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List: The Ten Most Slanderous Cinematic Slights*

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By Stephen Saito

Usually when an actor or filmmaker reveals who inspired them in their creation of a character, it’s the type of politically correct answer sure to offend no one. Johnny Depp had no problem explaining how he channeled Keith Richards for his role as Jack Sparrow in “Pirates of the Caribbean”; Dustin Hoffman sent up his pal, producer Robert Evans, in “Wag the Dog.” But in a business where backbiting is common and screenwriters are urged to “write what you know,” it’s been a longstanding tradition to say the cruelest things about others under the guise of art. In a summer that will have Tom Cruise applying his considerable cackle to a Sumner Redstone surrogate in “Tropic Thunder” and a manscaping-derelict Bruce Willis doing his meanest Alec Baldwin impression in the adaptation of producer Art Linson’s Hollywood tell-all, “What Just Happened?”, we thought it was high time to look at a few ways filmmakers have exacted revenge, both personal and professional, through their movies in recent times.

07282008_lostintranslation.jpgSofia Coppola vs. Cameron Diaz
The film: “Lost in Translation” (2003)

In Sofia Coppola’s otherwise reserved study of two kindred spirits in Japan, there was nothing subtle about Kelly, the hyperactive American actress who flirts with Jon, the shaggy photographer husband (Giovanni Ribisi) of Scarlett Johansson’s Charlotte. Seemingly proud of having “the worst B.O. right now,” Kelly works up a sweat just trying to get Jon and Charlotte into “power cleanses” over drinks, during a break from promoting her latest action movie, the reason she’s in town. She’s also eager to tell Jon that she’s staying at the hotel under the pseudonym “Evelyn Waugh,” which as Charlotte mutters a moment later is the name of a man. Coppola has acknowledged that the film has some autobiographical bits to it — she had spent considerable time in Tokyo, and her father, Francis, once starred in commercials for Suntory Whiskey, the brand that Bill Murray’s movie star is hawking across the Pacific. But Coppola denied that the flighty blonde (played with no lack of energy by Anna Faris) had anything to do with Cameron Diaz, who starred in her then-husband Spike Jonze’s “Being John Malkovich.” If actions speak louder than words, it might be no small coincidence that Jonze and Coppola split shortly after “Lost in Translation” was released in 2003.

07282008_godzilla.jpgRoland Emmerich vs. Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel
The film: “Godzilla” (1998)

The history of film critics getting trashed by filmmakers is worthy of an article all its own — Andrew Sarris had an evil alien warlord named in his honor in “Galaxy Quest,” 15 years after the New York Observer critic excoriated “Quest” producer Mark Johnson’s “The Natural”; M. Night Shyamalan’s “Lady in the Water” featured the doomed Harry Farber, who literally attempts to explain away the wildebeast-like creature that eventually eats him, and who, as pointed out by Anne Thompson on the Risky Biz Blog, could either be interpreted as a slight to Manny Farber or Stephen Farber, if not the film critic community at large. However, only the legendary duo of Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert have seen themselves lampooned directly in the 1998 remake of “Godzilla,” which featured Michael Lerner and Lorry Goldman as the buffoonish “Mayor Ebert” and his aide, “Gene,” respectively. Director Roland Emmerich and writer/producer Dean Devlin created the characters presumably as payback for comparing their earlier “Stargate” to the work of Ed Wood. (Ebert wasn’t any kinder to “Godzilla,” likening the film’s premiere at Cannes to “attending a satanic ritual in St. Peter’s Basilica.”) Although Ebert claimed he was strangely flattered by the spoofs, which came complete with a reference to his famed thumb as a campaign logo, Siskel was none too amused. Ultimately, the joke ended up to be on Emmerich and Devlin since “Godzilla” remains, fairly or not, one of the most infamous blockbuster busts.

07282008_livinginoblivion.jpgTom DiCillo vs. Brad Pitt
The film: “Living in Oblivion” (1995)

Unlike the other entries on this list, this is one we’d actually like to debunk. For years, we’d heard how Tom DiCillo based Chad Palomino, the narcissistic star of the film within “Living in Oblivion,” on Pitt, the then-unknown lead of his last film, “Johnny Suede.” Certainly, the parallels are there — Palomino takes the job on a low budget indie en route to roles in studio pictures (playing “a rapist that Michelle Pfieffer falls in love with” and “a sexy serial killer that shacks up with Winona Ryder”). Palamino also seems to share Pitt’s renegade streak, insisting he’s not into all the “Hostess Twinkie shit” that Hollywood is about. But we’ll take DiCillo at his word when he wrote on his blog, “I did not base the character of Chad Palomino on Brad. In fact for 5 days in 1994, ‘Living In Oblivion’ was a ‘go’ picture with Brad playing the part.” (Naturally, Pitt was a little busy promoting “Legends of the Fall” at the time.) DiCillo also maintains that James LeGros, who stepped into the role of the camera conscious heartthrob, employed Patrick Swayze as his muse — LeGros would know, since the two worked together in 1991’s “Point Break.”

07282008_grandcanyon.jpgLawrence Kasdan vs. producer Joel Silver
The film: “Grand Canyon” (1991)

There are plenty of on-screen impersonations of “Matrix” producer Joel Silver to choose from — everyone’s favorite mimic Michael Lerner played the Silver-ish vituperate studio head Jack Lipnick in the Coen brothers’ “Barton Fink”; Albert Brooks did his rendition in “I’ll Do Anything”; Saul Rubinek garrulously essayed the action producer in “True Romance,” and our personal favorite is actually from the small screen: Rick Moranis’s “SCTV” sketch “The Larry Siegel Show,” which Moranis likely crafted after he landed a supporting part in Silver’s “Streets of Fire.” But apparently Silver was least flattered by how he was skewered in Lawrence Kasdan’s “Grand Canyon,” the well-intentioned film that sought to bridge racial divides, but which created a different one with Silver’s rare breed of blustery Hollywood producers. For the part of a Hollywood bigshot named Davis, Steve Martin grew a beard, which may not have been black like Silver’s, but was silver in color (and spirit) nonetheless. There isn’t a public record of any discord between Kasdan and Silver, but perhaps Kasdan was just fed up with Silver’s ultraviolent fare, which he lampooned in a scene where Davis is in the editing room of his latest action picture and berates his editor (played by Kasdan, of all people) for cutting out “the money shot…the brains on the window shot” during a hold-up on a bus. When Davis winds up being robbed in real life, he pledges to not work in the action genre again, though he later blames that on a bout of delirium. The real Silver seemed far more clear-headed when he said of the portrayal in The New Yorker in 1994, “I thought it was ludicrous. I don’t want to be caricatured.”

07282008_swimmingwiththesharks.jpgGeorge Huang vs. producer Barry Josephson
The film: “Swimming With Sharks” (1994)

Nothing brings people together like a good movie, so it’s not a total surprise that former Sony president of production Barry Josephson can sit and smile for a retrospective documentary on the making of “Swimming With Sharks” for the film’s 10th Anniversary DVD, despite the accompanying 101 minutes of Kevin Spacey playing him with the scowl of an executioner. Although writer/director George Huang insists that the inspiration for the abusive movie producer Buddy Ackerman was culled from a mélange of his former bosses during his 10 years as a Hollywood assistant, Josephson the one with whom Huang was associated with the most, first when he was Josephson’s assistant at Silver Pictures and then when Josephson left for Sony. Some have said that Huang’s time at Silver Pictures under Joel Silver (see above) informed the “Sweet’N Low” obsessed boss from hell, but Josephson admitted that when he read the script, “it was a complete sort of split personality moment where on one hand, I’m sort of a little bit upset and on the other hand, I really like the script.”

07282008_austinpowers.jpgMike Myers vs. Lorne Michaels
The film: “Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery” (1997)

In the past few years, Mike Meyers has made his share of enemies, whether it be producer Brian Grazer, who had a falling out with the star when he backed out of a big screen version of “Dieter,” or members of the Hindu community, who criticized Myers’ most recent film, “The Love Guru,” sight-unseen for promoting negative stereotypes. Yet many think that Myers reserved his greatest wrath for his former boss on “Saturday Night Live.” As one anonymous former “SNL” writer told Entertainment Weekly in 1997, “The best joke in Austin Powers was that Dr. Evil was totally a Lorne Michaels impression.” When pressed on the issue, Myers demurred, claiming that he based Dr. Evil on Donald Pleasance’s villain in “You Only Live Twice,” but those who know Michaels found Dr. Evil’s lingering line delivery and pinkie obsession to be unmistakable. Myers and Michaels are probably sick of the question by now, but it doesn’t seem to have caused a rift in their relationship — Myers came back to host a best-of episode comprised from his days in studio 8H this past year.

07282008_beemovie.jpgDreamWorks Animation vs. Pixar
The film: “Bee Movie” (2007)

Pixar’s films have always taken great pains to continue their streak of self-referential in-jokes. Likewise, DreamWorks Animation enjoys inflicting great pain on Pixar and their corporate parent Disney with their own in-jokes. Ever since Jeffrey Katzenberg acrimoniously left Disney in 1994 to start DreamWorks Animation, there have been shots at the Mouse House in most of DreamWorks’ productions, most notably in “Shrek,” which parodied Disneyland and created the squat villain Lord Farquaad in the image of Katzenberg’s former boss Michael Eisner. But we must give a hat tip to Jim Hill Media for getting to the bottom of the studio’s nastiest swipe at their CG competitors at Disney sibling Pixar, when DreamWorks animators took a stab at Pixar chief John Lasseter by way of his well-documented love of Hawaiian shirts. Once the model for the wide-eyed, regally bald Buzz Lightyear in “Toy Story,” Lasseter was morphed into a fat tourist in Tommy Bahama for the purposes of an easy gag in “Bee Movie” where Jerry Seinfeld’s Barry B. Benson and his florist friend, Vanessa (Renée Zellweger), must land a plane they are flying. With the help of Barry’s bee buddies, they are directed to touch down on a flower pattern. According to JHM, Seinfeld and Lasseter met each other at the Vanity Fair Oscar party in 2006, where Lasseter warned the comedian against dealing with Katzenberg, referring to his experience of having the idea for Pixar’s “A Bug’s Life” aped by Katzenberg for “Antz,” his first foray into CG at DreamWorks. Since he was knee deep in the production of “Bee Movie” by then and considered Katzenberg a friend, Seinfeld segued from his duties as a screenwriter to become an air traffic controller, directing animators to show the plane barely missing the Lasseter-like stand-in with the flowery shirt before coming in for a safe landing.

07282008_ivansxtc.jpgBernard Rose vs. Creative Artists Agency
The film: “Ivansxtc” (2000)

Agents are an easy target for parody — Charlie Kaufman got Ron Livingston to play a facsimile of his then-agent Marty Bowen, who wondered aloud which girls in his office he could “fuck up the ass.” (As an agent, Bowen took it in stride.) Difficult as it is, if you can envision that sinewy charm in the service of a tragedy, you can probably picture Ivan Beckman, the lead character in Bernard Rose’s Hollywood reimagining of Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” that Rose based on his former ten-percenter, Jay Moloney. A student of uber-power broker Michael Ovitz, Moloney rose up the Hollywood food chain during early 1990s, developed a cocaine addiction and was ultimately fired before he could reach the top job at Ovitz’s Creative Artists Agency. He also repped Rose during his rise as the director of “Candyman” and “Immortal Beloved” before he was locked out of the editing bay of his 1996 adaptation of “Anna Karenina.” For that reason, “Ivansxtc” isn’t so much an indictment of Moloney as it is an extended middle finger towards the excesses of Hollywood, though it had the misfortune of having its first screening the same day that Moloney committed suicide in 1999. Danny Huston resurrected his career with his performance as the drug-addled agent who lives out his last day on earth binge-drinking and attempting to steal a client, though the film all but ended Rose’s career. After production wrapped, Rose claimed that CAA blacklisted the film from getting distribution for two years, which left him penniless and without a house. Now, he and Huston just got back from the Edinburgh Film Festival where they premiered their second Tolstoy adaptation together, “The Kreutzer Sonata.”

07282008_bowfinger.jpgSteve Martin vs. Anne Heche
The film: “Bowfinger” (1999)

Steve Martin was able to settle his own score when he sat down to pen the screenplay for “Bowfinger” right around the time real-life girlfriend Anne Heche is said to have left him to date Ellen DeGeneres in 1997. Two years later, Heather Graham would appear in Martin’s Hollywood farce as the most aggressive social climber since Anne Baxter’s Eve Harrington, prompting many to speculate that Martin based Graham’s neophyte actress Daisy on Heche, especially since the punchline of the character involves dating “the most powerful lesbian in Hollywood” after serving as arm candy for both Martin’s producer and star Eddie Murphy during the course of the film. (It wasn’t the first time Heche was the muse for a former paramour — Lindsey Buckingham reportedly wrote the reactionary break-up track “Come” about the actress for one of his solo albums.) Martin gave out the usual denials when he was doing press for the film, which also covered “Bowfinger”‘s ribbing of the Scientology-esque religion Murphy belongs to called “Mindhead.” But for Heche’s part, there seemed to be no hard feelings with Martin. She called him “nifty” in her 2001 memoir, “Call Me Crazy,” which did a better job of parodying Heche’s public persona (and her alter ego “Celestia”) than Martin did.

07282008_majorleague2.jpgDavid S. Ward vs. Wesley Snipes
The film: “Major League II” (1994)

As our own Matt Singer pointed out recently, five years had passed between “Major League” and a sequel that reassembled most of the cast — with one notable exception. By 1994, Wesley Snipes had stepped out of center field for the Indians and became a cleanup hitter in Hollywood with a string of films that included “Jungle Fever,” “White Men Can’t Jump” and “Passenger 57.” In fact, it was probably that last one that inspired writer/director David S. Ward to go in a different direction with Willie Mays Hayes, the character Snipes originated in the first film, when he learned that Snipes wouldn’t be joining “Major League II.” As a result, Omar Epps plays Hays, adorning himself with a porkpie hat similar to the one Snipes was known to wear as he shows his teammate Jake Taylor (Tom Berenger) the trailer for the movie he made in the offseason, “Black Thunder, White Lightning.” (In retrospect, the blaxploitation parody is actually funnier now, considering Hays’ co-star is none other than former Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura.) When the camera pans back to Berenger’s blank-faced expression after watching the faux trailer, it pretty much says it all.

       *…that we know of. If you have a favorite onscreen vendetta that we missed, let us know in the comments below.

[Photos: “Lost in Translation,” Focus Features, 2003; “Godzilla,” TriStar Pictures, 1998; “Living in Oblivion,” Sony Pictures Classics, 1995; “Grand Canyon,” Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation, 1991; “Bowfinger,” Universal Pictures, 1999; “Swimming With The Sharks,” Trimark Pictures, 1995; “Austin Powers,” New Line Cinema, 1997; “Bee Movie,” Paramount Pictures, 2007; “Ivansxtc,” Artistic License, 2002; “Major League II,” Warner Bros. Pictures, 1994]

This list marks day 28 of IFC’s List Month — check back here for a new list every weekday!

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