NEW YORK – Hollywood has a new villain -- and he wears Armani, lunches at Cipriani and has Page Six on speed dial.
Three new movies are bypassing the usual Hollywood enemies like drug dealers, terrorists, mobsters, in favor of a sleazier bad guy: the New York celebrity publicist.
In Phone Booth, Colin Farrell's vile example of the breed brazenly seduces his clients, abuses his assistant and -- gasp! -- lies his way into gossip columns.
He's such a reprehensible character that a self-righteous psycho targets him for murder.
Opening Wednesday is A Mighty Wind, the latest satire from the makers of This Is Spinal Tap, featuring Jennifer Coolidge as a comically inept music publicist.
Al Pacino plays an old, tired and dissatisfied press agent in the thriller People I Know, opening April 25.
This scathing stereotype of the Manhattan publicist as some variety of rat has been a part of movies since the 1957 Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis classic The Sweet Smell of Success.
"Publicists make excellent bad guys because we identify with them," says Dan Algrant, who directed People I Know.
"We're filled with self-loathing because of the pop culture we consume, all that TV and advertising and celebrity stuff. We love all that, but we hate ourselves for loving it.
"Publicists are perfect examples of that shallowness, so we can direct our self-hatred towards them."
But is it fair?
"Hell, yes!" declares Bobby Zarem, the legendary super-flack who ruled Manhattan's p.r. industry in the 1970s, representing such stars as Cher, Ann-Margret and the Rolling Stones.
"The first time I saw The Sweet Smell of Success, I thought about commiting suicide because I saw my life up there," says Zarem, 66, who loosely inspired the Pacino character in People I Know.
"P.r. is all about spinning facts, and it's full of people who flat out lie."
"Lying is part of a publicist's job," agrees Marc Malkin, who writes New York magazine's Intelligencer gossip column.
"When I've got an item they don't like, they lie to me, they scream, they threaten to sue, or they say they'll never work with the magazine again.
"But then they're on the phone the next day, trying to get another client in."
Publicists aren't above planting spiteful gossip items about the actors and actresses who've fired them, and they're even nasty to one another.
One of Zarem's former employees, for example, stole all the important phone numbers out of his Rolodex, "from Greta Garbo to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Lauren Bacall," he says, before splitting for another agency.
And then there's Lizzie Grubman, the heavily peroxided Upper East Side publicist who spent 38 days on ice last winter for her infamous smash-and-dash outside Southampton's Conscience Point Inn in 2001.
But Grubman's time in the slammer may never undo the damage she did. Not only to 16 injured Hamptonites, but to the reputation of publicists everywhere.
It's enough to make any self-respecting spinmeister quit and join the Peace Corps, right?
Not at all, says Stan Rosenfield, a Hollywood p.r. man who represents Robert De Niro, George Clooney, James Gandolfini and Will Smith.
"Publicists are the butt of a lot of jokes, but I'm proud of our profession," Rosenfield says.
"Nobody has much respect for what we do -- until they need us."