The rise of “fake news,” rather like a tweet from Donald Trump, is a much-discussed recent phenomenon with an equally messy fallout.
In Hollywood, they are also freaking out about ‘fake news’ but for completely different reasons than the liberal political class. Simply put: There’s not enough fake news in Hollywood and it’s not as effective as it used to be.
Studio executives, agents and especially publicists have long relied on promoting images that have little to do with reality. Look at the career of Rock Hudson or study the relationship between Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. Read Scotty Bowers’ recent old Hollywood sexual tell-all Full Service or watch movie doc Tab Hunter Confidential.
Literary legends have even gotten their hands dirty in the fake news business. In her 1963 memoir The Whole Truth and Nothing But, old Hollywood gossip columnist Hedda Hopper records staying at media mogul William Randolph Hearst’s castle in San Simeon at the same time that George Bernard Shaw was a guest. Shaw was then on the Hearst empire payroll and the Pygmalion playwright felt obliged to agree to be interviewed by Louella Parsons, Hopper’s rival and Hearst movie columnist.
Shaw had copy approval on the interview and, fed up with Parsons making up the quotes in the versions he was shown, Hopper records that “GBS took the manuscript from her hand. ‘Give it to me—I’ll write it myself,’ he said firmly, proceeding to do just that.” Hopper records that Parsons even persuaded Shaw to autograph the completed interview he had just manufactured about himself.
The most common fake news in Hollywood is the fake relationship. It wasn’t enough to promote, say, picking an example from yesteryear, 2002 comedy Two Weeks Notice as a charming rom-com on its own merits; speculation had to be ramped up that Sandra Bullock and Hugh Grant were incredibly close. They were flirting up a storm promoting the movie. What did it all mean?
When it was carefully choreographed and captured the public’s imagination, the fake relationship used to reap dividends. Following her breakup with Brad Pitt, exaggerated reports of Jennifer Aniston getting together with Vince Vaughn meant The Break-Up in 2005 was far more successful than it deserved to be. But five years later, acres of planted speculation about Aniston and Gerard Butler failed to prevent The Bounty Hunter from flopping.
Fake movie relationships just don’t have the currency they used to. The ’embroidered’ relationship between Henry Cavill and Kaley Cuoco, which happened to coincide with the release of Man of Steel in 2013, isn’t thought to have done much for the Superman movie either way.
The exhausting efforts of publicists to bloat the relationship between Theo James and Shailene Woodley, the stars of sci-fi series Divergent, and have them replicate the notorious coupling of Twilight‘s Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart, hit the buffers when the third film Allegiant flopped earlier this year. James said this week he is done with the series.
“Movies are not real so why should the public life of a movie star be real?” says an agent and producer, speaking on condition of anonymity. “But now you’ve got all these super-keen fans who are plugged into social media and are able to somehow monitor what an actor is doing.
” I was recently working on a project that featured Jamie Bell and I got into the habit of looking at the fan sites to see what he was up to.”
The agent adds, “Fake relationships don’t have the currency they used to but neither do real ones. Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander are supposed to be one of Hollywood’s hottest young couples but you couldn’t bribe people to see their recent movie [The Light Between Oceans]. Something has definitely changed.”
Hollywood publicists are having a harder time selling fake news to celebrity weeklies, he said, citing recent Life & Style and People covers respectively showcasing TV shows Saved by the Bell and Flip Or Flop. “Five ago those cover slots would have been Hollywood relationship-driven,” the agent said.
“The decline in coverage of fake [Hollywood] news that we’ve seen isn’t driven by morality or the lack of publicists trying their hardest, but the fact that readers of magazines don’t seem as interested in manufactured unions as they used to be.”
The issue of fake news in Hollywood is complicated. Some celebrities attract more coverage that smacks of inauthenticity than others (Jake Gyllenhaal’s relationships with Taylor Swift and Reese Witherspoon come to mind, while Jennifer Lawrence’s camp seemingly eschew the practice of making up stories about her).
George Clooney has managed to convey an authentic public persona while also having his personal life the subject of endless speculation.
Some celebrities aren’t even aware they’re being duped. A theater publicist one told me about a young actress who acted on instructions to go for walks with her male co-star in a play that was in rehearsals to open on Broadway, to discuss their on-stage dynamic. The photos subsequently appeared on the Mail Online website and the actress was flummoxed to discover what had happened after the event.
I once knew the sister of an actor who was in a prominent and reputedly confected relationship with his female co-star. He used the fake union to try to build up a real career as a producer by forging a professional alliance with her brother’s co-star—but it didn’t work.
In her book, Hopper records her disgust at seeing James Dean spitting on a photograph of movie legends in the Warner Brothers studio. When asked by Hopper to account for his misbehavior, Dean replied: “I wanted to see if anybody in this town had guts enough to tell the truth.”
Sixty years later, the challenge increasingly facing Hollywood is getting enough people to care about the truth or otherwise.