Peter Bart is on the phone, and he’s threatening to sue. “I really take umbrage at the gotcha nature of your interrogation,” he says. His voice is taut. I can’t see his knees, but I’m sure at least one is twitching. Bart, the Editor-in-Chief of Variety, the entertainment industry’s dominant newspaper, is accustomed to being in charge. Studio heads woo him; strivers kiss his ass. Everyone wants his insight and his wisdom—or prominent placement in Variety’s big, glossy pages. In his weekly column, “The Back Lot,” he alternately strokes and scolds moguls and movie stars, addressing them by their first names. When Bart telephones the powerful, he is put right through. Now he’s calling me.
“I think to plunk documents out of context,” he says, “on people whose lives are as busy as yours or mine is a little unfair. This is not consistent with the access and cooperation I have afforded you.”
Over several months I have encountered a dizzying variety of Peters. I have spent many hours with Charming Peter, who is smart, funny, fierce. I have gotten to know Judgmental Peter, who loves to size up others. I’ve met Crude Peter, Brilliant Peter, Hypocritical Peter, Loyal Peter.
Bart calls himself “Zelig-like.” A setter of rules who hates to follow them, a lover of labels who resents being characterized, a seeker of the truth who doesn’t always tell it, Bart believes he is immune to the conflicts that derail lesser men. It’s one of the things that place him among the most despised and feared people in Hollywood. I listen to him speaking now. It’s a Peter I’ve never met.
“When you’re in public life, people attack you,” Intimidating Peter tells me. “But I’m taken aback by a bogus document suddenly being slammed on the desk. I’ll send you a note saying I will sue you, which I sure as hell will.”
If you are a doctor or a grocer or an airline pilot with no ties to the business that produces America’s number-one export—entertainment—you probably have never heard of Peter Bart. But if you are among the 70,000 people in Los Angeles, New York, and around the world who can’t start the day without knowing which big-name movie director just got a two-picture deal, Bart is an institution.
Over nearly four decades in Los Angeles he’s been a reporter for The New York Times, an executive at three movie studios, an independent film producer, a screenwriter, and an author of both novels and nonfiction. For the past dozen years he has been the editor of and most influential columnist at Daily Variety and Weekly Variety, the sister publications whose zippy headlines, who’s-in-who’s-out reporting, and largely anonymous sources routinely make and break reputations. In clout-conscious Hollywood, that makes Bart not just an observer but a player.
There are two keys to success in Hollywood: relationships and information. Bart traffics in both. He lunches almost every day with a studio chief, a marketing executive, a top manager or talent agency head, an entertainment lawyer or lobbyist. In the course of just a few weeks earlier this year he dined with Screenwriter William Goldman; Ron Meyer, president of Universal Studios; Lorenzo di Bonaventura, Warner Bros. president of worldwide production; Michael Ovitz, CEO of Artists Management Group; Mike De Luca, former New Line president of production (and now production chief at DreamWorks SKG); Mike Medavoy, chairman of Phoenix Pictures; Tom Sherak, partner at Revolution Studios; Rob Friedman, vice chairman at Paramount Pictures; John McLean, executive director of the Writers Guild of America; Don Marron, chairman of PaineWebber; and Skip Brittenham, a partner in the entertainment law firm Ziffren, Brittenham, Branca & Fischer.
These meals aren’t interviews, according to Bart, but meetings between equals. After all, in his 17 years as an executive, most prominently at Paramount Pictures, Bart was one of them. He likes to think he still is. “Some people say I owe Joe Roth a lot,” Bart says of the former Disney chief who now runs Revolution Studios. “But I don’t. Joe Roth owes me. I gave him his first job.” (While Bart was president of Lorimar Film Company, Roth produced the 1979 dud Americathon, but it was Roth’s fourth film, not his first.)
“The same with John Calley,” Bart says of the head of Sony Pictures. Bart has known Calley since the late 1960s, when Bart says Calley pitched him Catch-22. Bart calls Calley “the country gentleman”—a vaguely catty reference to Calley’s decision to leave the world of moviemaking for 13 years, only to return in 1993 as president of MGM/United Artists. “I owe John Calley a lot? John Calley owes me,” he says, asserting that a positive column he wrote made Calley a contender for the post. “I think I was very important in getting him his job at MGM.”
In his weekly Variety column and in bimonthly pieces in GQ, Bart speaks as one who knows Hollywood and everyone in it. His vocabulary is a mix of the colloquial (he refers often to “the rules,” “the game,” “the fat cats,” “the old farts,” “the suits”) and the arcane. Rare is the attractive woman whom Bart does not label “lissome.” Most notably, in a town infamous for air kisses and false praise, Bart often writes what he means. DreamWorks’ Jeffrey Katzenberg is “hyperactive,” while a conversation with Sandy Litvack, a former top executive at Disney, is “akin to poking one’s head in an oven.” Producer Brian Grazer and director Ron Howard “exude about as much charisma as Wal-Mart managers,” while George Lucas is “simply so rich and mythologized that no one professes to be able to interact with [him] on a normal human level.”
“Perhaps,” Bart wrote last year in a column addressed to Robert Redford, “there’s something in your … head that says ‘I’m a star, I take up a lot of ego space; my movies should, too,’” He’s made the same complaint to Warren Beatty, whom he calls the priapic prince. Bart has written several columns about Beatty’s filmmaking and womanizing—even going so far as to describe the sounds the actor-director-write-producer supposedly makes during “moments of sexual congress.”
“You have to understand, if Peter is criticizing or praising you, the thing that’s solid about it is this is a guy who knows our business,” says Harvey Weinstein, Miramax’s disheveled cofounder, whom Bart has called a slob more than once. “He said my shirt looked like I was a refugee from a food fight. He calls me roly-poly. But this guy put The Godfather into production! It’s my favorite movie of all time. So even if I’m mad at him, I can’t be mad at him.”
Peter Guber, former chairman of Sony Pictures, goes further. “Peter is riding in the general’s car—Variety is the general’s car. And you salute the general’s car even when the general’s not in it,” Guber says “I say to him, ‘Never let go of this job, because the wolves will attack. People are kept at bay by your power.’ It’s a tremendous platform and weapon, and people view it as such. So he’s feared and respected—or respected and feared—depending on the person.”
Besides, says Sherry Lansing, chair of Paramount Pictures, “Peter has the power to affect the way people think.”
That power derives in large part from his position at Variety, the Industry’s 96-year-old broadsheet that doesn’t just cover entertainment news but helps make it. It is Hollywood’s prime bulletin board—what one marketing consultant likens to “a high school newspaper that everyone has a tremendous need to see their names in.” It’s not just an ego thing. In a world built on illusions, being mentioned in Variety lends legitimacy. It makes you seem real. In Hollywood, seeming is believing.
When Variety reports that Leonardo DiCaprio is in talks to star in a film, for example, savvy readers know chances are good that someone is merely floating DiCaprio’s name. Why? To turn up the heat on Matt Damon, say, or some other foot-dragging actor the movie studio really wants to sign. Agents and publicists often complain that Variety writes about deals before they’re done. But those same people plant stories in Variety all the time in hopes of clinching a deal or killing someone else’s.
Here, pecking order determines more than just who gets a table with an ocean view. The perception of who’s on top determines which projects are produced, who will work on them, and how much money they’ll make. More than any other entity, Variety reflects and informs Hollywood’s collective consciousness. Readers don’t just parse the information on its pages; they dissect what stories are where, who is quoted up high, who is relegated to beyond the jump. With its trademark “slanguage,” Variety helps its subscribers keep score—an essential service in a town obsessed with rank. Whether you’ve “ankled” (quit) or been “upped” (promoted) at a “praisery” (public relations firm), a “diskery” (record company), or a “tenpercentery” (talent agency), if the story runs on Variety’s front, it means you matter. By extension, Bart matters to you.
In 1997 Emilio Estevez, the actor-director, was so distressed by Bart’s dismissal of his film The War at Home that he fired off a two-page letter that was widely distributed around town. The letter was intended to diminish Bart, but its vitriol only confirmed Bart’s central place in the Industry.
“In you, I see a failed movie producer, hiding behind the protective veil of your post…. It is sad and pathetic,” Estevez wrote. He urged Bart to “1. Simply not see my films. 2. Drop dead sometime soon. 3. Go fuck yourself.” He signed off with this: “Enjoy life from your bully pulpit, little man.”
Not for nothing did one top executive in town famously dub Bart “the most hated man in Hollywood.” For not only does Bart control the Industry’s bible, but by virtue of his station he always gets something that everyone—in and out of Hollywood — desperately wants: the last word.
“I HAVE PETER BART FOR YOU.”
The silken voice of Bart’s assistant could not be more different from his own, which is slightly nasal, rapid fire. His accent is so hard to place and his delivery at times so oddly paced that some have speculated, half seriously, that he modeled it after Al Pacino’s staccato in The Godfather.
This is Condescending Peter calling, as he often does, to talk trash about other journalists. “Did you read Patrick Goldstein’s column today? What was he talking about? You know who’s running out of ideas? Goldstein,” he’ll say, referring to the Los Angeles Times’s movie columnist. When Charles Fleming, a former Variety reporter, writes an opinion piece in the Times about the ethical dilemmas of the Hollywood press corps, Bart sniffs, “This story epitomizes him. It’s like a blur. A lot of undeveloped ideas.”
Today his target is Variety’s archrival, The Hollywood Reporter. “Poor little George Christy,” Bart says, referring to the Reporter’s gossip columnist. “I’m all for exposes, but George Christy? The level of small-time stuff he does, I mean, who cares?” Christy is being investigated for accepting expensive gifts and movie credits—which qualified him for Screen Actors Guild health benefits—from the people he writes about. When the Reporter’s own labor writer, David Robb, filed a piece on Christy, its publisher refused to run it. Robb and Anita M. Busch, the trade paper’s editor, resigned in protest.
Bart, however, sees the Christy affair as an indictment not so much of a journalist allegedly on the take but of the editor and the reporter who fought to reveal it. Both Robb and Busch once worked at Variety. It’s hard to tell whom he loathes more.
“It’s a fascinating implosion,” Bart says gleefully. “It reminds me of when Robert Altman directed a picture—this was when he was drinking. At a certain point he would turn on his main characters and make them into hideous creatures. That’s what Dave Robb and Anita Busch would have done here, too, but I wouldn’t have it, and I fired them.”
Actually, he did no such thing. Variety‘s personnel department confirms Robb’s and Busch’s assertions that they both resigned.
It’s Oscars Eve, and Peter Bart has just arrived at his third party in less than 24 hours. “I could use a drink,” he tells his wife, as some of Hollywood’s biggest movie stars preen before him: Julia, Russell, Kevin.
Owlish in round spectacles, with tufts of thinning black and gray hair, Bart is five feet nine inches tall and has the trim, tanned physique of a tennis player. He looks for a moment as if he is standing at the edge of a pool, weighing whether to get wet. Actors tend to bore him, so it’s not the press of famous flesh that’s making him thirsty. Bart, who is 69 years old, has a complicated relationship with the industry. Never are his conflicts more glaring than during Hollywood’s High Holy Days—Academy Awards time—when the movie business celebrates and contemplates itself.
Before Bart can order a vodka martini, however, he is spotted by Bill Maher, who steps up and gives him a nudge. “Well,” the host of TV’s Politically Incorrect says with gusto, “if it isn’t Hollywood’s top fucking information man!”
Having worn many hats during his long career, Bart delights these days in wearing several at once. When he wants to attend a Writers Guild of America meeting that is closed to the press, he dusts off his screenwriter credentials. (He claims to be the only editor who is an active voting member of the WGA.) When he wants to cast a vote for Best Picture, he activates “the part of me that’s an Academy voter.” (His Academy membership is a holdover from his years as a producer.) When he wants to collect a speaking fee, he turns into a paid adviser, giving tips—to cite one recent example—to the film division of cable network HBO.
“I have lived a split-level life in Hollywood,” he wrote in the introduction to his 1999 book, The Gross: The Hits, the Flops—the Summer That Ate Hollywood. But he will commit to neither one. His “dualities,” as he calls them, are not liabilities but the keys to his success. “I enjoy the fact that my relationships with people have so many different colorations,” Bart says. “I’ve never thought of myself as just a whatever-I-was. I always think it’s fun to try and reinvent yourself.”
On the weekend of the Academy Awards ceremony, Bart’s many identities come out to play. Three days of self-congratulatory events unfold like so many garish, pungent flowers. Some on the A-list grumble about the chaos of Oscar-party fever—the long waits for valet parking, the glut of hors d’oeuvres—but those who are not invited are so mortified about what their omission implies that some leave town to save face.
Variety’s top man doesn’t have to worry. It all begins with Friday night’s annual celebration at the Beverly Hills mansion of agent-to-the-stars Ed Limato. The dinner is a magnet for Oscar nominees as well as Limato’s top-drawer clients. The embossed invitations are hard to come by, and the media are, officially, not welcome. Bart is an exception. This year, as every year, he RSVP’d yes.
Saturday afternoon, literary agent Bob Bookman throws a garden party for screenwriters and agents at his Hancock Park home. Bart makes an appearance. Then he stops home, dons a cobalt blue dress shirt and black blazer—the dark-on-dark uniform of Hollywood’s male elite—and heads back to Beverly Hills for Miramax’s bash at the Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel. The event is known for skits that spoof the Oscar contenders, and to gain entrance the media must agree to leave all spoofing off the record. For Bart the restriction is moot: He never carries a reporter’s notebook.
He pushes through a ring of admirers who surround the night’s host, Miramax’s Harvey Weinstein. Barrel-shaped and garrulous, Weinstein is one of Bart’s favorite sources. He is also a principal in Miramax/Talk Books, and he has bid to publish Bart’s books. Bart and Weinstein shake hands, but there are others waiting, and Bart backs away. “There’s something kind of primitive about him,” Bart says. He means it as a compliment.
Bart scans the crowd and heads straight for movie producer David Brown, whose many films range from Jaws to last year’s Chocolat. Brown contributed a blurb to the jacket of Bart’s most recent book, calling it “must reading for all who care.” Bart greets Brown warmly, then maneuvers toward producer-director Irwin Winkler. Their friendship dates to the 1970s, when Bart—then vice president of production at Paramount Pictures—set up Winkler’s movie The Gambler. A quick hello, a pat on the shoulder, and Bart keeps moving. Near a buffet table piled with crab cakes and Peking duck, he makes a lunch date with Ted Field, a music and film mogul to whom Bart gave his first break in the movie business. It was the early ’80s, and Bart was senior vice president of production at MGM.
“When I was at MGM I said to Ted, ‘Why don’t you get a picture going? Here’s an idea. If you want it, it’s yours,’” Bart says, explaining how he sold Field a treatment that he had written with his youngest daughter, Dilys. The treatment became the 1984 film Revenge of the Nerds, and the sale helped pay Dilys’s way through Stanford University.
Completing his first lap around the room, Bart returns to his table, nods fondly at his wife, and finally takes a few sips of vodka. By the time Nigel Sinclair, cochairman of the British film company Intermedia, stops by to pay his respects, Bart is coiled less tightly. So, as he often does, he launches into a ribald tale from one of his past lives. In this one a panicky crew member calls Bart from the set of the 1972 movie The Getaway to say that the film’s two stars are having an affair. What made this report especially juicy at the time: One of them, Ali MacGraw, was married to Bart’s friend and then, boss at Paramount, Robert Evans.
“I was the guy who got the phone call: ‘Ali went into Steve McQueen’s trailer 24 hours ago, and they haven’t come out. What should we do?’” Bart says, enjoying the story he has dined out on for 30 years. “I said, ‘Take a hint from this.’ And I hung up.”
Mentor Peter is at Le Dome, telling me what to eat.
He’s invited me to lunch at the frumpy power restaurant on the Sunset Strip. With a flourish he orders us each a chicken burger with mixed greens—the favorite meal, he says, of his own mentor, Robert Evans. “There’s no bun, so it’s the Atkin’s diet,” he tells me. “Not that you or I are in dire need of diets. You look like a jock.”
Then he offers a career advice. “I’d like to see you do books. You are a disciplined writer, and for someone who can write and be disciplined about it, doing books and magazine articles is a wonderful thing. That’s why I like writing for GQ every other month. I would love to see you do that sort of thing,” he says, taking a bite. “The New Yorker is looking for someone. Everybody is.”
For a moment I find myself basking in Mentor Peter’s regard. Then Withholding Peter takes over, delivering a critique of the magazine for which I actually work. “The last issue—I really liked it, but I wonder if it’s a little overdesigned. Where are the big stories you want to read? Having said that, I liked the energy. But even your last story was just … THERE. I wish you guys nothing but the best,” he says, chewing slowly. “I just hope your magazine succeeds.”
Bart’s 17 years inside the moviemaking machine is the foundation on which he’s built the rest of his career. His management style stems from it. His books and columns draw credibility from it. More than anything else, it confirmed his belief in a credo he’d had drummed into him since childhood: Self-invention is the route to power.
“I was raised with one adamant dictum: Don’t allow yourself to be imprisoned in any socioeconomic category, religious category, ethnic category, whatever,” Bart says one afternoon. We are sitting in the peach-colored living room of his home in Fremont Place, the Mid Wilshire enclave that was one of Los Angeles’s first gated communities. The eight-bedroom house used to belong to Harry Cohn, the producer and movie-studio founder whom Bart likes to call “the mean-spirited czar of Columbia.” Bart and his wife have refurbished Cohn’s screening room to its original 1920s splendor, and he delights in referring to a separate alcove as “Harry’s phone room.” But there’s another commonality that Bart does not wish to talk about. Cohn, like many of Hollywood’s founding fathers, was Jewish. When I ask Bart about his own ethnicity, he turns elusive. It’s peculiar, to say the least. Of all American industries, Hollywood has historically been a place where Jews have not only achieved acceptance but thrived. But following his parents’ dictum, Bart keeps his ancestry a secret.
Here are a few things Bart would tell me about his upbringing: Peter Benton Bart was born in 1932 and raised on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. His only brother is six years older. His parents were public-school teachers who had immigrated to the United States, though their son won’t say from where. (“They were very Americanized,” he says.) The elder Barts were fiercely irreligious and ferociously anticommunist. (“They told me if I was caught playing with a communist, they wouldn’t feed me.”) For reasons he never understood, they served Chinese food “morning, noon, and night.” (“They weren’t the kind of people you sat down with and said, ‘Tell me the origins of this fetish.’”) Although not wealthy, the family enjoyed some luxuries: a nanny, private schooling for the kids, and a vacation home in Martha’s Vineyard.
Here are a few things Bart wouldn’t tell me: Both his parents were born in Austria. His mother, whose maiden name was Clara Ginsberg, arrived at Ellis Island in 1914. Her passenger record includes this notation: “Ethnicity: Austria (Hebrew).” There is no record of a Max S. Bart entering the United States through Ellis Island. Bart’s father may have traveled under another name. But there is a listing for a Moses Bart, which was the name of Bart’s paternal grandfather. Moses came to America in 1913, when he was 57 years old. His ethnicity: “Austria, Hebrew.”
Bart has kept even his closest friends confused about his past. “He was brought up a Quaker, wasn’t he?” asks Evans. It’s an honest mistake. You can’t spend more than an hour with Bart without hearing about his attending Friends Seminary and Swarthmore College—both Quaker institutions.
“I don’t want to talk about it,” Bart says of his religious heritage, as one of his knees begins bouncing up and down. “I resent people’s militancy on these issues. Everyone wants to peg everyone else because everyone is predictable. And I’m not.”
Over several months he will volunteer that he has never once dated a Jewish girl, never attended a seder, and has been inside a synagogue only once, for the bar mitzvah of then-agent Michael Ovitz’s son. (“I wanted to see what one was like.”) “Listen, I got berated by the vice president in charge of business affairs at Paramount,” he says, “because I did not take off Jewish holidays. And I was affronted. I basically told him to mind his own damned business.”
At one point he tries to explain his discomfort by comparing himself to his longtime assistant, a light-skinned black woman: “She struggles with this, too. She feels she’s a black person. But she’s about as black as Felix [Bart’s Siamese cat]. I feel she is a bit victimized by, again, that need to identify with some subculture that will help you.”
“You talk to a lot of the better-educated, wealthy black people. You know, they’re not very black. The big distinction is between the people they call ‘niggers’—who are the ghetto blacks, who can’t even speak, can’t get a job, and bury themselves in black-itude—and those people who are better looking, better educated, smarter, and who own the world: the black middle class,” he says. “A lot of people in Hollywood—let’s say if they happen to be Jewish people who come from Brooklyn—they are most comfortable with those people. Which is fine. It just doesn’t happen to describe me.”
A few minutes later he asks, “Can you and I make a deal about this whole thing about religion? I would love it if we could dodge it in some way that you don’t think is dishonest.” He will repeat this request more than once.
PUNDIT PETER IS IN MY LIVING ROOM, ON TELEVISION.
When network news shows need someone to speak for Hollywood—on the impact of possible strikes, for example, or Washington’s campaign against violent entertainment—they often turn to Bart. Tonight the man Bill Maher introduces as a “former big-time studio honcho prexy” is making his second appearance on Politically Incorrect.
The show is an ideal forum for Bart. He loves a good sword fight. Dapper in a black dress shirt and beige suit, Bart fences with Monica Crowley, a political commentator for Fox News, and actors Martin Short and Alec Baldwin, the topic: Richard Nixon. “Nixon was famous for being a self-made man who only admired self-made men,” Maher says. “What do you think Nixon would have thought of George W. Bush?”
“He would have said he was a patrician nothing,” Bart says. Then Bart assesses his fellow panelists and proclaims, “I’m the only Republican here.” Bart, too, prides himself on being self-made. He’s also self-made-up. He’s been a registered Democrat since 1994.
Bart describes his childhood as “Annoyingly happy, except there was a definite imperative to perform. My parents never said, ‘This report card isn’t good enough.’ But you weren’t supposed to fuck up.”
Bart attended the academically rigorous Swarthmore, where he succeeded upperclassman Victor Navasky, now the publisher of The Nation, as editor of the college newspaper. Bart majored in politics, did a brief stint as a copyboy at The New York Times, and then had a fellowship at the London School of Economics. He was hired by The Wall Street Journal in 1956. A few years later he returned to The New York Times as a reporter to cover advertising and the media.
He married a publicist named Dorothy Callman in 1961, and their first daughter, Colby, was born a year later. In 1964 Bart was made a national correspondent in Los Angeles. That’s when he first met a former actor named Robert Evans. In 1966, a few months after Bart’s second daughter, Dilys, was born, he wrote a profile of Evans for the Times that portrayed him as a tireless producer, an elegant operator. The very next day, on the basis of the article, Charles Bluhdorn, who had recently bought Paramount Pictures, hired Evans as a vice president; Evans had yet to make his first picture. In 1967, when Evans rose to become Paramount’s youngest-ever production chief, he hired Bart as his number two. Together they decided what movies would get made.
They were an unlikely pair. Movie-star handsome, Evans was a wheeler-dealer with a passion for filmmaking and a seductive personal style. Bart was college educated, East Coast, intense. He trumped others with his command of the facts. Evans understood actors’ fragile, self-absorbed psyches, but he didn’t like to read. Bart read everything and wasn’t afraid to say what he liked. Each man saw in the other something he did not see in himself.
More than three decades later Bart remains loyal to Evans, who has weathered a cocaine conviction, the murder of a business partner, and persistent money troubles. Although still widely considered an invaluable sounding board—for years Warren Beatty, Jack Nicholson, and Robert Towne have sought his advice—Evans, now 71, hasn’t produced a hit film in more than 20 years. He spends much of his time rattling around his overgrown French Regency estate that was once Greta Garbo’s Beverly Hills hideaway. Bart, though, still believes in him.
“Turn him loose on somebody and, I’ll tell you, it’s amazing,” Bart will say today, admitting that part of him still longs for when he and Evans worked side by side. Alone neither enjoyed the same success. When Evans signed a new production deal with Paramount in 1991, Bart ran a banner headline on Variety‘s front page along with a story about Evans’s “comeback.” But the comeback never materialized. Sometimes, Bart says, “I feel a little bit guilty. I feel like if we became a team again, we could get things done.”
Evans says Bart has not changed at all since Paramount. “He was always frank,” he says. “Always combative. He wasn’t a fence straddler. He was a bit sarcastic. Biting. He always had an inner pleasure in ruffling feathers.”
The film industry was in the toilet when the former actor and his journalist sidekick took over at the studio. They faced enormous pressure to turn things around. Bart knew little about movies, but he was well suited to the job. Whether as a child of demanding parents or as a reporter meeting daily deadlines, he had learned how to thrive under stress: Do your homework and stand your ground.
“The head of distribution comes in one day and sees me watching the dailies of Paper Moon. He says, ‘This movie is in black and white?’” Bart recalls of the Depression-era story that would pair the father-daughter team of Ryan and Tatum O’Neal. Bart had discovered the book on which the movie was based and had approved its being shot in black and white—not the usual recipe for commercial success. “I said, ‘No, no, it’s in color. I’m just watching dailies in black and white. Don’t worry.’ And we finished the movie. These are the lessons of selective deviousness.”
Then as now, Bart was exacting. “In the go-go days of the ’70s, when everybody was running around smoking a joint or trying to look like they were, Peter was a little more buttoned down,” remembers Irwin Winkler. “He was thoughtful, well read—almost like a boarding school headmaster.”
One day while driving to work with Evans, Bart championed a project so eccentric that it could have cost them their jobs. “We needed to get some hits going, and Peter was telling me about a script he’d read the previous night,” Evans remembers. “He said, ‘It’s about an 18-year-old boy who falls in love with an 80-year, old woman.’ I said, ‘Stop the car. Are you crazy?’ He says, ‘When you get to your office, lock yourself in the bathroom and read the script. And if you think I’m wrong, I’m wrong.’” The script became the cult film Harold and Maude.
Evans and Bart (along with chief corporate officer Stanley Jaffe, president Frank Yablans, and others) presided over the resuscitation of Paramount. Marrying an extraordinary generation of young directors—Francis Ford Coppola, Roman Polanski, Peter Bogdanovich—with commercial topics, they helped change the very notion of the Hollywood film. As Peter Biskind writes in his book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, the ’70s were a golden age for moviemaking, “the last time Hollywood produced a body of risky, high-quality work—as opposed to the errant masterpiece—work that was character-rather than plot-driven, that defied traditional narrative conventions … that broke the taboos of language and behavior, that dared to end unhappily.” Much of that work came out of Paramount: Rosemary’s Baby; Goodbye, Columbus; Love Story; The Godfather; Don’t Look Now; Chinatown; The Godfather II; The Conversation.
Bart had left journalism in his mid thirties because he was weary, he says, “of writing about people who were doing things. I wanted to try doing something myself.” His timing was perfect. In those days a junior production executive could have impact. Evans says it was Bart who acquired The Godfather and who suggested that Coppola direct it; Bart would later convince a reluctant Coppola to make The Godfather II. “In the ’60s and ’70s, studio business was conducted in an offhand, even anarchic, style,” Bart has written. “The mood of that era was to thumb your nose at the rules.” He fit right in.
Bart was building relationships with Hollywood’s future power players. Jeff Berg, now the head of International Creative Management, was a young agent when they met in 1970. Berg used to come over and read Bart’s daughters bedtime stories. That bond has helped make peace on the countless occasions since then when the two have stopped speaking.
“He has a very bitter wit, which is an acquired taste,” says Berg. “He is very quick to call his friends to task as well as his foes. When you get nailed in Variety you try to kiss it off, but it’s part of the fossil record. Still, he never apologizes. What he’ll do is say, ‘I haven’t heard from you in a year or so. Why don’t we have a drink?’”
Whether Bart’s rough edges played a part in his departure from Paramount in 1974 is a matter of debate. There has been speculation that he was forced out when Barry Diller was installed as the studio’s new chief. Bart denies this, and Evans also pooh-poohs it, saying Bart left to head up an independent film production company and finally make the kind of big money that had eluded him at Paramount. Whatever the truth, Bart likes to poke at Diller. At dinner parties and in his Variety column, he has told and retold a story (that both Evans and Diller have denied) about Charles Bluhdorn, the owner of Paramount Pictures, trying to marry off Diller so nobody would believe the persistent rumor that he was gay.
“Diller has always had one of the easiest rides with the press,” Bart will say with a mixture of disdain and awe. “People will go up and ask him something, and he’ll say ‘That’s a stupid question.’ And their reaction is ‘He’s such a smart man.’” Bart has a different assessment: “He treats everyone like shit.”
EVASIVE PETER IS DUCKING THE PRESS.
He’s flown to New York City to host “The Front Row,” a business symposium that Variety holds each year to make money and boost its profile. This year’s lineup includes Diller, now CEO of USA Networks; News Corp. chairman Rupert Murdoch; Sony Corp. CEO Howard Stringer; and Viacom president Mel Karmazin, with Bill Clinton delivering the keynote. Bart is both point man and emcee.
“I feel like I’m the producer of some B movie,” he says. So when Credit Suisse First Boston, the investment bank cosponsoring the event, suddenly gets cold feet about being affiliated with Clinton (and removes all signage bearing its name from the conference venue), Bart does damage control. It’s a good story—a prominent bank, active in the entertainment industry, distancing itself from the former president. But the story won’t break in Variety. Bart makes sure of that.
“You feel like a shit, playing hide-and-seek with the press,” Bart says, on the eve of the symposium. He spends the day avoiding the few journalist who have gotten wind of the brouhaha. “It’s hard when you can’t be completely candid. But in this case, I think that’s probably the best course.”
On a Friday morning Bart sits in his window-lined office on the first floor of the Variety building on Wilshire Boulevard. A French-language poster of Islands in the Stream, a movie he produced in 1977, fills one wall, while another wall displays the grip-and-grin photos you see in the offices of politicians: Bart with director Steven Spielberg, lobbyist Jack Valenti, celebrity lawyer Robert Shapiro. On his desk there is no computer, just an electric typewriter. On a bookshelf sits one of those kitschy fake grenades mounted on a plaque. COMPLAINT DEPT., it reads. TAKE A NUMBER.
Bart motions executive editor Elizabeth Guider and managing editor Timothy M. Gray toward a circular table. It’s time to talk headlines.
Variety’s pun-filled headlines are famously deft and often hilarious—“Sticks Nix Hick Pix,” from 1935, is considered the classic—and Bart understands they are central to the paper’s appeal. A few weeks after he arrived at Variety in 1989, he got people talking by topping a story about a feud between playwright David Hare and New York Times theater critic Frank Rich with this bombshell: “Ruffled Hare Airs Rich Bitch.” Nearly 12 years later, while he leaves much of the day-to-day editing of Variety to others, he still weighs in on front-page headlines.
Bart sometimes writes the heads himself, as he did for a recent piece about teen movies’ waning box office receipts: “No Pop in Zit Pix.” But the soft-spoken Tim Gray is Bart’s ace in the headline hole. It was Gray, for example, who wrote “Ovitz No Govitz at MCA” (for a story about the agent not becoming MCA’s chairman). For the grossest of these “Movies Get a Bad Case of the Runs”) Bart has coined a term: “secretional headlines.”
“We are now in the post-secretional period,” Bart says, grinning. “It ended after we described some relationship as ‘warm and runny.’”
Guider frowns. “It was awful,” she says.
“It’s a Britishism,” protests Bart. “It’s not lewd.”
Today’s challenge is a story about 20th Century Fox’s decision to premiere director Baz Luhrmann’s movie musical Moulin Rouge at the Cannes Film Festival. There are a lot of elements—the studio’s gamble, the festival, the painter Toulouse-Lautrec—and Gray has assembled a list of contenders that seek to hit them all: “The Thin ‘Rouge’ Line,” “Schmooze and ‘Rouge,’” “Cannes: Le Trek for Lautrec,” and “Bed, Baz, and Beyond.”
“Only someone truly demented would write ‘Bed, Baz, and Beyond,’” Bart says approvingly, scanning the list. “But shouldn’t we say something a little more explanatory?”
“Riviera’s Risk with ‘Rouge’?” Gray offers.
“Fox’s Riviera Risk,” Bart counters.
“‘Moulin’ Not Foolin’ Around?” asks Gray.
Bart gets up and goes to his typewriter, pounds the keys, and rips out a page. He hands the sheet to Guider, who reads aloud: “Will Frogs Flog Fox on Riv?” Everybody laughs. By meeting’s end the headline has been reworked ten times. “Fox Takes Risk on the Riviera,” it says. “‘Rouge’ schmooze cues renewed rapport between H’w’d, Cannes.”
In meetings like these and as a public speaker, Bart is irresistible. He takes control of a room, interweaving economic analysis, authoritative opinions, and barbs. At this year’s Festival of Books at UCLA, he appeared on a panel moderated by Kenneth Turan, the Los Angeles Times’s chief movie critic. When Turan asked Bart what he’d most like to change about Hollywood, Bart responded, “I think that film critics should dress better.” Amid hoots of laughter from both the audience and the rumpled Turan, Bart then got serious.
“What the present moment in Hollywood history shows is that the system is not working either artistically or financially,” he said, singling out two films as proof. “Town & Country just opened to a sterling $3 million, which is the price of the movie’s catering bill. Driven is so lame, Stallone’s likeness isn’t even featured on the poster. This is corporate Hollywood. And I do have a certain fondness for that epoch when movies were made because of a director’s passion, not because McDonald’s or a toy company or German [financiers] were interested.”
Bart gets Hollywood. Even those he’s treated harshly say it’s true. “He’s knowledgeable enough about film to go right to the heart of the matter every time,” says Dan Cox, a longtime Variety reporter whom Bart fired earlier this year. “That’s what Peter is brilliant at.”
As a teenager Bart dreamed of being Somerset Maugham, “traveling the world and writing short stories and novels about extraordinary people and situations.” In many ways, Variety gave him his wish. As its editor—a job that pays him about $500,000 a year including bonuses, plus a green BMW convertible and a lavish expense account—he has become Hollywood’s informal ambassador to the world. He travels frequently: to Australia for a speaking tour; to Italy, in part to research a GQ article about director Martin Scorsese; and almost every May, to France to attend the Cannes Film Festival. He is currently completing a book of short stories, one of which—“Dangerous Company: In Hollywood, Getting Laid Can Be a Career Breaker”—appeared in GQ this summer. His fourth nonfiction book, an anecdotal guide to the movie business written with his good friend, producer Peter Guber, will be published by Putnam in March.
For all Bart’s past lives, this one most suits him. “Peter has the best job he’s ever had, for Peter,” says Variety publisher Charles Koones.
When Variety first came calling, Bart had returned to writing—the lowest rung in Hollywood. In the years since he left Paramount he’d gone back and forth between producing movies, writing novels and screenplays, and serving as an executive at Lorimar and MGM. In 1989 he completed Fade Out: The Calamitous Final Days of MGM. Lively and caustic, the book skewered many of Bart’s colleagues and would become a best-seller. Around the same time, Reed Elsevier, a Dutch company that had bought Variety, was looking for a new editor. Its headhunter saw in Bart the perfect hybrid, while Bart—then 57, ancient by Hollywood standards—saw a chance to reinvent himself once again.
“They wanted someone with lots of experience in both journalism and the Industry,” he says. “The headhunter gave them a list with only one name on it: mine.” (Actually, there was another name on the list: Caroline Miller, now the editor-in-chief of New York magazine.)
CONTROLLING PETER IS CHECKING UP ON ME.
“I hear you’re calling all sorts of strange people. I mean, Jerry Weintraub?” he asks. Weintraub, a movie producer and a former colleague at MGM, is not one of Bart’s favorite people. “The last time I saw a movie with Jerry Weintraub,” Bart wrote in a Variety column earlier this year, “he arrived with a bottle of Stolichnaya. ‘How did you like the movie?’ I asked him during final credits. ‘What movie?’ he replied.”
Two months after that column appeared, I left a message for Weintraub. The next morning Weintraub called Bart, and now Bart is on the phone to me. “We have never gotten along,” he says. “If you’re trying to find a non-fan club, I think he would be it.”
Bart predicts that Weintraub will not speak to me. Sure enough, Weintraub’s publicist soon calls to say his client is much too busy to talk. That’s odd, I say, since his client found time to call Bart.
A few hours later Weintraub’s gravelly voice is in my ear. “I didn’t want you to think I wouldn’t call back,” he says, adding that he has nothing to say. What, I ask, is Bart’s reputation in the Industry?
“I have no idea,” he replies. “I’m 63 years old. I’ve been doing this for 43 years. You think you’re going to get me to talk about something I don’t want to talk about?”
Why, then, did he call Bart?
“That’s my business,” he barks.
When told of this exchange, Bart sums up Weintraub this way: “He’s definitely in the life-is-too-short category.”
Bart was hired to run Weekly Variety out of New York in 1989. The publication was losing $ 3 million a year. Circulation had dropped from 52,000 in 1980 to less than 29,000. The Hollywood Reporter was competing both for scoops and for advertising dollars. Bart’s impact was felt immediately. He upgraded from newsprint to glossy paper, changed the color of the logo, and set about dismantling the old staff and assembling the new. Nearly two years later Bart was put in charge of Daily Variety as well. He merged the staffs and returned to Los Angeles.
Bart absolutely refuses to call Variety a trade paper, even though it gets 90 percent of its ad revenue from the Industry. It is, he asserts, a newspaper—“a vivid chronicle of our pop culture.” Bart has made Variety more global, more sophisticated, more fun to read. Today the paper embraces the flail scope of the entertainment economy, from tech news to broadcasting and cable, from magazines to books, from movies to theater. Its critics—particularly Todd McCarthy, who reviews films—are well respected, and it has Washington correspondents, a London office, and writers stationed around the world.
Bart has become one of those people everyone loves to psychoanalyze, partly because he lives to be in the red-hot center and is so willing to offend. You can see it in his frequent, lecturing “Memo To” columns, in which he gives unsolicited advice to the likes of Robin Williams (“Robin—enough of the message stuff”) and Leonardo DiCaprio (“Go to college, Leo”). You can see it, too, in the way he runs Variety.
Staffers praise him for hating all the right things: lawyers, committees, focus groups—anything that obstructs Variety‘s (and his own) ability to act quickly, on instinct. But he also brings the imperious manner of a studio exec into Variety’s newsroom, He walks out of meetings in the middle, without explanation. He has nicknames—many of them unflattering—for everyone. Years ago Bart emptied a wastebasket on a reporter’s head. (“That was very calculated,” he says. “I knew it was the only way to get his attention.”)
Max Alexander, a former editor for Weekly Variety in New York, moved to Los Angeles at Bart’s behest, first to be managing editor and then executive editor. Alexander calls Bart “probably the smartest person I’ve ever worked for.” But Bart was always restless. Alexander remembers visiting the Barts at their rented English Tudor house in Benedict Canyon—a low-slung hunting lodge of a place. “It was all furnished in chintz fabric,” says Alexander, “with beautiful wraparound sofas that matched the drapes. There were hunting scenes and tapestries. It had a medieval feel to it.” A year later the Barts moved to another house nearby, “a contemporary, Mies van der Rohe kind of house.” Now it was Barcelona chairs, chrome, glass, swatches of color by painters who’d committed suicide. I asked, ‘What happened to the tapestries?’ Peter waved his hand and laughed and said, ‘It was just time for a change,’ and I realized this is the essence of this man. He likes to suddenly sweep the table clean.”
Stephen West can attest to that. In 1991 Bart hired West away from the Los Angeles Times, where he was assistant business editor. After five years as Daily Variety’s executive editor, West was summoned without warning to Bart’s office and told his job had been eliminated.
“There’s the good Peter and there’s the bad Peter,” says West, now media editor at Bloomberg News in San Francisco. He still admires Bart, despite what he wryly calls his own “public execution.” “Peter really is like Mao Tse-tung, in that he loves perpetual revolution. He’s never satisfied. Even when things are running well, he wants to change it.”
The scenario would be played out again and again. Bart, who is known to address his male staffers with the paternal “my boy,” would eventually turn on nearly all of them. Paying homage to director Spike Lee’s Mo’ Better Blues, staffers coined a term for the inevitable moment when Bart would blow: “M’Boy Better Blues.”
“If someone said, ‘Peter would like to see you in his office,’ you’d walk in not knowing if you were going to get your ass kissed, your head handed to you on a plate, or an invitation to dinner,” says one former Variety writer. “It’s a management technique—so when it’s time to crack the whip, everybody is already ready to flinch.”
Bart so relishes flouting political correctness that he lets loose on everyone: the French, Germans, blacks, Jews, lawyers, agents, actors, publicists, feminists, fat people. A gay man says that Bart asked him about his health during a job interview. Another former Variety reporter heard Bart say, “I’m not hiring any more fags, because they get sick and die.” According to more than half a dozen people, he peppers meetings at Variety with derogatory terms: fags, bitches, cunts, Nips.
Yet Bart, as always, is confounding. In contrast to the comments people attribute to him—which he denies making—staffers say he has treated ailing gay employees well. During his tenure Variety has begun acknowledging longtime companions in obituaries of gay people. Bart has promoted women and tried, with limited success, to diversify Variety’s mostly white staff.
“Is Peter homophobic? Possibly. Racist? Possibly. Misogynistic? Possibly,” says one former Variety employee who knows him well. “But most of the stuff that gets traced to him isn’t about that. It’s about his desperate need to draw fire and file stuff up. He can’t bear to be ignored even for a minute.”
BART HATES TO TAKE NOTES.
“I don’t like to,” he says. “I just find when you take out a notebook, it just changes the atmosphere.” Nevertheless, in his column he frequently quotes conversations he has had with Hollywood figures. The quotes, which he also inserts in reporters’ stories, are nearly always unattributed. He often dictates them off the top of his head, which may explain why some of Variety’s anonymous sources sound a lot like Inventive Peter.
Bart favors the terms fat cats and suits. So do a fair number of people who sound off in his columns. He loves to use damned, as in “You know damned well he intends to deliver for his clients.” When run through Bart’s typewriter, lots of people around town start cussing just like that, from “a senior marketing official at Paramount” to “one major agent” to “one of the town’s top lawyers.”
Read enough of Bart’s work and you begin to hear the echo. In his own voice he will write, “It’s all about those statuettes, stupid,” or “It’s all about the waivers from SAG.” A few months later he’ll quote one “candid” CEO (“It’s all about intimidation”) or “the production chief of one major [studio]” (“It’s all about money”).
“I have,” he says, “an incredible memory.”
If Peter Bart has a motto, it is this: “I know now there is no one thing that is true. It is all true.” The words are Hemingway’s, from his novel Islands in the Stream. Once Bart quoted them in a column, adding, “Now there’s a manifesto for you.”
Everyone knows that in Hollywood people lie as a matter of course, exaggerating their accomplishments, minimizing their failures. They don’t fret about it. Building up one’s own buzz is part of doing business—a means to an end. Bart is notable, though, because he is editor of the Industry’s most important publication, so his fibs, amplifications, and outright lies masquerade as candor.
“I have covered … wars,” he recently asserted in a letter to the editor of the Los Angeles Times. When pressed, though, he admits he hasn’t. He frequently refers to his time as ‘a young kid studio executive,’ even though he was 35 when he got his first studio job and 53 when he left his last one. One publicist recalls Bart calling her angrily after she asked for a correction to a Variety article. “I ran three studios,” yelled the man who did no such thing, “and I will not be dictated to by a fucking flack!”
One former colleague says Bart had a term for the kind of embellishment he practices: “novelizing.” Another who remains fond of Bart says, “His relationship to the truth is very plastic. I’d go on interviews with him and he’d write something and I’d think, ‘Were we in the same room? He’s just a storyteller. The narrative needs are more immediate to his imagination than what actually happened.”
Bart’s philosophy permeates Variety. There’s the way he praises friends, associates, and even his own movies without acknowledging his involvement. He’ll call Richard Heller “a scrupulous New York practitioner” without noting that Heller has been his lawyer for 25 years. Ronda Gomez is “one of the town’s veteran literary agents.” She was also his assistant at Paramount Pictures. Michelle Manning, president of production at Paramount, is “one of the sharper young executives in town.” A year before he wrote that, Manning also bought the movie rights to a Bart project, but he doesn’t mention that. If a reporter or an editor at a major daily newspaper flaunted the basic rules of journalism the way Bart does, they’d be shown the door.
Most people in show business deceive to gain advantage—to downplay their cost overruns, say, or to boost their salaries. Bart, too, misrepresents for strategic advantage, but he also lies for no apparent reason. Consider what happened when we discussed the infamous Patriot Games incident of 1992, when Variety film critic Joe McBride wrote a blistering review of Paramount Pictures’ Tom Clancy adaptation. The studio, apoplectic over the review’s potential dampening of interest among overseas exhibitors, pulled its advertising from Variety. Bart got mad, but not at the studio. He decreed that McBride would no longer review Paramount films.
The New York Times wrote a story about the McBride dustup that said Variety staffers were aghast that their boss would curry favor with Paramount. The article quoted from a private apology that Bart had sent to Martin S. Davis, the studio’s then chairman and CEO. “Marty Davis and I have known each other for 25 years,” Bart told the Times. “I simply dropped him a friendly note.”
Nine years later, however, when I first ask Bart about the note, he insists it never existed. “I never wrote any,” he says, adding that he disliked Davis intensely, so “the idea that I would contact these people was bizarre.” How to explain the Times story, written by veteran reporter Bernard Weinraub? “It was a reminder to me about the nastiness of journalists toward each other,” Bart says, shaking his head.
A few weeks later I obtained a copy of the letter. Bart’s lie didn’t make sense. Had he forgotten that it was typed by his own secretary on Variety stationery? (Bart’s secretary at the time had a couple of well-known idiosyncrasies—using a double dash in phone numbers, spelling out fax with spaces between the letters—both of which are in evidence.) Did he really think that he could alter the “fossil record,” to borrow Jeff Berg’s phrase, and rewrite history?
When I presented a copy of the letter to Bart—the first of two occasions that he would later denounce as “gotcha” journalism—he declared it “blatantly bogus? He disputed the signature. He suggested the letterhead had been faked. “Editorial director, Variety Inc.?” he said, reading the words under his name. “I don’t ever remember having that title.” (Variety’s masthead from that period shows that, in fact, he did.) “I agree with the contents of the letter,” he said after perusing it for a minute, “but I didn’t write it.”
Later he would call me to clarify. Even if he had written the letter, he said, “that incident is not relevant to me, only because it never recurred. I’d think it was interesting if it were a syndrome. But since it’s a stand-alone …” It sounded like an acknowledgment, sort of. His voice trailed off.
What was more striking than Bart’s dissembling, however, was a part of the letter that The New York Times hadn’t seen fit to quote. In one paragraph, it captures how Bart perceives his place in Hollywood: “I know that you and Stanley [Jaffe] feel that Variety has developed an anti-Paramount tilt in its coverage. This distresses me—we go back together many years and I personally feel a keen sense of camaraderie. Clearly you feel, however, that the ‘old comrades’ aren’t taking care of each other. If that’s your feeling, you and Stanley deserve better and I intend to take personal charge of this situation to set it right.”
“Taking care of each other”—that is Bart’s defining editorial principle. That doesn’t mean he rolls over, necessarily. If he thinks a top executive needs a kick in the pants, he’s happy to administer it. But he’s no adversary. He’s more like a teammate, or even a coach. He may be editor-in-chief of Variety, but he is still one of them.
People who have worked with Bart say he would call his favorite sources—Guber, Ovitz, Weinstein, Evans, producer Arnon Milchan—and vet stories that mentioned them, letting them make adjustments. When confronted by the reporters whose bylines topped the altered stories, Bart would say he got better information after deadline. “This is my paper,” one remembers him saying. “I’ll do as I please.”
Bart has internalized Hollywood’s A-list mentality, mistaking the highest-placed source for the best source, even when the higher-up has much to gain by what they’re leaking. When Milchan was negotiating to take his production company from Warner Bros. to 20th Century Fox, for example, the reporters working the story established that Warner Bros. had capped its offer at $100 million. Bart added another knowledgeable source, who put the number at $130 million. The source, the reporters were shocked to learn, was Milchan, whose bargaining position was sure to be strengthened by the $30 million boost.
“”It might have been,” Bart says, “that I just called him and asked him what the number was.” But didn’t that help Milchan? “People like that, they don’t need my help. They’re doing fine. And let’s be pragmatic. You can’t use a newspaper to help your friends. You’ll end up getting fired.”
In almost the next breath, though, Bart says friendship does guide him. He recalls visiting Guber’s office one day when Guber was chairman of Sony. “The purpose of my mission was to yell at him. You don’t like to see a friend messing up,” Bart says. “I was telling him among other things how badly he was handling the press and how he was not being confrontative enough with the problems at Sony. It had nothing to do with reporting. No notes were taken. It had nothing to do with journalism.” Bart insists, however, that despite offering such counsel, he directed his reporters to grill Guber’s regime as they would any other.
“Is Guber a friend of mine? Certainly. I have never denied that,” Bart says. “Was he an effective president of Sony? No.” Those who attended a gala tribute to Bart at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in 1997, meanwhile, remember that Guber began the roast with this joke: “Will everyone here who owes Peter a favor for having killed a negative story please remain seated?” The room—filled with Hollywood’s heaviest hitters—erupted in laughter. Everybody stayed in their seats.
NERVOUS PETER HAS QUESTIONS.
The magazine’s fact checker has just spent the day going over the story with him, and he wants to discuss a few things with me. “When we entered into this thing, I said to you, ‘When I write about people, I don’t write about religious beliefs or sexual orientation,’” he says. “I honestly felt you would respect that.” I remind him that all along I have told him that the profile would take into account his history.
“What concerns me is if you are characterizing me as a runaway Jew,” he says. “It’s not that I don’t acknowledge it. I just don’t talk about it. It’s not a part of my life. Isn’t this the equivalent of outing someone?” he asks.
I tell him I don’t equate revealing a person’s homosexuality with saying his parents were Austrian Jews.
He then changes course. “Do me one favor,” he says. “To avoid me being blackballed, quote me saying, ‘I have no problem saying my ethnicity is Jewish.’ Otherwise you’re going to get me into trouble with all these people.”
When I tell him I can do that, but that I’m sure my editor will insist that we put the quote in context, making it clear that it came after a call from a fact checker, he snaps: “Is he some kind of professional Jew, too?”
It has long been rumored—but never proved—that the editor of Variety writes scripts on the side. Bart has always denied this, but people still whisper. Earlier this year The Hollywood Reporter’s David Robb, who has never hidden his antipathy for his former boss, wrote an article about it.
In March, after Bart attended a Writers Guild meeting that was closed to the press and then published a report on Variety’s front page, Robb investigated why Bart was still an active guild member. He discovered that to remain active, Bart had to have sold a script within the past four years. Robb thought he’d found what to Bart’s enemies amounts to the Holy Grail: proof that Bart was engaging in journalism’s most serious conflict of interest—profiting from those you cover.
Robb, however, never laid his hands on the offending script. If he had, he might have been disappointed. According to Bart, the script he sold within the last four years was Nobody’s Children, a drama about a gang of gypsy thieves that he wrote in the early ’80s. Bart says the transaction that kept him active in the WGA was merely the extension of a preexisting option—one that was entered into long before he came to Variety.
“Dave has this fascination, trying to prove that I am still writing and selling scripts,” Bart says, adding that these days the mere act of reading a script makes him physically ill. When it comes to screenplays, he says, his “entire oeuvre” was written before he got to Variety. “I’m not writing or selling scripts. I don’t even want to write and sell scripts. But Dave is still trying to find another script.”
For the record, Variety has a policy that prevents its reporters from being seduced by Hollywood while they are covering it. As Bart explained it to me, “You cannot shop a script while you’re writing for us. Obviously it’s different if you write a book or a novel and it sells to a movie studio. I have no problem with that, except I’m not going to write the script. I don’t think the line is that blurry.”
Things were about to get blurrier, though. One night I came home and found that a manila envelope had been forced through my mail slot. Inside was a 108-page script.
By this point I had heard many accounts of how Bart had earned people’s enmity. Even if I took them all at face value, which I didn’t, these stories never implied that Bart was a dimwit. In a town full of blowhards, where money is often a substitute for intelligence, Bart is considered supremely—if sometimes vengefully—bright. But, as I was about to discover, he was not bright enough to compensate for his Achilles’ heel: his loyalty to his friend and mentor, Robert Evans.
In 1998 Variety reported that Michelle Manning at Paramount Pictures had acquired the rights to a novel written by Bart. The novel was called Power Play, and the plan was for Evans to develop it. It was set in Las Vegas and focused on a power struggle between established casino owners and Indian tribes. Bart had used a pseudonym, the article said, “to avoid any potential conflict of interest.”
I’d read all of Bart’s novels but had never heard of Power Play. When I first asked Bart about it, he said, “It’s not a novel. It’s a novella. It needs work. I never finished it.” When I asked to read it, he told me he had no idea where it was. “I did it to try to help Bob out. And Bob never did anything with it,” he said, referring to Evans.
So no script was ever written? “Not to my knowledge,” he said. “In the old days I’d have swung into action, gotten a director as, signed, gotten it off the ground. But I don’t do that for a living anymore. And it’s not what I should do.”
Then the script arrived. It was called Crossroaders, but it was the same story as Power Play. Its title page read: “By Leslie Cox”—the maiden name of Bart’s current wife—“Based on the novel by Peter Bart. September, 1996.”
I call Bart and arrange for a final interview. Over several months I had come to know many Peters, but when he welcomes me to his office I don’t know which one to expect. I tell Bart I have a copy of the 1996 script he wrote. “The script I wrote,” he repeats, neither confirming nor denying. I look into the face of the man with the incredible memory. It is blank. But one knee starts jiggling, and he fiddles idly with the band of his watch.
“Boy, you got me. Did I write a script? Now I’m facing memory loss,” he says, as I pull a copy of Crossroaders out of my bag. He looks it over. “Let’s just say this is a script that has Leslie’s name on it. What does that indicate? Therefore—therefore, what?”
I repeat that I know he wrote it. “I may have written this,” he says. “But,” I counter, “you said you hate writing scripts.” “I do. Maybe this taught me never to do it again. I’d love to read this. Is it any good?”
Persuasive Peter, Argumentative Peter, Smooth Peter—they’re all here, and they’re taking turns. “You know something? In all honesty, I do not remember writing this,” he says. “I guess it was written to work out the novel. That would be my answer.”
Bart summons his assistant to look for the novella—the one he told me he couldn’t locate. She beelines for a cabinet behind his chair and retrieves a slim bound volume with a navy blue cover. She hands it to him. The search takes less than 20 seconds.
“This is an 86-page novel,” he says. “This was what was bought. It was the only thing that was ever submitted to Paramount.” He admits that he probably spent a weekend transforming the Crossroaders script into the wisp of a novel he holds in his hand. I look at the novel’s cover page, which displays not the pseudonym the Variety article had promised but the words “By Peter Bart.” When I tell him the whole thing looks like an elaborate way of circumventing the rules, effectively selling a script by ginning up a novel, he objects.
“I don’t think it looks that way,” he says. “If you’re saying therefore that I wrote and marketed the script, you can say it, but I would deny it. I contend to you that a novel was written of this, and that’s what Bob bought. There’s no rule that says you can’t write a script that no one sees.”
Except, of course, that Evans—the man developing the project—did see the script. “I’m sure Bob has,” he says, but I’ll tell you about Bob.” He laughs. “Bob having it is like the crypt.”
As the interview winds up, Bart is almost playful. He jokes that I’m a “troublemaker” and “mean.” “It’s really scary,” he says, “when you start remembering things about me that I don’t remember.”
The next morning Litigious Peter picks up the phone. He’s still at home. His voice is tight and angry. He accuses me of using material stolen from his files. He feels betrayed that I gave him no warning. The details of why he wrote a screenplay as a warm-up for a novella are coming back to him, he says, though “vaguely.” “I’m glad I did it that way,” he says. “The book sure is lean.”
“One thing I’m not is self-destructive,” he says. “To break my own rules is just stupid. I was trying to get Bob’s career going.” He pauses. “I would appreciate it if you could tell me how you’re going to handle this, so I can send to the magazine this legal document that will say I will sue you.”
A week later Conflicted Peter calls.
“I haven’t heard from my nemesis for a while. Have you given up on this project, I hope?” he says, his voice almost warm. “I must say, I’m still a little nettled.”
Despite his better judgment, he has more to say. “It’s always a favor that kills you. No one ever did see that fucking script. In retrospect, I shouldn’t have done it. I will guarantee you that I will never do it again.”
In his Crossroaders script, Bart sets a key scene at a press conference in Las Vegas’s most decadent gambling casino. The casino’s owner takes a few questions from the assembled media, then invites them to do some gambling—on him. The offer prompts this ethical debate:
FIRST REPORTER (to a colleague): The son-of-a-bitch has no shame. I mean, he’s prepared to buy out the entire press corps if necessary.
SECOND REPORTER: He’s an asshole. (A pause.) On the other hand, since it’s on the house, I don’t think fifteen minutes at the Money Wheel will compromise my scruples.
As so often happens with Bart, there is a duality. Both reporters are him.
This feature originally appeared in the September 2001 issue of Los Angeles.