Ten Interviews That Shook Hollywood
There is no such thing as bad publicity. Or so they say. Some publicists clearly disagree. In the April 1992 issue of Movieline magazine, Jeffrey Wells detailed ten celebrity profiles that struck a sour note with the subject of the interview. When possible, he checked in with the authors to see what impact the notorious article had on their career. Through the wonders of the internet, I have included links to the original articles that aren’t hidden behind a paywall.
In view of all the recent bad press that Hollywood publicists have been getting for their attempts to control access to their celebrity clients, we thought it would be instructive to take a look back at some of the stories published over the years that scared these spin doctors into their current defensive posture.
While there have been fearless, dead-eye journalists talking to celebrities since at least the ’50s, the trend that sent publicists reeling was the phenomenon known as “New Journalism,” which started in the ’60s and reached its heyday in the ’70s. The New Journalism interviews written by, among others, Rex Reed, Tom Burke, Julie Baumgold and, in the early to mid ’80s, by Lynn Hirschberg–had a certain skepticism about them that had previously been almost unknown in the annals of profile puffery. The attitude was, “Don’t necessarily believe what the studio bio says. Let’s actually take a look at this person.” For a while, encountering celebrities was actually interesting.
“Writers had voices then,” says John Lombardi, an editor at Esquire who dates back to that era. “The way most interviews read now, it could be anyone writing them. In some cases it’s more like stenography than writing. I understand why it’s happening but I think it’s sad.”
Tom Burke, who’s living in Key West these days and writing a novel, says that “[celebrities’] publicists calling the shots has driven a lot of writers out of the business. I don’t want to do it myself under these circumstances.” Burke also disputes the familiar complaint from publicists that unflattering profiles are often premeditated hatchet jobs. “I never tried to destroy anyone, and I don’t know anyone who’s ever gone into an interview with an axe to grind,” insists Burke. “I think Hollywood is hilarious, but writing about it these days has become such a serious business. Which is a shame because you can’t take it seriously.”
Writer Jeffrey Wells has surveyed the charred landscape of celebrity journalist exchanges over the last few decades and picked out 10 of the Waterloos. In some cases, he checked back with the offending journalists to see how they remembered the events, now that the smoke has cleared. It all makes us downright nostalgic.
1. TRUMAN CAPOTE VS. MARLON BRANDO
(“The Duke in His Domain,” The New Yorker, November, 1957)
By today’s standards, nothing all that outrageous was revealed in Capote’s landmark profile of Brando, which was based on a six-hour conversation between the two men in Brando’s hotel room in Kyoto, Japan, his base while filming Sayonara. What it boiled down to was that Brando shared with Capote a few intimate secrets–that he was unable to love or trust anyone, that he had the attention span of a child, that his mother was an emotionally unstable alcoholic–and Capote simply jotted them down. “I used to come home from school,” Brando recalled about life with Mother. “Then the telephone would ring. Somebody calling from some bar. And they’d say, ‘We’ve got a lady down here. You better come get her.'” This would not seem to be a shattering revelation, but columnist Dorothy Kilgallen called Capote’s piece “a vivisection,” and, by 1957 standards, it probably was. And the controversy went beyond the interview–years beyond it.
When writer Lawrence Grobel, in his book Conversations With Capote, told Capote that Brando’s version of the interview depicted Capote arriving with a bottle of vodka, then spilling his own sad tales of childhood to get Brando to talk, Capote agreed that he’d done just that. His attitude was that the end justified the means: “I think it’s one of the all-time perfect interviews,” Capote modestly said.
Gerald Clarke, in his biography of Capote, quotes Sayonara director Joshua Logan warning Brando, “Don’t let yourself be left alone with Truman. He’s after you.” In his memoir Movies Stars, Real People and Me, Logan himself recalled phoning Brando after the piece was printed. “He was livid. ‘That little bastard told me he wouldn’t say any of the things I asked him not to, and he printed them all. I’ll kill him!’ he shouted over the phone. ‘It’s too late, Marlon,’ I told him. ‘You should have killed him before you invited him to dinner.’ ” Of course, for all his professed outrage, Brando would confess even more graphic details of his mother’s alcoholism in his self-reflecting, improvisational performance in Last Tango in Paris in 1972.
2. REX REED VS. WARREN BEATTY
(“Will the Real Warren Beatty Please Shut Up?” Esquire, October, 1967)
Rex Reed has a lot to answer for, because this is the piece that convinced Beatty to avoid interviews for the better part of the next 25 years. (He did just one more major interview, a Time cover story in 1978 to promote Heaven Can Wait, until more or less dropping his reluctance in 1990 to promote Dick Tracy at Disney’s insistence.) While not friendly, Reed’s epic piece wasn’t all that damning, either. Reed noted that “nobody knows very much at all about Warren Beatty, including Warren himself,” claimed that Beatty “acts like a jerk,” “wants the entire world to go to bed with him,” and has a “fear (the greatest terror of his life, to be exact) of being considered unintelligent.” At one point Reed remarked that Beatty “looked sad and lonely, like a rag doll thrown in a corner by a bored child.” At another point Beatty was quoted as saying, “A short relationship where you tell the truth to somebody is in many ways more satisfying than a longer relationship where truth becomes painful.”
In short, Reed didn’t find much except the usual lonely-guy, fear-of-intimacy stuff, except that he chose to begin the piece by asking kids on the UCLA campus if they knew who Beatty was, and reporting that nobody much cared. (The actor’s last two films had been lightweight failures, Kaleidoscope and Promise Her Anything, and his career was seemingly going nowhere.) “Sure,” a coed says, “isn’t he the one who got arrested not long ago for beating his dog?” When Reed says no–that was Tab Hunter–the coed shrugs and says, “Well, I mean, same difference.” Reed underscores this point by taking a five-block stroll with Beatty along New York’s Eighth Avenue: “Not one person showed any sign of recognizing Warren,” he wrote. These observations probably irritated Beatty more than anything else, since he had just finished producing Bonnie and Clyde and was soon to bask in the glow of that film’s extraordinary success. Had Reed interviewed Beatty after the release of Bonnie and Clyde, things might have been different.
“I remember it well,” says John Springer, the publicist who set up the interview. “It was a very painful experience. We’re friends, but Rex did a hatchet job. He was working out some of his own personal problems.” Responding to Springer, Reed claims, “I wasn’t trying to be a smart-ass or write a hatchet job. I was just desperately trying to get something out of someone who wasn’t willing to help. I wasn’t trying to work out my personal problems. I didn’t have any personal problems back then. But if anyone didn’t have personal problems, Warren Beatty was just the guy to give them some. I certainly wasn’t the first journalist who had a hard time with him.” Nor, thanks to this interview, was he the last.
3. ROBIN GREEN VS. DENNIS HOPPER
(“Confessions of a Lesbian Chick,” Rolling Stone, May, 1971)
When this all-time classic hit the stands back in 1971, Rolling Stone ran a disclaimer for Green’s parents, assuring them that it wasn’t she who was the lesbian. Instead, that distinction belonged to Dennis Hopper, so named after telling his interviewer that he’d “rather give head to a beautiful woman than fuck her, really… I’m just another chick, a lesbian chick.”
This really was one of those devastatingly honest interviews. At the time, Hopper was riding high off the success of Easy Rider and, even though his most recent effort, The Last Movie, had been an incomprehensible bomb, he was still regarded as some sort of genius who knew how to make movies for the counterculture. Green interviewed Hopper at his home in Taos, New Mexico during an underground press junket arranged by Universal Pictures to promote a documentary about Hopper called The American Dreamer.
Throughout the day, a lot of hallucinogenics were passed around, and though everyone (except Green) was fairly stoned, Hopper quickly reached a state best described as absolutely fried. By the time Green sat down with him and turned on her tape recorder, the man was blathering off into infinity, with occasional practical asides (“What we need is a roach clip”). Green, angry at the sheer arrogance of it all, devoted almost half of her article to quoting him (and his space-cadet friends) verbatim. Reading her piece confirmed what Hollywood studio chiefs had already begun to suspect: Dennis Hopper had levitated so far off the planet that he was incapable of making a commercial movie. His career as a director was soon over, not to be resurrected until he achieved sobriety in the mid-’80s.
“What I saw that night was a lot of nonsense,” recalls Green, now a writer for the CBS TV series “Northern Exposure.” “There was a lot of cruelty, and a lot of people sitting at Hopper’s feet, just lapping it up. I couldn’t stand it finally and just ran off into the desert. This was my first piece, and it was a real initiation.”
4. TOM BURKE VS. RYAN O’NEAL
(“The Sheik of Malibu,” Esquire, September, 1973)
It was Peter Bogdanovich who talked O’Neal into doing this infamous interview. Having written for Esquire in the ’60s, Bogdanovich felt a certain connection with his colleagues there that would not be shared by O’Neal. In fact, in the actor’s view, the interview turned out to be a near-disastrous career move.
Describing a visit to O’Neal’s Malibu home, which included exchanges with the actor’s tanned, beach-attired friends, Burke observed that it was “an atmosphere in which blondness was important. No one here has ever had pimples on his back. If one comes here shielded by smoked glasses, wrapped in unnecessary clothes, not beautiful, then one is an emissary from a gray, anxious, motivated world… and is gently, circumspectly mocked.” Burke proceeded to note that O’Neal “appears feverish, excited, as if he tended… to run a temperature consistently higher than normal, like a dog’s.” And upon the arrival of brother Kevin O’Neal, Burke observed, “there is something noisy, flushed, expectant about him, as though his temperature was even higher than a dog’s.”
What upset O’Neal the most when the article appeared, however, was the illustration–a David Hockney-like painting of O’Neal doing a handstand on his diving board and staring at his reflection in the pool, an image that seemed to sum up Burke’s condescension at a glance. Burke reports that O’Neal called him in New York soon after publication, complaining that, “you’re making me sound like such a beach bum … you didn’t have to emphasize that angle so much! Never again am I going to do a piece like this.” The episode was a sobering experience for the actor, like Warren Beatty, he refused to do in-depth interviews for the next several years.
5. JULIE BAUMGOLD VS. DAVID GEFFEN
(“The Winning of Cher,” Esquire, February, 1975)
One of the dishiest celebrity interviews ever written– impudent, keenly observed, scathing–this 1975 classic seems almost to have had direct access to Geffen’s own scattered consciousness, so close and particular are Baumgold’s observations. Here, for example, is Geffen as he walks down Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue: “The pain is unbearable. It jags down his hipbones to his groin. David Geffen thinks it might be the boots, the walking. Having lived so long in California with his legs dangling over the plump leathers of his Eames chair and his Rolls-Royce, he has forgotten how to walk.”
At the time, Geffen, 31, was chairman of the board of Elektra/Asylum Records and living with Cher, upon whom he lavished all manner of luxuries and possessions. The underlying portrait was of a skinny Jewish kid from Brooklyn looking to prove he had really made it and getting caught up in his own momentum. The real fun of the piece, though, was in Baumgold’s descriptions of Geffen’s eccentric, money-to-burn lifestyle, his too-successful-to-care work habits (“Sure, I wouldn’t mind signing Paul McCartney or Elton John, but I’m not very hungry”), and his occasional intimacies with Cher: “Cher’s tongue is deep inside Geffen’s mouth. Her thick braid swings forward onto his neck. She straightens up and smooths her leotard into her famously flat midriff. ‘Feel my ass,’ she says to Geffen. ‘Hard as a rock.'”
Not surprisingly, the piece put Geffen on the rack. When Esquire writer Robert Sam Anson called him seven years later to request another interview, this was Geffen’s response: “Do you know what your magazine did to me last time? Do you know? … Reading that article was the worst single moment in my life. Do you know what I did after I read that article? I threw up, that’s what I did. I threw up! And then do you know what I did? I left the country! I went to Brazil! Brazil! Do you know that? For six months! That article nearly caused a breakdown! Do you hear that? Breakdown! Now you want me to do it again? Do you think I’m crazy? Is that what you think? That I’m crazy?”
Eventually, Geffen consented to the interview, which was printed under the heading “David Geffen Talks a Little” in the November 1982 issue of Esquire. But it was nowhere near as funny as Baumgold’s.
6. LYNN HIRSCHBERG VS. JAMES WOODS
(“Introducing Jimmy Woods,” Esquire, April, 1984)
Woods has been profiled several times since Hirschberg’s piece, now more than seven years ago, and each time he’s sounded like the same jabbering weasel, intense, high-strung and saber-tongued. Perhaps because Hirschberg’s profile was the first to capture this manic side, it still enjoys a certain notoriety. Woods talked to her incessantly (“It was a relationship,” recalls Hirschberg), revealing himself to be a control freak, relentlessly ambitious and miserable about his recent divorce. To say that he let fly is an understatement. Here’s Woods on Jane Fonda and then-husband Tom Hayden: “[She’s] a total fraud. She put 10 million dollars into her husband’s campaign and kept his dick in escrow for the rest of their marriage.” It’s a favorite topic, apparently: “I’ll tell you,” Woods says, “if I have to look at Richard Gere’s dick one more time in a movie, I’m going to be sick. I’m always wondering if the crew is thinking, ‘His dick isn’t as cute as it used to be.'”
At the end of the piece, Hirschberg talked with Woods’s ex-wife about her social life. The ex, Kathryn Greko, refused to answer, explaining that “if Jim found out I was going out with someone else …. I mean, do you want me to get killed?” This, probably, is what sent Woods ballistic. “He was very upset about it,” recalls Hirschberg. “He took it as a personal betrayal. He fired his public relations firm in retaliation. He talked to [Village Voice columnist] Michael Musto and said I was ‘unmitigated pus ripped from the ass of a dead dog … a whore giving blow jobs on Eighth Avenue for two dollars a pop and getting overpaid.’ I mean, he’s insane …”
7. DAVID BLUM VS. THE BRAT PACK
(“Hollywood’s Brat Pack,” New York, June, 1985)
Blum’s profile of Rob Lowe, Emilio Estevez, Judd Nelson, et al. drew a picture of New Guys on the Make–girl-chasing, club-hopping dudes who put a high value on “selling tickets” and staying in the limelight. This is the article that coined the term “Brat Pack,” and for that alone it became a hot topic of conversation. To the actors’ chagrin, their collective efforts had the effect of trivializing their images and calling their “serious artist” credentials into question. Blum’s piece also depicted the boys as world-class contenders for the title of Prince Charmless: “There is a line,” Nelson declaims at the sight of pretty female fans closing in. “When someone crosses the line, I get angry …. You can let them get close–but you can’t let them sit down.”
Interestingly, this mid-’80s celebrity portrait is equipped with a subtext of dry social criticism, a comment on Reagan-era youth that comes through more clearly upon a second reading. Most telling of all is one Brat Packer’s whispered wisdom after member Tim Hutton has walked away. “Tim’s last three movies were bombs. It’s going to get to the point where [his] Oscar doesn’t matter. If you can’t sell tickets, that’s it.” Talk about being able to read the handwriting on the wall but failing to figure out what it means.
Blum recalls, “The piece was originally going to be just a profile of Emilio Estevez. He invited me to come along with him one night to the Hard Rock, and he introduced me to his friends. Some of the others, not Estevez, complained after the piece came out that I’d quoted them after promising I wouldn’t, which wasn’t true. Estevez called me and said he’d gotten in trouble with his friends, that they blamed him because he brought me along. Possibly he told them that what they said at the Hard Rock would be off-the-rccord, I don’t know. But he was very adult about the whole thing, a gentleman.”
8. LYNN HIRSCHBERG VS. DON SIMPSON
(“Gone Hollywood,” Esquire, September, 1985)
Here he is, Don Simpson, the Hollywood Beast who co-produced (with partner Jerry Bruckheimer) Top Gun and Beverly Hills Cop, profiled by Lynn Hirschberg in what is probably the most notorious celebrity piece of the last 10 years. All of the raunch, the mind games, the power politics common to Hollywood’s inner circle–Hirschberg caught the flavor and then some, summing up the psychology not just of an industry, but of the bygone, vilified ’80s.
“Gone Hollywood” is full of killer quotes and observations: Simpson picking up a framed photograph of his ex-girlfriend and throwing it across his office in the middle of a phone conversation; a fellow studio executive remarking that Simpson “just doesn’t have patience with lower life-forms”; Simpson insisting that the ideas behind every project he’s been involved with were his, despite evidence to the contrary; a Hollywood agent saying that Simpson “can be, at times, functionally psychotic.” The best quote of all about Simpson was this doozy: “[Simpson] is a baby [who] … wants to play with his toys for a while and then he wants new toys. And babies can be cute until they piss on you. Then they’re not cute at all.”
Simpson’s own quotes still raise eyebrows after all these years: “People want me,” he says. “They may hate me, but they want me. That’s being a member of the club. And without that, you might as well be dead.” Simpson might have preferred death to Hirschberg’s noting his unforgettable remark, “I like trash. I am trash.”
Not surprisingly, Hirschberg’s masterpiece led to a difficult period in her career. Simpson was, of course, furious at what she wrote and is said to have launched a freeze-out campaign against her, with editors being told for years after that celebrities would not cooperate on interviews if Hirschberg was the writer. Whether he did so or not, Hollywood power players were understandably wary of being interviewed by Hirschberg at the time. Things have cooled off since, to the extent that she is now a contributing editor for Vanity Fair, but nevertheless she has little or nothing to say for the record: “I really don’t want to talk about this. I wish you’d just drop it. I had a very difficult time after the [Simpson piece] came out. I lost out on a lot of work. I survived, but it was very hard. I’m just warming things over now.”
9. BRAD DARRACH VS. ROBIN WILLIAMS
(“A Comic’s Crisis of the Heart,” People, February, 1988)
A lot of people in Hollywood got very bent out of shape over this one, which touched on the issue of the rights of the press versus the expectations of publicity. In a nutshell: Disney’s Touchstone Studios agreed to set up an interview between Robin Williams and People’s Brad Darrach in order to promote Good Morning, Vietnam, with the understanding that they would get a cover story. They got it, all right, but as the cover itself made perfectly clear, the story was about Williams’s domestic crisis, not the movie.
Williams had recently left his wife, Valerie, to live with Marsha Garces, his son Zachary’s former nanny with whom he’d fallen in love, and had spoken candidly to Darrach about this. People, naturally, printed his ramblings chapter and verse. Among other things, the rather poetic Williams said, “Right now I’m moving through my personal life like a hemophiliac in a razor factory,” and observed that “therapy helps.” In fact, he went on to say, “We’re all in therapy– Jesus, I should get a discount!”
Disney, feeling betrayed, put out the word that People was not to be trusted, and for a while, sources say, the magazine did experience some difficulties in getting its usual access to choice subjects. Both sides could have locked horns over the philosophical issues involved, but both lacked the necessary temperament. People managing editor Jim Gaines worked on mending fences for several months and the situation is more or less back to normal.
10. MAUREEN DOWD VS. KEVIN COSTNER
(“Hollywood’s Superhunk Heads for Nottingham,” The New York Times, Sunday Arts &. Leisure, June, 1991)
This is a rare recent example of a genuinely confrontational interview. The difference is that this time it was the writer, Maureen Dowd, who took all the abuse and the star, Kevin Costner, who dished it out. Costner was, to put it mildly, in a rancid mood. Asked if he was feeling defensive about his (inept) English accent in Robin Hood, Costner hit right back with, “Are you being offensive about it by asking about it?” When Dowd asked about what some felt was a gratuitous nude scene in the film, he asked, “Aren’t you trying to completely trivialize my life?”
In his defense, wrote Dowd, Costner has “been taken aback by the wind shear of his stardom.” In addition, she acknowledged, there had been a fair amount of critical barbs. The Washington Post‘s Tom Shales had called him “the Prince of Sanctimony.” In her now legendary pan of Dances With Wolves, Pauline Kael delivered one of her characteristically withering lines: “Costner has feathers in his hair and feathers in his head.” Dowd herself remarked that Costner had lost his “roguish gleam” in recent years in favor of “a tiresome thirty something earnestness and smugness.”
Given these slings and arrows, one could feel a certain empathy with Costner’s sour attitude. Still, Dowd’s article seemed to wipe that boyish, easygoing grin off his image for good, portraying instead a man at a crossroads in his life and career, a point at which his ascendancy was perhaps peaking and his weaknesses beginning to show. As Dowd concluded, “It has been said that Mr. Costner is worried about his thinning hair. His hair looks okay. It’s his thinning skin he should be worried about.”
Dowd now says, “I used every quote I got. I only had about a half hour or 45 minutes with [Costner]. He didn’t seem to be all that well informed. I’m not sure he even knew what paper I was with.
“After the piece came out, there was some reaction from his friends, some PR people. They all asked, ‘What happened?’ I never understood if they felt that my writing about Costner’s angry side was unfair–or whether it was just the first time they’d ever seen it in print.”
But there was reaction in other quarters as well: Michael Fleming, a reporter at Variety, says, “I heard numerous times that CAA had put the word out on [Dowd]. One source told me point-blank, ‘It’ll be a long time before she gets a shot at any more CAA clients.’ But then again, she’s a White House correspondent. It’s not like they’re hitting her where she lives. Anyway, that was the word on the street. I heard it echoed many times.”
Dowd confirms this, saying, “[The Times] wanted me to do a piece with Danny DeVito [a CAA client], but DeVito stalled about committing to the interview, presumably because of what he’d been told about me. When I did my Warren Beatty interview recently, he told me he’d been warned about me because of the Costner piece. I was told that my name was crossed off the invite list for a JFK party given in Washington, at the request of Costner and Oliver Stone.”
Jeffrey Wells is a freelance writer whose articles have appeared in Entertainment Weekly and Empire.
Posted on April 2, 2017, in Movieline Articles, Movies and tagged emilio estevez, James Woods, kevin costner, Marlon Brando, Robin Williams, Ryan O'Neal, warren beatty. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.