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THE BIG PICTURE PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

Political insider's new script

August 24, 2004|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

Leave it to a crafty political consultant like Mike Murphy to coin a great phrase for Hollywood. He calls it Left World, conjuring up the image of a giant theme park overrun, not by rampaging dinosaurs or Hawaiian-shirt clad tourists, but by latte-sipping, tree-hugging, trial lawyer-loving, Dick Cheney-dissing, John Kerry-kissing Demophiliacs.

At 42, the Michigan-born Murphy has been a political consultant half his life, running campaigns for every Republican from Jeb Bush to Oliver North to Mitt Romney -- he was also the wisecracking maestro of Sen. John McCain's "Straight Talk Express" 2000 presidential campaign. That gives him true fish out of water status in Hollywood, where conservatives pop up on the radar screen about as often as African American hockey goalies. Murphy is here learning the ropes, having spent the past year working as a consultant for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Hollywood's leading GOP luminary. But perhaps the consultant has spent too much time breathing fumes from the governor's gas-guzzling Hummers, because nothing gets him worked up as much as the Hollywood Prius Thing.

"If you're a movie star, there's no better way to drive to your Gulfstream G-4 than in a Prius," says Murphy, whose hardball political Weltanschauung could be summed up best by the fact that he once had a personal license plate that read "Go Neg." "These days, you have to drive a Prius to be cool in Hollywood. It's as if you'd be an inferior human being if you're not driving a Prius. And then there's the hypocrisy of it, when showbiz people hop out of a Prius and get into their private plane."

I knew it might be a bit of a conversation stopper, but when Murphy took a breath, I told him that -- ahem -- I was one of those Prius-driving prima donnas who thought that all things being equal I'd rather see people drive up to their private planes in a Prius than in a Hummer. "See!" he said, positively exultant that he'd exposed another Left World political contradiction.

It turns out that Murphy's disdain for Left World conformity is more complicated than it first appears. He hasn't come to Tinseltown on a knightly quest, holding his nose while he slays as many dragons as possible before retreating to the safety of his old digs in Georgetown. Murphy has gone native. Even though Murphy will be with the governor when Arnold appears at the Republican National Convention next week, the Schwarzenegger gig is just a temporary stop. The man who's whispered in the ears of presidential candidates is willing to swap his Beltway-insider access for a job that has brought misery and heartache to generations before him.

What he really wants to do is -- gasp -- be a Hollywood screenwriter.

"I know how it sounds," he says sheepishly over dinner one night. "I've read enough screenwriter memoirs to know that if I was a Vegas oddsmaker, I'd predict failure. But no one counted on me making it in politics either. I've always been interested in the entertainment business. I even read the trades, so I'm not a total neophyte. My goal is to pound out a commercial screenplay, maybe a talky dark comedy, and then see what happens, which of course could mean it getting made into an Adam Sandler flying-saucer invasion comedy."

What Murphy said next was muttered so softly I asked him to repeat it. "As embarrassing as it is to say, what I'd really like to do is direct the movie too."

It would be easy to dismiss Murphy as the latest rube with a straw boater and a suitcase who's one step away from being fleeced by Hollywood's con men. But his career move isn't as preposterous as it first appears. Screenwriters aren't born in film school. Two years before Robert Benton and David Newman ushered in a new era in Hollywood with "Bonnie and Clyde," they were hatching jokes for Esquire's "Dubious Achievement" issue. Studios routinely hire video directors based on a cool Pepsi commercial, so why not Murphy, who's produced innumerable campaign ads, as well as a shrewdly sentiment-laden 1988 Bob Dole campaign film that began Dole's unlikely transformation from partisan hit man to folksy Viagra guru.

Murphy also comes armed with a quick wit and boundless ambition, two qualities always valued in Hollywood. His humor has the barbed edge of someone who's spent years on the rough-and-tumble campaign trail. Recounting his work on then-New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman's 1997 reelection campaign, Murphy quips: "We beat [James E.] McGreevey even when he was straight." Murphy has been serving an apprenticeship of sorts, working as a writer and producer for CNBC's "Dennis Miller" show. And gosh -- if you were trying to make connections in Hollywood, wouldn't it be nice to have a pal who could open a few doors, a pal like Arnold Schwarzenegger?

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