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Hollywood and the Exercise of Power : How Does It Feel to Be Barbara Walters? : To Understand Stars, It Helps to Be One Yourself--and She Has Always Known That

November 20, 1988|PAUL ROSENFIELD

NEW YORK — Barbara Walters has a way of running her fingers through her streaked hair and turning it into a topknot, so she looks like Mrs. Robinson in "The Graduate." Just as seductive. When she stands alone in a corner outside her ABC office, waving goodby to a visitor, she seems as vulnerable as Anne Bancroft was to Dustin Hoffman at the top of the movie. It's little things like that, like the personal poems that she writes for guests at her dinner parties, that draw people to her.

Like the time she showed up with her cousin Shirley at Sally Field's house in Tarzana, and started making coffee. "Maybe that's the power of Barbara Walters," said Sally Field the other day. "You reveal things while you are making coffee. It's in her nature to ask emotional questions, but because she's sympathetic, you go deeper. She identifies with you, this woman who's been courted by royalty. So you go beyond the fear threshold."

If Hollywood power is a tree with six branches--banking, studio, talent, attorney, agent and media--then Barbara Walters is a major branch of a major branch. Editor Tina Brown, in the current Vanity Fair, goes so far as to claim that Walters' specials have "replaced the cover of Time as the ultimate accolade of superstardom." Certainly it's the season of Barbara Walters. Mike Tyson. Ed Meese. Robin Givens. Kitty Dukakis. Jesse Jackson . But it's her celebrity specials--"the tail that wagged the dog," Walters calls them--that put her in the stratosphere. It's her New Yorker's slant on Hollywood-at-home that's made the difference.

To understand stars, it helps to be one yourself, of course, and Walters has always known that. It's partly why she had to become as famous as the people she interviews. Only then could she be the one to draw the line-- how far can you go with a star? She drew that line--like it or not--a dozen years ago, on her first ABC special. Walters touched Jon Peters' knee in mid-interview. "Why don't you two get married?" she asked Peters and his then-companion Barbra Streisand. Edward R. Murrow didn't do that: Barbara Walters had drawn the new line. And she toes that line--between revealing a star and hurting a star--very carefully.

"You know what Hollywood is like," she said, in the middle of a week of being observed. "It's this big." She curled a thumb and forefinger into a circle the size of a small doughnut. "If stars were really unhappy with the interviews--one would have said to the other: 'Don't do her.' It would have all dried up. On the other hand, if we did them all so happy-happy-happy, why would the audience watch? If I do it very superficially, why should the audience care?

"On the other hand," Walters went on, "if I do it so the celebrity comes away sweating and they say"--here Walters' voice deepened--" 'Boy, was that a chore!' then no press agent would tell their client to do it. And the stars themselves are going to say, 'I don't want to do her.' No one is going to come back again if they are damaged and hurt on what is really a long interview. You can't be a hit-and-run driver."

Striking a Balance

In person, Barbara Walters has what Truman Capote called lift . That means her co-workers never look tired because she never looks tired. "If she has limits, I haven't seen them yet," said Martin Clancy, the "20/20" segment producer who has worked most closely with Walters. "You have to run to keep up with her." Lift is a quality that draws people out rather than turning them off. On "20/20," Walters can remember "people who won't come back and be interviewed again. But rarely does that happen on the specials. And we've been doing them 12 years. And yet, they're not superficial. You have to strike that balance. You have to draw them out without causing pain."

"Look," she said in the middle of an interview in her 9x12 windowed "20/20" office, "I never thought I'd last this long. . . . We're told in television that you are finished at 35. Is there anyone more vital than Mike Wallace at 70? With more animal energy?"

Intimate Strength

Walters pointed to a needlepoint pillow on the curved wool sofa that read: "I REALLY MEAN IT. NEXT YEAR I'M GOING TO SLOW DOWN." But the pillow is one thing in the room that doesn't feel sincere.

"I keep thinking it's going to get quieter, and sometimes it does," Walters said, fiddling with a club sandwich that had been delivered mid-interview. She has an attention to detail that even her friends gasp at. At her Christmas dinner in Aspen last year, every guest got a small gift that applied to that person. Her former producer, Phyllis McGrady, remembers "how Barbara never has to stop tape on an interview, ever. In the middle of doing Richard Pryor, his wife and son came on--nobody knew he had a wife and a son at that point--and Barbara just went on with the interview. Nothing fazed her."

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