Cathy's World: Hollywood Slaves

By CATHERINE SEIPP   |   May 29, 2002 at 12:18 PM

LOS ANGELES, May 29 (UPI) -- Did you hear about the lowly magazine assistant who got fired last week for complaining about her inconsiderate bosses? According to the New York Post's Page Six, Hearst magazines powers-that-be traced the anonymous rant posted on Mediabistro.com and sacked the hapless factotum.

Anyone familiar with the bitch pit of women's magazines probably isn't too surprised at this. But what struck me was the mildness of the bosses' transgressions listed in the complaint.

They demanded, for instance, that assistants water office plants and run to the store to buy candy. They also crowded up the office fridge -- pushing aside the assistants' lonely little yogurts -- with the moldering remains of expense-account lunch leftovers.

What's the matter? Don't they have any imagination in New York?

Here in Hollywood, people really know how to torture their assistants. In fact, there seems to be some sort of code that any fleeting moment of respite must be immediately filled making calls to the boss's contacts just to make sure that they still exist.

An example is the triple whammy I once got from the office of publicist Michael Levine, which took about half a day to unfold:

11 a.m. "Oh! I'm so sorry! I didn't think you'd answer the phone!" stammered Levine's assistant. "Mr. Levine just wanted me to make sure this was still your number."

3 p.m. "Can you hold for Michael Levine?"

3:05 p.m. "I'm sorry, can Mr. Levine call you back later?"

You know, why don't they just make their assistants call and ask, "Is your refrigerator running?" It would get to the point quicker.

But that's just run-of-the-mill silly busywork. It doesn't take long delving into the wacky, anal-explosive world of Hollywood before you get to the really weird tales of woe.

I thought the worst assistant story I'd ever hear was the one about the girl who had to take her boss's stool sample to the doctor. Then someone told me about the female producer/manager who made her assistant follow her into the bathroom and take dictation while she was sitting on the toilet.

Producer Scott Rudin is a legendarily bad boss, famous for once going through 30 lackeys in a 15-month period. Rudin, another producer once told me, had the digital readout on his office phone system programmed to demand "String cheese NOW!" at the press of a button. He once threw a tantrum on a movie set when someone brought him the wrong kind of sushi.

Here's how the king of assistant-abusers is remembered by one of his former slaves:

"I walked into the office at 7:30 a.m. and picked up the messages," a former assistant of Rudin's recalled. "And there were messages time-stamped 11 p.m., midnight, 2 a.m., 4 a.m., 6:30 a.m., all from Scott -- the guy doesn't sleep -- saying, 'Remind me to send flowers for Anjelica Huston's birthday.' 'Remind me to call Mike Ovitz.' Then the phone rings -- it's 7:35 a.m. -- and it's Scott, saying, 'Start on those calls.'

"This goes on until about 11 a.m. He's in the office now. I'm making calls, and suddenly he screams, 'You a******! You forgot to remind me to get flowers for Anjelica Huston's birthday!' And as he slowly disappears behind his automatic closing door, the last thing I see is his finger, flipping me off."

Memorable as this incident was, the assistant was reluctant to call Rudin the worst boss in Hollywood. "Every executive at every studio," he said, "is the worst."

Then there are the movie stars, and their many, many needs. Although tense and pressured while working, they can be positively dangerous when unemployed.

"One of my duties was to select a maid, and she went berserk because the maid didn't fold her underwear properly," recalled one of Faye Dunaway's former assistants, who lasted a month during one of the actress's idle periods.

"One day I came to the house and the maid and the nanny were out sitting in the car. They said, 'She's having a fight with her boyfriend, and they're throwing things.' Also, she bought all this expensive exercise equipment, and I must have returned it three times. She'd say, 'Oh, my head doesn't fit the cushion right.' It was like 'Mommy Dearest.'"

But despite the peccadilloes of celebrities, truly nasty behavior seems to be the province of producers, studio executives and the dozens of power-mad agents who would be king.

"Movie stars may make you do personal errands and stuff," an agent's assistant told me, "but agents all went through the same hazing and make you go through it too. I used to work for this one agent who was a total dweeb. He'd make me sit in his office while he randomly called good-looking female executives and got turned down for dates. I'd keep saying, 'Can I go now?' And he'd say, 'No, you just sit.'"

Then there was the infamous 12-page, single-spaced memo passed around years ago that Barry Diller's regular assistant wrote to a temporary assistant in preparation for a trip Diller was taking to New York.

Among the instructions: All hotel brochures and stationery must be tucked away in drawers; two bathrobes (in case there's a guest) must be in the room at all times; a cigarette package must be on the night stand, opened and with two cigarettes conveniently propped out.

"By now," the memo announced about halfway through, "you are probably in tears..."

Why do assistants put up with it? For one thing, a top celebrity personal assistant can make up to $100,000 per year, according to John C. Havens, author of the book "How to Become a Celebrity Personal Assistant."

Celebrities, Havens explains, especially need "Internet-savvy, technologically competent employees" who can make the Palm Pilot interface with the computer or just "send an e-greeting to Mom." (The celebrity's Mom, that is. And yes, let's pause for a moment to consider the pathos of this situation.)

In Los Angeles, an enterprising woman named Denise Van Zant started a company called Chores-N-More for people who just need occasional personal assistants. Once client called Chores-N-More because she wanted a companion for weekly shopping excursions to Rodeo Drive.

(Is there a hymn called "You'll Never Shop Alone?" For some reason I'm hearing it swell in the background right now...)

Also, for all the stories about flunkies who quit the business in disgust, there are others about those who didn't and rose to run studios (and boss around assistants) themselves. But not all job titles, especially at the beginning, mean an end to slavery.

"Who's that poor girl?" a visitor to a Joel Silver set once asked, having just witnessed the action producer scream at a young woman to get up and wipe off his chair, which was damp.

"Oh," came the answer, "that's the associate producer."

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