Barry Isaacson

Does Hollywood need bullies?

There have always been bullies in Hollywood; it’s institutionalised, like a form of hazing, but the key difference between the film business and the Marine Corps is that bullying in Hollywood is not meant to inculcate esprit de corps; its purpose, for the bully, anyway, is to provide confirmation that the hierarchy is working in his favour.  I was one of the last generation of studio executives at Universal that reported to the old mogul, Lew Wasserman.  Wasserman was a physically imposing screamer who had parlayed with gangsters, bootleggers and union enforcers as a supplier of dance bands to illicit nightclubs during Prohibition, so he could terrorise white-collar employees without breaking a sweat. This was particularly useful to him one sweltering afternoon in the Valley, when the air conditioning had failed inside the office building known without much affection as The Black Tower.  Wasserman lined up several executives in front of his desk and screamed at them for half an hour. He threw pencils at them. He took off his Rolex and shied it at the head of some fellow in distribution. One man, melting in his suit and tie like the others, fainted and collapsed in a heap on the floor.  Wasserman continued screaming for another ten minutes. He was known – again without much affection – as ‘Old Yeller’.

In the nineties, the culture changed. Ancient, heterosexual, tough-as-teak depression-era Jewish alpha males like Lew Wasserman became elder statesman and Hollywood became, a little self-consciously at first, almost literary. A new breed of bully emerged; college educated, middle-class by birth, often gay, or female. The nastiest bully I ever encountered was a woman who fancied herself a producer because for about five minutes she was married to a Hollywood VIP.  Power in Hollywood is often defined as being the prerogative of those who can say yes, but a middle-level studio executive only has the power to say no, which I had to do to this bully every Monday morning for a year, after the scripts she submitted to me the previous Friday had been laughed out of the executive conference room that morning.

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