October 22, 2008
Just a nice Jewish director: Public and private images of Brett Ratner clash in swirl of contradictions
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."