Hollywood Boycotts Famed Hot Spots Over Islamic Law

Jay Leno attends a protest at
David McNew/Getty Images

While the focus of the boycott of the Beverly Hills Hotel and the Hotel Bel-Air has been on high-profile events that have moved elsewhere, the fabled properties risk earning a non grata  status as favored Hollywood meeting spots.

In other words, both hotels may fall victim to a twist on the old adage of Hollywood condemnation — as in “You’ll never do as a lunch spot in this town again.”

On Tuesday, some law firms had meeting to discuss their position on the boycott, while some production companies instructed their employees to avoid both properties.

“You better bet if a studio head was caught dining there the P.R. team would have to jump into action,” a studio rep said. 

Sherry Lansing, who counts both hotels as a favorite spots, says that she and her husband, William Friedkin, are boycotting. She learned of it while she was traveling in New Zealand.

“We have decided not to go,” said Lansing, who called both spots some of their “favorite places in the world.

“There is not one person I am friendly with who is not supporting the boycott,” she said.

She added that she was gratified to hear that the CEO of the Dorchester Collection, Christopher Cowdray, had vowed not to lay off employees during the boycott, as she was concerned that workers would be let go.

“I find everyone who works there just lovely,” she said. “I didn’t want them hurt by this.”

And as the list of organizations pulling events from the hotel grew — the Beverly Hills Bar Assn. announced on Tuesday that it would drop plans for an event next month, as well as future gatherings — there also was the prospect that the boycott could become even more widespread to booking during awards season.

One strategist said that at this point, “I would never book a nominee at either hotel. And if I suggested it, I’ll bet most nominees would refuse.” London’s Dorchester could also meet a similar freeze-out when people arrive in town for the BAFTAs.

As word trickled out last week that the Feminist Majority was pulling its event from the hotel, and that the Human Rights Campaign was urging others to do the same, the boycott started spreading through studio and agency ranks, with some high-level executives having second thoughts about holding breakfasts or lunches at either hotel.

“I’m not going there, and my people aren’t going there,” said one studio executive, referring to the Polo Lounge, the industry watering hole where, before the boycott, it was still not uncommon to spot a star or mogul in one of the booths.

The boycott is over the Sultan of Brunei’s plans to impose Sharia-style laws in his country, including punishments that could mean death by stoning for gays and lesbians and the flogging of women who have abortions. An investment fund controlled by Brunei’s government owns the hotels, as well as others that are part of the Dorchester Collection.

It gained particular traction on Monday, when Jay and Mavis Leno and other protesters staged a rally across the street from the Beverly Hills Hotel, insisting that their aim wasn’t against the employees but the sultan, and their mission was to spread the word about a brutal set of laws and make an economic statement in protest. Such figures as Ellen DeGeneres and Richard Branson announced that they were boycotting.

Among the tight-knit nature of industry dealmaking, it didn’t take long for word of the boycott to spread.

“I’m guessing people will avoid going there,” said one industry veteran, who noted that it was the talk of many executives and agents on Tuesday.

Yet some of the executives were reluctant to go on the record, as were lawyers and agents, for fear of getting their companies embroiled in the controversy, even as figures like Jay Leno have said that the issue is a matter of “common sense.”

Rob Reiner said that he was “absolutely” supporting the boycott, and “there’s not anybody who I know that is willing to go there or the Bel-Air.”

Although he, too, expressed concern over the hotel workers, he said it was also important to make a statement.

“To talk about somebody’s sexuality and equate it with punishment for death is beyond the pale,” he said, calling the sultan’s views “unconscionable.”

One of the ironies, he noted, is that the Polo Lounge is where he, his wife Michele and two political strategists, Chad Griffin and Kristina Schake, met in November, 2008 to come up with the idea of pursuing a federal court challenge to overturn Prop 8.

Cowdray said on Monday that nine events have cancelled, so far a tiny share of the more than 500 affairs the Beverly Hills Hotel hosts each year. Cancellations for individual room bookings at that hotel and the Hotel Bel-Air have not been notable, he said.

He characterized the boycott as misdirected.

“This is very much a matter of foreign policy and it has absolutely nothing to do with the Dorchester Collection or our hotels here,” he said. “These hotels have done absolutely nothing wrong.”

In the entertainment industry, the hotels are not just preferred locations for events or for out-of-town guests; they are choice meeting spots for breakfasts, lunches, dinner and drinks, their distinction formed as much by the attention that comes from an industry clientele as from their luxury. As trendier spots have come and gone, both have more or less endured as status spots.

The Beverly Hills Hotel, aka The Pink Palace, has been entwined with the entertainment industry from the start. Opened in 1912, just as film pioneers were setting up shop in L.A. after having moved from the east, its distinctive Mediterranean revival style stood out as an island among the bean fields, eventually growing into a  lush paradise of flower gardens and private bungalows. The atmosphere endured, but its fame was driven by a nonstop parade of entertainers, politicians and even royalty. Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks met at the hotel, Howard Hughes lived there and John Lennon and Yoko Ono stayed in a bed for a week. The hotel is pictured on the cover of one of the top-selling albums of all time, The Eagles’ “Hotel California.”

As the property began to show its age, the sultan’s Brunei Investment Agency bought the hotel in 1987 and, five years later, closed it for nearly three years as it went through a $100 million renovation. Despite worries that it would be severely altered, the renovation managed to preserve the ambiance and the classic nature of rooms like the Fountain Coffee Room, with its soda fountain and its banana leaf wallpaper.

So tied to Hollywood history is the hotel that when it celebrated its centennial last year, it was set up as a benefit for the Motion Picture & Television Fund, with Brett Ratner, Warren Beatty and Jeffrey Katzenberg among the hosts of events. That’s why on Monday, when the fund pulled out of the venue for its Night Before Party, it showed that the boycott was quickly gaining traction.

The Hotel Bel-Air, meanwhile, has long been a choice location for breakfasts, with its bucolic setting along as Stone Canyon Drive a morning respite before a frantic day. The property, in the middle of a residential area, is known more for its privacy than its prominence as a spot for splashy events.

Opened in 1946, the hotel was build from formal stables that were part of Bel-Air Estates, its purpose to offer its guests in-town quiet and seclusion, with its swan ponds among its iconic features. It quickly became a place for celebrity clientele, as well as the occasional politician. Richard Nixon escaped there to write his post-resignation memoirs in the late 1970s; Princess Grace was a regular and even lived there for a bit when she was Grace Kelly. Marilyn Monroe posed for her last and perhaps most famous photo shoot, by Bert Stern, just six weeks before her death. Oprah Winfrey celebrated her 50th birthday there, and Nancy Reagan has been among its regulars.

The Dorchester Collection renovated the hotel in a $100 million, two-year project, with the property reopening in 2011. But there was controversy even than, after the hotel laid off unionized employees before the renovation yet did not hire many back. Judd Apatow vowed not to patronize the hotel, although the labor strife seemed to not have an impact.

The boycott raises the prospect of putting pressure on any high profile figure who wishes to visit. Where once there was a cachet that came with being seen with an A-lister at the Polo Lounge, now there is a certain risk to it. “We’re monitoring the situation,” said a high-level producer who is a regular at the lounge, once known for its handy phones in every booth.

As timid as studios may be now to go public, one awards season maven predicted studios could issue statements of protest. “How controversial can it be to espouse human rights?”

But this person said before that happens, the goal of the boycott needs to be clarified. “Are they trying to force a sale, like the Donald Sterling situation? Or are they trying to get the extremist leaders in Brunei to change their mind?”

Tim Gray contributed to this report.