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Medavoy: A Bird in Paradise

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Lifetime achievement awards are, by definition, bittersweet. Just ask Mike Medavoy.

The 57-year-old movie mogul is being honored here at the Cannes International Film Festival’s first-ever tribute to producers--the men and women, the official program says, “who foster creativity on film . . . and offer directors the means to make their vision a reality.”

Finishing a late lunch here Thursday at the posh Hotel Du Cap, where Hollywood’sbiggest players stay while at the festival, Medavoy admitted he was relishing being recognized for his work. Nevertheless, said his partner at Phoenix Pictures, Arnold Messer, “We’re hoping when they say ‘lifetime achievement’ it’s premature.”

Medavoy said the tribute, which is also being bestowed upon Roger Corman and nine other producers, is an important milestone for him.

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“You get to a point, I think, where you cross that line between struggling to gain respectability and gaining it,” he said. “This award kind of signifies that I’m past that moment.”

But don’t go thinking that it means he’s past his prime. No, Medavoy--first a casting director (on TV’s “Dragnet”), then an agent (for Steven Spielberg, among others), then a studio executive (at United Artists, Orion and, most recently, TriStar Pictures) and now simply a producer--wants you to know he’s not done with Hollywood yet. Not by a long shot.

“I’ve dodged a lot of bullets and one of them will finally get me,” conceded the man who’s had a hand in making 300 films from “Apocalypse Now” to “Zelig.” “But I’ll let you know when it’s over.”

Medavoy acknowledges that his much-publicized clash in 1994 with then-Sony Pictures chief Peter Guber (which led him to exit TriStar) “could have put me away.” Instead, like the resilient bird his production company is named for, Medavoy appears to be rising again.

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Phoenix Pictures, the company that Medavoy and Messer founded three years ago, got off to a slow start, releasing only four movies so far (two inherited from Sony Pictures, where Phoenix has a distribution deal). None of the films was a box-office hit, though director Milos Forman’s “The People vs. Larry Flynt” appealed to some critics.

But in the next few months, Phoenix will release two high-profile films. The $15-million thriller “Apt Pupil,” director Bryan Singer’s follow-up to his critically acclaimed “The Usual Suspects,” will be released by Sony this fall. The World War II epic “The Thin Red Line” marks the return of director Terrence Malick (“Badlands” and “Days of Heaven”), who hasn’t made a film since the 1970s. 20th Century Fox plans to release that film, which cost more than $50 million to make, this Thanksgiving.

A few days before leaving for France, Medavoy sat in his vast penthouse office across the street from Sony Pictures, looked back over his life and proclaimed himself “the happiest I’ve ever been.”

Part of that has nothing to do with work. On Medavoy’s last birthday, Jan. 21, he and his wife, Irena, had a son, Nicholas, whose pictures are displayed prominently on Medavoy’s desk among the portraits of movie stars, directors and politicians. And Medavoy beamed when he talked about his 32-year-old son from a previous marriage: Brian, who is the co-founder of the 6-year-old management firm More-Medavoy.

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But much of Medavoy’s contentment stems from simply having survived. Just as Phoenix Pictures’ name suggests rejuvenation, its Century City location--which affords him a bird’s-eye view of the elegant Irving Thalberg building, the 1937 art deco structure that is the heart of the Sony lot--sends another very intentional message: He’s not going away.

Medavoy succeeded young. As the Shanghai-born producer likes to say, he started out in the mail room and a decade later was the head of a studio. In 1977, when the New York Times Magazine did a piece called “The New Tycoons in Hollywood,” it put Medavoy’s face on its cover as the epitome of the industry’s rising young turks. Then just 36, the production chief of United Artists was “riding high,” the article said, with two best picture Oscars in as many years (for “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and “Rocky”).

Today, the magazine cover hangs, framed, in his office, along with a signed lithograph by Robert Longo (“Thanks for the chance,” Longo has written, referring to a movie--"Johnny Mnemonic"--that Longo directed when Medavoy was at TriStar). There’s a black-and-white photo of Arthur Krim, Robert Benjamin, Bill Bernstein and Medavoy the day they quit United Artists to found Orion in 1978.

“Look how thin I am. Look at my hair,” Medavoy said, marveling at the unruly red locks that, today, are tamer and less abundant.

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Perhaps because of the lifetime achievement award, Medavoy seems acutely aware these days of his longevity. It makes him proud--and a little wistful.

Leading a tour of his office, he passed the framed faces of Spielberg and Francis Ford Coppola, two directors he first met when he was their agent, and stopped at a photo of himself and Forman.

“Look how young Milos was here. Better yet, look how young I was. And here’s Antonioni,” he said, pointing to the famed Italian director. “Boy, are we both pretty young there.”

The touch of melancholy in his voice could be heard again when he talked about his friendship with presidential contender Gary Hart, whose campaign he worked on in the ‘80s. Medavoy, who also helped introduce Bill Clinton to Hollywood circles, explained his faith in the two pols this way: “I wanted a new generation of leadership, not the same old stuff. Both Hart and Clinton represented that.”

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And so, at one time, did Medavoy. “It was Hart who pointed it out to me,” he recalled. “I asked why he wanted me to be involved in his campaign. He basically said I was the new generation. And I was--then.”

Perhaps such self-consciousness is an inevitable by-product of having done so much of this so many times before. In the middle of Medavoy’s interview with a reporter, an A-list movie star telephoned and he took the call, greeting her with an affectionate nickname. They chatted about their young children and he arranged to send her a script that, he promised, was “different than anything you’ve done.”

Upon hanging up, however, he became nervous that the scene, if reported, would make him appear “Hollyweird"--which to him seemed to mean a combination of rude, pretentious and cloying. Medavoy, though at times a tad pleased with himself, is none of those things. If anything, he is unusually straightforward, like when he admitted that he’s worked on so many movies that sometimes he can’t keep track.

“What’s really awful is movies start to blend together. I can’t remember them all,” he said with a shrug. And indeed, when he described some of the projects Phoenix has in development, he compared them to his previous films. For example, a project based on the autobiography of John Hockenberry, the foreign correspondent for National Public Radio who travels the globe in a wheelchair, “harkens back to ‘Coming Home,’ ” Medavoy said.

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Repeatedly, he referred to himself as “an enabler” who merely cleared the way for the creators to create. At one point, he summed up his body of work this way: “About 100 films I’m really proud of, about 100 fall into the middle and about 100, someone should have handed me a gun and shot me before I said, ‘You know, that’s a good idea.’ ” Asked about Phoenix’s output, which is significantly less than the four movies a year he initially pledged to make, Medavoy was unfazed.

“It always takes you longer than you thought to find the pictures, develop the pictures, to get the movies done,” he said. But he admitted to feeling some pressure to turn a profit, and soon.

Of the four films Phoenix has released, Barbra Streisand’s “The Mirror Has Two Faces” grossed the most: $41 million domestically--far from the $75 million earned by Streisand’s “Prince of Tides.” “The People vs. Larry Flynt” took in only $20 million at the box office, while Phoenix’s two other releases--Oliver Stone’s “U-Turn” and the period romance “Swept From the Sea"--grossed less than $7 million between them, according to Exhibitor Relations. Production has begun on two more films targeted for release next year. “Dick” is a comedic retelling of the Watergate break-in scandal, but with a twist: It will be seen through the eyes of two teenage girls--an approach Medavoy called “Watergate meets ‘Clueless.’ ”

And shooting begins this month on “Mad About Mambo,” the tale of a young soccer player in Ireland who hopes to improve his game by learning how to dance. The film, to be distributed by Gramercy Pictures and PolyGram Filmed Entertainment, is being produced by actor Gabriel Byrne.

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“One thing’s for sure,” Medavoy said. “We’re going to have to make money with some of these pictures. Otherwise, you know, I will be figuring out another way of doing this. Or not doing this at all.”

Medavoy is plainly intrigued by the latter option. He admitted that he has asked Malick about what it was like to drop out.

“Malick told me, ‘It’s OK not to do this. There’s something to be said for doing something else with your life,’ ” Medavoy said, impressed. “This"--he gestures around his office--"isn’t the end-all. Within this small community, it is. People are just grasping. I mean, you can see the fingernails on the windowpanes.

“But I always thought of this as a marathon, as opposed to a 100-yard dash,” he said. “It’ll be [over] the day when I say, ‘OK, I’m too old, I’m not good enough, I can’t compete.’ ”

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He paused.

“I’m not going to let anybody tell me when that is,” he said. “It’s not now.”


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