Gerard Depardieu’s recent aeronautical mishap may on one level have been an act of obstinate vandalism by a cantankerous old Frenchman, but on another it is a welcome example of an increasingly rare phenomenon.
Time was, every overblown vagabond actor was creating merry hell for their publicists with acts of wholly gratuitous depravity. I was once employed by Richard Harris to help him promote a film at Cannes. I arrived at the Savoy suite he maintained 365 days a year to be greeted by the actor in his nightshirt. During our chat, he told me that the world of publicity was more or less new to him, a surprising statement to anyone used to the image conscious mind of the modern actor. ‘Me and O’toole just had a laugh.
We didn’t think about strategy’, he said. It reminded me of an earlier project I ran for Oliver Reed, during which the guy took me to one side and asked politely but firmly for exactly 11 bottles of lager to be brought to him before he’d do the press conference we were setting up.
Like the cuckoo whose call once heralded the arrival of spring, tales of inspired disruption among Hollywood’s big, bad and ugly have vanished from our isle with the rise of insurance concerns, image fears and general moral prudishness. I’d like to take the time to celebrate a few past heroes who really knew how to get their hapless handlers in a sweat:
Arguably the most fabulous of the classic British ‘hellraisers’, Reed kept gossip writers constantly supplied with inches and resisted all attempts by handlers to salvage his image or contain his behaviour. By all accounts a real pro when actually shooting, Reed was desperate to be remembered as an all round good time guy, infamously declaring two eternally quotable lifelong ambitions: ‘one is to drink every pub dry, the other is to sleep with every woman on earth’. As a consequence he was ever an enemy of censorship.
When studio censors, worried about negative publicity, asked Ken Russell to remove the naked wrestling scene from the script of his classic adaptation of Women in Love, Reed allegedly stripped naked and wrestled the director to the ground, pinning him until he agreed to restore the requisite section. His resistance to total career suicide is a mystery, perhaps best explained in his own words to the journos he hated: ‘I’m the biggest star this country has got; destroy me and you destroy the British film industry’.
Brando went through plenty of brand changes in his long and occasionally tortured career. His late weight gain, for instance, was apparently a total shock to cast and crew when he turned up on the set of Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, forcing a total rewrite of his character, the enigmatic Colonel Kurtz, who was formerly imagined as something closer to lean and mean than Brando’s Orson Welles-esque stature. However, his trickiest image crisis came in 1973 when he punched legendary Paparazzo Ron Gallela in the face without warning after an appearance on The Dick Cavett Show.
Handlers famously had a difficult time with the reclusive star, and therefore were presumably unable to warn him of Gallela’s inflated sense of self-worth and ability to bear a grudge. Despite getting a $40,000 settlement out of Brando’s lawyers, Gallela made sure the nation heard all about it. He apparently told his editor “I don’t want anyone to think they can go around punching me if I am taking their picture, get that story out not the money.” When he and Brando met again in an interview a few years later, the merciless photographer wore a conspicuously coloured crash helmet.
Hopper’s is a somewhat tragic story of a celebrity unable to cope with the implications of his own image. Following the success of counterculture classic Easy Rider, Hopper felt hounded by press mudslingers convinced his success heralded the death of morality itself. As a consequence, he bought his own small town in rural California and disappeared into it, living beyond the reach of publicists and journos alike on “half a gallon of rum with a fifth of rum on the side, 28 beers and three grams of cocaine a day”. While this maybe kept him out of trouble and away from the total publicity catastrophe in which his Hollywood existence might have ended, it meant that his actions were totally unpredictable.
As a consequence, handlers could only look on in horror when he turned up wandering naked in a Mexican Jungle, convinced world war three had begun. A studio plane sent to take him home couldn’t hold him: convinced it was on fire, he jumped out screaming onto the wing an instant before takeoff.
Rob Lowe, one of the great brat pack hellraisers of the mid-late 1980’s, has the dubious honour of a starring role in the first readily available bootleg celebrity sex tape. The actor was filmed engaging in a series of sordid acts featuring two young girls picked up in a bar in downtown Atlanta during the 1988 Democratic convention, one of whom turned about to be 16. Unfortunately, Lowe happened to be involved in the Dukakis campaign at the time. His career hit rock bottom, Dukakis was scuppered, and communications teams on both sides were helpless in the face of waves of moral outrage from a pre-internet public much less familiar with the genitalia of their idols than our own fallen society.
Lowe, however, managed to overturn the blacklists and make use of the affair with two classic publicity moves- first a bout of self-mockery on SNL two years later, then a recent statement in an interview with Reuters crediting the scandal with prompting him to enter rehab.
Gable occupies a special place in this list because he managed never to incur a career ending scandal despite arguably deserving it more than the other three put together. Managing to impregnate, devastate and occasionally physically harm a string of women, the actor’s career incorporated a staggering number of bad publicity near-misses. Perhaps the most spectacular is his impregnation of onetime child star Loretta Young on the set of Call of the Wild. The 17 year old Young was a beautiful staunch Catholic who carried a swear jar on set, and Gable was an almost ageing, barrel-chested married man. When the inevitable happened, Young’s refusal to submit to the usual ‘exhaustion’ (read: abortion) cover-up had studio MGM terrified until an anonymous young studio ‘fixer’ crafted a smokescreen so stupid it was ingenious.
After travelling to England to give birth, Young quietly handed the baby to an orphanage. 6 months later, she very publicly announced her desire to become a mother and adopt two babies, whereupon she returned to the orphanage, claimed her own daughter, and subsequently announced that the other baby had been reclaimed by its birth parents. Cherish this fairy tale ending: it’s pretty damn rare in the world of Hollywood PR.