TCS Daily

Reality Is Difficult

By James Pinkerton - May 15, 2006 12:00 AM

The hottest movie coming out of Hollywood, "The Anthony Pellicano Story," hasn't actually been filmed yet. Nonetheless, it's real; the action is taking place right now in corporate suites and law offices -- and jail cells -- all over Los Angeles. Perhaps I should explain.

The players in "Pellicano" are some of the most notorious and most prominent bold-print names in Hollywood. The most notorious, of course, is Anthony Pellicano, private eye to the stars. At present, Pellicano is in prison on a weapons rap, but he now stands accused of additional charges -- 112 counts and counting -- for wiretapping and for bribing cops to do additional illegal surveillances. In addition, five others have copped pleas, and five more have been indicted.

That's enough for a good script right there, but wait, there's more: On April 18, movie director John "Die Hard" McTiernan pleaded guilty to making "knowingly false" statements to the FBI about his past use of Pellicano in a business dispute. Due to be sentenced in July, McTiernan faces as much as five years in the slammer.

And according to the June issue of Vanity Fair, these criminal cases are just the beginning. In what authors Bryan Burrough and John Connolly gleefully describe as "the biggest scandal in Hollywood history," some of the most prominent names in Hollywood -- celebrity lawyer Bert Fields, erstwhile superagent Michael Ovitz, incumbent studio mogul Brad Grey, fading actor Steven Seagal, many others -- could be indicted for contracting with Pellicano to do various dirty deeds, from wiretapping to intimidation.

OK, so this scandal-brew could be the stuff of a great movie. And let's not kid ourselves, Hollywood loves making films about itself: From "Sunset Boulevard" to "The Day of the Locust" to "The Player", there is no tale of skullduggery, mob violence, and murder that Tinseltown won't take a liking to.

Of course, Hollywood is willing and eager to profit from the airing of its own dirty laundry, but it's more than that: Show-people got into show-business to mythopoeicize themselves -- to make themselves mythic. Granted, they might not know what "mythopoeic" means, but, to borrow a phrase, they know it when they see it. And they know they love seeing it in themselves. And if they have to trade away their privacy, their dignity -- and maybe their legality -- to get it? Small price to pay. People will still talk about them, after they're dead; it's a form of immortality that works even for atheists.

Am I overstating things? Well, let's consider this slice of life in the Pellicano household; the source here is Pellicano's fourth ex-wife, Kat:

For the Pellicanos, a pleasant evening might mean watching The Sopranos or one of the Godfather movies. Mafia rituals fascinated Pellicano ... In business, where he crafted a tough-guy persona designed to appeal to a clientele weaned on Jake Gittes and Sam Spade, he was a man who playfully brandished baseball bats, allegedly had a dead fish left on an opponent's windshield, and told clients they were joining his "family" -- and no one hurt his family. He named his son after Don Corleone's favored assassin, Luca Brazzi. On occasion Kat felt he took the mafioso shtick a tad far. "There were times when he would make my children kiss his hand like he was the Godfather," she says. "He started to think he was Don Corleone."

OK, so Pellicano became so wrapped up in the movies that he lost it at the movies. That happens. But what's remarkable about Pellicano is that even with all his delusions of cine-grandeur, he wasn't locked up, or consigned to some park bench. No, he was the go-to guy in Hollywood, the man who made problems go away -- the "sin eater," as his many grateful employers dubbed him.

And that's because, as Burrough & Connolly explain, the Hollywood types who hired Pellicano had gone through the looking glass, too: They thought Pellicano was what a private dick should be, because he acted like one -- just like in the movies. As another private investigator said of Pellicano, "I never took the guy seriously. The way he bragged openly about wiretaps and baseball bats, I mean, I just thought it wasn't real. I didn't understand that his Hollywood clientele lived in that same film noir world and accepted it as real." As the authors explain, "Pellicano could have thrived only in L.A. His mock-mafioso act was tailor-made for Hollywood, which expects a private detective to act the way detectives do in the movies, where illegal activities such as tapping telephones and bribing cops are routine."

But of course, reality soon came crashing down on Pellicano, who seems destined to be imprisoned for the rest of his life. And as for his famous clients, many of them could end up in the clink, too, if Pellicano talks. But so far, true to his version of the gangster code of omerta, he's not talking. Those nervous clients must be hoping that nobody slips Pellicano a DVD of "The Valachi Papers".

In Hollywood's world of fakery, only the fake seemed real. Indeed, the fake was real, because Pellicano and his associates committed real crimes that hurt real people. The challenge for the rest of us is to thresh out truth from fiction -- wish us luck.

Because while Aristotle maintained that art imitates life, it seems that Oscar Wilde's counter-wisdom -- life imitates art -- is more relevant to our time. The predominance of artifice hit me years ago when I was reading Michael Herr's Dispatches, a memoir of his time as a war correspondent in Vietnam. Herr described soldiers who channeled John Wayne -- the actor who, during World War Two, never left the safety of Hollywood -- to help them make sense of their "role" in genuine combat. On another occasion, a wounded Marine, awaiting treatment at a medical aid station, found himself under fire from a random enemy sniper: "I hate this movie," the Marine snarled.

Closer to home, how many college kids have consciously emulated the toga-partying, don't-know-much-about-history-ing "Animal House" lifestyle? And who doubts that Chicagoan Chris Farley, the chubby cut-up who died of excess at age 33, was inspired to live out, briefly, the example of Chicagoan John Belushi, the original chubby cut-up who died of excess at age 33?

And so we come to the argument made by Neal Gabler, author of Life: The Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality. As Gabler puts it, entertainment is "the most pervasive, powerful, and ineluctable force of our time -- a force so overwhelming that it has finally metastasized into life." Writing in 1998, Gabler illustrates his thesis with such media playthings (playing and played) as Michael Jackson, the Unabomber, and Mark David Chapman.

Had Gabler, who is my colleague on the Fox "News Watch", waited a few years, he could have written whole chapters on such spectacular stunts -- played with full media savvy by hammy jihadists -- as suicide bombings, beheading videos and, in all its hideous splendor, 9-11. Terrorists have become the stars of their own horror movies.

And the carnage of combat, more than any other kind of "show," continues to summon the myth-minded. Patrick Dollard, hearing the siren call of war, abandoned his lucrative career as a Hollywood agent/manager, traveling to Iraq as an "embed" to make a documentary. But along the way, Dollard seems to have jumped the sand dune; he declared to The New York Times that he had become like the character Kurtz, the crazed-renegade Army colonel played by Marlon Brando in the 1979 film "Apocalypse Now". One of Dollard's four ex-wives told the Times, almost unnecessarily, "He'd rather deal with a fantasy than a reality. Reality is very difficult."

Indeed, reality is difficult. So we can admire the example of Harry Palmer, the captured British spy who withstood the brainwashing efforts of his East Bloc captors by grinding a piece of broken glass into his hand -- the pain kept him rooted in reality. Oh wait, that was in a 1965 movie, "The Ipcress File," based on a Len Deighton novel, starring Michael Caine -- and in fact, it was his own government seeking to brainwash him, in a London basement tricked up to look like a Lubyanka dungeon. But still, the bloody-hand plan is still a good counter-measure, if you are ever subjected to mind-control, from any source.

But OK, a better role model for "reality therapy" is the very real Daniel A. Saunders, prosecutor in the Pellicano case. He's charging ahead, after his glitzy quarry; The Los Angeles Times reported just on Tuesday that the prosecution is adding an attempted mob-style "hit" to Pellicano's rap sheet. Yet interestingly, it's also been reported that DA Saunders first went out to LA to get into acting, only eventually to drift into lawyering. Now, as a legal straight arrow, he threatens to nail the Hollywood establishment to the wall. But of course, that doesn't mean there can't be a movie deal for him down the road. Surely the embers of stardom still smolder in Saunders' soul.

Coming soon: "The Anthony Pellicano Story." That life-the-movie is in production now, even if the story is still unfolding and the script is still being written.

James Pinkerton is TCS media critic and fellow at the New America Foundation.

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