Tales from Tinseltown: Hollywood puts a new spin on the same old political scandal

There's a new movie out about a Washington scandal that's creating a bit of a Hollywood scandal. The Contender is a political thriller about a vice presidential nominee whose past sexual exploits endanger the president's reputation (now there's a switch) and become fodder for the opposing political party.

The twist? A female committed the amorous transgressions. Like most people's wild (but memorable) behavior, hers traces back to college. After all, frat parties are the equivalent of garlic - highly enjoyable during consumption but a potential source of embarrassment afterward.

Anyway, it seems one of the film's stars, Gary Oldman, who plays a conservative, self-righteous senator out to get the veep, is pulling a real-life Jesse Helms. (Before you write in, I know Helms is still in office, but is he actually still alive?) Oldman is accusing the filmmakers of turning the movie into liberal, leftist propaganda. I have no idea what Oldman's political affiliation is, but if one were to base it on his choice of film role, the safe bet would be 'libertarian anarchist.'

Oldman's remarks pushed the filmmakers and studio execs into the awkward position of having to speak out against the actor publicly. Something to the tune of, 'This is not liberal, left-wing propaganda. It's middle-of-the-road, centrist propaganda.' In other words, they're all bastards: Democrats, Republicans and whatever the hell that party is that Ralph Nader belongs to.

This war of words gives rise to a tricky and sensitive situation, with the movie's box-office fate perhaps hanging in the balance. Republicans won't want to see the movie if they think Oldman is right; Democrats won't want to see it if they think he's wrong.

This is the very occasion when crack publicity minds spring into action, the kind of challenge where we publicists prove our mettle and take charge. This is when we do not answer the phone.

You see, brave publicists try to spin. Smart publicists duck for cover. Some of the best - and longest-surviving - flacks in the business have mastered the art of not getting involved. One of my mentors once said that sometimes the best answer is no answer. It infuriates the press, but she frequently does not respond to inquiries when one of her clients is in a bit of a sticky wicket. It's like Cool Hand Luke said: 'Sometimes nothing is a pretty cool hand.'

The DreamWorks publicists had no choice - they were thrown into the fray. But this kind of public squabbling is a filmmaker's nightmare.

Interestingly, the film's writer and director, Rod Lurie, is himself a former journalist and film critic. It's ironic that his film has been tossed like a ball into the hands of journalists who like nothing more than playing with it until they grow bored and walk away. Like I'm doing.

- Lawrence Mitchell Garrison is an LA-based freelance publicist and writer.

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