It’s not hard to understand why Nancy Griffin recently resigned as deputy editor of Premiere after the magazine company’s CEO killed an investigative piece on Planet Hollywood, insisting it had no place in what he called a ”fan magazine.” There’s nothing even remotely fawning about her Hit & Run: How Jon Peters and Peter Guber Took Sony for a Ride in Hollywood, coauthored with Kim Masters, a former Washington Post reporter and Premiere writer. Compared with this evisceration of the arrogant, spendthrift, cutthroat Guber and Peters in their reign at Columbia Pictures Entertainment, and their equally shameless colleagues — one former studio insider remembers them all as ”tiny little men in tiny little jeans endlessly high-fiving each other” — that spiked story on Planet Hollywood would probably seem like a wet kiss.
In describing how Sony lost $3.2 billion by hiring Guber and Peters as cochairmen, Griffin and Masters correct those who might believe that entertainment journalism is an oxymoron. Their meticulously researched account — they spoke to more than 200 people, including Peters, but not Guber — is partly a straight business story. In 1989, after Sony overpaid for Columbia, the company set itself up for what one insider calls ”the most public screwing in the history of the business” by picking an inexperienced management team. The Sony execs are made to look like ”the dumbest bastards that ever lived,” in the words of one source, by not realizing that Guber and Peters were underqualified and would run the studio into the ground with profligate spending and bombs like Radio Flyer. Though they appeared to have a great track record as producers, by dint of their association with such movies as Batman and Rain Man, the two had little hands-on filmmaking experience. ”Their greatest gift was for promotion,” write Griffin and Masters, ”especially self-promotion.”
Yet Hit & Run is at its most entertaining — and appalling — when read as a collective psychobiography of Hollywood suits. Its characters include everyone from Jeff Wald, Helen Reddy’s ex-husband, whose ”cocaine-ravaged face literally had to be pinned back together” in surgery, to Columbia executive Mark Canton, who promoted himself as a happily married family man yet once dined at Peters’ house in the company of Heidi Fleiss hookers dressed as French maids.
But the stars, of course, are the good cop/bad cop team of Guber and Peters, who variously schmoozed (Guber) and bullied (Peters) their way to the top. Peters’ story makes for better copy. The onetime hairdresser and Barbra Streisand paramour punched people out, jumped on a desk when enraged, and even caused legendary tough chick Dawn Steel to flee in terror when he advanced on her one morning. He was as imperious as he was volatile. When Peters arrived at the studio each day, the seventh-grade dropout had his driver call ahead so that a guard would be holding the door for him and another staffer would be poised to press the elevator button.
Guber, the smoother and more sedate of the two, was actually, of course, the real killer. The pair frequently attended joint therapy sessions, sometimes even holding hands. ”I love you,” Peters recalls Guber telling him during one typically hypocritical session. ”No, I don’t love you — I feel like I’m in love with you.”
And in the end, Peters’ fists were no match for Guber’s velvet gloves. When Peters and his antics became too much of a liability for Sony, Guber arranged in 1991 for his partner of 12 years to be fired, as if he were dismissing his gardener. Peters later broke down and wept in front of Guber (who was dumped himself in 1994). ”How could you do this?” he cried. How, indeed? It’s a question asked not nearly enough in Hollywood, but in Hit & Run, for once, you get a book that dares to give real answers. A