Suspended Hollywood Reporter columnist George Christy is a vestige of a bygone era in Tinseltown.
By Catherine Seipp
Catherine Seipp is a Los Angeles-based writer and a longtime observer of the local media scene.
I'VE BEEN FEELING a little sorry for George Christy, the Hollywood institution whose party-and-publicity column was finally suspended in late May by his employer, the Hollywood Reporter. The entertainment industry trade paper had published Christy's peculiar, twice-weekly page of puffery, which was called "The Great Life," for more than 25 years. ###
The trouble Christy's been brewing for himself for ages has now reached full boil. Inside.com reported May 31 that a federal grand jury is investigating whether the columnist defrauded the Screen Actors Guild pension and health plans. Christy has denied doing anything improper.
As those who follow the fascinating world of Hollywood freeloaders know, Christy's been in hot water for all this before. SAG itself went after him in 1993 and 1998, both times for the same situation. (The 1993 SAG lawsuit against Christy was settled, and the 1998 SAG probe resulted in his returning $5,000 from his pension and health fund.)
The Hollywood Reporter's latest (and probably final) George Christy embarrassment began in early May, when its top labor reporter, Dave Robb, quit after Publisher Robert Dowling took him off the current SAG investigation story. (Robb is now covering the case for Inside.com.) The Reporter did run a story by another writer about Christy's SAG problems a few days later. But the paper's editor in chief, Anita Busch, still quit in protest.
The columnist has been accused of wangling screen credits from producer friends in return for mentions in "The Great Life," but SAG's continuing quarrel with Christy is not about journalistic ethics. It's that Christy didn't appear (or appeared as an extra, which doesn't qualify anyone for SAG membership) in many films for which he received screen credit.
Like most strong unions, SAG offers members first-rate health insurance and pensions‹benefits that by far surpass anything available to ordinary Hollywood Reporter employees or, in fact, most journalists. Christy's response to the accusations: "There is such a thing as a cutting room floor."
As Oscar Wilde remarked about the death of Little Nell, you'd need a heart of stone not to laugh about all this. Still, I do feel a bit sorry for Christy and have been wondering why. Because let's make it clear: This venerable Sultan of Smarm has never been exactly a beloved figure in Hollywood.
First of all, there were his endless special needs, which have always been off the charts even in a culture as steeped in perks and free-floating bossiness as the Hollywood media. The anecdotes about Christy are legendary. He demanded that a specific salad be served (endive, in the case I heard about) when he visited a celebrity at home for an interview. He expected studios to provide him limos to transport him to premieres and publicists to pay for his photographers‹and then he kept the negatives. He always seemed to need several review copies of each new book that caught his fancy. He would leave events with half-a-dozen extra goody bags in hand.
At Christmastime a parade of gift baskets the size of bridge tables would make their inexorable way toward Christy's office, where they would be duly sorted by his assistant. Years ago, a friend of mine wanted to send Christy flowers for running her picture in "The Great Life," so she called up his assistant to ask what kind he liked. "Mr. Christy doesn't really care for flowers," came the reply. "However, his shirt size is on file at Mr. Guy in Beverly Hills."
Still, it's not as if every other member of the Hollywood press corps is a shining paragon of virtue. In a May 20 Los Angeles Times op-ed piece, entertainment reporter Charles Fleming (who once worked at Hollywood Reporter rival Variety and now teaches journalism at the University of Southern California) asked: "Why is a minor player like Christy publicly reprimanded when scores of entertainment writers, editors and columnists who routinely exchange journalistic independence for access to Hollywood power are left unscathed?"
Why indeed? Well, for one thing, access is not the same as aggressive freeloading. For another, when it comes to freeloading, Christy is not a minor player. He is a Hollywood legend of such colossal proportions that ordinary journos are reduced to mere ants in his mighty, goody-bag-laden shadow.
My favorite George Christy story concerns the old Buzz magazine, where I used to work. The columnist was very helpful during the early '90s launch, mentioning the magazine in "The Great Life" and even hosting a party in Buzz's honor. In appreciation, he got a $600 watch and a column called "Restaurants and Such," which was discontinued after three issues.
Christy was furious that "Restaurants and Such" was killed and, although he kept the watch, made a point of never, ever mentioning Buzz in his Hollywood Reporter column again. Eventually, the marketing director realized that sending free promotional copies of the magazine to the Reporter was useless, so they were stopped.
Christy called to find out what had happened and got his complimentary subscription back.
Before he came to the Hollywood Reporter, Christy was a roving editor for the society magazine Town & Country. During that time he...but let him tell it.
"We used to do major city articles, because banks and such were major advertisers," he informed me happily when I interviewed him a few years ago. "And so we would, of course, honor them with our articles about their communities. And it wasn't, you know, any kind of a payback, it was just..."
And so on. I hadn't asked about the details of those Town & Country years, or even brought up at that point the touchy issue of payback, but so immersed was Christy in the culture of moolah that he just couldn't help himself from volunteering what I'm sure is a very accurate description of his time there.
When I did introduce the subject of his reputation, he was of course quite wounded. "Well, if someone has extra copies of a book, there's a Greek Orthodox church I like to donate them to. No, I don't accept clothing." Here he paused for a moment. "Well, let's say the William Morris Agency sends me a bathrobe as a gift. Am I not to accept that? It's Christmastime. They're being thoughtful.
"I mean, in journalism, we're not making muckety-muck bucks, are we?" he continued, his voice rising. "We're all being paid at the low end of the pay scale, and if I've done something very nice for someone, and Sharon Stone wants to send me a vintage necktie, which probably cost her five bucks, with a note that says, ŒThis is very you,' is that so wrong? People are cruel. People are jealous."
At that point, I began to feel as if I were poking an animal with a sharp stick, so I laid off. People who've never seen Christy in action sometimes imagine him as the terrifying Burt Lancaster character in "The Sweet Smell of Success," cruelly toying with Tony Curtis' desperate press agent. But "Match me, Sidney" was never really Christy's style, because it's never been Hollywood's style. Instead of New York imagined in jazzy black-and-white, Christy and his "Great Life" brought to mind Nathanael West's surreal, Technicolor vision of Hollywood circa "Day of the Locust."
I suppose I've been feeling rather sad about Christy's downfall because he's such a haunting relic of a vanished age. Louella, Hedda...they're all long gone. And yet for years and years Christy was still here, cheerfully unaware of his own endangered status. He threw his weight around the Hollywood jungle like a clueless brontosaurus, blissfully munching on free endive salad that he happily assumed would last forever. He himself lasted far longer than anyone would have predicted, and there's something to be said for that.