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MOVIES : Hollywood's Real True Lies : In show biz, one person's truth can be another person's speculation or someone else's little white lie. Who can you believe? And when is a story really a story? Well, here's the inside scoop. Trust us.

July 31, 1994|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN | Patrick Goldstein is an occasional contributor to Calendar

"I am a classic battered and abused wife," Roseanne said when she filed for divorce in April. The TV star accused her husband, Tom Arnold, of physical and emotional abuse, claiming he "hit me, struck me, threw objects at me, pushed me against walls." The sensational charges made headlines everywhere.

But three days later, Roseanne changed her tune. She dropped divorce proceedings and withdrew her abuse charges, saying: "I must apologize for letting nasty gossip and lies break me down. I just lost it."

When the TV star filed for divorce again three weeks later, her fans, not to mention people concerned with the issue of domestic violence, were left confused and outraged. Was she really a battered wife? Was she emotionally unstable? Or were the charges just a publicity stunt to help her TV show's ratings?

Here's the awful truth: In Hollywood, the truth doesn't count for very much. It has become a casualty of the increasingly fractious skirmishes between the media and Hollywood celebrities and studio brass, overwhelmed by an onslaught of image- making, spin control and tabloid-driven gossip-mongering.

In show business, where the game is truth or dare, veracity has many delicate shadings--the half-truth, the white lie, the damage-control denial and the publicity-stunt whopper. This is the town where the truth comes in more varieties than the cappuccino at Starbucks.

One day it's a studio marketing chief inflating his new film's opening-weekend box-office numbers. Another day it's a publicist's claim that all's well with actress Drew Barrymore's marriage--a claim that came mere hours before the 19-year-old starlet filed for divorce.

It might even be a bogus cover story, like the one Nirvana's management firm put out that described group leader Kurt Cobain's champagne-and-pills collapse in Rome in March as an accidental overdose--when in fact it was a suicide attempt, the latest flare-up in a tragic downward spiral of drugs and depression that led to his shotgun suicide the following month.


The media's skepticism has now become part of the story. When Washington Post columnist Lois Romano printed a Roseanne "apology" statement in April, Romano began the item: "Not that we believe anything she says at this point. . . ."

A Newsweek story last August about hypocrisy in Hollywood quoted a telling conversation between two industry executives, overheard at breakfast at the high-tone Four Seasons Hotel. "Damn it, you're lying to me!" said one exec. "I know, you're right," said the other. "But hear me out."

Of course, if you're looking for the high-road approach, you can't depend on the celebrity-obsessed, tabloid-driven entertainment press either. Publicist Michael Levine, who represents Michael Jackson and other celebrities, said the media have sunk so low they now offer "a proctologist's view of the world."

Other celebrity-handlers say it's no longer unusual to see mainstream publications pursuing unsubstantiated, anonymous-source-fueled speculation about what executive jobs are in jeopardy, what movie will be the big summer flop and who Julia Roberts might be dancing with while hubby Lyle Lovett is out of town.

"Journalists are much more cynical, much more prying and much more desirous of causing a sensation than actually getting a good story," said Pat Kingsley, whose PMK public relations firm represents a host of top stars and film directors.

"Let me ask you: Why was the New York Times the first mainstream publication to print the name of the alleged William Kennedy Smith rape victim? Why would the Los Angeles Times put Roseanne Arnold's divorce action on the front page of the paper? It's all about the press becoming more tabloid-driven."


With the explosion of media interest in celebrity profiles and entertainment insider stories, relations between Hollywood and the press have become charged with hostility.

"The environment is as toxic as it can get," said Columbia Pictures publicity chief Mark Gill. "Every time a new reporter comes to the Hollywood beat, they get immediately overwhelmed by the cacophony of lies. One of the consequences of the lack of truth-telling is the enormous level of hostility between Hollywood and the press.

"There's so much distrust now that it's dehumanizing. It makes it easy for many reporters to write something extraordinarily nasty about someone, to a large degree because they don't think of them as real people anymore."

To hear entertainment reporters and gossip columnists tell it, the climate of cynicism and distrust has cast a dark cloud on the way they cover virtually every aspect of the Hollywood scene.

"Of the 40 people I speak to every day," said Anita Busch, a respected entertainment writer formerly at the Hollywood Reporter and now at Daily Variety, "39 of them are lying to me, and the other one is my mother.

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