By Dan Moldea
Moldea.com, 462 pp., $29.95
January 31, 2018
Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s 1969 work On Death and Dying was a landmark in learning to accept the reality of our demise. In the years since its publication, many have also applied its insights to the experiences of those coming to terms with the loss of loved ones. The well known five stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance – come from Kubler-Ross’s writing. Dan Moldea frames his latest book, Hollywood Confidential, in five sections named for each stage of the grieving process, begging his readers to understand that this memoir of a particular period of his investigative and writing career was marked by his own grief at the deaths of powerful aspirations turned mirages: the deaths of seemingly strong friendships and the death of professional ambitions that evaporated. It is yet one more compelling book in Moldea’s archive.
The story begins in 2002 when an entertainment reporter named Anita Busch received a shocking threat: her car’s windshield had seemingly been shot through (it was later thought that the damage was most likely caused by a ball hammer and not a gun) and a dead fish was left on her windshield, accompanied by a note that said, “Stop.” It later became apparent that her phone had also been tapped along with her computer.
Busch had been a top editor at The Hollywood Reporter and later a staff writer for The Los Angeles Times. She suspected actor Steven Seagal and his one-time business partner Jules Nasso because of her current reporting on the influence of organized crime in Hollywood, including allegations about Seagal himself. It soon became apparent, however, that the party allegedly behind the threats and investigations into Busch was Hollywood heavyweight Michael Ovitz.
Ovitz was once among the most powerful individuals in Hollywood. He founded the Creative Artists Agency in 1975, a talent management firm that came to dominate its industry. After a brief and tumultuous stint as the Chief Operating Officer of The Walt Disney Company, he went back to the talent management business as the founder of Artists Management Group (AMG). While in the process of selling AMG a series of negative articles about AMG’s finances that were written by Bernie Weinraub and Anita Busch appeared in The New York Times. Those articles could have potentially cost Ovitz millions.
Originally, Moldea was to write the story of the threats to Ms. Busch along with her in a book to be shopped to publishers. He was introduced to Busch by a mutual friend, journalist David Robb. With the potential connections to organized crime in the threats and Moldea’s expertise in the subject, he was a natural partner to Busch on the project.
Moldea weaves the saga of Ovitz, the individuals he hired, and Anita Busch throughout the book and provides a different take to a story that has been widely published in the media. But, the more central story, inseparably entangled with the story of Hollywood secrets and corruption, is the personal toll that the eventually aborted book and its aftermath had on Moldea.
We were fortunate enough to have interviewed Moldea, covering much of his long career in investigative journalism. Many of his books are extremely well-regarded and if you have an interest in the mafia, the disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa, or the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, it seems impossible that you would not be familiar with his work. It can be said with almost no hesitation that he is the foremost expert on the disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa. Still, Moldea has not had the mainstream success he deserves. In large measure that is because of some of the targets he chose to take on early in his career. Those targets included Ronald Reagan (and his connections to the mafia through MCA) and the National Football League.
By 2002, when the sequence of events expounded upon in the book began to unfold, it had been four years since Moldea published a book and the material that his book with Busch was to contain would have been explosive had it been published contemporaneously to its writing – surely a book that would have been widely discussed and likely a best seller. Without saying so explicitly, it is clear that the project was a means for Moldea to fulfill deferred ambitions from earlier in his career when books that should have been explosive ran into the realities of the world. There is a marked change in tone as the book progresses and it becomes clearer that the project is doomed and with it the furthering deferrance of ambitions.
There should be no mistake, though, that the loss of friendships that were once extremely close and the manner in which they ended brought far more pain than the disappointment of the collapsed project itself.
In referencing the aftermath of his book Dark Victory about Ronald Reagan, MCA, and the mafia, Moldea simply said, “Forget it, Dan. It’s Chinatown.” The quote alludes to the Jack Nicholson film noir about the futility of opposing certain forces in the world. It could apply equally well to Hollywood Confidential where resisting formal Hollywood power structures and decisions by friends founded upon self-interest are vain pursuits.
I was more reminded of the film L.A. Confidential when reading the book, at first because of the similarity of the names. That film turned traditional film noir on its head by making the audience distrustful the most of the institutions they should have been able to trust, including the Los Angeles Police Department.
In Hollywood Confidential, if there is a unifying them it is that it is impossible at times to know who can be trusted. The police officers, wealthy and influential journalists, and power brokers are the ones whose closets reveal the most skeletons. More disarmingly, when money and ego are on the table, everyone better expect everyone else, even their best friends, to betray them eventually.
That the dominant themes of the personal story told and the investigation into Hollywood corruption parallel each so nicely, is what makes the book work so well. As journalist Arthur Koestler eloquently said, “Nothing is more sad than the death of an illusion.” In Hollywood Confidential Moldea offers proof to Koestler’s hypothesis many times over.