David Begelman would have been offended by the sprawling story about Anthony Pellicano in the current Vanity Fair. An urbane and meticulously groomed felon, Begelman was a real player in his time. No agent in town carried more clout, and as top dog at Columbia Pictures and, still later, MGM, he ruled with a style and swagger reminiscent of the old-line studio czars.
Begelman had a huge ego, even about his misdeeds, and hence, would have resented being marginalized by Vanity Fair. According to the magazine, the Begelman scandal didn’t hold a candle to the Pellicano case. The same applied to other cases dating back to Roman Polanski, Johnny Stompanato or even Fatty Arbuckle. Pellicano has become the all-time Black Hole of Hollywood, says the breathless article — a point of view resembling that of the New York Times in justifying its own pounding and repetitive coverage.
I knew Begelman well and admired the panache with which he ruled his studio. I also became cognizant of his gambling habit, his sociopathic lying and his unfortunate propensity for embezzlement.
When he acknowledged his role as a felon, the entire town went into shock because, at that moment, a substantial number of studio executives and agents also were playing by their own set of rules. If you made a distribution deal at a studio, for example, it was understood that you “took care” of the company’s dealmakers. The movie business operated like a club, and you looked out for your fellow members.
This was also the time when a bunch of shady characters acquired control of the Paramount back lot and the studio’s production team moved en masse to offices in Beverly Hills so that they wouldn’t have to interact with them.
Begelman understood both of these worlds and turned both to his advantage. He drove a Rolls, closed pricey deals and entertained the hottest stars. He also cashed checks that crossed his desk, irrespective of who they were made out to.
The Begelman scandal, on one level, was dark comedy. The Polanski saga, on the other hand, was like a Wagnerian opera, with murder in the first act, sex in the second and injustice at its close.
And Pellicano? For a show that’s been playing since 2002, it’s frankly getting to be a bit of a bore. Vanity Fair tried to sex up the plot a bit, dropping names like Brad Pitt and Adam Sandler — stars who supposedly hired Pellicano or at least were encouraged to retain his services by Brad Grey– but those allegations have now been refuted by their reps. The New York Times adorns its lengthy stories with photos of top executives like Grey and Ron Meyer, as though suggesting their dire involvement, but thus far, the principal indictees have turned out to be some divorce lawyers known only to their clients.
So here’s the question: Has the coverage itself become the story?
Significantly, the investigation has now turned to the reporters covering the story rather than to the supposed superstars at its center. The Feds wonder how the New York Times keeps coming upon FBI documents even as readers wonder why the newspaper devotes so much real estate to examining them. With these new distractions, Pellicano-addicts now wonder whether all those long-promised indictments may now be sidetracked (remember the hints that major news would be revealed by the end of April?).
So it all comes down to this: Somewhere, in some secret room, a team of investigators may be seated, listening endlessly to secret tapes made by Anthony Pellicano. Surely this must be one of history’s truly boring jobs — sorting through endless conversations about dalliances and dinner dates. And when this process is over, there may, or may not, be startling revelations about Pellicano’s wire tapping — who hired him and who knew about it?
Meanwhile, if David Begelman were alive today and still cashing checks, he would likely wonder what all the fuss was about.