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CLINTON UNDER FIRE

Hollywood Is Again Ahead of the Curve

January 23, 1998|ROBERT W. WELKOS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A sex scandal is rocking the White House. A young woman is claiming to have had an intimate liaison with the president of the United States. The Washington Post is about to break the story. The executive branch is in a crisis mode. Long-faced aides gather around a conference table deep in the bowels of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Sharks are in the water. Damage control is in the air.

So begins the current New Line Cinema film "Wag the Dog," director Barry Levinson's rapier-like satire about the machinations of power as a presidential spin doctor (portrayed by Robert De Niro) teams with a celebrated Hollywood producer (portrayed by Dustin Hoffman) to manufacture a fake war to divert the nation's attention from the sordid allegations swirling around the chief executive.

Sound plausible? Of course it does.

Even as "Wag the Dog" unspools at the local cineplex, Washington is being gripped by a real-life soap opera as independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr launches an investigation into whether President Clinton had an affair with a young White House intern and then encouraged her to lie under oath about their relationship.

From studio lots of Hollywood to the snow-covered streets of Park City, Utah, where filmmakers have gathered this week for the Sundance Film Festival, the alleged Clinton scandal has tongues--forget about dogs--wagging.

And "Wag the Dog" isn't the only film with a White House theme that Hollywood is releasing this year.

On March 20, Universal Pictures will release "Primary Colors," a comedy/drama directed by Mike Nichols that is based on the best-selling book by "Anonymous," who was later unmasked as former Newsweek columnist Joe Klein.

In "Primary Colors," John Travolta plays Clintonesque presidential candidate Jack Stanton, the progressive governor of a small Southern state who embarks on a roller-coaster campaign riddled with sexual scandal. Travolta mimics Clinton's style, mannerisms and voice.

If anything, the two films seem to prove that in the current political climate, life does imitate art.

But while the movie industry is usually eager to pounce on marketing opportunities, the studios and the principals involved with these two films are being rather quiet--perhaps a reflection of Clinton's favored status in Hollywood.

"Wag the Dog" director Levinson, through a spokesman, declined to comment, as did David Mamet, who co-wrote the screenplay. But a spokesman for Mamet said: "Everyone can see the parallels between this situation and the film, but David feels it is an anguished moment for the president, and he doesn't wish to comment."

And New Line Cinema released a statement Thursday hoping to dispel comparisons between "Wag the Dog" and the current Clinton controversy: "The film does not depict real life events, nor is it the intent of New Line Cinema or the filmmakers to draw any parallels between the film and current headlines," the statement read.

Universal refused to discuss its marketing plans for "Primary Colors." A spokesman cited a studio policy against discussing the marketing of any of its movies.

And, the spokesman said, "we have no comment about Clinton."

The studio ran a commercial for "Primary Colors" during Sunday's broadcast of the Golden Globe Awards but had sometime back opted against buying time for the film during Sunday's Super Bowl, where some studios choose to tout their highly regarded upcoming releases.

In a trailer for the film, Stanton is said to be plagued by "a war thing, a drug thing and a woman thing," and there is a reference to a hairdresser who has come forward with allegations of a long-term affair with the candidate. Emma Thompson, who plays the candidate's wife, slaps Travolta's face in one scene. And, in a soft Clinton-sounding voice, Travolta says at one point: "I'm gonna do something really outrageous. I'm gonna tell the truth."

While the movie packs a $20-million-per-picture star power of Travolta with a proven director in Nichols, sources say Universal has to be concerned about the public's reaction in light of the real-life drama occurring with Clinton.

Pat Caddell, a onetime pollster for President Carter and who served as a consultant on the Harrison Ford film "Air Force One," said "Primary Colors" could suffer the same fate as "The China Syndrome," a 1979 film about a cover-up at a nuclear reactor that opened shortly before a real disaster struck Three Mile Island.

"Everyone thought it would make a huge movie and then it collapsed," Caddell recalled. "The reason was that people were so horrified by the reality of Three Mile Island that it was no longer entertainment. It will be very interesting to see if that same model holds up.

"I bet they're sitting up there [at Universal] saying, 'Oh, my God, what do we do now?' said one rival studio official. "I don't think they're looking at this and saying this is a good thing for them. No matter what they do, people are going to put the two and two together even if they try not to."

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