Taming the wildest Hollywood beasts
When stars go wild, who keeps them in line? Their publicists.
One of the high points of Howard Bragman's career as a Hollywood publicist came at this year's Oscars, when his client, "Crash" producer Cathy Shulman, accepted the award for Best Picture.Skip to next paragraph
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Mr. Bragman not only coached Ms. Shulman on her speech and red-carpet etiquette, he helped her pick out a black Michael Kors gown and made sure she appeared at the right postceremony parties. "That's about as fun as it gets when you're the publicist for a client who wins an Oscar," he says.
On the other hand, Bragman's 25-year tenure as a founding partner of Bragman, Nyman, and Cafarelli, a publicity firm that has represented celebrities such as Cameron Diaz, has included more lows than he cares to count. Among the worst was watching an up-and-coming actress spiral out of control with a substance-abuse problem, despite his pleas with her that she was damaging her career.
In a month when the antics of Mel Gibson and Lindsay Lohan are the talk of tabloid magazines, TV news channels, and dinner tables everywhere, Hollywood publicists say it's harder than ever to shape the images of their clients. For one thing, the market for tabloid media has become saturated with global demand for celebrity stories. Furthermore, publicists complain that they no longer have control over coverage as cellphone cameras and websites such as TMZ.com and Perezhilton.com foster an "anything goes" environment.
"There is an element to our job now that's protecting as opposed to publicizing," says Leslee Dart, whose clients include Tom Hanks and Woody Allen. "Information is spread like wildfire in a matter of a minute or two, and back in the good old days it was at least 24 hours. It requires you to think more quickly, react more quickly, and respond more quickly."
Even as Mel Gibson's publicist, Alan Nierob, works round the clock to address questions about his client's alleged anti-Semitic comments following his arrest for driving while intoxicated, some observers point out that details of Gibson's arrest never would have been so widely publicized a decade ago. Video of Gibson taken earlier that evening by cellphone has also been published on the Internet.
"Because of the Web becoming all gossip all the time ... publicists have very little power, and that has changed the game," says Richard Laermer, a New York-based publicist and author of "Full Frontal PR." "They now have to work really hard to create and craft an image for their clients."
Thirty or 40 years ago, studio publicity departments dictated what journalists could or could not write, notes Henri Bollinger, a former president of the Publicists Guild who has represented Ernie Kovacs and David Niven. "If an actor got involved in exactly the sort of thing Mel Gibson just experienced, they could have kept all of that out of print. That power no longer exists today."
"There was a very very different sense of control" in the 1940s and 1950s, says Allen Coulter, director of the upcoming film, "Hollywoodland," which is set in the 1950s and includes a character based on Howard Strickling, MGM's head of publicity at the time. "The studios are not in control of the town as they were at that time. It also meant that everyone had to be a participant in that control. There was a certain sense of, 'You don't say those things, you don't write about those things.' "
That doesn't mean the days of orchestrated media coverage are over. Publicists are still often able to arrange magazine covers, sit in on interviews, and keep journalists from asking about controversial topics such as a divorce or weight changes.