose public relations firm handles director Tim Burton and producer Ed Pressman. "But too often, these unidentified sources only know half the truth. And if they don't have an ax to grind, why won't they put their names on their quotes?"
The problem is that the media can't--or don't--always do an adequate job of assessing the veracity of every resume-padded movieland reputation.
"Right now I'm doing a story about a con man who did an incredible amount of business in Hollywood," said John Richardson. "This is a guy who, in the real world, got arrested time and again on felony and fraud charges. But when he went to Hollywood, he managed to have a 15-year career without ever getting in trouble. He went right under everyone's radar. It's just the nature of the business--everything's a con."
Marilyn Quayle was making the rounds recently, helping her husband, Dan, promote his new book, when she sounded off on the media's lack of credibility. Her complaint: "I can't pick up a newspaper or watch the evening news and believe anything I see or read."
Well, almost anything. Mrs. Quayle made the charge while sitting in the green room at "Larry King Live," just minutes before her husband plugged his book during a friendly chat with the popular talk-show host.
It makes one wonder: Is the truth a more precious commodity in Hollywood than say, in Washington, home of one President who insisted, "I am not a crook," and another who claimed, "I didn't inhale"?
As someone who covers both Oscar candidates and White House aspirants, the Post's Lois Romano will opt for chronicling politicians every time.
"There's a remarkable difference between Washington and Hollywood," said Romano, who writes the paper's spicy Reliable Source column. "If you ask a politician a direct question, by the end of the day, 99% of them will tell you the truth or say 'no comment.'
"But a lot of celebrity publicists have absolutely no compunction about misleading you. They'll tell you anything to get you off a story--that there's no truth to it, that they don't know anything about it or that you're acting like the National Enquirer."
Romano believes that lying is less prevalent in Washington because politicians have more reason to fear the consequences.
"With the celebrities, if the publicist lies, you blame the messenger--it doesn't rub off on the client," she said. "But in Washington, a press secretary is considered an extension of the politician, so if he lies, then by extension the politician has lied as well."
Having spent 12 years covering political campaigns and the White House for the New York Times before taking the Hollywood beat, Weinraub sees equally striking differences.
"In Washington, lying is more subtle and perhaps more devious. Here, because there are no checks and balances, it's done quite flagrantly. It's out in the open. People have no problem telling you a movie only cost $40 million when in point of fact, it cost $60 million.
"They know they're B.S.-ing you and you know they know they're B.S.-ing you, but because it's not public information, they know it's almost impossible for you to really find out."
Having covered other industries before becoming a Hollywood reporter, Anita Busch is convinced that the entertainment business, by its very nature, lends itself to truth abuse: "The problem is that in Hollywood, perception is reality. So everyone is trying to manipulate the press, because whoever controls the flow of information controls the flow of power."
Whenever you discuss celebrity candor, the debate eventually turns to the issue of privacy. Is it fair game to write about a celebrity who has AIDS? Who tried to kill himself? Who is married and having an affair? Who is dying?
Most journalists say they have the right to know.
"Once you become a celebrity, you give up your privacy," Busch said. "That's part of the trade-off."
But each privacy question usually results in a judgment call. Several Hollywood celebrities--most notably Rock Hudson, Freddie Mercury of the rock group Queen and "Brady Bunch" dad Robert Reed--went to their deaths, or at least to their deathbeds, without acknowledging they were dying of AIDS. In one celebrated instance, when Liberace was hospitalized in January, 1987, his manager said the performer had anemia caused by a watermelon diet. His manager's statement: "We are categorically denying that Liberace has AIDS."
Two weeks later the flamboyant showman was dead--of AIDS.
People magazine Insider columnist Mitchell Fink said that weeks before Jackie Kennedy Onassis announced she had cancer, he received a tip saying she was ill. "I had a moral decision to make," he recalled. "Do I pester Jackie O?
"I was tempted, but my wife said, 'Leave it alone.' And I decided, if someone's sick, let them be sick in private."
The Daily News' Linda Stasi said she sat on her scoop that TV star Jerry Seinfeld was dating a 17-year-old high schooler.
"But then I took my daughter to a Knicks game where we saw the two of them together at courtside. My daughter looked at the girl through our binoculars and she said, 'Mom, I know her. I play basketball against her in high school!'
"Once he took her to a Knicks game, all bets were off. When I called his people for confirmation, they denied everything. But once the story came out, nobody denied a thing."
Fink said he has never written about a celebrity having AIDS or going to a rehab clinic. Yet he's critical of Kurt Cobain's management for putting out a fake accidental-overdose story a month before the rock star killed himself.
"If I'd gotten a tip that he'd actually tried to commit suicide, I would've written about it," he said. "It's fair game. His people were making an economic decision to protect their client, not a moral decision. Maybe if the whole world had known what really happened in Rome, it's possible his behavior might have changed. Maybe he'd be alive today. Who knows?"
Goldberg, who was Cobain's manager before he joined Atlantic Records, heatedly took issue with this attitude.
"Sometimes I think the media have a God complex," he said. "I actually read some rock writer comparing the handling of Kurt's drug problem to Nixon's Watergate. We're dealing with private torment here, not public issues. If all the people close to him couldn't stop him from doing drugs, when everyone was confronting him in every way possible, do you really think some story in a newspaper could've changed anything?
"What it comes down to for me is that sometimes the media simply want a better backstage pass to the tragedy."