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BEING NICE: A HOLLYWOOD GUIDE : In Tinseltown, the Truth Shall Not Set You Free

January 13, 1985|PAUL ROSENFIELD

When in doubt, suggested Mark Twain, tell the truth. When in Hollywood, Twain might have added, tell anything but. Recently, two people I love lied to me--separately, and with simple white lies, but I can still feel the sting. (Within 20 minutes of being lied to, my fingertips go numb, and stay that way for a long while. Even from white lies.) White lies are "kind" lies, of course--and in Hollywood those are the best kind. They're more reliable and popular than the truth.

Except when it comes to reacting to movies. Then the lies don't have to be kind or white or even subtle. And there's a reason. People who make movies, see, may be smarter than the rest of us. At least they are smart enough not to want to hear bad news about their own product. Nobody smart (who isn't masochistic) chooses to hear bad news. Thus the truth is almost never told.

The biggest truth about Hollywood may be that movie people need-require-insist-demand-and-expect that you be nice. Not that you tell the truth, but that you be nice. How do you do that and maintain sanity? You follow the following "Guide to Avoiding the Truth." The hitch is that you don't let on to anyone that you're aware of the guide. Not that they'd believe you anyway. The point is, this kind of behavior should come naturally.

1--Be Specific. Did you hate a particular movie? Scrutinize something--say, Denholm Elliott's elegant way of dying in Paris in "Razor's Edge." Whomever you are talking to will appreciate your attention to detail. If the person is particularly needy, he will do most of the talking (or promoting) himself anyway. If he's only marginally needy, he'll listen rather than talk. You just focus on that one scene, Denholm dying, endlessly, and don't be afraid to repeat yourself. Such statements of approval should have a nice rumpled authenticity all their own.

2--Don't Feel Guilty. Look at it this way: You are doing someone a favor by professing to like his movie (even when you don't). The logic here is that you are being kind, and kindness counts for a lot. Maybe too much. Whole careers, in fact, are based on people professing to like other people's work, even when they don't. It's rewarding style over substance, but it works. Think of Diane Keaton's magazine writer in "Manhattan." The way she fawned and foamed would work as well in Hollywood as New York. If not better.

3--Develop a Vocabulary. The following lines are appropriate when telling someone you like how much you liked (instead of hated) their movie.

"I'm seeing it again." Ultimately, this is the easiest way out, because it's completely flattering. If not foolproof. It also means more attendance for the film. Be sure to add the words, "even though I'll have to stand in line."

"You did well." This puts the emphasis on the movie person, and takes it away from you. Also, it's earnest.

"There was a buzz all around me." Here you are acting as a monitor, not as a critic, or a responsible human being.

"This film is you." This one speaks for itself.

"It isn't the way I'd have done it, but. . . ." This one is only for emergencies, as when dealing with someone fragile who also happens to be smarter than you are. It was how William Faulkner used to handle the unsolicited manuscripts sent him, and it may have been Faulkner's most diplomatic behavior.

4--Remember That Nobody Forgets. Ironically, it isn't lies that are held against you, it's the times you tell the truth. (Less dangerous than telling the truth are any of the following tactics: hedging, lies of omission, half-lies and fibs.)

Lillian Hellman, the writer of both successful and failed films, admitted she remembered every negative word, written or spoken, but couldn't remember the positive ones. That certain of her pictures garnered only praise and popularity seemed to matter little. All the little foxes remember all the little digs. And don't you forget it.

5--Don't Go to the Show. The simplest, safest way to avoid truth is to avoid the movie. Out of sight, out of trouble. It's called being an ostrich, but ostriches are the second most popular animal in Hollywood.

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