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Tinseltown Exposed

Bernard Rose skewers Hollywood in a dark adaptation of Tolstoy's "The Death of Ivan Ilyich."

by Naomi Pfefferman

June 13, 2002 | 8:00 pm

Top Hollywood agent Ivan Beckman (Danny Huston), center, and girlfriend, Charlotte (Lisa Enos), with superstar Don West (Peter Weller) in "ivansxtc."

Top Hollywood agent Ivan Beckman (Danny Huston), center, and girlfriend, Charlotte (Lisa Enos), with superstar Don West (Peter Weller) in "ivansxtc."

When Bernard Rose first met superagent Jay Moloney, the inspiration for his controversial new film, "ivansxtc," he was a hot young director courted by every agent in town. "I was staying at the Mondrian, and gifts would suddenly appear in my room," says the 41-year-old Jewish Brit, who had just made an acclaimed 1988 drama, "Paperhouse."

"There was champagne from William Morris, and limousines would come to take me to parties, and people would say outrageous things like, 'We're going to make you a star.'" It was really corny -- it all sounded like bad versions of 'Mephisto' -- but to be 'hot in Hollywood' was heady stuff for a man in his 20s."

One agent stood apart from the rest. Jay Moloney, then in his mid-20s, was boyish, charming, personable, a "good flatterer," Rose recalls. The heir apparent to Michael Ovitz at Creative Arts Agency (CAA), he also had a reputation for reeling in clients such as Martin Scorcese and Steven Spielberg. He promised Rose he could get his movies greenlit, and he delivered, pushing through the deal for his horror flick, "Candyman," and securing actor Gary Oldman for the 1994 Beethoven biopic, "Immortal Beloved."

At a glittering industry gala in 1995, the director recalls Moloney sitting at the head table next to Ovitz, Spielberg and late movie mogul Lew Wasserman. "At one point, Jay came over and said that Ovitz was about to leave CAA and that he was going to take over the agency," Rose recalls. "No one doubted him for a moment. And then the next thing I heard was that Jay had been fired for cocaine addiction."

Moloney all but disappeared, eventually resurfacing as a janitor at a Caribbean resort. "The speed with which he had fallen from grace struck me as chilling," Rose says during an interview in the Laurel Canyon home he shares with his wife, Lisa Enos, "ivansxtc's" producer, co-writer and female lead. "He had been like the dauphin who was going to be the new king, yet within a matter of months he was gone, banished, forgotten, might as well be dead."

Not long thereafter, Moloney came to mind when Rose decided to write and direct a contemporary version of Leo Tolstoy's novella, "The Death of Ivan Ilyich" -- about a social-climbing bureaucrat who achieves redemption on his deathbed. In Rose's operatic adaptation, czarist Russia becomes Hollywood and Ivan Ilyich becomes Ivan Beckman (Danny Huston), a Jewish agent who speedily ascends the company ladder. It's a world where Armani-suited powerbrokers betray clients, snort blow off women's thighs and dis scripts they haven't read.

Rose says he shot "ivansxtc" (pronounced "ecstasy") as an inexpensive independent film, using a high-definition digital camcorder, after Warner Bros. banned him from the editing room and "severely butchered" his previous Tolstoy adaptation, "Anna Karenina" (1996). He says he wanted to sidestep the studio system and to tackle the ultimate Tinseltown taboo: "Everything in Hollywood is designed to deny the reality of our mortality. People get face lifts and they go to the gym, but no one's gotten out alive yet."

The morning of the first "ivansxtc" screening in November 1999, life eerily imitated art. Rose's CAA agent, Adam Krentzman, called to say that Moloney had committed suicide by hanging himself in a hotel room. He was 35. "We watched the movie in stunned silence," Rose says of the screening.

The director alleges that while CAA had previously helped with the movie, even allowing him to film its weekly staff meeting, things changed after Moloney's death. He says the agency began a campaign against the film that prevented it from securing a distributor for a couple years. In the aftermath, he says he lost his house, his car and assorted possessions. "We don't even have a couch," he adds, gesturing around a living room that is bare, save for some old furniture and posters of Rose's films.

A CAA spokesman denied Rose's allegations.

If the babyfaced Rose demonstrates an air of defiance while discussing "ivansxtc," it's clear the trait is genetic. His mother, a British aristocrat, the granddaughter of the Earl of Jellicoe, married his observant Jewish father and subsequently became a Jew by choice (their children were converted in the 1960s).

When a London shtiebl refused to bar mitzvah the director's older brother, citing problems with his conversion, Rose's father founded a Conservative shul that now boasts more than 1,000 members. The young Rose regularly attended services until age 13, whereupon he purchased a 16mm camera with his bar mitzvah money. Two years later, he won the BBC young filmmakers' contest and went on to make MTV videos for bands such as UB40 and the Bronski Beat.

When he arrived in Hollywood around 1989, he says he was surprised to discover how open people were about being Jewish. "It's not something you really advertise in England," he explains. "But it's the dominant culture here, which is why I decided to make the character of Ivan Jewish." He pauses, then adds with a laugh, "I also had 'ivansxtc' yarmulkes made up for the crew rather than the requisite T-shirts."

On the set, life also imitated art. During Ivan's funeral sequence, a rabbi intones the "Kaddish" as a director lambastes his agent for selling him down the river for a more important client. The day Rose shot that scene, Krentzman, who portrays the aforementioned agent in the film, pulled him aside to say Universal had fired Rose from a project he had worked on for three years. "He said they loved my script so much they wanted a more important director," Rose wryly recalls.

The filmmaker hopes to avoid such problems by continuing to make indie flicks on inexpensive digital video. "I don't wish to work for hire anymore," he says.

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