“The same with John Calley,” Bart says of the head of Sony Pictures. Bart has known Calley since the late 1960s, when Bart says Calley pitched him Catch-22. Bart calls Calley “the country gentleman” — a vaguely catty reference to Calley’s decision to leave the world of moviemaking for 13 years, only to return in 1993 as president of MGM/United Artists. “I owe John Calley a lot? John Calley owes me,” he says, asserting that a positive column he wrote made Calley a contender for the post. “I think I was very important in getting him his job at MGM.”
In his weekly Variety column and in bimonthly pieces in GQ, Bart speaks as one who knows Hollywood and everyone in it. His vocabulary is a mix of the colloquial (he refers often to “the rules,” “the game,” “the fat cats,” “the old farts,” “the suits”) and the arcane. Rare is the attractive woman whom Bart does not label “lissome.” Most notably, in a town infamous for air kisses and false praise, Bart often writes what he means. DreamWorks’ Jeffrey Katzenberg is “hyperactive,” while a conversation with Sandy Litvack, a former top executive at Disney, is “akin to poking one’s head in an oven.” Producer Brian Grazer and director Ron Howard “exude about as much charisma as Wal-Mart managers,” while George Lucas is “simply so rich and mythologized that no one professes to be able to interact with [him] on a normal human level.”
“Perhaps,” Bart wrote last year in a column addressed to Robert Redford, “there’s something in your … head that says ‘I’m a star, I take up a lot of ego space; my movies should, too.’” He’s made the same complaint to Warren Beatty, whom he calls the priapic prince. Bart has written several columns about Beatty’s filmmaking and womanizing — even going so far as to describe the sounds the actor-director-write-producer supposedly makes during “moments of sexual congress.”
“You have to understand, if Peter is criticizing or praising you, the thing that’s solid about it is this is a guy who knows our business,” says Harvey Weinstein, Miramax’s disheveled cofounder, whom Bart has called a slob more than once. “He said my shirt looked like I was a refugee from a food fight. He calls me roly-poly. But this guy put The Godfather into production! It’s my favorite movie of all time. So even if I’m mad at him, I can’t be mad at him.”
Peter Guber, former chairman of Sony Pictures, goes further. “Peter is riding in the general’s car — Variety is the general’s car. And you salute the general’s car even when the general’s not in it,” Guber says. “I say to him, ‘Never let go of this job, because the wolves will attack. People are kept at bay by your power.’ It’s a tremendous platform and weapon, and people view it as such. So he’s feared and respected — or respected and feared — depending on the person.”
Besides, says Sherry Lansing, chair of Paramount Pictures, “Peter has the power to affect the way people think.”
That power derives in large part from his position at Variety, the Industry’s 96-year-old broadsheet that doesn’t just cover entertainment news but helps make it. It is Hollywood’s prime bulletin board — what one marketing consultant likens to “a high school newspaper that everyone has a tremendous need to see their names in.” It’s not just an ego thing. In a world built on illusions, being mentioned in Variety lends legitimacy. It makes you seem real. In Hollywood, seeming is believing.
When Variety reports that Leonardo DiCaprio is in talks to star in a film, for example, savvy readers know chances are good that someone is merely floating DiCaprio’s name. Why? To turn up the heat on Matt Damon, say, or some other foot-dragging actor the movie studio really wants to sign. Agents and publicists often complain that Variety writes about deals before they’re done. But those same people plant stories in Variety all the time in hopes of clinching a deal or killing someone else’s.
Here, pecking order determines more than just who gets a table with an ocean view. The perception of who’s on top determines which projects are produced, who will work on them, and how much money they’ll make. More than any other entity, Variety reflects and informs Hollywood’s collective consciousness. Readers don’t just parse the information on its pages; they dissect what stories are where, who is quoted up high, who is relegated to beyond the jump. With its trademark “slanguage,” Variety helps its subscribers keep score — an essential service in a town obsessed with rank. Whether you’ve “ankled” (quit) or been “upped” (promoted) at a “praisery” (public relations firm), a “diskery” (record company), or a “tenpercentery” (talent agency), if the story runs on Variety’s front, it means you matter. By extension, Bart matters to you.