L.A. Story

In Richard Greenberg's 1988 play "Eastern Standard," a Manhattan restaurant patron flags down an attractive waitress by calling out, "Oh, actress!" The server stops dead in her tracks to take his order. Like most smart humor, the joke's zing lies in its veracity: For many, waiting tables is but an obligatory holding pattern before being cleared for a Hollywood landing. Yet those statistically unlikely dreams of stardom-and the dancing sugarplums of fame and fortune that come with it-are hardly limited to those serving up charred ahi tuna with ponzo sauce. Indeed, as recent news events suggest, among those being mesmerized by Hollywood fantasies are the very people whom you think would know better: the journalists charged with covering show business itself.

Last Friday, the editor in chief of Variety was suspended by the paper indefinitely, and subsequently removed from his regular gig on CNN. A few weeks earlier, the gossip columnist for The Hollywood Reporter was taken off his job as well. On first glance, the pair of forced vacations bear scant resemblance to each other. Variety's Peter Bart was granted some involuntary time off after Los Angeles magazine published a deeply unflattering profile depicting him as a coarse braggart who demeaned blacks, Asians and gays. The Reporter's George Christy was sent home after repeated accusations he received free ocean-view office space from producers he mentioned favorably in his gossip column.

Both suspensions, however, also involve problematic attempts by Bart and Christy to work both sides of the Hollywood fence. Bart was apparently caught peddling a screenplay, a violation of Variety's conflict-of-interest rules. And Christy was charged with taking movie parts (some of which apparently never existed or ended up on the cutting-room floor) to qualify for generous health and pension benefits from the Screen Actors Guild, which not only is unethical but also has triggered a federal investigation of the producers who offered Christy the allegedly sham acting jobs.

Both Bart and Christy have defended their innocence, but what they can't defend as easily is the inevitability of their predicaments. Like Stockholm syndrome victims who come to identify with their captors, show-business journalists frequently succumb to Hollywood's lure. When I began my career at the Los Angeles Times, no less than four film reporters and a television writer resigned one after the other over several years to go work for the subjects of their newspaper columns. It's a case of a little knowledge being a dangerous thing: As a reporter, you see firsthand the incomparable inanities of moviemaking. You hear of an executive who, in all seriousness, wanted to invite real-life spontaneous bleeders to the premiere of "Stigmata." You talk to producers who believe that Dominic Sena did a great job directing "Gone in 60 Seconds" and should make another movie really soon (and who are then surprised "Swordfish" didn't turn out better). You meet marketing executives from three different studios who release three films aimed at the identical audience-"The Others," "Session 9" and "The Deep End"-all in the very same week. And like the proud mom who looks skeptically at a Jackson Pollock painting and says, "My 3-year-old could do better than that," show-biz journalists writers reach the same conclusion.

It's not just the belief that you can do the job better that tempts. The trappings of fame can be equally magnetic. Successful Hollywood people enjoy perks far more excessive than necessary. They don't have to lift heavy boxes. They get to attend lots of parties where the food is free and the liquor plentiful. They mingle with countless celebrities at movie premieres, ride in limousines and fly first class to big hotel suites. Their assistants drop off their dry cleaning and pick up their groceries. But at that point the rewards start to plummet as fast as Thelma and Louise's car.

The auto mechanic can turn a backfiring clunker into a whistling classic. The skilled psychiatrist can transform a depressed loner into an optimistic extrovert. But even the most talented studio executive or screenwriter can spend years of hard work and, besides a bigger bank balance, have nothing better to show for the labor than "Pootie Tang."

Variety did not say why they suspended Bart. They had many possible choices. The magazine profile delivered any number of legitimate motives for granting Bart some time away from the paper. The article painted him at best a dissembler and at worst a liar. It said that he may have made up quotes in articles, softened stories about show-business friends and embellished his resume. According to co-workers, he belittled blacks, gays, Jews and Asians. He claims personal responsibility for making the careers of everyone from Sony Pictures Entertainment chairman John Calley to Revolution Studios chief Joe Roth. But the incident that both opens and concludes the article focuses on Bart's screenwriting. In other words, Bart, a former studio executive, wanted to see his name in lights.

Christy, who was suspended in May, actually did get a couple of small film parts, with credits ranging from "Die Hard" to "Predator 2" to "The Thomas Crown Affair." But he is alleged to have won movie roles not from pounding the audition pavement, but from producers courting favorable mention in Christy's well-read "The Great Life" party column. In addition to being paid for tiny acting jobs (some of which didn't exist, according to a government investigator), Christy qualified for SAG health and pension benefits, considered among Hollywood's best. Even when he was handed a part, he didn't always hit his marks. In an audio commentary for the "Seven" DVD, director David Fincher recalls how Christy showed up late for his one-line role as a workman, having diverted his limousine driver to grab a cappuccino. Fincher, forced to cool his heels awaiting his actor's arrival, was not amused.

The adage that a journalist's job is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comforted still holds true in many beats. But as these two Hollywood cases dramatize, a number of writers now want to comfort the comforted and share in the luxe lifestyle. In the process, though, they are burning their hands-and their publications. While journalists Bart and Christy hide in humiliation, their readers have to ask this question: Were the stories we read simply news stories? Or were they covert pitches by the authors to get some swank job?