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Quendrith Johnson

Quendrith Johnson is Los Angeles Correspondent covering everything happening in film in Hollywood... Well, the most interesting things, anyway.
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American Sniping: Backlash Against Celebrity Takes A Left Turn, From Bergman to Sony to Eastwood

by Quendrith Johnson, Los Angeles Correspondent

There have been backlashes against celebrity before, from Ingrid Bergman and Rita Hayworth being pilloried in Congress in 1949-1950, for Roberto Rossellini and Aly Khan, respectively, to Liz Taylor getting a media shellacking for her multiples in marriage. But these fits of pique have usually come from outside Hollywood. That all changed this past November, when the backlash against celebrity was revealed to come from inside the dream factory, specifically as a result of the Sony Hack.

Most of the highlights have floated to the surface by now, but for argument’s sake, here is a recap.

Adam Sandler, once untouchable at the box office for raunchy comedies, “is an asshole.” He apparently still felt, after multiple flops, that he should get $200 million USD to play with for production.

Angelina Jolie gets labeled “a minimally talented spoiled brat,” by Scott Rudin, a very well-respected producer on this year’s Oscar nominated The Grand Budapest Hotel, because she kept her hopes focused on a Cleopatra remake.

“She’s seriously out of her mind,” he wrote to beleaguered Sony executive Amy Pascal. “Kill me now. Immediately,” Rudin later adds.

What were they talking about? Jolie was asking (via email) whether her character, in the movie remake of Cleopatra if it was to be made, “should be bald.”

“The one thought I would ask you both is about her (being) ‘bald.’ I think that made sense in earlier drafts but if we are saying every time she's in bed she has no hair or a shaved head it changes the sensuality… I wonder if we should keep it out and discuss as an idea with the director. But I worry we could scare off a director.’

Scott Rudin could almost win an award for his humorously mortified reply, which made every media outlet from Daily Beast to The Daily Mail in the UK, not including being translated worldwide.

“First I thought bald but then I was sitting at home during the night and I couldn't sleep because of it so now I think shaved;” Rudin deadpans. 

“Or possibly a fade like Kid 'n Play.”

He goes on to bat that ball around in a private thread to Pascal, which cut Jolie out of the scorn loop.

"Maybe shaved for Alexandria, bald for Rome? And then curly tendrils for the asp? What do you think?" 

Pascal finally reminds Rudin how great Angelina Jolie looked in “that Jewish movie about Daniel Pearl,” which skewers several sacred cows by a hair. Mighty Heart was widely hyped as Hollywood with a conscience, a show of integrity in a commercially driven marketplace. Now reduced to a hairstyle choice.

Irish actor Michael Fassbender, widely hailed among the best of his generation, is referred to, in Hollywood terms, as a “nobody” or somebody “that makes you feel guilty for having normal-sized genitals.”  (See: Fassbender full frontal in Steve McQueen’s critically acclaimed Shame to put that remark in context.)

Even Hollywood-style Billionaire Mark Cuban, also owner of the Dallas Mavericks, took a beating. 

Emails revealed the studio wanted to make sure he could not “exploit” any aspect of ABC’s Shark Tank, on which he is an investor, according to Business Insider.

"Seriously?,” Cuban pushed back. “This is beyond an insult and it shows no one cares about the investments I have made or the entrepreneurs. Now it's really (all about) business.”

When this quote comes to light - “TV is the new ‘black baby’" - very few outside of Hollywood could put that into any kind of context that would even pass for acceptable. What was meant is ‘TV is the new fad,’ a comment* that reflects the adoption of multi-racial children as a trend among celebrities; it’s not even an insult. (*Meaning every movie star now wants to headline their own TV series, in shorthand.)

In other words, the ham-fisted remark is business as usual, with a cherry on top.

None of these insider slams are news if you look at the history of the business. 

Hollywood is famous for screaming executives, screaming obscene off-color remarks, from LB Mayer to Harry Cohn to Robert Evans. Movies like Robert Altman’s opus The Player, where lead Tim Robbins’ studio head gets away with murder of a writer, and Barton Fink from the Coen Bros. where a serial killer fits right in with Hollywood folk, have exhausted this topic. 

Add The Kid Stays in the Picture, based on the life and times of Robert Evans (Chinatown, Godfather). If you watch the final clip on this film, it is Dustin Hoffman in the 1970’s, who pretends to be then-super agent Sue Mengers, in a bit so funny and off color it likely wouldn’t pass censors today. It is Hollywood sending-up Hollywood, because in a town where “nobody knows anything” as screenwriting legend William Goldman says, anybody can say anything. It’s the bottom-line that people listen to though. The bang of the BO, that is.

Self-loathing Hollywood goes back to the 1920’s scandals from Virginia Rappe and the forgotten Fatty Arbuckle to Jean Harlow’s husband Paul Bern’s suicide to Marilyn Monroe’s possibly politically motivated murder aping a suicide to Brittany Murphy’s recent mysterious death.

But it is very rare that actual disparaging remarks ever see the light of day from inside Tinseltown. After all, this is a place ‘where nobody says ‘No,’’ as the saying goes. 

Nobody says negative things in Hollywood, or will say ‘pass’ instead of no, ‘because you never know who may come up’ the ladder so you don’t want to make enemies, as the unwritten rulebook says.

Meanwhile, recently more than 6500 mostly Right Wing retorts blew up The Hollywood Reporter comment section on an article linked from Matt Drudge’s quasi-objective news aggregator The Drudge Report. 

Typically, Drudge Report will flood Hollywood trade publications with vitriol you’d expect. Consider the heat from a Seth Rogen Tweet comment that was blown out of proportion. The Interview actor, in the breezy 140-character observation, noted that Clint Eastwood’s Bradley Cooper starrer, American Sniper, basically had the same plot as the fake two-reeler being screened for VIP’s from the Third Reich in Quentin Tarantino’s 2009 movie Inglourius Basterds.

Both movies were about crack-shot snipers who become heroes, Full Stop.

What happened next is a witch hunt parsing hideous subtext, ridiculous comparisons, all spewed online to the tune of Yankee Doodle Dandy. Like it’s a world event being discussed, not a movie. And it is only a movie. That brings us to the First Lady of Cinema, Ingrid Bergman, whose tale of woe in the most famous case of Celebrity Backlash bears remembering. 

Imagine it is 1949. Before the internet. When those 6500+ commenters could actually stop someone on the street, stalk them at home, and in the hospital during childbirth. Jump back to 1947, Ingrid Bergman sent a personal letter to Italian director Roberto Rossellini asking to be part of one of his films. 

Tellingly, Rossellini writes back to her as “Mrs. Bergman,” not Mrs. Lindstrom, her married name. 

"Dear Mrs. Bergman," the director begins, "I have waited a long time before writing, because I wanted to make sure what I was going to propose to you. But first of all I must say that my way of working is extremely personal.”

By March, Bergman was in Italy filming Rossellini’s Stromboli.

On Dec. 12, 1949 Hollywood insider Louella Parsons scoops Hedda Hopper with baby news for Ms. Bergman, and that was the shout-out heard round the world. “I don’t know how she found out,” Bergman revealed years later. “I don’t want to know who would have told her. And I don’t ever want to know.”

Papparazzi camped outside their home on Via Bruno Buozzi, like an invading army. At the same time, then-U.S. Senator Edwin Johnson took to the Senate floor to denounce this beloved Swedish film star. Sen. Johnson’s highlights in the public condemnation of Bergman were that she was “an assault upon the institution of marriage,” and “a powerful influence of evil.” 

In 1956, after the scandal blew over enough for her to return to the States, Bergman herself quoted a US Congressman at the time as saying “‘Out of Ingrid Bergman’s ashes perhaps a better Hollywood will come.’”

“Well, I hope so,” she snapped, adding that the maelstrom caught her completely unable to reconcile a world of “adults” with the vicious juvenile reaction in the press and around the world. 

“One women’s group wrote to me that I had once been a perfect example for mothers, and now I was a horrible example. They saw me in ‘Joan of Arc’ and thought I was a saint. I’m not. I’m just a human being.”

The final clincher was Ingrid Bergman stating the obvious: “and human beings make mistakes.”

Reporters still referred to her as “The Casablanca Beauty” in the press, a woman of immense talent and stature in her craft, someone who had remade herself from motherless to orphaned child in Sweden to movie star in America.

In 1956, Bergman revealed to Australian newswriter Robert J. Levin that the assault on her private life was so thorough that she feared for herself, her children and her safety from the public as well as the media. Levin recounted that “dressed as broom-sellers, (reporters) went to a Minnesota farm and tried to coax a statement from bewildered young Pia. When Ingrid Bergman learned of this, she was furious. ‘That was inhuman… A movie star is a ridiculous commercial product; the public tells you what to do.’”

According to her New York Times obituary from 1982, “So complete was Miss Bergman's victory that Senator Charles H. Percy, Republican of Illinois, entered into the Congressional Record, in 1972, an apology for the attack made on her 22 years earlier in the Senate by Edwin C. Johnson, Democrat of Colorado.”

Rita Hayworth, the original Still Alice who exhibited signs of early on-set Alzheimer’s before age 54, was also gutted in Congress for her romance with Prince Aly Khan. Hayworth never received a formal apology. And literally disappeared into an illness few understood as the Lady from Shanghai, Gilda, and Hollywood’s firey-est pin-up girl, hid behind alcohol to self-medicate as even the Rita Hayworth she knew, vanished.

The moral of the story here, is whether we slam Rogen, blame celebrities for moral abuses, knock Clint Eastwood for making a pro-military film - from inside the industry or out in the flyover states - Hollywood is not a monolith.

The entertainment business has as many contradictory faces and opinions from the late Ronald Reagan who ascended to the Presidency with the help of his late NRA champ Charlton Heston to Selma’s flag-waver Oprah Winfrey to North Korea’s huckster take in The Interview to Silver Linings Playbook’s golden boy, Bradley Cooper, picking up an AR15 sniper rifle in an un-ironic love letter to slain US Military sniper Chris Kyle (1974-2013) under the watchful eyes of cinema’s Most Famous Unapologist, and Elder Statesman, Clint Eastwood. 

And That’s Entertainment!, as the 1974 franchise of movies so eloquently declared.

Nobody knows anything, but they will say anything.

On either side of the velvet rope, apparently.


# # #



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About Quendrith Johnson

Johnson Quendrith

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