While Hollywood has made many movies about an underdog fighting the system, it rarely entertains maverick talent in its own house.
Various creative types have tried and failed to go against the grain of commercial consideration to realize a singular artistic vision.
If an offbeat film can pick up an Oscar or two for capturing the public’s imagination, then that’s fine by LA bigwigs. As far as the rest goes, it’s show business and not show show.
However there was one time when celluloid sharks had no choice but to sit up and take notice. Because in the late Eighties a rogue element took charge of a major Hollywood studio.
He was a filmmaker, but to some he was a troublemaker. Even worse, he was from out of town. David Puttnam, a 45-year-old Brit, had somehow become Chairman and CEO of Columbia Pictures.
A 1987 New York Times piece — written the year after his appointment — sums him up by saying “He was enough of a realist to want to make entertaining movies, and enough of an idealist to want his films to have social value.”
It was this latter aspect that bothered the money men. They must have been reassured by Puttnam’s Chariots of Fire (1981). He’d produced the sports drama, which cleaned up at the box office and won four gold statuettes.
Yet when winning screenwriter Colin Welland took to the stage on Oscar night and famously declared “The British are coming!” he inadvertently foreshadowed what was to come.
Puttnam wasn’t a fan of the mega-budget studio system. And his ideas about some of the biggest box office hits of all time were controversial to say the least.
The Hollywood Reporter (THR) wrote in 2016 that “he had slammed the ending of blockbuster E.T. The Extra Terrestrial because he thought the alien should have stayed dead.”
So how did the man who would have killed off Elliott’s best pal come to hold this position among the glitz and glamor? It happened due to a combination of strange circumstances.
For starters, Columbia Pictures wasn’t in the best of shape. A scandal had rocked the studio in the late 1970s when former head David Begelman was exposed as an embezzler. It was a sad end to a slate that included Spielberg smash Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977).
It had never recovered from the impact. When studio owners Coca-Cola were fishing for a new chief they consulted with President of Entertainment Fay Vincent over who to pick. He made the offbeat suggestion of Puttnam. Quoted in 1997’s Variety, he described the situation as “a noble experiment.”
Maybe Columbia thought he would try to fit in with the prevailing wisdom. Unfortunately for them, Puttnam seemed to see little wisdom in Hollywood.
He slammed the excessive boys’ club culture, not holding back from expressing his views to major players. “What surprised and dismayed him most about Hollywood was the amateurishness” the NYT wrote. “As the producer of two dozen movies, he had been the complete professional.”
In one extraordinary communication to Coke relayed by THR, he commented: “The medium is too powerful … to be left solely to the tyranny of the box office,” a shocking statement for Hollywood execs to hear.
When he added that content shouldn’t be “reduced to the sum of the lowest common denominator of public taste” it rubbed salt in the wound.
Puttnam also managed to add a dash of vinegar for good measure, by criticizing big stars and their huge salaries. Columbia would have been only too happy to make Ghostbusters 2. Their CEO was lukewarm about the idea.
Leading man Bill Murray, who ironically had only made the first film so he could shoot passion project The Razor’s Edge, did not respond well to being branded a “taker” by Puttnam. The sequel was eventually made following his departure.
Now-disgraced comedian Bill Cosby worked on the disastrous high concept comedy Leonard Part 6 under Puttnam. The dispute between them was given extra tension by the fact Cosby was a spokesman for the drinks titan.
Not even unconventional Hollywood films such as Warren Beatty’s Reds (1981) impressed Columbia’s new boss. Beatty and Dustin Hoffman’s legendary turkey Ishtar (1987) only underlined for him the need to shake up the system.
Variety wrote that “Many artists, in fact, welcomed his ideological pronouncements with greater enthusiasm than they did his attacks on the salary structure.”
For some major players, David Puttnam was regarded as being long on talk and short on progress. The same article referred to him as “David the Didactic.”
Puttnam’s idea of a worthy project baffled the higher ups. Variety described a screening like no other in movie history. Apparently “It was several minutes into the movie before the Columbia executive realized that the dialogue was almost exclusively in a Gypsy tongue, which few outsiders can understand, and that the filmmaker didn’t want subtitles to mar the artistic thrust of his epic.”
During his time at the studio he brought audiences critically-acclaimed triumphs like The Last Emperor and Hope & Glory (both 1987). He also turned out duds such as 1988’s Vibes (starring Cyndi Lauper and Jeff Goldblum) and notorious “talking penis” movie Me and Him.
There was also the uncategorizable The Adventures of Baron Munchausen in the same year, a costly but well-regarded bomb directed by Terry Gilliam.
His troubled tenure came to a close after 13 months. Even the number of months was unfortunate. Perhaps the writing had been on the wall for some time, though it was a game of corporate musical chairs that got him, rather than an indignant exec.
The NYT states “He was simply the accidental fall guy in a stock deal. He was unseated because Coca-Cola wanted to maximize its assets and folded Columbia into Tri-Star.”
Puttnam left the way he had come in — under a cloud, with his principles intact.
When his exit was announced, “secretaries and carpenters kicked the walls or cried.” On the flipside, “Actors, agents and producers opened the champagne.”
Puttnam himself isn’t keen to talk about the experience. He carried on working in film production, education and the media following his departure. He became Lord Puttnam in 1997.
In a message to THR he offered a brief insight. “Looking back,” he commented via email, “I was a good movie producer who made the mistake of being persuaded I could run a studio. I hated almost every day of it.”
It was a mutually acrimonious relationship, though people on either side of the fence have admiration for the British pro who tried to take Hollywood to task.