Most people in show business deceive to gain advantage — to downplay their cost overruns, say, or to boost their salaries. Bart, too, misrepresents for strategic advantage, but he also lies for no apparent reason. Consider what happened when we discussed the infamous Patriot Games incident of 1992, when Variety film critic Joe McBride wrote a blistering review of Paramount Pictures’ Tom Clancy adaptation. The studio, apoplectic over the review’s potential dampening of interest among overseas exhibitors, pulled its advertising from Variety. Bart got mad, but not at the studio. He decreed that McBride would no longer review Paramount films.
The New York Times wrote a story about the McBride dustup that said Variety staffers were aghast that their boss would curry favor with Paramount. The article quoted from a private apology that Bart had sent to Martin S. Davis, the studio’s then chairman and CEO. “Marty Davis and I have known each other for 25 years,” Bart told the Times. “I simply dropped him a friendly note.”
Nine years later, however, when I first ask Bart about the note, he insists it never existed. “I never wrote any,” he says, adding that he disliked Davis intensely, so “the idea that I would contact these people was bizarre.” How to explain the Times story, written by veteran reporter Bernard Weinraub? “It was a reminder to me about the nastiness of journalists toward each other,” Bart says, shaking his head.
A few weeks later I obtained a copy of the letter. Bart’s lie didn’t make sense. Had he forgotten that it was typed by his own secretary on Variety stationery? (Bart’s secretary at the time had a couple of well-known idiosyncrasies — using a double dash in phone numbers, spelling out fax with spaces between the letters — both of which are in evidence.) Did he really think that he could alter the “fossil record,” to borrow Jeff Berg’s phrase, and rewrite history?
When I presented a copy of the letter to Bart — the first of two occasions that he would later denounce as “gotcha” journalism — he declared it “blatantly bogus.” He disputed the signature. He suggested the letterhead had been faked. “Editorial director, Variety Inc.?” he said, reading the words under his name. “I don’t ever remember having that title.” (Variety’s masthead from that period shows that, in fact, he did.) “I agree with the contents of the letter,” he said after perusing it for a minute, “but I didn’t write it.”
Later he would call me to clarify. Even if he had written the letter, he said, “that incident is not relevant to me, only because it never recurred. I’d think it was interesting if it were a syndrome. But since it’s a stand-alone…” It sounded like an acknowledgment, sort of. His voice trailed off.
What was more striking than Bart’s dissembling, however, was a part of the letter that The New York Times hadn’t seen fit to quote. In one paragraph, it captures how Bart perceives his place in Hollywood: “I know that you and Stanley [Jaffe] feel that Variety has developed an anti-Paramount tilt in its coverage. This distresses me — we go back together many years and I personally feel a keen sense of camaraderie. Clearly you feel, however, that the ‘old comrades’ aren’t taking care of each other. If that’s your feeling, you and Stanley deserve better and I intend to take personal charge of this situation to set it right.”
“Taking care of each other” — that is Bart’s defining editorial principle. That doesn’t mean he rolls over, necessarily. If he thinks a top executive needs a kick in the pants, he’s happy to administer it. But he’s no adversary. He’s more like a teammate, or even a coach. He may be editor-in-chief of Variety, but he is still one of them.
People who have worked with Bart say he would call his favorite sources — Guber, Ovitz, Weinstein, Evans, producer Arnon Milchan — and vet stories that mentioned them, letting them make adjustments. When confronted by the reporters whose bylines topped the altered stories, Bart would say he got better information after deadline. “This is my paper,” one remembers him saying. “I’ll do as I please.”