THE PUBLICIST: Hollywood publicists often find the camera is not kind to them

If you want to make a film that's a critical or box-office underachiever, just make one of the central characters a publicist. It's a recipe that consistently creates duds.

If you want to make a film that's a critical or box-office underachiever, just make one of the central characters a publicist. It's a recipe that consistently creates duds.

The latest failed flack flick is the Al Pacino vehicle People I Know, reportedly based on the real life of New York publicist Bobby Zarem. Zarem is a self-professed "legendary" press agent, having struck celebrity gold in the '60s. People I Know played on only a few screens its opening weekend, revealing that Miramax is aware there is "Know" way, "Know" how the movie will draw a substantial audience. This lackluster showing comes on the heels of Phone Booth, in which Colin Farrell plays a publicist caught in a deadly game after answering a pay phone. It has garnered a decent, but less than stellar $43 million in its month-long release. I worked with Farrell shortly after he'd completed filming Phone Booth, and asked him if he patterned the character after a particular publicist. He didn't. "Just a general #@%hole," he quipped. Was he kidding? Did he mean all publicists are #@%holes and can't be distinguished? I quit while I was ahead. The other recent film that comes to mind with a publicist at its center is America's Sweethearts, starring Julia Roberts, Catherine Zeta Jones, and Billy Crystal. In it, Roberts plays the beleaguered personal publicist to Jones' diva. Though it did well at the box-office, and Crystal had some good lines, it wasn't up to the standards expected of the cast. The most famous cinematic publicist is, of course, Sidney Falco, brilliantly played by Tony Curtis in the 1957 film Sweet Smell of Success. Falco was a piece of work, all right. He reminds me of a couple of publicists who are at the top of their game today. (Indeed, there's even a New York PR firm named after the character.) But even that classic wasn't a big "success." Longtime entertainment publicist Warren Cowan feels the public simply isn't interested in people working behind the scenes. Maybe he's right, but many folks I meet are curious about what publicists do, though inevitably they're more interested in the celebrities we deal with. Certainly the stars tend to be unimpressed with set publicists. We're like dentists to them; necessary but unpleasant. As one well-known British actor crudely put it to me, "I view you as a harlot. I may like what you do for me, but I don't respect you for it." In other words, everyone wants the publicity, but no one ever wants the publicist. Lawrence Mitchell Garrison is an LA-based freelance publicist and writer

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