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COVER STORY : Hollywood's Family Ways : Things haven't changed since the days of Selznick: It helps to have an uncle--or a father, brother or aunt--in the business. Do Hollywood's clannish ways affect the movies we see?

January 31, 1993|TERRY PRISTIN | Terry Pristin is a Times staff writer

"The Son-in-Law Also Rises," proclaimed a trade paper in 1932 when Louis B. Mayer lured David O. Selznick, husband of his daughter Irene, back to MGM with a lavish deal. These days, at Sony Studios, which occupies MGM's former premises in Culver City, some of the wives rise too.

Sony Pictures Entertainment Chairman Peter Guber's wife, Lynda, has a development and production deal at Sony-owned TriStar Pictures, as does Wendy Finerman, wife of Mark Canton, chairman of Columbia Pictures, TriStar's sister studio. Christine Peters, ex-wife of Guber's former co-chairman, Jon Peters, has a deal at Columbia Pictures. Of the trio, only Finerman, who originally landed her deal at Columbia while her husband was at Warner Bros., had produced a movie before signing on.

Senior Sony executives are likely to bump into other relatives on the lot. Canton's brother Neil is producing "Geronimo" for Columbia. Guber's niece, Elizabeth Guber, is a senior vice president of the Fried/Woods production company, which is producing "So I Married an Axe Murderer" for TriStar, and Julia Ganis, daughter of Sid Ganis, Columbia's president for marketing and distribution, is the assistant to Laura Ziskin ("Hero"), who has a production deal at Columbia. Julia's sister Laura worked as a production assistant on Columbia's "Nowhere to Run."

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday February 7, 1993 Home Edition Calendar Page 87 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 27 words Type of Material: Correction
In a chart accompanying the article "Hollywood's Family Ties" (Jan. 31), Arnold Rifkin's title was incorrectly stated. He is head of the William Morris Agency's motion picture department.

Bestowing a development deal--including office space, support staff and a likely six-figure salary--on one's spouse is still a rare phenomenon in Hollywood. But affirmative action for family members is an accepted practice in a town where everyone seems to be related to everyone else even if their last names are not Fonda, Barrymore, Bridges, Carradine, Douglas or Mankiewicz.

Whether for reasons of self-protection, familial duty or genuine pride in their blood lines, people in the movie business have always given preference to their relatives or the relatives of their friends. In an industry built by Jews from Eastern Europe, many of whom started in the garment trade, this kind of favoritism has always seemed natural.

Directors may go to film school, actors to acting workshops, but no formal training exists for studio executives. A solid education and good grades are not necessarily relevant or even desirable and are considered much less valuable than the kind of insider's knowledge acquired at the dinner table night after night.

Of the major movie studios, only MCA has an anti-nepotism policy, and favoritism toward relatives seems particularly prevalent at Paramount and MGM as well as Sony. In the movie business, the career of an ambitious woman may get a big boost from the right marriage, while in television, it is often successful women who provide work for their husbands. But it is still mainly offspring who benefit from favored treatment.

With competition fierce and tens of millions of dollars hanging in the balance, it is rare to come across the kind of blunder made by John Huston when he gave his 16-year-old daughter Anjelica a role she was widely considered unsuited for in "A Walk With Love and Death" or by Francis Ford Coppola when he miscast his daughter Sofia in "The Godfather Part III." Few directors would go as far as Bryan Forbes did when he insisted on casting his wife, Nanette Newman, as one of the leads in "The Stepford Wives"--a role better suited for Bo Derek than a British actress in her 40s, as William Goldman, scriptwriter for the 1975 film, recalled in his book "Adventures in the Screen Trade."

Such heavy-handedness may be unusual, and most beneficiaries of nepotism may be well qualified for their jobs. Nevertheless, some say, the practice is at least partly responsible for Hollywood's insularity, narrow perspective and largely homogeneous work force. The industry has long been criticized for employing relatively few women, blacks and other minorities, especially in its upper ranks. More diversity among management personnel would likely lead to a more interesting mix of movies, many people argue.

Nepotism's Roots

Nepotism in Hollywood dates back to the industry's earliest days. Its founders, immigrant Jews from Eastern Europe, surrounded themselves with relatives as a form of self-protection. By the 1930s, Neal Gabler, author of "An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood," points out, the Great Depression had provided movie moguls with an added incentive: They took in their family members to keep them from starving.

Carl Laemmle, the founder of Universal Studios, brought so many kinsmen over from Europe to work for him that he inspired the Ogden Nash line "Uncle Carl Laemmle had a very big family." MGM's initials "were said to stand for 'Mayer's-Ganz-Mispochen' (Yiddish for 'Mayer's whole family') because Louis B. Mayer loaded the payroll with so many of his relatives," write Stephen Farber and Marc Green in their book "Hollywood Dynasties."

If Hollywood is a family business, nowhere is that more apparent than in the so-called crafts unions.

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