Lanky Lauren Bacall doesn't exactly fit the image of a Washington lobbyist, but she played the part without a hitch last month. As about two dozen lawmakers picked over a buffet lunch at the Capitol Hill home of Rep. Bob Mrazek (D-N.Y.), Bacall made a pitch for congressional action to prevent owners of classic black-and-white films from colorizing them.
"It's an obscenity that they're colorizing those films," Bacall said in an interview after the lunch. "Great films and classic films should be protected."
That's far from the first time Washington lawmakers have listened to Hollywood stars decry colorization. Ever since the "Maltese Falcon" was transformed to color two years ago, big name directors and actors have trekked to Capitol Hill asking lawmakers to put a halt to the process. Bacall's predecessors included Jimmy Stewart, Burt Lancaster, Woody Allen, Ginger Rogers, Sydney Pollack, Fred Zinnemann, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, among others.
But on the other side of the debate, lawmakers are hearing from similarly familiar--if less glamorous--names. Jack Valenti, the powerful president of the Motion Picture Assn. of America, broadcasting mogul Ted Turner and producer David Brown are just three of them. In addition, forces opposing restrictions on colorization--including studios, broadcasters and video dealers--have hired former members of Congress and other well-known, influential Washington lobbyists to plead their case.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Friday August 5, 1988 Home Edition Calendar Part 6 Page 19 Column 4 Entertainment Desk 1 inches; 19 words Type of Material: Correction
The movie "Miracle on 34th Street" is owned by 20th Century Fox, not by the MGM library as was incorrectly reported in Thursday's Calendar.
Both sides' efforts are expected to be put to a final test today, when a Senate-House conference committee votes on a proposal to form a National Film Preservation Board that could discourage both colorization and substantial editing of movies for TV and videocassettes.
The proposal caught opponents by surprise when a House committee voted to include it in an appropriations bill that primarily funds national parks and energy projects. The House-Senate committee vote today could kill the film board proposal, or assure its passage through Congress.
Congress' vote comes just a week after Ted Turner announced his latest colorized movie: "Casablanca," one of Hollywood's most popular classics. "Casablanca" in color will air on Turner's SuperStation TBS in November.
The months of debate leading up to this vote have been a wrenching time for Hollywood, causing sharp rifts between the artists who make movies and the business executives who own them.
"There have been similar disputes in Hollywood," recalls Roger L. Mayer, president of Turner Entertainment Co. and for many years the man in charge of MGM's 3,500-film library. "But nothing quite as violent as this." (Mayer recalled that some directors balked at CinemaScope when that process was developed in the 1950s.)
At one point during the House battle in June, Valenti said he lost his stomach for opposing Hollywood's creative community. Knowing he couldn't attract enough votes from a key committee and facing a bruising battle on the House floor, Valenti agreed not to lobby against the legislation--for the time being. (Later, after the House vote, he publicly voiced his opposition to the proposal.)
"I was sick of looking like I was opposing Jimmy Stewart," Valenti said in a recent interview. "I love Jimmy Stewart. I didn't feel comfortable. I felt ungainly, ill at ease."
The fight over colorization "was a family quarrel," added Valenti, a man accustomed to legislative battles with other industries, not entertainers. "It's totally inappropriate for people in our industry to quarrel in public."
Valenti hopes today's congressional action will bring the bitter conflict to an end. But proponents of the legislation, particularly the Directors Guild of America, view the bill as just one step toward much broader government action to protect artists' "moral rights" to control the creative direction of their products.
Under the proposed legislation, a government-funded National Film Preservation Board--to be comprised of representatives from the film industry--would designate up to 25 movies a year as "national treasures." If any of these films were colorized, or substantially edited for TV, they would have to be labeled and would be prevented from carrying the board's seal designating them as classics.
As the legislation is currently worded, any film edited to fit television's smaller format would fall under those restrictions.
Opponents of the film board proposal say it would inject unnecessary government intrusion into the creative process. "You would have a group deciding which films qualify as classics," said Turner Entertainment's Mayer. "A classic is not something that can be decided by a majority vote."
Mayer added that the process inevitably will become politicized, with film owners lobbying for their movies to obtain the national registry seal. "You've got a group of people appointed politically who will decide whose picture gets to be made a classic this year," he said.