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Sunday, November 16, 2008

An offer they couldn't refuse

The CIA is often credited with 'advice' on Hollywood films, but no one is truly sure about the extent of its shadowy involvement. Matthew Alford and Robbie Graham investigate

Body of Lies

Spies like us ... Body of Lies

Everyone who watches films knows about Hollywood's fascination with spies. From Hitchcock's postwar espionage thrillers, through cold war tales such as Torn Curtain, into the paranoid 1970s when the CIA came to be seen as an agency out of control in films such as Three Days of the Condor, and right to the present, with the Bourne trilogy and Ridley Scott's forthcoming Body of Lies, film-makers have always wanted to get in bed with spies. What's less widely known is how much the spies have wanted to get in bed with the film-makers. In fact, the story of the CIA's involvement in Hollywood is a tale of deception and subversion that would seem improbable if it were put on screen.

The model for this is the defence department's "open" but barely publicised relationship with Hollywood. The Pentagon, for decades, has offered film-makers advice, manpower and even hardware - including aircraft carriers and state-of-the-art helicopters. All it asks for in exchange is that the US armed forces are made to look good. So in a previous Scott film, Black Hawk Down, a character based on a real-life soldier who had also been a child rapist lost that part of his backstory when he came to the screen.

No matter how seemingly craven Hollywood's behaviour towards the US armed forces has seemed, it has at least happened within the public domain. That cannot be said for the CIA's dealings with the movie business. Not until 1996 did the CIA announce, with little fanfare, that it had established an Entertainment Liaison Office, which would collaborate in a strictly advisory capacity with film-makers. Heading up the office was Chase Brandon, who had served for 25 years in the agency's elite clandestine services division, as an undercover operations officer. A PR man he isn't, though he does have Hollywood connections: he's a cousin of Tommy Lee Jones.

But the past 12 years of semi-acknowledged collaboration were preceded by decades in which the CIA maintained a deep-rooted but invisible influence of Hollywood. How could it be otherwise? As the former CIA man Bob Baer - whose books on his time with the agency were the basis for Syriana - told us: "All these people that run studios - they go to Washington, they hang around with senators, they hang around with CIA directors, and everybody's on board."

There is documentary evidence for his claims. Luigi Luraschi was the head of foreign and domestic censorship for Paramount in the early 1950s. And, it was recently discovered, he was also working for the CIA, sending in reports about how film censorship was being employed to boost the image of the US in movies that would be seen abroad. Luraschi's reports also revealed that he had persuaded several film-makers to plant "negroes" who were "well-dressed" in their movies, to counter Soviet propaganda about poor race relations in the States. The Soviet version was rather nearer the truth.

Luraschi's activities were merely the tip of the iceberg. Graham Greene, for example, disowned the 1958 adapatation of his Vietnam-set novel The Quiet American, describing it as a "propaganda film for America". In the title role, Audie Murphy played not Greene's dangerously ambiguous figure - whose belief in the justice of American foreign policy allows him to ignore the appalling consequences of his actions - but a simple hero. The cynical British journalist, played by Michael Redgrave, is instead the man whose moral compass has gone awry. Greene's American had been based in part on the legendary CIA operative in Vietnam, Colonel Edward Lansdale. How apt, then, that it should have been Lansdale who persuaded director Joseph Mankewiecz to change the script to suit his own ends.

The CIA didn't just offer guidance to film-makers, however. It even offered money. In 1950, the agency bought the rights to George Orwell's Animal Farm, and then funded the 1954 British animated version of the film. Its involvement had long been rumoured, but only in the past decade have those rumours been substantiated, and the tale of the CIA's role told in Daniel Leab's book Orwell Subverted.

The most common way for the CIA to exert influence in Hollywood nowadays is not through anything as direct as funding, or rewriting scripts, but offering to help with matters of verisimilitude. That is done by having serving or former CIA agents acting as advisers on the film, though some might wonder whether there is ever really such a thing a "former agent". As ex-CIA agent Lindsay Moran, the author of Blowing My Cover, has noted, the CIA often calls on former officers to perform tasks for their old employer.

So it was no problem for CBS to secure official help when making its 2001 TV series The Agency (it was even written by a former agent). Langley was equally helpful to the novelist Tom Clancy, who was invited to CIA headquarters after the publication of The Hunt for Red October, an invitation that was regularly repeated. Consequently, when Clancy's The Sum of All Fears was filmed in 2002, the agency was happy to bring its makers to Langley for a personal tour of headquarters, and to offer access to agency analysts for star Ben Affleck. When filming began, Brandon was on set to advise - a role he repeated during the filming of glamorous television series Alias.

The former agent Milt Beardon took the advisory role on two less action-packed attempts at espionage stories: Robert De Niro's The Good Shepherd from 2006, which told an approximate version of the story of the famed CIA head of counter-espionage, James Jesus Angleton; and Charlie Wilson's War, the story of US covert efforts to supply the Afghan mujahideen with weaponry during the Soviet occupation of the 80s. In reality, this was a story that ended badly, as the Afghan freedom fighters helped give birth to the terrorists of al-Qaida. In the movie, however, that was not the case. As Beardon - who had been the CIA man responsible for the weapons reaching the Afghans - observed shortly before the movie came out, the film would "put aside the notion that because we did that [supply arms], we had 9/11".

Beardon's remark provides a clue to the real reason the CIA likes to offer advice to Hollywood, a clue that was expanded on by Paul Kelbaugh, the former associate general counsel to the CIA - a very senior figure in Langley. In 2007, Kelbaugh spoke at Lynchburg College of Law in Virginia - where he had become an associate professor - about the CIA's relationship with Hollywood. A journalist present at the lecture (who now wishes to be anonymous) reported that Kelbaugh spoke about the 2003 Al Pacino/Colin Farrell vehicle The Recruit. A CIA agent had been on set as a "consultant" throughout the shoot, he said; his real job, however, was to misdirect the film-makers. "We didn't want Hollywood getting too close to the truth," the journalist quoted Kelbaugh as saying.

Peculiarly, though, in a strongly worded email to us, Kelbaugh emphatically denied having said such a thing, and said he remembered "very specific discussions with senior [CIA] management that no one was ever to misrepresent to affect [film] content - EVER." The journalist stands by the original report, and Kelbaugh has refused to discuss the matter further.

So, altering scripts, financing films, suppressing the truth - it's worrying enough. But there are cases where some believe the CIA's activities in Hollywood have gone further - far enough, in fact, to be the stuff of movies. In June 1997, the screenwriter Gary DeVore was working on the screenplay for his directorial debut. It was to be an action movie set against the backdrop of the US invasion of Panama in 1989, which led to the overthrow of dictator Manuel Noriega. According to his wife, Wendy, DeVore had been talking to an old friend - the CIA's Chase Brandon - about Noriega's regime and US counternarcotic programmes in Latin America. Wendy told CNN: "He had been very disturbed over some of the things that he had been finding in his research. He was researching the United States invasion of Panama, because he was setting the actual story that he was writing against this; and the overthrow of Noriega and the enormous amounts of money laundering in the Panamanian banks, also our own government's money laundering."

At the end of that month, DeVore had been in Santa Fe, New Mexico, working on another project. He was travelling back to California when, at 1.15am on June 28, he called Wendy, a call she says has been excised from phone records. She told CNN she was "terribly alarmed" because he was speaking as though he were under duress. She was sure "someone was in the car with him". That was the last time Wendy DeVore heard from her husband.

A year passed, but the case refused to die and speculation mounted. Even the Los Angeles Times began contemplating CIA involvement. DeVore was presumed dead, but there was no body, and no end to the questions. Lo and behold, just nine days after the LA Times reported the case, DeVore's body was found, decomposing in his Ford Explorer, in 12 feet of water in the California Aqueduct below the Antelope Valley Freeway, south of Palmdale - a city located in "aerospace valley", so dubbed by locals for its reputation as a US military-industrial-complex stronghold - fuel to the fire for conspiracy theorists.

The coroner went on to declare the cause and manner of DeVore's death to be "unknown", but police eventually reached the tentative conclusion that the screenwriter's death was an accident: he had fallen asleep at the wheel, they said, before careening off the highway and into the water, where he drowned. But loose ends remain: DeVore's laptop computer containing his unfinished script was missing from his vehicle, as was the gun he customarily carried on long trips; after his disappearance, a CIA representative allegedly showed up at DeVore's house to request access to his computer; Hollywood private investigator Don Crutchfield noted that previous drafts of DeVore's script were inexplicably wiped from said computer during the same timeframe; police claimed that DeVore's vehicle careened off the highway, yet DeVore's widow was troubled by the absence of visible damage to the guardrail at the scene of the alleged accident; and how come no one noticed an SUV sitting in the water beneath a busy highway for a whole year? Perhaps the whole incident is too like a conspiracy movie to be a real conspiracy - but many remain troubled by De Vore's death.

Despite the CIA's professed desire to be more open about the role it plays in Holly-wood, it's hard to take its newfound transparency too seriously. After all, what use is a covert agency that does not act covertly, even if some of its activities are public? And if it is still not open about the truth of events decades ago, many of which have spilled into the public domain accidently, how can we be sure it is telling the truth about its activities now? The spy may have come in from the cold, but he still finds shelter in the dark of the cinema.

Original here

Shameless: The 8 Most Egregiously Exploited Celebrity Tragedies

By Kathleen Willcox

We generally use this space to lightheartedly berate celebrities for their great variety of always amusing, sometimes charming and (hopefully) harmless peccadilloes. Actors and musicians are too-often seen as impervious to the great tragedies of life, so it's easy to titter into our tea about their ill-chosen movie roles and freewheeling games of musical beds and totally ignore the fact no, they're not merely wind-up circus monkeys put here to tickle our fancy ("dance, monkeys, dance!!"). They're human beings who sometimes encounter real catastrophes.

When Jennifer Hudson's mother, brother and nephew were murdered, it drove the point home. The media covered Hudson's misfortunes with the same glib, faux-somber, three-ring-circus enthusiasm they use when stalking the red carpet at movie premieres and award ceremonies, with that extra-special dose of schadenfreude reserved for celebrity tragedies. Especially the following eight.

8. The Murder Of Nancy Spungen

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Poor, nauseating Nancy. Last month marked the 30th anniversary of her death and the soon-after implosion of the punk scene she formed an equally symbiotic and exploitive relationship. Her murder (or was it a suicide?), oft-believed at the hands of lover Sid Vicious (who overdosed a few months later), like her life, looked like a particularly noisy blip on the cacophonous music scene. But looking back, the vicious backlash against the already calumniated punk world directly resulted from a self-consciously bourgeois display of horror at her bloody, crusty demise in the crumbling Chelsea Hotel. From the get-go, Nancy seemed to think the whole world had it out for her, and the one little pocket she thought accepted her as a runaway, prostitute and junkie eventually spurned her too. In the end, she won though. The scene didn't want her, even openly mocked her, in the end killed her, and then her death symbolically killed it.


7. The Saga Of Christian Brando

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Just ask the Crawfords and the Barrymores (and someday, the Jacksons and the Spears): when Mommie or Daddy dearest is in the spotlight and perhaps just a tad batshit, your childhood's gonna be a bitch. Chances are, humiliating debacles that could be swept under the rug in a "normal" family will become front-page news, compounding their significance and making the possibility of future stability inversely proportional to the amount of coverage the incidents receive. For no one does this truism hold as steady as with Christian Brando, Marlon Brando's understandably unhappy progeny. From an early age, Christian was shuffled between his sexpot/wacky activist/violent father and his boozehound/pill-popping/violent mother, the actress and hippie Anna Kashfi. Finally, after a protracted custody battle that the media and public followed with a degree of interest generally reserved for world wars and cataclysmic natural disasters, Marlon won custody. That's when things really started to unravel for the 13-year-old. Mom's friends kidnapped him; they hightailed it to Mexico; Marlon hired a P.I. and nabbed him back; Christian developed a disturbing affinity for the bottle; he drunkenly shot and killed his pregnant half-sister Cheyenne's abusive lover, Dag Drollet; Cheyenne commited suicide; he was accused of being involved in the murder of Bonnie Lee Bakley, Robert Blake's wife and Christian's lover; and he got married and divorced. On January 26 of this year, he died of pneumonia at 49 years old, giving every cheesy rag on the planet yet one more excuse to drag out the old chestnuts and befoul his name and character while his family and friends mourned his passing.


6. The Manson/Sharon Tate Murders

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Life seemed to imitate art for Sharon Marie Tate, or at least according to the bloodthirsty media and willfully gullible public after her brutal murder at the hands of Charles Manson's gang of thugs in 1969. The model/actress' rise to stardom with her kitschy, insta-cult status turn in the deliciously drug-addled Valley Of The Dolls and relationship with troubled arthouse auteur Roman Polanski fueled speculation about their "untraditional" and "modern" (read: a slut-tastic drug-fest and dirty thumb in the eye to respectable folk everywhere) marriage. Tate was eight months pregnant when she was stabbed to death, but that didn't stop the media from spreading scurrilous, laughable rumors that she worshiped Beelzebub, participated in orgies and shot/smoked/snorted drugs. By the time Manson and his followers were arrested with charges that stuck, months had gone by, and the damage to Tate's reputation was done.


5. The Slaying Of Jennifer Hudson's Family

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The shameless, exploitative, almost prurient coverage of the string of murders in Hudson's family epitomize the problems the media face and create when writing about a celebrity's misfortune. When her mother, brother and nephew were murdered, the press swooped in with all of the transparently phony sympathy, demands for justice and the latent but palpable "she didn't deserve an Oscar" snipes. Every aspect of the funeral was covered, no matter how grim and morbid, fom the colors of the coffins, to details which casket she turned to first, to the design of the funeral "tickets" (it was a private event). Like every other aspect of celebrity life (from underwear choices to gas problems) that's breathlessly covered by even the most old-school broadsheets, death in Hollywoodland seems to be as much (more?) fun for us as watching a gaggle of schnookered starlets weave their way out of the S Bar to their waiting limos on TMZ.

4.The Kidnapping Of Frank Sinatra Jr.

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The bizarre and exceedingly brief kidnapping of Ol Blue Eyes' loin fruit was like one of Robin And The 7 Hoods' ill-planned last-minute plot twists, except much more convoluted and imbecilic. The 19-year-old Frank was nabbed at a hotel in Lake Tahoe by two bumbling parka-clad gunmen who posed as room-service waiters. Naturally, the incident was tackled by the press with the same restraint and discipline Jaws displayed during kiddie time at the beach. Two days after his capture, he was released when Frank Sr. coughed up $240,000, but Frank Jr.'s fledgling music career pretty much tanked thanks to the inexplicably hostile press coverage that accused him, without a shred of evidence, of masterminding the scheme. Since then, his career has foundered, partially due to his bratty antics (e.g. storming out of The Howard Stern Show just moments before a scheduled interview and after throwing various office accouterments about the studio), but also partially due to the old "he's riding on his father's coattails" indictment.

3. The Lana Clarkson Shooting (AKA The Phil Spector Case)

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Testimony has opened in the murder trial of the madcap, intense and frequently mendacious architect of the Wall Of Sound. Phil Spector is accused of shooting actress Lana Clarkson in a bizarre incident at his home that he claims was suicide ("she kissed the gun!"). Clarkson was indubitably in a downward spiral (though she didn't fall from the loftiest precipice). She got her big break starring in B-movie king Roger Corman's monuments to T&A tomfoolery like Death Stalker and "the original Xena," Barbarian Queen, but Clarkson skidded tits-first into her 30s toward a career that softened faster than a crate of bruised peaches left out in the sun. At 40, she was swilling booze, popping Vicodin and working as a hostess at the aptly named House of Blues in L.A. One night, Spector walked in, the two ended up at his mansion, proceeded to drink brandy and tequila and light candles and then… who knows? Spector's defense team is doing an excellent job of painting Clarkson as a desperate, suicidal, over-the-hill hot mess, but he's not exactly coming out looking like a staid, respectable member of the Hollywood elite. To accomplish that, a first step would be leaving his long-tailed black suit coat, rose-tinted glasses and four-inch heels at home. Just sayin'.


2. The Nicole Brown Simpson/Ronald Goldman Slaying (AKA The O.J. Simpson Case)

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Thanks to the sensationalistic coverage of the Simpson trial, Nicole's name conjures up glossy images of a glamorous, laughing, free-wheeling blond who may have lived her life just a bit too close to the fire. She was the epitome of a certain American dream—the homecoming princess who marries a football star and then stays home to raise their children—but was stabbed to death on June 13, 1994, along with Ronald Goldman, while her children slept in another room. Her ex-husband, O.J. Simpson, was arrested, charged and acquitted in a trial that was part sex scandal/part divisive, masked battle over race/part gleeful gossip session. The media mostly chose to focus on titillating, entertaining and frankly irrelevant details of the case (e.g. the "scandalous" photos of a nude Nicole in a hot tub with Brett Shaves, whom she dated briefly after divorcing Simpson). There was hardly a story written that didn't mention the short black dress she was wearing, the romantic music playing and the lit candles found at her murder scene, all of which served to imply that Nicole was a bit of a hussy, a bit too easy with her "friendships" (especially with children in the house!), and while she might not deserve to be murdered... well, the media left the divided public to fill in that blank.


1. Marilyn Monroe's Suicide

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Celebrity overdoses/suicides are a dime a dozen, but none approaches the dark poetry of Marilyn Monroe's death. Born Norma Jeane Mortenson and raised in a series of foster homes, she hauled herself up by her tightly bound pink corset and offered herself, body and soul—tragically, beautifully, knowingly, credulously—to a public that couldn't believe its luck. Like most almost religiously revered stars, people for whom the term itself was coined, Monroe was eventually reviled even when she was alive because of the very bubbly, quasi-innocent, effusive sensuality she was worshipped for. She struggled publicly through three failed marriages, countless affairs, chronic dumb-blond typecasting, mental instability and prescription drug addiction. No one could get enough, and much like train-wrecks du jour Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan, the sillier her behavior, the more enthralled they became. An inveterate attention whore, Monroe hazily submitted to the encroaching flood waters, scheduling a whirlwind of semi-nude photo shoots and painfully honest interviews in the weeks leading up to her death. At her last significant public appearance, she sang "Happy Birthday, Mr. President" to JFK. Weeks later, she was found dead from an overdose of barbiturates. She offered herself to us before she could possibly know just how much we would take from her, but it's doubtful Norma Jeane would have had it any other way.

Original here