Peter Bart, long one of the most powerful and controversial figures in Hollywood, was suspended Friday from his job as editor in chief of Variety, the dominant trade paper in the entertainment industry, pending an investigation of charges that he has behaved unethically and frequently used racist, sexist and anti-gay language.
The suspension, announced by Tad Smith, president of the media division of Cahners Business Information, Variety’s parent company, was announced in the immediate aftermath of the publication Thursday of a cover story on Bart in Los Angeles magazine.
That story--titled “Is This the Most Hated Man in Hollywood?"--says Bart wrote and tried to sell at least one movie script during his tenure at Variety, a violation of the paper’s conflict-of-interest policies. The story also says he inserted quotes in his reporters’ stories, changed their facts and gave favorable treatment to friends, many of whom he came to know in his two decades as a studio executive before joining Variety in 1989.
“People who have worked with Bart say he would call his favorite sources . . . and vet stories that mentioned them, letting them make adjustments,” the Los Angeles magazine story says.
The news of Bart’s suspension hit Hollywood like a thunderbolt, coming less than five months after Anita Busch, editor of the Hollywood Reporter, quit her job in protest, and less than three months after Reporter columnist George Christy was suspended and subsequently made the subject of a federal grand jury investigation of his behavior. (Busch quit after the Reporter refused to publish a story about Christy’s activities and Publisher Robert Dowling publicly criticized the reporter who wrote that story.)
As both the editor and the most important columnist at Variety, Bart has for more than a decade had unparalleled clout in the entertainment community. Daily Variety’s circulation is only 36,000, but it’s read by virtually everyone in Hollywood, and the surprising news of his suspension rocketed from office to office by phone, fax and e-mail, often among people who still hadn’t seen the Los Angeles magazine story.
Paramount Chairman Sherry Lansing spoke for many in Hollywood when she said she was shocked to hear of Bart’s suspension. Pat Kingsley, publicist for such stars as Tom Cruise and Jodie Foster, called Bart “an institution.”
Always Talked About, if Rarely on the Record
Bart has long been a provocative player in Hollywood--admired, reviled, feared and always talked about, if rarely on the record. Even the most powerful studio executives, agents and producers courted Bart, but almost all were reluctant to attach their names to any criticism of him.
In a memo addressed to “All Cahners Employees,” Smith said the magazine story had caused him “great concern” in that it contains “statements allegedly made by Peter together with allegations made by unidentified third parties about Peter that suggest his conduct may have been inconsistent with our company’s values and standards of conduct.”
Smith’s memo said Bart “denies the accuracy of the article’s quotes and allegations” and said the company’s values “require us not to prejudge Peter based on unsubstantiated allegations.”
Amy Wallace, author of the magazine piece, and Kit Rachlis, the editor of the magazine--both former Los Angeles Times staffers--said they stand behind the accuracy of the story.
“Amy has copious notes . . . and multiple sources for every element of the story,” Rachlis said. “The piece was fact-checked thoroughly, and the head of fact-checking reviewed the facts with Peter Bart over several hours.”
Wallace said Bart called her Thursday after reading the story but “did not dispute any of the facts of the story, nor did he deny saying any of the quotes. He did not ask for a correction.”
Ironically, Wallace says, she had already begun researching a story on Bart when his publicist sent a letter to the magazine suggesting just such a story on “the most powerful person in Hollywood.” She says she spent five months following Bart around and interviewing almost 50 people.
Story Intended as ‘Complex Portrait’
Rachlis said the story was not intended as “a hit piece” but as a “complex portrait of a very complicated, very powerful, very brilliant guy in Hollywood.”
Indeed, Bart’s complexity--he’s “confounding,” Wallace writes--is the major theme of the story. Wallace quotes him using the word “niggers,” for example, and says, “According to more than half a dozen people, he peppers meetings at Variety with derogatory terms: ‘fags,’ ‘bitches’ . . . ‘nips’ ” and a vulgar term for the female genitalia. But Wallace not only quotes Bart as denying having made such remarks, she also credits him with treating ill gay employees well, promoting women and trying, “with limited success, to diversify Variety’s mostly white staff.”
Amy Levy, associate director of the Anti-Defamation League, said the ADL was “shocked to read these comments by Peter Bart. . . . Sadly Peter Bart doesn’t understand the impact of his comments, that they constitute racial bigotry and anti-Semitism.” Martha Matthews, a staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, said: “This guy is the editor of Variety. Does he not think there are gay people working for him already? . . . It’s like being the manager of the Lakers and saying something derogatory about African Americans.”
But Wallace’s story suggests that some of the offensive remarks attributed to Bart may derive from his need to call attention to himself, to create controversy and to flout political correctness.
Although some of the most inflammatory charges in the story rely on unnamed sources, Rachlis said, “We had so many multiple sources--and I don’t just mean two or three sources--telling us that he said these things in public that we felt comfortable running with it.”
Smith said in his internal memo that he had “requested that Peter take a temporary leave while we look into the matter.” He declined to comment further, referring all calls to company spokesmen, one of whom said that the internal memo was “inaccurate” in saying that Smith had requested that Bart go on leave. “Both Peter and the company agreed that Peter would suspend his activities while the company looks into this matter,” said Brandon Borrman, echoing the company’s official public statement. Borrman and other Cahners spokesmen declined to say whether Bart would be paid during his suspension.
Neither Smith nor Bart nor Charlie Koones, group vice president and publisher of Variety, would comment further. The editorial staff of Variety will report to Koones while Bart is under suspension. Bart did say he expected Cahners’ investigation to be completed “very quickly,” and when asked, “Do you mean a matter of days--by this time next week?” he said, “I certainly hope so.”
As news of Bart’s temporary leave of absence was circulating throughout Hollywood, Bart was having lunch with producer Irwin Winkler at the Hillcrest Country Club. “He was very calm,” Winkler said. “He was planning to take a week’s vacation anyway. Apparently, when they said they wanted to investigate these allegations, he said fine. He didn’t seem upset by it.”
The most serious allegation in the magazine profile involves Bart’s alleged attempts to sell his script. That charge and most of the others in the story have floated around Hollywood for years, and many have been written about piecemeal before, in The Times and elsewhere. But Wallace’s article is the first to offer specifics on the scriptwriting.
Bart has always denied selling scripts while running Variety, and he demanded a retraction when the paper’s rival, the Hollywood Reporter, published a story including that charge in March. The Reporter declined to print a retraction.
In her story, Wallace says an anonymous source put a manila envelope in her home mail slot with a 108-page script titled “Crossroads,” which carried the credit line “By Leslie Cox"--the maiden name of Bart’s wife.
Wallace recounts a lengthy tale of Bart’s initial denial that he’d authored the script and his subsequent comments that he might have written it to help him “work out the novel” he was then writing and, finally, his acknowledgment that he had shown it to a longtime producer/friend.
Wallace quotes a former Bart colleague who “remains fond of Bart” as saying, “His relationship to the truth is very plastic,” and she gives many examples of what she calls “his fibs, amplifications and outright lies [that] masquerade as candor.”
Lying is so much a part of the culture of the movie business that producer Lynda Obst titled her 1996 Hollywood book “Hello, He Lied,” and no one would suggest that Bart’s relationship to the truth is an anomaly in this town. But Bart is smart, articulate and combative as well, and he is widely thought to favor his friends and punish his enemies. All that has made for an explosive combination.
A Player in Hollywood for Decades
Some in Hollywood thought Bart, 69, was ready to retire, to concentrate on writing books and magazine columns, but his Variety columns--often in the form of memos to various stars and studio executives--led many others to believe that what he really wanted to do was run a studio again. He denied both ambitions, but he has clearly enjoyed being a major player in Hollywood over the past 40 years. He has written five books, writes a Hollywood column for GQ and proudly says he’s “the only journalist who’s a member of the Academy” of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the body that governs the Oscars.
Bart is also a regular, unpaid weekly commentator on CNN’s “Lou Dobbs Moneyline,” but he didn’t appear as scheduled Friday. CNN said in a statement that “As soon as Variety and Mr. Bart resolve this matter, we will have him back.”
Bart, who grew up in New York, graduated from Swarthmore College near Philadelphia and followed a postgraduate fellowship at the London School of Economics with jobs at the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times.
While based in Los Angeles for the Times in 1966, Bart wrote a flattering profile of Robert Evans, an actor turned producer. A year later, Evans hired Bart to be his No. 2 at Paramount Pictures, where Bart had a major role in many hit movies, among them “The Godfather,” “Harold and Maude,” “Paper Moon,” “True Grit,” “Rosemary’s Baby,” “Goodbye Columbus” and “The Conversation.”
Bart left Paramount in 1974 and started an independent production company, which subsequently made “Being There” and the Jack Nicholson/Jessica Lange version of “The Postman Always Rings Twice.”
In 1989, when Reed Publications bought Daily Variety and Weekly Variety from their longtime family owners, Bart was asked to run the Weekly, which had begun as a vaudeville publication in 1905. Daily Variety was started in 1935, and like the Weekly, had lost much of its verve before Bart was asked to take charge of it as well.
Bart revamped Variety, upgraded the staff, improved it greatly and, in many ways, made it more professional. But he also made it his personal fiefdom.
“This is my paper. I’ll do as I please,” the Los Angeles magazine story quotes him as telling one Variety reporter whose copy he changed.
Even on Friday, under suspension, Bart had his defenders. “He’s raked me over the coals,” said Harvey Weinstein, chairman of Miramax Films. “I think he stands up to everybody. He’s not in fear of anybody in this town. He’s not in anybody’s pocket. He understands what makes great movies. . . . He has great integrity. I think it’s a shame he had to take a leave of absence.”
Bart has long been dismissive of his various critics and competitors, though, and early this year, when many in Hollywood were touting the resurgence of the Hollywood Reporter under editor Busch, he was especially dismissive. In fact, he is quoted in the Los Angeles magazine story as saying he fired Busch when she worked for him at Variety before becoming editor of the Reporter.
But as both Busch and Variety’s personnel department told the magazine, Busch wasn’t fired; she quit. Indeed, she told The Times early this year that she quit Variety because she objected to many of the actions Cahners is investigating.
Times staff writers Robert W. Welkos, Louise Roug, Elizabeth Jensen and Gina Piccalo also contributed to this story.
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Variety editor in chief
Peter Bart, as quoted in Los Angeles magazine:
On Race and Ethnicity
“You talk to a lot of the better-educated, wealthy black people. You know, they’re not very black. The big distinction is between the people they call niggers--who are the ghetto blacks, who can’t even speak, can’t get a job, and bury themselves in black-itude--and those people who are better looking, better educated, smarter, and who own the world: the black middle class.”
“A lot of people in Hollywood--let’s say if they happen to be Jewish people who come from Brooklyn--they are most comfortable with those people. Which is fine. It just doesn’t happen to describe me.”
“Do me one favor. To avoid me being blackballed, quote me saying, ‘I have no problem saying my ethnicity is Jewish.’ Otherwise you’re going to get me into trouble with all these people.”
On Studio Executives
“Some people say I owe [former Disney chief] Joe Roth a lot. But I don’t. Joe Roth owes me. I gave him his first job . . . . The same with [Sony Pictures Chairman] John Calley. I owe John alley a lot? John Calley owes me. I think I was very important in getting him his [prior] job at MGM.”
When confronted with evidence that he wrote a script at Variety:
“Boy, you got me. Did I write a script? Now I’m facing memory loss. Let’s just say this is a script that has [Bart’s wife Leslie Cox’s] name on it. What does that indicate? Therefore--therefore, what? . . .
“I may have written this . . . . Maybe this taught me never to do it again.”