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59th ACADEMY AWARDS : BEATING THE ODDS : They Gambled Their Time and Energy, and Didn't Give Up

March 29, 1987|PAUL ROSENFIELD

In Hollywood, gambling is persistence. What the movie colony gambles on, prays for, dreams about is the ultimate payoff: the dual rush of prestige and popularity. For prestige read: "Oscar." For popularity read: "box office." When the two converge--as in "A Room With a View" or "Platoon"--the gamble is over. The game is won.

Right now the climate in Hollywood is fearlessly independent. (Only one of this year's Best Picture nominees--"Children of a Lesser God"--is pure big-studio product, from start to stop.) Thus the new heroes aren't studio executives or star directors; more often they are the unpublicized wizards who run financing outfits like Credit Lyonnais or Goldcrest or Cinecom--the powers who say, "Yes, you can make the movie."

What follows is a Hollywood microcosm: A look at the five best-picture nominees and the players who gambled long enough to get the proverbial green light--the signal that ambivalence is over. Meaning profit and prestige could be right across the street. Even if crossing the street takes a decade.

NED TANEN SAW A LOVE STORY

Before Ned Tanen becomes typically cautionary, let him first celebrate how it feels to see a seven-year dream come true. Paramount's Motion Picture group president shepherded "Children of a Lesser God" through two studios, tricky executive shuffles, Robert Redford, a dozen writers, several directors--and two score more directors who said no--and nobody knows what else. But there is a happy ending, aside from the movie's five Oscar nominations.

"I've never before been to a Royal Premiere," said Tanen the other day, "but Randa (Haines, the director of "Children") asked me to go. So two weeks ago I went to London for one day. Lady Di sat next to Randa and I sat next to Prince Charles, with my daughter. And there was this moment. Randa and I looked at each other and started laughing, really laughing. Prince Charles said, 'Why are you laughing?' and we said, 'If you knew what we've been through to get here. . . . We were dead in the water at least 15 times.' And Prince Charles did in fact get it."

In the superstructure of Hollywood, you have to get what William Morris agent Joan Hyler calls a "take" on each executive: "The take on Ned is that he knows when to go the distance. He understands 'Top Gun' but he also knows what projects to stay with, and he doesn't mind waiting. Like 'American Graffiti.' Or 'Children.' " Normally Tanen--Hollywood's ultimate creative company man (28 years at MCA, four years at Paramount)--doesn't talk to the press. Originally he refused requests to be interviewed, but finally agreed, through the urging of a longtime friend. The reluctance is understandable: Ned Tanen taken out of context can sound like a hip, '80s Damon Runyon character, but with a self-effacing streak.

"The list of directors who didn't believe in 'Children' is the longest list I've ever seen. Twenty-five names is not too short a list," said Tanen, who added he "didn't ever believe they were right. I guess I'm pretty stupid. I never believe anybody." But Tanen sees both sides; his best friend was the late, legendary editor-executive Verna Fields, who used to say: "Ned could see three sides to every situation."

Thus Tanen sees the reservations about "Children" as "having a certain legitimacy depending on which side of the desk you sit. It's a drama with a man playing his own role but also playing the Greek chorus. Could it work? Some people worried that stage audiences got involved with the histrionics, but that movies are a whole different game. That the canvas between the audience and the story would be a problem."

In fact everything about "Children" was a problem. The film's history is more checkered than a tablecloth at Elaine's. Tanen saw the Mark Medoff play at the Mark Taper Forum, as well as in New York, and "I tried to buy it when I was president of Universal. But the bidding was getting crazy. It got to $1.3 million. I got out because I didn't want to reach that high. Reluctantly I walked away. ("Children" co-producer) Burt Sugarman got the rights, but we kept calling each other."

One of those calls--in 1983, three years after "Children" closed on Broadway--led to Tanen putting "Children" into development at Universal, without a screenplay. "Then I retired," Tanen said deadpan, meaning he left executive ranks to become an independent producer at the studio. "Suddenly Burt and I were going to produce with Mark Rydell ("On Golden Pond") directing. But we still had no screenplay. So Mark went on to do 'The River,' then 'Children' went into limbo, and Randa came to see me. Randa understood what most other directors didn't."

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