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MOVIES | FILM CLIPS / WHO'S BURNING?

A Hollywood Shocker: Case of Honest Junket

March 01, 1998|Michael X. Ferraro | Michael X. Ferraro is a freelance print and TV writer in Los Angeles. He did not ask that his name be taken off this story

It was the junket they shoulda junked.

Before releasing a major motion picture, studios will usually rent out a few suites in a fancy hotel and bring in the big names (stars, director, writer, what have you) for a choreographed cattle-call with all the media they can rope in. They call these press junkets, and they usually follow the same script--smiling celebs praise the project, lovingly regurgitate the same mildly amusing anecdote as if each microphone and tape recorder were a starving baby bird, and declare fervent admiration for their co-workers and an intense desire for a lifetime supply of sequels. Usually.

Last month at the Beverly Hills Four Seasons, something quite different took place, further stigmatizing controversial writer Joe ("Showgirls") Eszterhas' latest fiasco, "An Alan Smithee Film: 'Burn, Hollywood, Burn,' " which opened to atrocious reviews on Friday. Media types who attended the affair thought they were going to a junket; instead, a confessional broke out.

Looking for a splashy sound bite from the star of your film? No doubt the marketing folks will take a pass on this review from Eric Idle: "It's terribly irritating after a bit," Idle told the junket. And that from the man who plays the title character, and once wrote a morbidly optimistic song called "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" (first sung in Monty Python's "Life of Brian and brought back recently in "As Good as It Gets.").

No such sentiment now, though. Media jaws continued to drop as Idle gave his thumbs down assessment of the film.

"['Burn'] has not got anywhere to go," he said. Later, when asked how the comedy would play in England, the former member of the legendary Monty Python troupe reflected: "I would think they would say it's not quite funny enough."

"Burn" already garnered dubious headlines last May when then-director Arthur Hiller became disenchanted with the editing choices Eszterhas was making and took his name off the credits. Thus, in accordance with DGA rules, "An Alan Smithee Film" truly and ironically became an "Alan Smithee" film, leaving a scarlet pseudonym on a film purporting to defend directors. (Alan Smithee is the name given when directors request their name be taken off the credits.)

Eszterhas claims that the differences were strictly creative, and that he and Hiller remain friends. But Idle said the film suffered because of the breakup, whatever the cause or conclusion.

"I wish that [Eszterhas] hadn't broken off with Hiller until the end, because I think Arthur's instinct was to tell a story, and I think that's what it lacks."

Apparently, the British policy is to be forthright instead of pleading the Fifth, but certainly Hollywood veteran Ryan O'Neal, another star of the film, would be willing to take one for the team, go down with the ship and, you know, put a good face on the whole ugly situation, right? After all, the whole junketeering snow job is a kind of hallowed tradition in itself. The late writer Michael O'Donoghue recognized this when he proclaimed one of the century's finest acting performances to be when during one publicity tour, Michael Caine looked directly into the camera and assured the world that "Jaws: The Revenge" was better than the original.

O'Neal readily admits that parts aren't as easy to come by nowadays, so he certainly wouldn't dream of making waves and trashing "Burn" as well, would he?

Uh, maybe there's a candor bug going around. After informing the roomful of reporters that every production creates some pleasant memories--even his self-described "miserable" experience on Norman Mailer's "Tough Guys Don't Dance"--O'Neal was tossed a softball question: "What was memorable about 'Burn, Hollywood, Burn'?"

"Not a thing," he shot back.

"I was disappointed with it," added O'Neal, who deftly portrays a slimy producer in the film. "I said [to Hollywood Pictures, distributors of the film], 'Listen, are you sure you want me to come in here today? Because I am not cracked up to do this'--as you can tell."

(Publicists for Hollywood Pictures referred inquiries to Rogers & Cowan, Eszterhas' public relations firm, which failed to return phone calls for this story.)

Perhaps that attitude was also fueled by O'Neal's trip with Eszterhas and the film to the San Francisco Film Festival, where, O'Neal relates, "We were rushed by the crowd, sent scurrying to the limos."

The junketeers all giggled at this, by this time punch-drunk on potshots. Evidently, that fit Eszterhas' mood as well. Either a great sport or oddly oblivious, the burly, bearded writer (who has also written higher quality films such as "The Music Box" and "Jagged Edge") even decided to wade into to the roast himself. Gleefully, he shared a blurb from an early review from a Cleveland critic, which Disney-owned Hollywood would not allow in the print advertising: "Two middle fingers up--way, way up!"

Which led to the question: Why did anyone want to work on "Burn, Hollywood, Burn" in the first place?

"I did this movie because of [O'Neal's "Love Story" director] Arthur [Hiller]," explained O'Neal.

"I called him and asked him if I should take my name off it," he added, to uproarious laughter. "And then what would I be called?"

How about "honest"?

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