October 22, 2008
Just a nice Jewish director: Public and private images of Brett Ratner clash in swirl of contradictions
I've been cornered downstairs in the gold lamé disco basement at Brett Ratner's house and he's hitting on me. |
His insistence suggests he's accustomed to getting his way with this, and I'm trying not to think about the surroundings -- a wealthy bachelor's lavish playpen, which quite conspicuously insinuates sex.
"Can we go on a date?" Ratner asks, drawing closer. "My mom loves you."
He doesn't seem to care that I'm a journalist on assignment or that when he offered to give me a tour of his Benedict Canyon manse, I was thrilled to explore the architecture: a Tudor-style estate designed by Hoover Dam architect Gordon Kaufman.
I push him away and tell him I'm seeing someone, but he insists that shouldn't matter since I'm not yet married.
"I really want to pursue you," he says in his soft, almost effeminate voice. "When are we going out? I like you. Are you gonna make me wait? Don't make me wait."
Not like he made me wait. I first met Ratner at American Jewish University back in March, when he was presenting a lucky screenwriter with the $10,000 Bruce Geller screenwriting prize. He ordered me a cocktail and gave me his phone number. I texted him a few weeks later, asking for an interview. "Do I get a date with that?" he replied. When he guest-edited the summer edition of Heeb Magazine, appropriately titled, "The Notorious Issue" (and, also appropriately, featuring the "first-ever Jewish swimsuit calendar" with Israeli supermodel Bar Rafaeli), I texted again -- to no avail.
I had just about given up when, lunching with a few friends, I saw him pacing through the M Café parking lot, talking on his cell phone. He seemed less intimidating, wearing baggy jeans that left half his behind exposed. Choosing not to interrupt his conversation (which he later told me was with Oliver Stone), I sent him one last message, hijacking his favorite mantra as a final plea: "Don't take no for an answer." He has often told the story of how in high school he wrangled his way onto Brian DePalma's "Scarface" set, then into NYU film school and ultimately, Hollywood.
"OK!!" he wrote back. "Be at my house at 7 p.m." and gave me his address.
Ratner is hardly unusual as a successful Hollywood director with a bad-boy reputation. At just 39, his eight feature films -- including the popular "Rush Hour" franchise, starring Chris Tucker and Jackie Chan; "X-Men: The Last Stand," a Marvel Comics adaptation; and "Red Dragon," adapted from Thomas Harris' Hannibal Lecter series -- have grossed more than $1 billion and earned their director a $7.5 million-per-picture paycheck. Despite the fact that this feat places him in the company of only a handful of directors who've reached this milestone before the age of 40, it's the slimmer side of Ratner's renown. To the director's dismay, he is probably more famous for his jet-setting lifestyle: bacchanalian parties, beautiful girlfriends and power-player comrades. To the press, Ratner is fond of complaining that he is the most misunderstood director in Hollywood.
Ratner is the first to admit his public image trumps his talent profile. "I think I'm probably the most misunderstood person," he told me when we sat down to talk at his house one night last August. "I don't drink; I don't do drugs. Do I like to have fun? Yeah. Do I like to enjoy myself, enjoy my life? Yeah. But I'm not a decadent person. I'm not into dark stuff. I'm just a nice Jewish kid from Miami Beach who loves movies and pretty girls."
Ratner may think of himself as a nice Jewish boy, but in gossip rags he is routinely depicted as a devil-may-care narcissist with proclivities toward womanizing and decadent behavior. In the mainstream press, his work as a filmmaker is often assailed, criticism that he has categorically dismissed. "Critics are snobs," he told The Miami Herald in August 2007. "People like [Roman Polanski] know that it's easier to make a pretentious art movie than a movie that makes f---ing $500 million."
Despite his grievance with the press, Ratner praises Scott Foundas of LA Weekly as "the only journalist who got me" for his profile that said, "Brett Ratner is a talented filmmaker who deserves to be taken seriously," suggesting that the ruthless criticism he's engendered may come because people are jealous of Ratner "enjoying his life too much."
If Ratner comes off as arrogant, it's probably because at a young age, he has amassed all the glory Hollywood can bestow -- wealth, fame, powerful friends. Still, he is denied the artistic legitimacy that would justify his meteoric rise to the upper echelons of Hollywood. It must hurt that when people hear about the company he keeps -- Warren Beatty, Robert Evans, Oliver Stone, Francis Ford Coppola -- the typical reaction is, "Why him?"
Before I met him, I had heard all of this. But I also knew about his Judaism -- surely the least scintillating part of Ratner's persona but perhaps the most accessible. Understanding Ratner as a yeshiva-educated, high-school-in-Israel alum, who is also the youngest member of the Simon Wiesenthal Center's Board of Trustees, led me to believe there might be more to Brett Ratner than could fit his narrow Hollywood image. Could he be a playboy party animal who secretly craves monogamy? Does he enjoy making blockbusters -- or does he dream of directing the next "Schindler's List"? Is he a self-important megalomaniac or a hard-working artist who is living his childhood dream?
More importantly, does Ratner himself know?
"I always knew I was gonna be making films because it was the only thing I was thinking about 24 hours a day," he says. "My dream was not to be in Hollywood. My dream was to make movies."
The first person I meet when I arrive at Ratner's house is his mother. Visiting from New York, she sits in the living room of Hilhaven Lodge, talking on the phone in her slightly nasal, Miami-New York inflection. She appears striking in this classic setting, dressed in a yellow cashmere cardigan and art deco frames -- her youthful contrivances recall that, having given birth to Ratner out of wedlock at age 16, her own youth was cut short.
Ratner grew up on Miami Beach, where, beginning in preschool, he attended RASG Hebrew Academy until he was expelled in the eighth grade for touching a female classmate. He proudly claims he was kicked out for "negiyah." During his youth, Ratner's young mother was more like a sister to him, while his Cuban Jewish maternal grandparents, Mario and Fanita Pressman, raised him. Since Ratner didn't meet his biological father until he was 16, he called high-powered Miami attorney Al Malnik (a multimillionaire entrepreneur best known for having represented mobster Meyer Lansky) his father. Malnik had a formidable influence on Ratner: "If I wasn't a director, I'd definitely be a gangster. I'd have to use my street smarts. But with gangsters, money is their God, and I don't know if I would kill people," Ratner said.
The well-known story that follows is: After sweet-talking his way onto the "Scarface" set, Ratner dropped out of high school to attend NYU film school, where he was initially rejected for poor grades but eventually managed to charm the dean, who admitted him. Desperate for cash to finish his student film, he sent request letters to many Hollywood directors but only one responded -- Steven Spielberg, with a check for $1,000.
"I always knew he would be famous," his mother, Marsha Ratner-Pratts, tells me, gleaming.
Channeling the vestiges of glamour that haunt the house like wild spirits, Ratner-Pratts does her best to fit in. The house has a storied past -- from residents Ingrid Bergman to Alan Carr (producer of "Grease") -- and its current inhabitant ensures its continuing relevance. Traipsing around here might mean an encounter with a canon of Hollywood legends -- from Ratner's close friends, Beatty, Evans and Russell Simmons, to the glamorous younger stars who show up for his parties, Penelope Cruz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Paris Hilton and Jay-Z. But screen legends begone, on this ordinary evening in August, the reigning queen of Hilhaven Lodge is a Jewish mother -- and she lets her son get away with everything.
The scene in Ratner's bedroom is a microcosm of his life. There's a filmmaker who needs a favor, a student looking for work, assistants carrying out orders and writer-director James Toback, screenwriter of "Bugsy," lying on the couch, oscillating in and out of consciousness.
When I first greet Ratner, there's a queue of people ahead of me, all needing something. And he makes everyone wait their turn, because they will.
"Didn't I see you today?" Ratner asks, recognizing me not as the journalist who's been pestering him for an interview but as the blonde who passed him on the street after lunch.
His mother shows me some photographs lining the bottom shelf of his bookcase: a portrait of her when she was young, another from Ratner's film school graduation and many with his celebrity friends, Dino De Laurentiis, Mariah Carey, Michael Jackson.
"That's Brett's girlfriend," she says, pointing to a picture of her son with an exotic, dark-haired beauty. This gets the director's attention.
"No, we broke up!" Ratner cuts in, placing the framed photograph back on the shelf. "I can't marry her. She's not Jewish."
He points out his book collection on the other side of the bookshelf, noting the values.
"These are all photographs of people having sex in parks," Ratner announces, poring over his collection of art books. He picks out a limited-edition volume by Ed Ruscha, which he values at $5,000.
"This is like $100,000 in books right here," he says, sweeping his arm across the bookcase.
Ratner's taste in art and photography is undeniably highbrow. His shelves teem with examples: Leni Riefenstahl's "1936," Alessandro Bertolotti's "Book of Nudes," Fellini's "Mirror of Venus," Picasso, architect Jean Prouvé, French photographer Guy Bourdin. Andy Warhol's General Mao portrait dangles in various iterations throughout the house. (Asked why he chose the Mao, he exclaims, "It's Andy Warhol! The greatest artist who ever lived.") Splayed across his bed is a collection of Helmut Newton photographs, a recent gift from the artist's widow.
"She gave these to you?" his mother asks, incredulous.
After tending to everyone else first, Ratner is finally ready to talk. He sits on the couch along the far window of the room, in between Toback and a film student whom he's meeting for the first time. He leans back and rests his face in his hands, legs propped up on the ottoman, just a few feet shy of his bed.
He turns toward Toback and talks about me as if I weren't there: "I saw her today, and I wanted to chase her down the street."
"You don't chase after girls," I counter.
"You I would chase 'cause you look like a WASP," Ratner says, as if that were supposed to flatter me. "What's the point of this article? Is it about Judaism?" Ratner asks.
I tell him that I'm interested in Jews who work in Hollywood.
"Jews used to run Hollywood," Toback chimes in. "But what we see now is the diminishing of Jews in power."
Toback proceeds to rattle off the names of media moguls.
"Rupert Murdoch, not a Jew; Bob Iger, not a Jew ...."
(For the record: Iger, head of The Walt Disney Co., is a Jew.)
"Walt Disney hated Jews," Ratner says.
"Sumner Redstone is a Jew, but he'd probably like not to be, since his real name is Sumner Rothstein, but he is a Jew, so that's one, but then Kerkorian -- well, Kerkorian is out of the business now. There are so few f---ing places with Jews left. Oh and Sony," Toback adds.
I mention Amy Pascal, co-chair of Sony Pictures Entertainment.
"I'm talking about the corporate control," Toback fires back. "Amy Pascal is an employee -- the people who can fire Amy Pascal."
"The Jews have lost ownership of the movie business," Toback claims.
Ratner tries to change the subject: "Let's make a list of the most powerful Jewish directors," he jokes.
As a kid who grew up in love with "old Hollywood," Ratner's passion for movies is unbridled and nostalgic. He talks about "Scarface" and "Raging Bull" as if they were spiritually enlightening. He reveres the auteur-driven cinema of Martin Scorsese, Coppola and Spielberg, the so-called "movie brats" of 1970s Hollywood, whose film school education graduated them from being mere directors to "filmmakers." In a way, Ratner is a love child of the cinematic revolution that they started, but he works in a changed industry.
"I love old Hollywood because old Hollywood, for one, was run by Jews. Two, the people who ran the studios were the guys who bought the first pencil for their company. That's what I loved about New Line [Cinema], dealing with Bob Shaye -- if I need some money for my film, I get a 'yes' or a 'no' directly from a guy who owns the company and bought the first pencil," he says. "Now it's become such a corporate kind of conglomerate business."
The irony is that Ratner is a prize in today's Hollywood, when only four out of every 10 films turn a profit, according to the Association of Motion Picture and Television Producers, banking at the box office makes you something of an idol. Unlike the maverick filmmakers of the '70s who started a countercultural shift with the kinds of movies they made, Ratner works in an industry where films that pander to the lowest common denominator often have the widest appeal and make the most money.
"Look, I make big, commercial Hollywood films so I'm very lucky to do that, but the business is completely changing, and I'm very old fashioned. I revere guys like Jim [Toback], who are legendary in Hollywood, and Warren Beatty and Bob Evans, because they've seen it all and survived in a different system. They were the mavericks, the rebels of the business," he says.
"You can't really become that anymore, because it's a different world. Bob Shaye was the last of those guys. Now the film companies are so big, the business is so big, the cost of making movies is so big. You can't have your own personality. You have to be part of a system."
Ratner's edgy artistic tastes contrast with his mainstream work as a director. At first, it might seem that his penchant for high culture somehow belies the sensibilities that define his own artistic expression. Considering the movies he makes, his highbrow interests are confounding; his favorite films are the product of an elite film school education, and the art and photography he owns are indicative of a sophisticated eye. Even his home, far from being an overwrought "McMansion," is instead an architectural gem.
And while art collecting is common in Hollywood -- both because it can be a good investment and enhances social caché -- Ratner's interest in art represents his own educated taste. So while nary a room in his house is without a nude photo, Ratner's interest is not necessarily in the pornographic, so much as the erotic. In other words, he is a connoisseur of the best of what's popular, not lowbrow. And it's a mistake to assume that because his movies are commercially successful they lack artistic sophistication.
"I happen to have a commercial sensibility, because my interests happen to be the interests of the mainstream audiences. It's because I am a student of urban culture, which became pop culture," Ratner says.
He attributes the development of those sensibilities as a filmmaker to growing up during the zeitgeist of the street culture explosion, when hip-hop began taking root as a cultural phenomenon. He credits his friend Simmons for mainstreaming that culture and marketing it through the creation of Def Jam Records.
"Everything black was always cool," he says. "When I was a kid, the black kids were always the coolest kids -- the kids who knew how to dance, the fastest runners; they knew how to fight, they were athletic, they had the coolest clothes. I took all my bar mitzvah money and went and bought the entire line of Fila."
But, he says, "I didn't want to be black. I wasn't one of those white kids acting black. I knew who I was."
The notion that urban culture informs Ratner's work also supports his belief that being a good director has less to do with content and more to do with style.
"The films I loved, you know, were not the films that I necessarily would make." Ratner explains. "The best filmmakers have a point of view. I see movies that have no style, no personality, no charm, no individuality, no whatever. They could be directed by anybody."
"What I'm proud of is that I have friends that admire my work, like him [points to Toback] and friends like Polanski and even Warren that recognize it," he says. "Because directors aren't snobs; they're critics. Directors recognize a good movie when they see one -- a well-made movie, a movie with great performances. They don't care about the genre. We know how hard it is to make a movie that works."
Ratner has a point. During a time when independent films are drowning at the box office and critically acclaimed filmmakers can't get financing for their films, the ability to make a movie that sells has trumped artistry.
But as a cinephile, Ratner also knows that there's more to moviemaking than nine figures -- "If I compared myself to Steven Spielberg, I wouldn't be a happy person."
Full of contradictions, Ratner is both self-satisfied and frustrated. He is a grand self-promoter who name-drops heavyweights in Hollywood almost every other sentence. But he also seems desperate to be taken seriously by all the people and the press who, because of his playboy reputation, continue to dismiss him as the flavor of the month. This has been the most challenging piece of Ratner's otherwise glorious reign in modern Hollywood.
"The hardest lesson that I've learned is that somehow my public image affects the opinions of my work, which is crazy because my work is my work. My public life is my public life. If I choose to date every girl in this town, which I don't do, but I'm saying if I chose to ... " he says, having trouble finishing the rest of his thought.
"I don't judge people. But because I have some image thing, people would say, 'Oh, will they not take me seriously?'"
His voice trails off, and, for a moment, I wonder if Ratner, who calls himself "a pathologically positive person," is allowing himself to be vulnerable.
"The people who are real filmmakers -- real producers like Brian Grazer and Chuck Roven, the producer of "Batman" -- these guys all want to work with me 'cause they don't give a s--- about my personal life."
If it's true that Ratner has impressed the most important people in the movie business and if his films continue to top box office charts, he's likely to have staying power. At the same time, Hollywood is a fickle industry, and Ratner's overconfidence may be masking his own fear of failure.
"My movies are just movies that people want to go see," he says, even though he admits eventual failure is "guaranteed."
Ratner views his success as the product of hard work. To succeed in Hollywood, he says, it's more important to be self-aware and know your limitations. He even has a formula: "I always say, you could have 90 percent talent and 10 percent effort, and you'll be less successful than someone with 90 percent effort and 10 percent talent." He doesn't aspire to be the best director in the world but promises he'll work harder than the best director in the world.
"I'm blessed for one reason: Because I knew what I wanted to do my whole life, and it wasn't because I read stories about directors getting laid. It wasn't about the wealth and the Hollywood of it all, the bulls---. I don't give a s--- if the biggest stars in the world are all hanging in my living room at a party. They'll all be there, and I'll be sitting in the back having a conversation about filmmaking. I care about filmmakers," he says.
Some could argue that Ratner's passion for moviemaking is what keeps him grounded amidst the whirlwind of his success. Others might suggest it's his family and friends. His maternal grandparents currently live in the guesthouse of Hilhaven Lodge, and it has been suggested that in the absence of his biological father, Ratner has engaged in relationships with older, male friends -- paternal types -- as a substitute.
"If you're not down-to-earth, everything starts to fall apart because you start to believe the hype. You get self-involved, and then you become an asshole, and then people just want to see you fail," Ratner admits.
There's also Ratner's strong Jewish identity. Though he says he is no longer observant, he also says "the discipline, the praying, the culture, the Jewish law, everything that I've learned is what grounded me and made me the person I am today."
He considers himself pro-Israel. He counts Marvin Hier as his Los Angeles rabbi. And every now and then, he enjoys putting on tefillin with Ron Perelman in Perelman's private chapel in New York.
"I'm not religious anymore, but I'm still spiritual," he says. "I realized God loves me if I'm religious or not. The truth is, I believe in God. I fear God. I'm very close to my family; I love the Jewish customs and traditions -- I have mezuzahs on every door."
What he's missing is feeling connected to a Jewish community. He says there are too many self-hating Jews in Hollywood.
Those are the last thoughts he shares seriously, before asking if I think my parents will like him. A bit restless, he offers to show me around Hilhaven Lodge.
"Where's my journalist?" Ratner shouts after our house tour. I'm enjoying a moment's reprieve in the bar adjacent to the living room, wondering why someone who doesn't drink has enough alcohol to supply a West Hollywood nightclub -- for six months. Ratner's filmmaker-friend, Jeff Vespa, who recently screened his short film, "Nosebleed," at the Cannes Film Festival, has come to show it tonight for Ratner's feedback. The director insists I sit next to him for the screening, which a group of 10 watches on his state-of-the-art home-theater projection system. Ratner drapes his arm around me and tries to hold my hand. Usually, I can confidently extricate myself from unpleasant situations, but here, admittedly, I failed.
Compelled to entertain while he has a captive audience, Ratner decides he is going to play one of my favorite films, Albert Lamorisse's "The Red Balloon," and I'm tempted to stay. But his advances are increasing, and although flattering, I'm sensing the interview is over -- and if I don't want my shoes winding up in the "ex-girlfriend" section of his mahogany walk-in closet (beneath the high-couture gowns), it's time to go.
His assistant summons him to the bedroom, where she is packing his suitcase for an early morning departure to Paris. Seizing an exit opportunity, I leave the red balloon swirling through the streets of Paris and collect my belongings. Because, while Ratner is many things, he is not someone you can say "no" to easily. I didn't say no to Ratner. I told him, "Thank you" and "goodbye."
Then, I put this story to rest for a while.
Months later, contemplating Ratner is still mystifying for me. After spending time with him, clearly he's earned his reputation as a Hollywood lothario, but it also seems somehow calculated -- as if Ratner (like his friend Paris Hilton) has created an image to project that he believes the public wants -- an image that sells. And he's a hero to Jewish boys everywhere who, relying on talent and smarts, realize they don't have to look like Brad Pitt to be a king in Hollywood. In truth, Ratner is more than his sum reputation, and trying to figure him out means accepting all the contradictory facets of his personality.
Yet, Ratner probably knows himself better than we think.
"I never thought about being rich, having a big house -- all I thought about was making movies. The cars -- all this s---, all this s--- can go. If I can still make movies, I don't give a s---, all this s---, all my books, all my art, I don't care. I just have it because it's the benefit of being successful."
"If you're in it for the wrong reasons," he added. "You won't last."