The Last Tycoon

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Recently, Milchan has become close to Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak and is anxiously watching the Israel-Syria peace talks. “I think Barak will get a good deal. It has got to be done. Look, we can always go back to war if it doesn’t work out,” he cracks, but adds, “give peace a chance.”

Former colleagues say Milchan shifts from kindly patriarch to vengeful demagogue, veering between outrageous generosity and inexplicable miserliness. “On Brazil we had a great relationship,” says Gilliam, “on Munchausen, he was dreadful.” The nub of their falling-out was a $150,000 development fee that Fox had paid out for the rights to the screenplay. According to Gilliam and others on the production, Milchan simply pocketed the money, pushing the over-budget, disaster-plagued shoot into more red ink. Milchan says that the money was reimbursement for his own out-of-pocket expenses on the film. When Gilliam decided to take his beleaguered film elsewhere, Fox demanded its development fee back, the first Gilliam had heard about it. Later, when he and Milchan split, Milchan insisted on another $75,000 payment plus profit points before signing off from their deal. “Arnon has to screw everyone—partners, friends—literally, figuratively, in every sense of the word,” says Gilliam with a raucous laugh. “It’s pathological. He can’t stop himself. At some point, he needs to invent an enemy.” Another filmmaker says wearily, “Sooner or later, you’ll be on the outside with Arnon. This is a man who has to win. He doesn’t believe that both parties can win.”

On one occasion, according to producer Gordon, Milchan was playing tennis with his best friend, Meier Tepper, at the Hotel du Cap on the French Riviera. “Meier is a really sweet, nice guy, and Arnon almost always beats him. But this one time, Meier was up five-love. Arnon threw a fit screaming that his friend was cheating him and carrying on like it was some blood feud, until he just psyched Meier out and won. To my mind, he’s as competitive as Eisner and Murdoch.”

Roman Polanski has enjoyed a 20-year friendship with Milchan. “Dinners, parties, nightclubs,” says Polanski from his home in Paris. “He’s fun.” In 1981, Milchan produced the French version of the stage play Amadeus, which Polanski directed and starred in as Mozart. “It was a big success and could have gone on for years, but I couldn’t do it anymore,” says Polanski, who adds that Milchan has also helped him with advice about distribution of his films. However, they have yet to make a movie together. “Of course, I’ve heard what people say: `Better to be friends with him than do business.’ I know he’s a tough businessman. Tough is fine—ruthless, no—but I haven’t seen that.”

Alongside the pond at Milchan’s home in France is a life-size sculpture of a man sitting at a table, facing a plateful of money. It’s called The Last Meal of a Greedy Man. Milchan tells me it was a gift to him from director Sergio Leone, but he’s quick to add that Leone was not sending him a message. Stone, who made JFK and Natural Born Killers with Milchan, thinks otherwise. “He’s as cheap as they come,” says a furious Stone. “He’s sick about money, obsessed with losing it. I learned a very hard lesson, and it cost me a lot of my personal money. I don’t want to get into a pissing contest, but Arnon can be very nasty.” Even former partners in Hollywood,where the dictum is “no memory, no enemies,” say that a tangle with Milchan can be costly. Concurs one, “He approaches everything like tennis, and it’s unbearable for him to lose, even a point.”

Natalie Zimmerman, an interior designer who was married to Reuther, recalls a dinner at Cannes some years ago where the topic was two competing Christopher Columbus projects, one to be made by Ridley Scott, the other by the Salkind family. “Arnon said, `I bet neither one gets off the ground,'” remembers Zimmerman, who replied that she thought otherwise. “I said, `I bet they both get made.’ Arnon gave me one of his looks and says sarcastically, `Look who’s talking. The interior designer!’ See, he likes to humiliate people. Then he says, `I’ll bet you any watch in the world that neither movie will get made.'” Zimmerman won the bet but had to badger Milchan before he finally sent her a Rolex, “a cheap one,” she adds.

Nevertheless, Milchan continues to attract high-class talent and partners. Like Fitzgerald’s Gatsby, Milchan possesses “a heightened sensitivity to the promise of life,” which draws the best and brightest toward him. However studied and contrived his casualness, self-deprecating charm and perpetual enthusiasm may be, it’s an irresistible package to many. “He consistently picks winners. Most of his movies do very well,” admits one of his critics. “The showmanship is the side I like, except when it’s self-serving,” says Gilliam. “That’s the sad part.” Previous to Munchausen, Gilliam was taken with Milchan’s ostensible generosity and grandiosity. “His great skill was pretending that he’s very rich. He’d rent two cabanas—not one—at the Beverly Hills Hotel to out-impress the other big shots,” says Gilliam. “It was his belief that Hollywood throws money at money. But he never spends his own money.” “Personally, I don’t know anyone who has ever made money with Arnon,” says a major Hollywood producer. “It will be real interesting to see what happens with Rupert Murdoch. Real interesting.”

Milchan clearly relishes his relationship with Murdoch and, judging by his own recent global moves, certainly sees him as a role model. “I consider him one of my best friends, and I think vice versa. We’re having a ball. He’s a very cool guy.” On Murdoch’s recent remarriage to 32-year-old Wendi Deng, Milchan says, “He’s like a kid now. They giggle and enjoy each other. Rupert’s a gentleman, and I know you’ll laugh at this, but he’s a gentle person.”

Milchan offers a description of Murdoch that could almost describe himself. “He reminds me of the Michael Douglas character in Falling Down, who says, `I just want to go home, and if no one gets in my way, nobody’s gonna get hurt.'”


This feature originally appeared in the April 2000 issue of Los Angeles magazine

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