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Overseeing Turner's Empire

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If all had gone according to plan, Crash, the David Cronenberg film that won a special jury prize at this year’s Cannes film festival for its ”audacity and daring and originality,” would have driven into U.S. theaters Oct. 4. But that was before Crash ran into a roadblock in the form of Ted Turner. As the top gun at Fine Line Features, a division of New Line Cinema, Turner took one look at Cronenberg’s bizarre movie about people who are sexually aroused by car wrecks and ordered execs to hit the brakes.

Now Crash has been delayed until next spring, and the out-on-the-edge Canadian director has a few choice phrases for the man who is never at a loss for words. ”[Turner] did what amounts to behind-the-scenes censorship of my movie,” says Cronenberg, letting loose after a few weeks of quiet seething, ”which I resent, to say the least.” Crash star Holly Hunter is less diplomatic than her director: ”It’s very reminiscent of Jesse Helms,” she says with fury. ”Ted Turner’s moral fascism has no place in the entertainment industry.”

There are many who might feel that the subject matter of Crash, not Turner’s viewpoint, is indicative of what’s wrong with the entertainment industry. (In England, the head of a national film office is reportedly trying to ban the film.) But Turner’s run-in with Cronenberg is only the latest in a series of controversial decisions by the media mogul. He’s still fielding flak for disowning Bastard Out of Carolina, Anjelica Huston’s directorial debut produced by TNT television, after screening it in April. Shocked by Bastard‘s graphic scenes of molestation and child abuse, Turner not only dropped it from TNT but reportedly discouraged New Line and Fine Line from buying the film and releasing it theatrically. (Turner executives insist the latter is untrue.) Huston, who is reluctant to criticize Turner, still sounds bruised, calling the ordeal ”my trials and tribulations at Turner.”

Challenges of another sort buffeted Turner Nov. 8. Citing unnamed sources, Daily Variety claimed Turner had delayed the TNT movie Strange Justice, based on a pro-Anita Hill book, because he feared it would antagonize Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas before the court’s ruling on an important cable regulatory issue, the FCC’s must-carry rule. Brad Siegel, TNT’s president, firmly denies this allegation. ”The notion that this has been put on hold for political reasons is simply not true,” says Siegel. ”We are continuing to develop and refine it.” Daily Variety‘s Dan Cox says the paper is standing by its story.

Put it all together and Turner, fresh from a dispute with News Corp. chairman Rupert Murdoch over cable-TV access in New York City, is suddenly front and center in the long-smoldering debate between artistic license and restraint on sexuality and violence in entertainment (with the suggestion of political maneuvering also thrown into the mix). He’s hardly alone in the argument: According to a Nov. 12 New York Times story, such retail chains as Blockbuster (and, for CDs, Wal-Mart) are making a profoundly conservative impact on the way videos are edited and marketed. But among those who decide up front what films and TV movies get made and seen, no one is flexing more moral muscle than Turner. And his outspoken opinions could cause ripples in the pool of companies — from such Turner TV and movie holdings as TNT and Castle Rock to HBO and Warner Bros. studios — that Turner either technically oversees or may influence as the new vice chairman of Time Warner (EW’s parent company).

This is not the first time Turner has been outraged by Hollywood-style sex and violence. Turner decried ”the blood and gore” in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver in an on-air CNN editorial in 1982. Three years ago, he testified against violence on TV at a congressional hearing. And he was among the 30 or so media titans who gathered at the White House last February to hear Clinton’s plan to insert specially coded V-chips into TV sets, enabling even absent parents to control what their kids watch.

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