‘Double’ trouble points up perils of players’ power

MEMO TO: John Travolta

FROM: Peter Bart

EVERYONE SEEMS TO BE TAKING potshots at movie stars these days, John, so let me start out by saying I’m not going to join the chorus. In fact, I’m even starting to feel a degree of empathy for your dilemma.

How is it possible to empathize with someone who, in a worst-case scenario, still stands to make upward of $60 million this year?

Well, after reviewing the circumstances surrounding your withdrawal from “The Double,” John, it dawned on me that you’re having serious trouble handling your present position of limitless money and power. Indeed, like a number of other superstars of the moment, certain symptoms of self-destructiveness are creeping into your behavior.

As I said, you are not alone. Take a look at “Last Dance” and “Mary Reilly,” and you have to wonder what the industry’s two highest-paid actresses, Sharon Stone and Julia Roberts, must have been thinking. Was it something in the water? Did they share the wrong trainer?

Then there’s the case of Jim Carrey, who’s had a near-perfect record till now. With his newfound power to make any movie he wants, he goes out and makes two movies — the first half of “The Cable Guy,” which is a very funny comedy, and the last half, which is a clumsy stalker movie. Did he do this to justify his new $20 million fee, deciding to deliver two movies for the price of one?

WHICH BRINGS US BACK to you, John. You have one great advantage over other movie stars because this is your second time around. By the time you were in your early 20s, you’d already been to the summit, only to crash back down again. Thus it would seem reasonable to expect you to demonstrate a certain prudence in exercising the perks of stardom.

Such has hardly been the case on “The Double,” the Mandalay/Sony picture now in pre-production in Paris. As I understand the details of Mandalay’s lawsuit, John, you met with Roman Polanski some weeks ago, approved the script and agreed to accept the starring role for a paycheck of $17 million. At the time, you surely understood that the man who directed “Rosemary’s Baby” and “Chinatown” would take a more precise point of view about his actor’s performance than, say, John Woo, who allowed you to walk through “Broken Arrow” with a beatific smirk, or Jon Turteltaub, for whom you just completed “Phenomenon.” Presumably you welcomed the notion of working with “an actor’s director,” as they used to be called.

But no. After all the deal talks, after your $200,000 trailer had been shipped to Paris, after some $13 million had been spent on pre-production, you suddenly had a change of heart. According to the lawsuit, you resented the specificity of Polanski’s stage directions and line readings. You demanded that Polanski not be permitted to direct your “personal performance” on the set, but instead submit his written “creative vision.”

Apparently, you then came up with a better idea, John. You suggested that your producer, Lili Fini Zanuck, take over the directing reins. Now I do not want to knock Lili, but arguably her solo directing credit, “Rush,” was not quite up to the standards of “Chinatown.” When your demands were rejected, John, you packed your bags and ran back to Los Angeles.

Faced with the inevitable lawsuit, your attorney, the ubiquitous Bert Fields, counterargued that a final agreement had never been reached, that Polanski had diddled with the screenplay and lastly that the director wanted your role to be played for “belly laughs,” which isn’t the way you saw it (one would think that issue would have been dealt with at the first meeting). Now there are several disturbing elements to this behavior, John. First, it illustrates dramatically the tyranny of stardom. More and more stars are committing to projects, then blithely walking away. More and more, too, are demanding total creative control. Forget about a strong director or a strong producer; the star wants to run the show.

All of which raises two questions, John. What impact will this have on the quality of filmmaking? What impact will it have upon the careers of the stars themselves?

THUS FAR, WE’RE GETTING mixed signals. Take Tom Cruise, for example. He opted to launch his new vocation as the imperial producer-star with a risk-free venture called “Mission: Impossible.” The picture is a huge hit, but arguably Cruise gave himself the most limiting, one-dimensional role of his acting career. Indeed, with Cruise in control of the editing room, whenever there was a clash between developing a personal story or accelerating the pounding pace of the movie, the personal story was sacrificed.

Then there’s Arnold Schwarzenegger, who’s become increasingly finicky about his choices since “Last Action Hero.” I very much enjoyed Arnold’s new $120 million effects-ridden summer movie, “Eraser,” but again it represents the ultimate play-it-safe, roll-it-down-the-middle popcorn movie, almost to the point of self-parody. In place of “Hasta la vista, baby,” Arnold grunts, “You’re luggage” to a crocodile before shooting it.

Tom and Arnold’s obsessiveness in protecting the franchise is in sharp contrast to the actions of the old-time stars like Tracy and Bogart, who were always getting suspended by studio chiefs because they resisted being typecast, preferring instead to exercise their acting muscles. But then those stars didn’t receive $20 million a picture. They still thought of themselves as actors, not just movie stars.

Which brings us back to you, John. Are you going to enjoy your second time around the track? Or are you going to make a series of “Broken Arrows,” then sit back and count your money, ducking away from the Roman Polanskis of the world in fear that they’ll make too many demands on you?

It’s crunch time, John. Think it over. There might not be a third chance.

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