Celebs skip the spotlight and promo gigs

Whenever I hear someone waxing sentimental about the past, I question his memory. Events always seem happier in retrospect.

On the other hand, consider the present state of press agentry. Flacks — that’s what Variety calls them — once were a colorful fraternity devoted to promoting the fortunes of their famous clients. Today publicists seem to be locked in their bunkers doing damage control. Their clients want to hide, not hustle. They want protection, not promotion.

I hate myself for saying this, but I prefer the old days.

Journalists shouldn’t admit it, but I happen to enjoy the company of flacks. They don’t make the big bucks that agents or managers rake in but they love to trade war stories, and they even pick up the check now and then. (Have you ever seen a star pick up the check?)

A memoir by an old-time press agent named Leonard Morpurgo got me thinking about all this. Morpurgo is candid about his clients: He recalls how stars ranging from Barbra Streisand to Tony Curtis orchestrated their movements so that they would be at least an hour late for engagements. The notoriously parsimonious Cary Grant once chastised Morpurgo for favoring expensive restaurants. (Grant never got the tab anyway.)

While Steve McQueen relished the fringe benefits of stardom, he heaped abuse on his press agents. In Paris, ducking the paparazzi, McQueen once gunned his Mercedes toward a photographer, hitting him with his right fender. McQueen leaped out of his car, helped the victim to his feet and asked, “Are you all right.” The moment he heard “yes,” McQueen was back in form, screaming at the photographer and at his press agent for not shielding him from these encounters,

By and large, the stars Morpurgo worked with seemed determined to have a good time. He recalls the keen rivalry between Peter O’Toole and Omar Sharif. While promoting a film in Paris, they competed intensely over who could bed the most girls (female interviewers of any age group counted double.)

Only a very few top stars today — Tom Cruise and Will Smith, for example — still travel the world to market their films. Most confine their efforts to fleeting stints at red-carpet photo ops or the occasional mini-junket. Bookers for TV talkshows are accustomed to rejection — “He doesn’t do TV,” the publicist will advise.

Stan Rosenfield, a gracious man with keen expertise in PR, spent much of the past year defending the coherence of Charlie Sheen before finally tossing in the towel. Sheen’s prime need was clearly therapy, not publicity. Rosenfield also reps George Clooney, who, while superbly coherent, remains basically invisible unless he can confine conversation to his personal causes in Africa.

Some PR practitioners are more confrontational, to be sure. Kelly Bush, who runs the ID firm, not only gets on the phone to argue but also encourages famously troubled clients like Paul Reubens to confront their demons (witness his well-received Pee-wee Herman show on Broadway). Then there’s Sony’s Steve Elzer, who made no effort to conceal the fact that a bear cub peed all over him onstage during a CinemaCon presentation. “I’m a publicist so I’m used to getting pissed on,” Elzer proclaimed.

A seminal moment in cinematic non-promotion may occur in late May when the long-delayed “Tree of Life” makes its debut at Cannes. The pic features two actors who tend to avoid the interview circuit: Sean Penn and Brad Pitt. Its director, Terrence Malick, would prefer root canal to any interaction with an interviewer. Still, some fascinating questions surround the film: Why did post-production require three years? Why was special-effects guru Doug Trumbull summoned to help?

Inevitably, some projects turn into exercises in crisis management rather than promotion. This is a relatively new branch of the public-relations game, whose practitioners seem to make frequent appearances on TV interview shows explaining their sophisticated methodology. The problem is that they rarely seem to have success in applying these precepts.

Again, I hesitate to refer to the past, but the publicity practitioners of the old studios seemed to relish the process of building glamorous (albeit fictitious) auras around their contract players. To be sure, they also exercised disturbing control over the press. The old-time stars often behaved like spoiled children, but they were out there doing their jobs. They had movies to sell and careers to build.

I remember once visiting the set of an Elizabeth Taylor-Richard Burton film and watching them perform their clever games for assembled reporters. They knew they were expected to be clever and quarrelsome and to profess their extravagances, and they performed brilliantly.

But if they were around today they, too, might be told to be invisible.

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