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MOVIE REVIEW

Dark Side of Hollywood Glitz in 'Madam'

February 09, 1996|KEVIN THOMAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Watching Nick Broomfield's fascinating "Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam" is like reading a convoluted Raymond Chandler mystery that takes us into the seamy side of Hollywood--one that nevertheless has always had intimate ties with the rich and the famous. The people Broomfield tracks down so implacably are so shifty, so ominous or simply sad yet so compelling that at times it's hard to remember that we're not watching a fiction film.

But then, in a sense, maybe we are. Truth, in real life, is harder for Broomfield, the seasoned British documentarian, to pin down than it ever was for Philip Marlowe, and he has plunged himself into a world of people practiced in projecting the view of themselves that serves them best.

The three central figures of the latest Hollywood prostitution scandal are of course by now notorious. In addition to Fleiss herself, they are her onetime lover, veteran TV director Ivan Nagy, and the legendary late Madam Alex, Elizabeth Adams, who was Hollywood's reigning madam for some 30 years until her death at 60 last June. Many others in the Hollywood-Beverly Hills demi-monde, including a jailed cop, appear before Broomfield's cameras; Madam Alex and former police chief Daryl Gates are shown accepting cash payments before they start talking.

Fleiss comes across as a likable young woman, more attractive than her pictures or TV reportage would suggest. She's clearly an individual who's gotten in way over her head, having already been sentenced to three years for pandering and convicted Aug. 10 on eight counts of conspiracy, income tax evasion and laundering of the money she made. She faces sentencing on these charges in April.

Certainly, Fleiss' fate seems severe and not without hypocrisy, and Broomfield's searching yields unsurprising indications of prostitution's murky ties to the police and to the underworld.

Broomfield does a good job of suggesting how the daughter of a successful and respected Los Feliz pediatrician ended up in such big trouble. (On Sept. 18, her father was placed on three years' probation, fined $50,000 and ordered to serve 625 hours of community service for conspiring to hide the profits from his daughter's call girl ring.) Heidi's mother tells Broomfield she and her ex-husband raised their five children with a '60s-style do-your-own-thing philosophy. At 16, Heidi had dropped out of school; she says the late playboy-financier Bernard Cornfeld had given her a Rolls-Royce Corniche and $1 million for her 21st birthday.

Then along came Nagy, a bulky, middle-aged man resembling Cornfeld who oozes a smiling, oily Mittel Europa charm. Quickly, Fleiss, who has had drug problems, became caught up between two personalities far more powerful than she: Nagy and Madam Alex, who insists that Nagy, using an elusive Israeli-born "enforcer," stole her business away and set up Fleiss' call girl ring. The way Madam Alex--and others--tell it, Heidi started cutting out Nagy of her profits, proved to be a poor informant to the police and became much too flamboyant in a profession that has always thrived on discretion.

Madam Alex and Nagy, both sinister figures, defame each other mightily, but at least some of what Alex, clearly ailing and with nothing to lose, says has the ring of truth. Puffy, overweight, wearing simple cotton shifts, Madam Alex comes across as a world-weary businesswoman who's seen more than most of us could imagine and is furious at feeling cheated so late in the game. Yet Nagy is nothing if not a nimble defender of himself, and is not inaccurate when he in effect tells Broomfield that he's out of his league.

That's because Broomfield has become obsessed with Heidi's obsession with Nagy, which seemingly persists, despite her denials to the contrary--and despite his providing evidence to the police in her state trial. It never seems to occur to Broomfield that others might not care as much as he does as to how Fleiss really feels about Nagy. Broomfield's obsession does allow him a dramatic finish, inviting us to ponder the persistence of emotional bonds, no matter how destructive. Yet the real point in investigating Fleiss' life is to reveal what a powerful magnet Hollywood continues to be, with countless "hopefuls" becoming "party girls" and winding up on drugs and in prostitution.

* Unrated. Times guidelines: The film includes much blunt, explicit language in regard to sex and some nudity.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

'Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam'

A Lafayette Film in association with In Pictures presentation. Produced for the BBC in association with the CBC, Cinemax and Westdeutscher Rundfunk Koln. Producer-director Nick Broomfield. Co-producers Jamie Ader-Brown, Kahane Corn. Cinematographer Paul Kloss. Editor S.J. Bloom. Music David Bergeaud. Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes.

* Exclusively at the Nuart, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., West Los Angeles, (310) 478-6379.

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