Tinseltown Divorce: Survival of the Fittest

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The gold-embossed invitation to super-agent Ed Limato's exclusive Oscar party arrived, as it had for years, at producer Donna Dubrow's Brentwood home sometime in February. The name on the envelope was John McTiernan, the A-list film director whom Dubrow was in the process of divorcing, but that didn't strike Dubrow as unusual. Dubrow had attended Limato's party on several occasions--even a few times without her husband--so she assumed the invitation was for her.

So Dubrow RSVP'd yes. Minutes later, Limato's office called back. Was Dubrow attending with McTiernan, the agent's assistant wanted to know? No, Dubrow's assistant replied, she would come solo. A few minutes later, Limato's office rang again.

"The kid says, 'Well, I guess we sent out two invitations and John is going to be coming and we don't want anyone to feel uncomfortable,' " recalled Dubrow's assistant. "He kept alluding that he didn't want Donna to come, so much so that I finally said, 'So you want me to ask her not to come to the party? Is that it?' He said, yes."

Dubrow, a former feature film executive and industry veteran who isn't surprised by much, was stung. "I've known Ed for more than 20 years, since long before I knew John. The few times I'd gone to the party alone, Ed never cared that John wasn't there. I got the big kiss hello and that sort of stuff," she said. "Now, I'm on the 'Don't Come' list."

Divorce is never easy, but for Hollywood couples--especially two-career couples--it is especially brutal. In the entertainment industry, the personal and professional are more than tangled, they're conjoined. Here, where near-strangers seal movie deals with an air kiss, feigned intimacy is as commonplace as the real thing is rare. Getting invited to the right party isn't just a social coup, it is clout. Friendships rise and fall upon financial interests and everyone in town accepts it as the price of doing business.

But when a marriage ends, Hollywood's bottom-line thinking has both emotional and fiscal fallout. More often than not, one member of the divorcing couple feels the town doing a cold calculation: Which spouse matters more?

"It's truly Sun Tzu's 'The Art of War.' You do not side with the losing army," said Deborah M. Pratt, an actress turned writer-producer who split from television producer Donald P. Bellisario in 1991. Pratt and Bellisario had worked together on "Magnum P.I." and "Airwolf" (when Pratt was an actress) and then on "Quantum Leap," for which she received co-executive producer credit. But post-divorce, when she tried to produce on her own, she said she hit roadblocks.

"I believed that people I had worked for during my eight years of marriage who knew my contributions would support me in the transition. Most of them didn't," said Pratt, who also had written several "Quantum Leap" episodes. "He was the bigger player. [Most] people went with what Hollywood calls the cash cow. They knew where their bread was buttered. It took about five years to get people to stop saying, 'That's the ex-Mrs. So-and-So.' "

Sometimes, what motivates the town's response isn't cruelty, but a desire to preserve decorum. For his part, Limato said he sincerely regrets that the invitation for McTiernan went to the wrong address. He never had intended to invite Dubrow, he said, precisely because he had heard the split was acrimonious.

"I'm very fond of John and I'm very fond of Donna. But John is someone I talk to all the time. Every time he starts a film I'm talking to him about various clients," he said. "I don't really talk to Donna anymore, frankly, since they split because they were part of a team."

Choosing Sides Based on Status

Such thinking is no surprise to J.C. Larson, who is in the midst of a divorce from the prolific film and TV writer-producer Glen A. Larson. Despite having received producing credit on TV movies and series including the syndicated "Night Man," she has had some trouble being taken seriously on her own.

"One good friend--someone I had introduced to Glen--called me up and left a voice mail saying, 'Because Glen can give me work, I'm not going to be able to talk to you anymore,' " said the former actress, who became a producer during her 16-year marriage. While some talent agencies have been responsive to her attempts to set up meetings as a solo producer and writer, "I've also had a smaller agency say, 'Well, we don't want to tick him off because he uses our writers and directors.' "

Glen Larson was surprised by that anecdote, though he said, "I was once disinvited from a party because she was invited to go. I don't know what they were afraid of--a fistfight, or what? That was unlikely. We've been to several events without anyone having to call the police or fire departments."

He added: "I would never feel I want any of my friends or professional [contacts] to shun her for whatever reason. It's in my best interest that she become a great writer because it helps me on spousal support. The last thing I want is for her to be totally dependent on me."

According to Manley Freid, a lawyer who has represented scores of spouses breaking from powerful people both in and outside Hollywood, this taking of sides is more stark in the entertainment industry than in other businesses.

"It's much more exaggerated in Hollywood because it's so closed a circle. Very few people feel they can stay friendly with both [partners] and get away with it," Freid said. In other businesses, "even at the highest social strata, it's easy [for one spouse] to move into another circle. As long as you've got money, they'll take you in.

"Not true in the entertainment business, where everyone knows who's on the A-list. And you can't buy in to these lists."

Michael Miskei, a top forensic accountant in Encino who often works with divorcing entertainment industry clients to assess their assets, cash flow and individual earning capacity, agreed.

"People jettison relationships very quickly in Hollywood if they believe it's in their best interests," he said. "All decisions made here are driven by the extent to which they can make money. It's not a world in which friendships override business."

No wonder, then, that former spouses who don't work in the business are often wiped off Hollywood's radar screen altogether.

"It's a pretty mean town," said Sandi Nimoy, a community activist and mom who was married to actor Leonard Nimoy for 33 years before their 1987 divorce. "To think that people care about you in Hollywood or that there's reciprocity [is to] buy the lie. Many of my friends left me--I can't get them into screenings [anymore]. It was unreal. . . . I miss screenings. I miss my marriage. But I don't miss Hollywood."

Women aren't always the ones who suffer. In the end, power--not gender--is what earns the town's loyalty, and to the extent that women have it, Hollywood pays heed. For example, comedienne Roseanne was always the bigger star than her second husband, comedian Tom Arnold, and their divorce in 1994 did nothing to change that (though many think her own behavior later did).

"In Tom and Roseanne's case it was very well documented: She had him locked out and thrown off the lot and did everything in her power to bad-mouth him and knock him out of work," said Freid, the lawyer who represented Arnold. But in Hollywood, he said, Roseanne's behavior was only unusual in that it was out in the open.

"Everybody here takes care of everybody else because today they're on top, tomorrow they're out of a job, and they want people to take care of them when their day comes. So it's very easy over a cocktail to make it known: If you've got a choice, don't help [my ex] out," he said. "I've had cases where--let's put it this way--my client would be as big or bigger as their spouse and they break up and all of a sudden the careers reverse. That's coincidental? I attribute that to friends talking to friends."

In essence, that's what Sondra Locke alleged happened after her 1989 split with her former lover and co-star, Clint Eastwood. In a series of lawsuits during the mid-1990s, she accused Eastwood and Warner Bros. of engineering a sham movie directing deal for her without her knowledge.

Locke, an actress who spent 14 years as Eastwood's companion and sometime co-star, said she would never have accepted such a deal because it gave Eastwood too much control and sent a signal that she wasn't to be taken seriously--such a clear signal, in fact, that while she pitched more than 30 ideas to the studio over three years, none was accepted. Locke finally got her wish a year ago last month: a settlement deal with Warner Bros. that creates specific writing and directing opportunities.

"I felt I had my own relationships with Warner Bros., so [what happened] was a particularly hideous thing," said Locke, who now has several projects in development with the studio. "The only way to survive is to keep a sense of humor about it, though it's not very funny when it's happening."

Professional Relationships

The Locke-Eastwood saga highlights the special nature of the entertainment industry, where couples often work together--and even for one another. Consider this: Susanne Daniels is president of entertainment at the Warner Bros. TV network, while her husband, Greg Daniels, co-creator of Fox's "King of the Hill," is developing a new comedy series for the WB for mid-season. Or this: Sherry Lansing is Paramount Pictures chief; director William Friedkin, her husband, will have two films released by Paramount this year--"Rules of Engagement" and the upcoming "Night Train."

To be sure, some industry couples manage to maintain their professional relationships even after a romantic rift. Linda Hamilton, the actress who split from Oscar-winning director James Cameron two years ago, recently said she would only reprise her role as Sarah Connor in a sequel to "Terminator 2" if Cameron is at the helm. "If Jim doesn't direct it I wouldn't do it," she said. "Jim's the genius behind it, and I'm loyal to that."

For Dubrow, who married McTiernan in 1988, the same year his blockbuster "Die Hard" was released, working together made sense. After serving as an executive at smaller film companies and then at HBO, she had years of producing experience. But as McTiernan's star began to rise, she said, it seemed best to use that expertise to build his career.

"I concentrated on his career future. It was greater than mine, in all honesty," she said. "He had a specific talent. I was one of a bunch of producers schlepping around trying to get films made."

Dubrow received producing credit on McTiernan's 1992 film "Medicine Man." But much of what she did was behind the scenes, she said.

"The editor John used on 'Die Hard' was someone I'd worked with at HBO who I thought would be good. I asked John to meet him," she recalled. "There were writers whose scripts I'd read that I'd suggest to John. It's not like I was a housewife that nobody knew. I was part of this business before I met John."

In a statement released by his divorce lawyer, McTiernan agreed that Dubrow was well-known in the business and that her work has been affected by their split, but indicated that this was her own doing.

"Donna had been employed continuously for 20 years before we separated," he said. "In the 18 months immediately prior to our separation, she produced three motion pictures that had nothing whatsoever to do with me. At the moment of separation, she ceased working in the motion picture business and started a new career in the divorce business. . . . "

Three years after separating from McTiernan, Dubrow says her personal and professional life has changed. More than one person whom she considered a friend has snubbed her. Other professional acquaintances have seemingly disappeared. The actor Samuel L. Jackson, who starred with Bruce Willis in McTiernan's "Die Hard: With a Vengeance" after Dubrow says she lobbied on his behalf, "was so good to me before this. Now, I fax and I don't get a response."

(Jackson said neither he nor his wife, LaTanya, had received a fax from Dubrow. "I'm sorry to hear that she feels that way," he said. "If Donna were to call today, I'd get on the phone.")

'It Isn't the Same'

The mix-up about Limato's Oscar party, however, did more than bruise Dubrow's feelings. To paraphrase a line from Martin Scorsese's film "Age of Innocence," she experienced the slight as an eradication.

"It was like, 'God, it isn't the same,' " she said. "It's the feeling of not being part of it. Of being an outsider. It's psychologically very uncomfortable. I can see not wanting us both there at a small dinner party. But we're talking a couple of hundred people."

Said Limato: "The fact is Donna opened mail that was addressed to somebody else. It doesn't take a lot of common sense to know that I wouldn't invite two people who had recently split up--no matter how friendly I might be with both of them--unless I wanted to offend them."

In the end, Limato said, McTiernan decided not to attend.

For her part, Pratt said, it took her two years to realize that she was "beating my head against a wall" before she decided to move into a part of the industry where her ex-husband's influence was less pervasive. She enrolled at the American Film Institute, started writing--and then selling--feature film scripts. Next, she directed a "Masterpiece Theater" episode for PBS and today she is trying to make it as a feature director and writer.

Pratt's ex-husband, meanwhile, says she wasn't blocked by anybody. On the contrary, Bellisario said he spoke on her behalf to friends who ran television shows, but that she never followed up.

"She had it made," said Bellisario, who created the TV series "JAG," "Airwolf" and "Magnum P.I." "All she had to do was go to Steve Cannell or Steven Bochco and say, 'Look, I know you think I'm just Don's wife. Let me show you how good I am.' She could have proven what her talent was. She could have been a writer-producer and a good one. But why do that? Why work, when the corrupt system will hand you $27,000 [in spousal and child support] a month?"

Said Pratt: "Looking back, I was too young and naive to understand the ramifications of power in Los Angeles. I trusted and believed, commingling our creative energies and not demanding separate credit. To other men and women out there [in Hollywood], I would say this: Keep work and home separate. Yes, you want to be all-trusting, all-knowing, all-giving. But business is business."

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