The rise and demise of David the Didactic

EXACTLY 10 YEARS HAVE PASSED since the sudden implosion of David Puttnam’s regime at Columbia Pictures — arguably the most eccentric studio reign in the annals of Hollywood.

 

The didactic British producer arrived in town and promptly announced he was going to radically change “the system.” After a quarrelsome 16 months, he departed having changed nothing, but leaving in his wake a legacy of colorful anecdotes and peculiar films, including the definitive movie about a talking penis.

 

My purpose here is not to belabor David Puttnam; actually, I’ve always been fond of Sir David, as he is now called. However, at a time when the major studios are widely criticized for being too similar in their operating styles, not to mention their product, it might be instructive to recall a fleeting moment when all rules were broken and caution was tossed to the winds.

 

In accepting the job as chairman and CEO of Columbia Pictures, Puttnam made it crystal clear that he resented Hollywood’s star salaries and “cronyism,” and that he intended to make serious movies about “morally accountable individuals trying to hold true to their beliefs.”

 

Did he succeed? A year after he took office, one of his chief lieutenants was summoned to a screening of what Puttnam had hoped would be an important new project. The director was an obscure but talented Eastern European auteur who insisted that the film be screened in Zagreb. It was several minutes into the movie before the Columbia executive realized that the dialogue was almost exclusively in a Gypsy tongue, which few outsiders can understand, and that the filmmaker didn’t want subtitles to mar the artistic thrust of his epic. While the director occasionally whispered a translated line of dialogue to the Columbia executive, the various European distributors in the room looked on in complete confusion. Needless to say, the response to the movie was less than ecstatic.

 

“David felt strongly that Hollywood directors were spoiled and overpaid,” said his former lieutenant, “but this Gypsy movie was not exactly the right answer.”

 

Indeed, Puttnam, with all his righteous indignation, came up with very few answers during his Hollywood reign. While he held firm in his determination not to make “Rambo”-like action movies, he ended up building a curious program of art movies around European filmmakers like Emir Kusturica, Jiri Menzel, Doris Dorrie (she was responsible for the talking penis movie, “Him and Me”) and Istvan Szabo.

 

Hungarian filmmaker Szabo, in particular, became a Puttnam favorite. When top agents would pitch their director clients, Puttnam would rage, “Why should I pay your man $ 3 million when a far greater director, Istvan Szabo, will work for $100,000?” Soon Szabo’s Budapest offices were inundated with Hollywood scripts that he couldn’t even read.

 

Within a few days of Puttnam’s appointment to Columbia, many Hollywood figures were scratching their heads, trying to figure out how to cope with him. As a London producer, Puttnam’s record had been estimable. He’d fostered such outstanding films as “Chariots of Fire,” “The Mission” and “The Killing Fields.”

 

HIS RECRUITMENT by Columbia was an accident of timing. At the moment when Puttnam had reached his zenith as a producer, Coca-Cola, which found itself owning Columbia, asked its president of the entertainment sector, Francis T. (Fay) Vincent Jr., to find a new face. The studio had been floundering since the days of the David Begelman scandals. “I resisted the idea of recycling an executive who had just failed at another studio,” recalls Vincent, who later served as commissioner of baseball. “I felt that hiring Puttnam would be a noble experiment.”

 

It was, in theory. Puttnam could have represented a fresh new voice for the industry. But it didn’t work — not from day one.

 

The expectation was that the outspoken Puttnam would at least be warmly accepted by Hollywood’s creative community. Many artists, in fact, welcomed his ideological pronouncements with greater enthusiasm than they did his attacks on the salary structure. Soon the new Columbia chieftain found himself involved in fights with Warren Beatty, Jack Nicholson, Bill Murray, Ray Stark and most of the town’s top agents. He even feuded with Bill Cosby, who was making a $22 million movie for Columbia called “Leonard Part 6” and who had been serving as a spokesman for Coca-Cola.

 

Amid all the heat, Puttnam and his associates managed to launch some promising projects, like John Boorman’s “Hope and Glory” and “True Believer.” But by and large, Hollywood simply didn’t like Puttnam, didn’t like his style, didn’t like his constant speechifying. They didn’t even like the way he furnished his office, its walls lined with portentous quotes from legendary names like Cecil B. DeMille: “It is a sobering thought that the decisions we make at desks in Hollywood may eventually affect the lives of human beings through the world.”

 

It soon became clear that Puttnam’s decisions weren’t affecting anyone but were simply sealing his own fate.

 

IRONICALLY, IN THE YEARS since his departure from Columbia, Puttnam’s continuing link to Hollywood has been through his deal with those ultimate Hollywood insiders, Bob Daly and Terry Semel, at Warners. His output as a producer has been anything but prolific, however. Yet, friends report that Sir David is happy in his present role as a friend and adviser to Tony Blair, Britain’s new prime minister, and as a sort of elder statesmen to Europe’s filmmaking community. “David is a happy man as Sir David,” says one long-term friend.

 

In his parting comments at Columbia 10 years ago, Puttnam told his staff, “I am neither St. George nor Don Quixote. I am just a European motion picture producer who crossed the Atlantic to ask a few questions.”

 

Well, he asked his questions. The answer was: “Get lost.”

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