You may have read how Hollywood publicists try to manipulate the press. But you don't know the lengths they go to accomplish this violation of the First Amendment.
Yesterday after taping an interview with comedian Martin Lawrence, Fox News Channel's Bill McCuddy learned the hard way. When he went to retrieve the tape with the interview he'd just conducted, Paramount publicists as well as Lawrence's press agent refused to hand over the interview.
"It didn't go so well," Lawrence's publicist told McCuddy. The Paramount publicists nodded in assent. When McCuddy demanded the tape be returned to him, the publicists refused and McCuddy was forced to leave empty-handed.
McCuddy told me last night that he and Lawrence were old acquaintances, from McCuddy's days on the stand-up comedy circuit. He said that when they were preparing to do the interview, they discussed briefly their old association, and it was perfectly pleasant.
It was only when McCuddy began to ask Lawrence questions about his new movie, a 90-minute filmed version of his stand-up comedy act called Runtelldat, that things went sour.
"In the movie, Lawrence does two long set pieces about his infamous public episodes," McCuddy told me. "One was the time when he was waving a gun in traffic, and another time he wound up in a coma. He says in the movie that he was high many times."
When McCuddy asked Lawrence about these episodes, however, the notably troubled comedian balked.
According to McCuddy he said: "'Now that the tape is running you're asking me these kinds of things?' He thought I was trying to sandbag him but I wasn't. He talks about those events in the movie. He called me a [expletive]-head and the interview was essentially over."
The interview was part of a press afternoon known as a junket, wherein an outside video firm films entertainment correspondents interviewing stars for their new movies. At the conclusion, the tape of the interview is handed over to the correspondent.
But when McCuddy tried to retrieve his tape, Paramount publicists Nancy Bannister and Loretta Milano and Rogers & Cowan's Arnold Robinson, intervened.
Robinson said to him, "[Another Fox correspondent] interviewed Martin on the West Coast and it went fine, so you can use that on your show."
McCuddy says he is now demanding Paramount return the tape unedited and untouched.
No one I asked last night had heard of an incident of this kind before, but I have to say I'm not surprised it happened. For far too long the television entertainment press has been docile in the face of movie publicists, agreeing to their terms in order to get a story.
Consequently the publicists, many of whom are simply trained guard dogs, have gained an enormous amount of power. The result is press release-type staged interviews all over the tube in which stars look cozy with correspondents who've agreed not to ask them about their personal lives, or ask them any questions that might upset their fragile egos.
In all fairness, McCuddy has always asked the edgy question. Because of that his interviews are often disarming and funny. He doesn't mind pushing the envelope and I've admired him for that. But maybe it's time that real news organizations stop pandering to the show-biz machine.
Last week a group of journalists in Chicago did just that with the notoriously prickly Harrison Ford. Rather than sit idly by and be insulted by the star, Joel Reese of the suburban Chicago paper The Daily Herald bit back.
"Essentially," Reese wrote of the junket experience, "we are helping Ford get richer while he slowly reduces us to the size of tsetse flies ... Ford seems to see us as pesky moths circling the blinding light of his fame. But since we are part of the publicity machine, and he wants many people to see his movie, he must give us his time."
You'll be relieved to hear, I am sure, that Destiny's Child has not broken up.
Beyonce Knowles, the lead (for lack of a better term) singer, is making her screen debut in Austin Powers in Goldmember. She's even recorded a song for it and made a video, both of which will no doubt be hits. But she's not leaving the group.
"In fact," Knowles told me last night at the Goldmember premiere, "we start a new tour in January. One of the girls, Michelle Williams, has the number one gospel record right now and the other one, Kelly Rowland, is about to have a big duet hit with Nelly. But we're still together, don't worry," Beyonce said.
So, I won't.
But what about Austin Powers?
I'm an unabashed Mike Myers fan, but this new installment of the spy spoof is quite awful, a mish-mash of many different genres. There's no story or plot, the film looks one-dimensional and the script is nearly non-existent.
That said, there are funny set pieces as only Myers can do. There's a long rap satire that's almost a mini-musical featuring Mini-Me. It's a hoot. Also, the opening sequence, with cameos by Tom Cruise, Gwyneth Paltrow and Steven Spielberg, is a riot.
But only a few minutes into the movie you realize that the filmmakers had no particular idea what they were doing — aside from making wheelbarrows of money.
The clue is in Austin's teeth, which are supposed to be notoriously bad because he's English (sorry). In the first scenes of Goldmember, Austin's teeth are Tom Cruise-perfect. In flashbacks to his adolescence they are also perfect. But in the middle bits, the teeth are suddenly yellow and crooked. What's going on here? Does anyone know?
Worst of all is the new character Goldmember. He's supposed to be Dutch (this is funny?). He wears gold workout clothes. He peels his dried skin and tries to eat it. He is not funny. He references nothing I know of. Is he Richard Simmons? I don't get it. The audience didn't seem to either. He is entirely superfluous, a gimmick to accommodate the title.
And then there's the script — or lack of one. Characters simply appear in the opening scenes as if they've been sitting there all along. Apparently, no one needs any introduction.
The wonderfully wacky Frau Farbissina is never once addressed by name and there is almost no reference to how she fits into the story. Michael Caine makes a wasted appearance as Austin's father (who has a ridiculous long-kept secret). Robert Wagner is equally wasted as Number 2.
And aside from Knowles, there is a kind of dreary unsexiness everywhere. Where is Liz Hurley? Heather Graham? Where is all the shagging? It seems that because Knowles is African American, Austin has become suddenly neutered. The mojo he fought so hard for is dead and gone.
My prediction: A $50 million opening weekend, and why not? If people can tolerate Mr. Deeds, they can take anything.