Barry Levinson is still fuming over his experience with Dreamworks Studios.
The prestigious director of Rain Man, Diner, Tin Men, Liberty Heights, and Wag the Dog released a movie through Dreamworks last winter called An Everlasting Piece. Never heard of it? That's because Dreamworks unceremoniously dumped the low-budget comedy, releasing it without advertising or publicity during Christmas.
"We sat through a test screening in [the Los Angeles suburb of] Woodland Hills and the audience loved it," Levinson recalled during our talk yesterday. "It was a hit. Jeffrey Katzenberg was there," he said, referring to the head of Dreamworks. "And he was noticeably annoyed. Because he knew they'd already decided to bury it. He didn't expect people would like it."
Everlasting Piece unfortunately fell into a political problem at the studio, or so Levinson and his team came to realize. Steven Spielberg, Katzenberg's partner, got on the list for honors from the United Kingdom for knighthood at the same that the comedy — which was shot in Ireland and takes humorous potshots at British royalty — was being readied for release.
Suddenly Piece could cause a problem for Spielberg's upcoming royal ceremony. The movie, about toupee makers, was quickly swept under the rug. The first clue: When Dreamworks sent out its box of potential Oscar movies on DVD to Academy voters — a box which included Gladiator, Almost Famous, Chicken Run, What Lies Beneath, and Small Time Crooks — Piece was glaringly omitted.
I asked Levinson if he thought this was some kind of weird retaliation from Spielberg, who had been the first director attached to Rain Man years ago. When that didn't work out, Levinson took over and won his Oscar.
"No," he chuckled, "that would be too much like Wag the Dog, wouldn't it?"
Or The Producers, the Mel Brooks comedy in which two producers intend to put on a flop, only to have a major hit. Ironically, Levinson worked for Brooks as a writer on many of the comic's classic hits. Certainly, Katzenberg and Spielberg weren't envisioning themselves as Bialystock and Bloom.
But, in all seriousness, Levinson said: "Because Everlasting Piece only cost $9 million, it was over before it began. They could afford to lose it. And Columbia Pictures sold it worldwide and brought in around $3 million, so it wasn't a total loss. If it had been a big-budget movie with big stars — say, Daniel Day-Lewis — then they would have been stuck."
Indeed, Everlasting Piece had no stars. It was a first-time project from movie novices. The producer, Jerome O'Connor, who is Irish himself, optioned the script from Barry McEvoy, a bartender/actor who worked for him at a bar he owned in New York's East Village. McEvoy wound up starring in the movie after O'Connor got the script to Mark Johnson, who had a deal at Dreamworks and had worked with Levinson on many of his films.
O'Connor and Johnson still have a lawsuit pending against Dreamworks over the affair.
"I called Jerome in October and told him I knew the writing was on the wall," said Levinson, who'd had experience with these things. His very good film, Liberty Heights, was abandoned by Warner Bros. early in its 1999 release when it tested poorly. "He couldn't believe it, but I could see it coming."
Piece was released to 8 theaters in the U.S. on December 25. It took in less than $10,000 and quickly disappeared. At one point it was still playing in New York's Union Square Cineplex, but Dreamworks didn't even bother listing it with Moviefone online, so it seemed that the movie didn't even exist.
Since the news about Everlasting Piece broke in the New York Post last winter — as well as in other places — Levinson has yet to hear again from Katzenberg, with whom he had a reported public shouting match over the situation. He hasn't heard at all from Spielberg. "I don't think he really gets involved with Dreamworks issues at this level," he told me.
So Levinson is moving on. Ironically, Warner Bros. has his next movie, Bandits, starring Bruce Willis, Billy Bob Thornton, Jane Fonda, and Tom Hayden's son, Troy Garity. Garity, who's 28, was at his mother's tribute dinner at Lincoln Center on Monday night. He is tall, dark and handsome with a nasal Dustin Hoffman-y voice. Levinson said: "Wait 'til you see him. In every scene he was a constant surprise. He's going to be a star."
And after Bandits? "I'm going to make a big picture. All these smaller pictures — Wag the Dog, Piece, Liberty Heights — you can see how fragile they are. It's great to do them, but it's less risky to do a big-budget movie."
Sopranos on Vacation: No One Was Whacked
As we await (sniff!) the last two episodes of this season's Sopranos, I can report that at least the cast gets along well.
Recently, when filming was over, a bunch of the gang took a vacation together to the Bahamas. On the trip: Aida Turturro, Federico Castelluccio, John Ventimiglia, and Tony Sirico. I don't know if any of them got lost, as Paulie Walnuts and Chris did last week in the New Jersey Pine Barrens.
Speaking of The Sopranos, everyone's betting on who does get whacked in the final episodes. My guess is Jackie Jr., played by Jason Cerbone. He's been written into a corner now that even Meadow knows he fools around on her. Cerbone isn't supposed to give anything away. And hey! I don't wanna know! But when I saw him the other night, young Jason grimly implied that he is now unemployed. Whaddaya gonna do, heh? The last two seasons have each ended with the death of an Aprile. It's a f-----' tradition!
Yesterday's Cindy Adams column in the New York Post was a classic of its kind.
There was the indefatigable Manny Azenberg talking about launching a new Neil Simon play in the fall. Azenberg has been producing Simon's plays since Richard Nixon was scheming in the White House. (Quick quiz, New Yorkers: Who preceded Manny? Saint Subber!)
Anyway, the stars of this new show are listed: Harry Goz, Joan Copeland, Marian Seldes, Lewis Stadlen. Can it be? First, I thought Harry Goz was dead until I looked it up. He's 75! He was the longest-running Tevye during the original eight-year Broadway run of Fiddler on the Roof. Joan Copeland, who's always good, is also the sister of playwright Arthur Miller, so she's got to be up there. (I remember her on Search for Tomorrow circa 1972.) Seldes? Great actress too. Recently lost her husband, the 80-something Garson Kanin. Stadlen, I don't know, but come on.
Only last week I caught a performance of Follies on Broadway. There were eight leads over 75 years old including Marge Champion, Donald Saddler and Joan Roberts. The latter was in the original Broadway production of Oklahoma! Fragile was the only word that could describe their appearance and efforts. (I was actually nervous for the great Marge. You just don't say 'break a leg' to these people before a show.)
I love older people, I really do. Anyone who knows me knows that. But really folks — there must someone young who can sing, dance and tell a joke besides Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane. Please, Broadway producers, find them!
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