Behind all the recent Heidi Fleiss headlines is one basic reality: Hollywood has gone corporate like the rest of America, but it has not made the transition easily.
Executives like Disney’s Michael Eisner and Fox’s Peter Chernin, who wear business suits and go home to their families at night, have made Hollywood a more sober place — at least in the corner offices.
But it’s still a town where unmarried 25-year-olds earn $ 1 million a year. They aren’t likely to rent a video and go home on Friday night.
“The studios are caught up in a series of contradictions on this issue,” one top-ranking studio executive said. “On the one hand we all know we work for huge corporations that have their own codes and standards of behavior. On the other hand, we live in a world of private jets and fabulous hotel suites, a world where studios not only pay stars and directors millions of dollars to do a picture, but then give them a Mercedes as a reward for doing their job.”
Some peg Hollywood’s new conservative face to simple evolution: Today’s sober industry leaders survived the coke-crazed ’70s. Others cite the scourge of AIDS, the aging of the swingers, 12 years of conservative national politics and the increased consumer-media coverage of the town’s inside dealings.
Industry leaders say that family values and bottom lines have brought about a change. Then again, witness Heidi Fleiss. “The days when it was de rigueur to flaunt the excesses, to wear the razor blades and spoons on necklaces, are a thing of the past,” said M. Kenneth Suddleson, former Paramount exec who now heads up the entertainment law division for Kaye, Scholer, Fierman, Hays & Handler.
“Things are definitely more buttoned-down than they were in the infamous ’70s , but it’s probably because there were a lot more independents in the ’70s.”
But QVC topper and ex-studio head Barry Diller said studios never tolerated indiscretions by staffers — especially if they might cost the company money.
“When I was at Paramount, starting in 1974, I know what kind of behavior that studio tolerated,” he said. “And it was said several times to employees, ‘Do not confuse yourself to think you are safe once inside these gates.’ There were several times when we found expense-account infractions, and we pursued them. The employee either had to pay back the money, with interest, or I know of at least one case where we reported it to the district attorney.”
But agents, managers, directors, writers and execs say there was a time in Hollywood when drug use and hot-tub parties went hand-in-hand with moviemaking.
With corporations writing the paychecks and more conservative regimes now at the top, that kind of frolicking is frowned upon. And many of the independents have either gone bankrupt or are now owned by the studios.
But events of the past few weeks served as a reminder that Hollywood still has its wild side. Last Wednesday, a Sony internal phone list surfaced that indicated director and accused panderer Ivan Nagy had an office on the Sony lot as late as last October. There was no proof that Nagy had a picture deal with the company.
And mounting evidence suggests that some young studio execs had more than a passing acquaintance with alleged madam Fleiss and her employees.
Hollywood still has its wild side, and it still provides golden nets for high-flying employees who run out of sky. But with little career benefitto exhibiting excess, the wild ones have had to go underground.
Right now Hollywood execs who want to move up the ladder have more than their straight-laced bosses looking over their shoulders; they also have to feed an ever-increasing number of film and TV hits to the number-crunching corporate beast.
“I think people have come to realize that this is a very big, multi-multibillion dollar business,” said Marty Bauer of United Talent Agency. “The corporations came in and took over.”
“This generation of leaders is very conservative,” said another agent. “And they have set a tone for the town. It used to be that you’d order a scotch at lunch. Now people look at you funny if you order a beer or a glass of red wine.”
Agent Joan Scott, who runs Writers & Artists Agency, chalks up today’s caution to the recession and the fear of not having a job. “We’re in an era that is reacting to the excesses of the 1980s, but also in a time when it’s very hard to make a living,” she said. “We’re all becoming food and drink police, and I’m the worst of them. And don’t even ask me about smoking.”
People who have been in the business for decades say that Hollywood runs in cycles, and that this is just another conservative swing. “In the days when Fatty Arbuckle was arrested (1921), everyone was into drugs and wild times,” said one director. “But then they brought in the Hays Office, and that quieted things down.
“But then things get so boring, no one cares anymore,” he said. “And it goes back.”
Another agent said he believes the town underwent a big change with the 1978 David Begelman check-forging scandal. “That exposed what a lot of people believed was going on at dead studios. But it also focused the national spotlight on Hollywood,” he said. “Who would have ever thought that a book written about that, or about a film that had gone over budget, would become bestsellers?”