When Amy Wallace profiled then-Variety editor Peter Bart for Los Angeles magazine, she took on issues of access, personality, misdirection, industry politics, journalism and retaliation. To write about a guy who’s been called “the most hated man in Hollywood” demands guts and patience. To pull it off as she did requires a certain tact and grace. Wallace, an expert on the psychology of Hollywood, lifts the veil for us here in this installment of “Annotation Tuesday!” by taking us line by line through “Hollywood’s Information Man,” which is as much about how journalists cover the filmmaking industry as it’s about how Bart operated about town.
Storyboard: Not long ago, you told us, “A profile seeks to capture the essence—the point—of the person being profiled, and that is done, often, through narrative.” Does the narrative become more important when, as is the case with Peter Bart, the essence seems so elusive?
Amy Wallace: I guess so, though a more important distinction in this story was that the narrative was double-barreled. There were the stories about Bart moving through the world of Hollywood. But there were also the stories that detailed my personal interactions with Bart. As I searched for the essence of Bart, I realized—and this realization came during the writing process, late in the game—that he was a man who wielded enormous power in Hollywood in large part because his essence was elusive. He refused to be pegged. He wore many hats, and never failed to exploit the advantages that came with that shape-shifting ability. And, importantly, I realized that I had a lot of first-person experience with him that had allowed me to witness the way he wielded power—by exerting it on me. This was at a time when it seemed every profile in Vanity Fair started with the writer detailing what they had eaten for lunch during an interview with Meg Ryan, and for that reason I resisted appearing in the piece for a long time. But then I realized that the way Bart was working me was a window into how he worked everyone. And once I realized that, punctuating the piece with our conversations really made sense.
This story is now 12 years old. What were you like back then? How do you imagine Bart saw you?
I was 38 then, so I wasn’t a kid. I had a lot of experience as a newspaper reporter. But I think one key thing that defined the way Bart saw me was that I had left newspapers to become a full-time magazine writer. I was shifting gears and trying to excel in a new form. And he already wrote for magazines—he had a regular column in GQ. He knew that, if he wished, he could help me break into national magazines and directly said as much (it’s in the piece). The power dynamic—him established, me striving—was key to the way he interacted with me.
“Hollywood’s Information Man“
By Amy Wallace
Los Angeles magazine
Peter Bart is on the phone, and he’s threatening to sue.
“I really take umbrage at the gotcha nature of your interrogation,” he says. His voice is taut. I can’t see his knees, but I’m sure at least one is twitching. <This is great. It’s not just vivid description; it lets the reader know you have met Peter. Whatever the story will be, it is not a write-around. Was the Los Angeles magazine name a help or a hindrance in persuading Bart to cooperate? And was access necessary?/eg Access was key to this story, and I explicitly told Bart that I wouldn’t do the piece without it. My original idea for the story was that the world of Hollywood’s trade papers fascinated me and I thought Bart was a great main character through which to tell that story. He was smart, had worked inside and outside the studios, had been a journalist and written books–through him I would pull back the curtain and explain the odd symbiotic role the trades played then in the town they supposedly merely covered. I met with Bart for lunch and told him I wanted to write “a New Yorker-style profile” of him. I said I wanted him to think about it overnight and not tell me until the next day, because if he said yes, I could guarantee he was going to get sick of me. I told him I was going to read every word he’d ever written (not a small task), show up at every public event he headlined, and be a fly on the wall in as many situations as he would allow. The next morning he called and said, “Let’s do it.” As for the twitching knee detail—I ended up spending so much time with Bart in so many circumstances that I felt certain about the knee twitching. This was an important beginning because it not only said that I’d met him/spent time with him, it signaled to readers that I’d spent SO much time with him that I felt that I knew him well. Whatever was coming, it was going to be a deeply reported piece./aw
Bart, the editor-in-chief of Variety, the entertainment industry’s dominant newspaper, is accustomed to being in charge. Studio heads woo him; strivers kiss his ass. Everyone wants his insight and his wisdom—or prominent placement in Variety’s big, glossy pages. In his weekly column, “The Back Lot,” he alternately strokes and scolds moguls and movie stars, addressing them by their first names. When Bart telephones the powerful, he is put right through. Now he’s calling me.
“I think to plunk documents out of context,” he says, “on people whose lives are as busy as yours or mine is a little unfair. This is not consistent with the access and cooperation I have afforded you.”
Over several months I have encountered a dizzying variety of Peters. I have spent many hours with Charming Peter, who is smart, funny, fierce. I have gotten to know Judgmental Peter, who loves to size up others. I’ve met Crude Peter, Brilliant Peter, Hypocritical Peter, Loyal Peter.
Bart calls himself “Zelig-like.” A setter of rules who hates to follow them, a lover of labels who resents being characterized, a seeker of the truth who doesn’t always tell it, Bart believes he is immune to the conflicts that derail lesser men. It’s one of the things that place him among the most despised and feared people in Hollywood. I listen to him speaking now. It’s a Peter I’ve never met.
“When you’re in public life, people attack you,” Intimidating Peter tells me. “But I’m taken aback by a bogus document suddenly being slammed on the desk. I’ll send you a note saying I will sue you, which I sure as hell will.” <The opening ends here. You italicized it. Could you tell me about that? It reads like a pre-credit sequence. And did Bart ever send you that note?/eg He never sent me that note, though we did have a phone conversation after the piece appeared. But I’ll get to that later. As I said in response to your opening questions, when I realized that Bart’s interactions with me were relevant and revelatory, I started to look for ways to use them. And it occurred to me that they could become the scaffolding for the piece./aw
IF YOU ARE A DOCTOR OR A GROCER or an airline pilot with no ties to the business that produces America’s number-one export—entertainment—you probably have never heard of Peter Bart. But if you are among the 70,000 people in Los Angeles, New York, and around the world who can’t start the day without knowing which big-name movie director just got a two-picture deal, Bart is an institution. <This is smart. It’s an acknowledgement that you, the reader, most likely have no reason to care about Peter Bart. But I’m going to make you./eg Thanks. Yes, this was key to the piece. Bart was a huge power broker in Hollywood, but most people outside of the entertainment business had never heard of him. I had to make a case for why they should read 13,000 words./aw