“There have always been bullies in Hollywood; it’s institutionalized, like a form of hazing, but the key difference between the film business and the Marine Corps is that bullying in Hollywood is not meant to inculcate esprit de corps; its purpose, for the bully anyway, is to provide confirmation that the hierarchy is working in his favor.”
HE interjection: This is what I’ve been trying to remind Millennial and Zoomers about recently — that Scott Rudin‘s boss-from-hell personality is an historical archetype that is built into the system. Some responses have been “you’re trying to excuse or rationalize!” No — I’m just saying that a certain kind of tough producer brutality has been normalized over the decades.
Back to Isaacson: I was one of the last generation of studio executives at Universal that reported to the old mogul, Lew Wasserman. Wasserman was a physically imposing screamer who had parlayed with gangsters, bootleggers and union enforcers as a supplier of dance bands to illicit nightclubs during Prohibition, so he could terrorize white-collar employees without breaking a sweat.
“This was particularly useful to him one sweltering afternoon in the Valley, when the air conditioning had failed inside the office building known without much affection as The Black Tower. Wasserman lined up several executives in front of his desk and screamed at them for half an hour. He threw pencils at them. He took off his Rolex and shied it at the head of some fellow in distribution. One man, melting in his suit and tie like the others, fainted and collapsed in a heap on the floor. Wasserman continued screaming for another ten minutes. He was known — again without much affection — as ‘Old Yeller’.
“In the 90s the culture changed. Ancient, heterosexual, tough-as-teak depression-era Jewish alpha males like Lew Wasserman became elder statesman and Hollywood became, a little self-consciously at first, almost literary. A new breed of bully emerged; college educated, middle-class by birth, often gay, or female.
“The nastiest bully I ever encountered was a woman who fancied herself a producer because for about five minutes she was married to a Hollywood VIP. Power in Hollywood is often defined as being the prerogative of those who can say yes, but a middle-level studio executive only has the power to say no, which I had to do to this bully every Monday morning for a year, after the scripts she submitted to me the previous Friday had been laughed out of the executive conference room that morning.
“Upon hearing ‘no’, she screamed, she threatened, she even tried a skeevy form of bullying flirtatiousness — all to no avail. So she called my bosses and whined about me. One Monday lunchtime, after licking my wounds, I was waiting for a table at The Grill in Beverly Hills, a restaurant very popular with the industry expense-account crowd. Noticing my tormentor standing in front of me, my stomach lurched, as it did whenever I had to talk to her, meet with her or think about her. Luckily she was too annoyed not to have been seated right away to notice me, or Kevin Costner — at that moment indisputably the biggest movie star in the world — who was waiting quietly for his table ahead of her in the line. Seconds later, she stalked over to the maitre d’ and yelled ‘Do you know who I am?’
“There have always been bullies in Hollywood. And there is Scott Rudin.
“In ‘Monster‘, John Gregory Dunne‘s Hollywood memoir, he refers to Rudin as ‘overweight, overbearing, with a black beard and a huge, booming laugh, the bully boy’s bully boy, both impossibly demanding, even cruel, to subordinates, and impossibly funny, a jovial Mephistopheles.’
“Rudin is one of the modern breed of Hollywood bullies. Unlike Wasserman’s generation, who wore their philistinism as a badge of masculine honor, Rudin is a bully with elevated taste whose list of producing credits is crammed with worthy literary adaptations, most of which I find insufferably middlebrow but which have bestowed gravitas, power and money upon him for the last thirty years. He is famous for screaming at subordinates but that has been par for the course ever since studio head Harry Cohn said ‘I don’t get ulcers, I give them’. What’s unique about Scott Rudin is that he is powerful enough to bully a studio head.
“There are several reasons why Sony might find The Interview, its new broad comedy about a CIA plot to assassinate Kim Jong Un, less amusing than it did before last week. After hackers blew up the studio’s electronic communications system, apparently in response to Sony’s use of the Supreme Leader of North Korea as a comedy villain (almost a trope by now), the most entertaining piece of debris to have floated to the ground, for those who work in Hollywood anyway, is the email correspondence between Amy Pascal, the long-tenured and much respected Chairman of Sony Pictures Entertainment, and Rudin. Rudin is furious with Pascal for putting his Steve Jobs bio into turnaround, obliging him to set it up elsewhere (at Universal, it turns out).
“He reportedly emailed: ‘You don’t deserve one exhalation of breath on your behalf. You’ve behaved abominably and it will be a very, very long time before I forget what you did to this movie and what you’ve put all of us through.‘
“Not only has Pascal balked at making the Jobs movie, she has failed to do Rudin’s bidding by not discouraging Angelina Jolie from going after ace filmmaker David Fincher to direct her new movie for Sony about Cleopatra when Rudin wants him for his Jobs project. Cleopatra also has Scott Rudin attached as producer but if Rudin commits to make his next film at Universal, Pascal will be contractually entitled to remove him from Cleopatra in all but name.
“Jolie, once a sexpot married to Billy Bob Thornton but now a serious actor married to Brad Pitt and [seemingly] a credible producer-director, will take over Rudin’s movie if Pascal backs her, and Rudin is not going quietly into the night, despite the fact that he would have signed off on Jolie’s attachment to the project:
Scott: ‘YOU BETTER SHUT ANGIE DOWN BEFORE SHE MAKES IT VERY HARD FOR DAVID TO DO JOBS’.
Amy: ‘Do not fucking threaten me. I have been asking you [to] engage with me on this for weeks. And Fincher brought it up to me at dinner. And you know Eric [Cleopatra’s screenwriter] has been working [on] this for 2 years.
Scott: ‘What the hell are you talking about? Who’s threatening you? Let me remind you I brought this material to you and I can off her from it in a phone call. Don’t for one second even think about trying this shit with me. There is no movie of Cleopatra to be made (and how that is a bad thing given the insanity and rampaging spoiled ego of this woman and the cost of the movie is beyond me) and if you won’t tell her that you do not like the script — which, let me remind you, SHE DOESN’T EITHER — this will just spin even further into Crazyland, but let me tell you I have zero appetite for the indulgence of spoiled brats and I will tell her this myself. Watch how you talk to me.’
Question: What if this isn’t a scorched-earth maneuver at all but simple common sense, albeit expressed with manic vituperation by Scott Rudin? What if he’s right? What if Cleopatra is indeed ‘a $180 million ego bath that we both know will be the career-defining debacle for us both’? It’s not as though there isn’t a precedent.
“Amy Pascal is in an awkward spot. She’s got a movie star lined up for a project brought to her by a big producer but now Rudin is off to Universal to make Jobs while Pascal has to back her newly-empowered hyphenate (actor-director-producer-celebrity) even if nobody likes her script (according to Rudin, anyway) and it’s going to cost Sony $180m to make. You cannot criticize Rudin for objecting to this number. Amy Pascal knows that being responsible for a second epic failure called Cleopatra will end her career in an avalanche of ridicule but Angie has put Amy’s money where Angie’s mouth is. In this instance, is it possible that the bully is also the voice of common sense? Hmm.
I like to imagine Wasserman’s grimly amused reaction to all this from beyond the grave; he would find it difficult to imagine his studio being sabotaged by an irate Korean dictator. Nevertheless, I think he would have considered it more plausible than another exorbitantly expensive star vehicle called Cleopatra.