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Vanity Fair Writes the Book on Puttnam

March 09, 1988|JACK MATHEWS

For months, people close to the David Puttnam and Ray Stark camps have been looking ahead to the April, 1988, issue of Vanity Fair as if it were a crucial opinion being written by the Supreme Court.

Would the scheduled article by writer-editor Tina Brown rule in favor of Puttnam, as most others in the media have already done? Or would it reveal the former Columbia Pictures chairman as an arrogant executive transient, who rode into town on a British steed and attempted to Anglicize the town that bred Andy Hardy?

And how would Stark, the 72-year-old son-in-law of the late Fanny Brice, come out? As a behind-the-scenes bully, as Puttnam often portrayed him, or as a crusty hometown hero who bravely drove the interloper off?

Well, the court has convened--we have a Xerox advance copy of the Vanity Fair decision right here in our hands--and the ruling is . . . David Puttnam was a hero! Ray Stark was a bully! The sun will come up tomorrow!

Brown's article, which may be more easily measured in acres rather than in inches, is an extremely detailed account--told from Puttnam's point of view--of the producer's 18-month reign at Columbia. It contains no major revelations, no smoking ego, and its near biblical portrayal of Puttnam will give his detractors an easy reason to dismiss the whole thing.

But in giving Puttnam his definitive say about his ill-fated attempt to rescue Hollywood from the moral abyss, Brown would seem to have prepared the final document on the subject. If there is a book coming, we won't need to read it.

Brown, who is also English and a longtime acquaintance of Puttnam's, describes Puttnam as a man torn between his competing quests for personal glory and moral purity. She reports that Puttnam was so conscience-stricken by having produced "Midnight Express" in 1978 that he required the attention of a Jesuit priest.

According to Brown, the priest essentially advised Puttnam to go forth and do unto movies what he would have movies do unto him.

Brown says Puttnam felt that he had betrayed himself before, by giving in to pressures to cast Dustin Hoffman in "Agatha" and to turn "Foxes" into a "troubled co-ed movie." He managed to redeem himself after "Midnight Express" with his Oscar-winning "Chariots of Fire," a movie that Brown seems to believe projects the dualism of Puttnam's personality.

Indeed, she writes, "Chariot's" two main characters--Olympic sprinters Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddell--represent the two sides of David Puttnam.

Throughout the article, Brown explains Puttnam's behavior and his relationships in terms of the tug of war between his Puttnam-Abrahams and Puttnam-Liddell sides. It is a psychological stretch and a literary conceit that both confuse and discredit much of the story's content.

The chewable sections of Brown's article--the morsels that will keep Hollywood jaws grinding for the next couple of weeks--are those detailing the behavior of such people as actors Warren Beatty and Bill Cosby, super-agent Michael Ovitz and Coca-Cola powers Herbert Allen, Roberto Goizueta and Don Keough. But the bulk of the detail is devoted to Stark, who when crossed, Brown writes, becomes "the hound of hell."

As Brown and Puttnam tell it, Stark became offended early on, when Fay Vincent, the head of Coca-Cola's entertainment-business sector, sought out and convinced Puttnam to take the job at Columbia in mid-1986.

Stark reportedly hosted a cordial meeting with Puttnam when he arrived in Hollywood, and even helped Puttnam gain some control over the international marketing of Columbia's pictures. But their relationship quickly soured when Puttnam rejected a pair of scripts that Stark submitted to him.

Puttnam had committed the unpardonable Hollywood sin of failing to hold up his end of a quid pro quo, Brown writes, and compounded it later by suggesting that he'd be interested in buying one of Stark's projects for a couple of other film makers whose work he admired.

From then on, Brown said, Stark was driven by the same power that was the subject and title of that second rejected script: "Revenge."

If Stark needed help in driving Puttnam out, he didn't have far to look.

Herbert Allen, a powerful member of the Coca-Cola board and a close friend of Stark's, was outraged over Puttnam's stance against Creative Artists Agency, a company whose ability to package major stars and directors had resulted in "Ghostbusters," Columbia's biggest moneymaker.

A sequel to "Ghostbusters," for which Columbia had the rights, was the major asset that Puttnam inherited at the studio, and on principle alone, he seemed willing to jeopardize it.

CAA chief Michael Ovitz wasn't too pleased with Puttnam, either. The publicity-shy agent couldn't have helped identifying with the unreasonable people that the publicity-minded Puttnam constantly referred to in interviews.

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