Civility is dead in H’w’d, or so says your local thesp

THIS NEWSPAPER CARRIES many stories about film and TV executives, agents and other business types, but we’re arguably neglectful of those at the center of the process — actors.

F. Scott Fitzgerald reminded us that the rich are different from you and me; the same applies to thesps. They look different, act different and, most of all, think different.

As evidence, one need look no further than the little-noticed essay penned by Alec Baldwin last week in the Los Angeles Times — a unique example of “thesp-think.” Baldwin, it seems, is distressed by coverage of the Kim Basinger verdict (he’s a very good friend of Kim’s) as well as by the implications of the case. To Baldwin, it is appalling that the jury would effectively “fine” a movie star $ 8.9 million for promising to do a film, only to back out four weeks before principal photography.

Kim Basinger was simply following Hollywood’s laws of “civility,” Baldwin argues. When a producer or director shows a script to a star, the actor in question wants to say all the nice things. “Everyone says, ‘Of course I’m in,’ or ‘I’d love to do this project,’ ” Baldwin tells us. “Custom and practice in this business has always been for the creative principals to assemble and kiss each other’s ass … That’s because creative endeavors are like children. … You don’t tell any producer or writer or director anything less than: ‘Oh, my, your children are beautiful.’ ”

As a result of the jury’s harsh decision, Baldwin warns, these customs of civility will be banished. Actors will have to “watch every word they say.” Hollywood will be the loser. Thus argues Alec Baldwin.

THE SPECIFIC INCIDENT that triggered his indignation involved an arcane project called “Boxing Helena,” which had been developed by two relative newcomers to the business, director Jennifer Lynch and producer Carl Mazzocone. According to testimony, Kim Basinger said all the nice things about the script, and her representatives started talking contract. This in turn caused Mazzocone to negotiate presales and to start talks with distributors.

It all came crashing to a halt when Basinger, acting upon the advice of friends and agents, suddenly fled the project, thus reinforcing Sam Goldwyn’s dictum that “an oral agreement isn’t worth the paper it’s written on.” The jury cried “foul,” hence awarding the stunning $ 8.9 million in damages.

If it’s precedent-setting for a jury to rule against a movie star, it’s equally extraordinary for that star’s boyfriend to “go public” in her defense. And while I applaud Baldwin’s loyalty, I’m nonetheless perplexed by his analysis of the workings of Hollywood.

It’s been my observation that, more often than not, when a star reads a script, his reaction will be disdain rather than the phrases of loving reinforcement cited by Alec Baldwin. Only a couple of weeks ago, one of the most important stars in town met with one of the most important directors and literally tore the director’s script apart. “It was not just criticism, it was like being annihilated,” the director later told me. So much for the laws of civility.

Most stars, in fact, read very little and hate everything they read. Al Pacino disdained “Scent of a Woman,” a luscious role if ever there was one. After receiving his Oscar, Pacino acknowledged that his agent, Rick Nicita of CAA, talked him into taking the role. Nicita later explained that Pacino tends to back into things, that he “reads scripts out loud with other actors.” Few projects have survived these public readings. Similarly, Gene Hackman, who won another Oscar for supporting actor, turned down “Unforgiven” only to have Clint Eastwood persuade him to take the part.

The reason? On those rare occasions when a star actually reads a script, he assesses it far differently than normal human beings. A director may react to structure or theme. An actor tends to read only his own role, asking himself questions like: “Could I play this character with a limp?” Or “could I try out a mustache in this role?” Or “would I have to lose weight to play the love scenes?”

IN POINT OF FACT, most great roles were played by reluctant or angrily disdainful actors. Both Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart thought “Casablanca” was junk. Marlon Brando made it quite clear that he accepted “The Godfather” only because he needed a job.

In the old days of the studio system, stars were always being suspended for rejecting roles or changing their minds. Actors who were good at gangster roles like John Garfield wanted to be cast in love stories; romantic actors like Clark Gable wanted to be gangsters.

In those days, the industry essentially operated on the basis of oral agreements — the contracts were mere formalities. In recent years, however, when two people shook hands on a deal it meant either (a) the deal was closed, or (b) the negotiation hadn’t even started. More and more, the Hollywood dealmaking machinery has become gridlocked by broken promises. Everyone in town seems to be waiting around for some lawyer to finalize the contract — a process that has steadily become more expensive and time-consuming.

Hence the Kim Basinger case was perhaps inevitable; a producer would ultimately have to say “enough!” and go after a star who had changed her mind. Alec Baldwin might believe this means an end to civility; many would argue it means the beginning of a new civility. Thanks to the jury, a form of Sam Goldwyn’s dictum may actually come true — an oral agreement may in fact be worth the paper it isn’t written on.

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