Gossip columnist banned from 'Valkyrie' screening
I've been hearing feedback on United Artists' "Valkyrie" from various reporters and writers in recent days, with the Tom Cruise-starring World War II thriller inspiring all sorts of buzz, from the good to the bad to the ugly. A lot of viewers have said it's a snooze. Others, like Variety's Anne Thompson, have been more kind, with Thompson calling it an "entertaining, well-made thriller." But Fox News gossip writer Roger Friedman can't say what he thinks, because as he put it in his blog today, he's been banned from seeing the movie. Undeterred, Friedman quotes from a pan by Emanuel Levy (whom he bills as "perhaps the only actual film critic on the Hollywood Foreign Press," which gives you a tiny taste of Friedman's tart tongue). Levy calls Cruise "stiff and unconvincing," calling the movie a comeback attempt for a star whose "career as a major player seems to be over." Ouch!
I'm a regular reader of Friedman's Fox News blog, which is a strange combination of juicy inside gossip and unfettered opinion, often bolstered by formidable reporting--Friedman has done a great job of eviscerating both the National Board of Review and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for insider cronyism. On the other hand, Friedman plays favorites, especially when it comes to Harvey Weinstein, whose films are given unfailingly favorable treatment--Friedman has recently been beating the drum for "The Reader," repeatedly touting it as an Oscar favorite, despite a string of lackluster reviews. Tom Cruise, on the other hand, has received unrelentingly negative coverage, with Friedman constantly referring to "Valkyrie" over the past year as "the Nazi movie," frequently disparaging its box-office hopes and critical reception.
I called UA marketing chief Michael Vollman, wondering if it was really such a good idea to ban a writer from a screening. I mean, God forbid, what if Friedman saw the movie and actually liked it? Vollman defends the move, saying Friedman has such a closed mind on the subject that when one of the publicists working on the project spoke to Friedman the other day, he said "I'm going to hate the movie." Vollman sent along dozens of Friedman gossip items that ridiculed Cruise's role in the film. (Here's one that captures the flavor of Friedman's coverage.)
"Roger hasn't been banned--he just wasn't invited to the screening," Vollman explained to me. "Screenings are a privilege, not a right. If he'd indicated a desire to be open-minded and not telegraphed his intentions ahead of time, we would've acted differently. But when someone says 'I'm going to hate this movie,' you get the impression they have a closed mind." Friedman has been especially critical of Cruise's involvement with Scientology, but Vollman says that's not what at issue here. "This is absolutely not about Scientology. I work on behalf of 'Valkyrie' and I only took this action so the movie would have a fair assessment from a critic."
I don't like the idea of studios banning writers from screenings, since judging from the state of my frosty relations with a couple of studios right now, it's quite possible that, ahem, I could be next. I'm not sure that it's a great precedent to set, any more than when presidential campaigns sometimes ban reporters from their campaign planes because of supposedly negative political coverage. The upside is that you control your coverage; the downside is that you make the writer a martyr. Keeping Friedman away certainly didn't stop him from trashing the movie anyway. He's attacked "Valkyrie" so many times that I've certainly stopped paying attention--at least until his banning kicked the story into a higher gear.
Still, Vollman is sticking to his guns, saying there is a price to be paid for unrelentingly negative coverage. "Roger has shown through his actions that he has nothing but negative things to say and I don't see the need for us to facilitate it," he says. "I really wouldn't say we've banned him. It's not like we put guards at the door to turn him away. He's just not invited. Hey, lots of people still haven't seen the film. I don't think my parents have been invited yet either."
Photo of Tom Cruise in "Valkyrie" by Frank Connor / Studio Babelsberg / AFP / Getty Images