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David McClintick's Exposé Left Hollywood Studios Gasping—but Now They're Bidding for the Movie Rights

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The hottest property in Hollywood this summer was not a film script or a corner lot on Rodeo Drive but a book about a real-life scandal in the film business itself. Industry executives were so eager to read about their bosses in the exposé Indecent Exposure that pirated advance copies were ricocheting around the six major studios months before publication. In August the book got a boost from a dramatic denouement in the case it describes: David Begelman, who had been charged with grand theft in 1978, thereby opening a Pandora’s box on financial finagling at the studios, was dismissed as chairman of United Artists. In addition, author David McClintick, 42, found one accolade all but incredible—serious negotiations to make Indecent Exposure into a movie. “All during the writing,” McClintick recalls, “I thought, ‘Gee, this would make a wonderful movie, but Hollywood wouldn’t touch it with a 10-foot pole.’ ”

Until recently McClintick was right. Enraged by the unflattering description of Begelman, some of his friends and protectors in Hollywood inner circles mounted a whispering campaign against the book. Producer Ray Stark, who had made films for Columbia while Begelman was head of the studio and who is portrayed as a Machiavellian figure in the book, contemptuously dubbed the author “the Jacqueline Susann of financial writing.” Neutral observers, however, have raved about McClintick’s work, calling it a meticulously researched account of the tangled web that Hollywood wags dubbed “Begelgate.” Last month McClintick’s book—a best-seller, with 133,000 hardcover copies in print—was auctioned to a paperback publisher for a reported $275,000. McClintick could collect a small fortune for the movie rights. “But I haven’t seen much money,” says McClintick guardedly.

Begelman’s spectacular fall began in February 1977, when actor Cliff Robertson questioned an IRS notification of a $10,000 payment from Columbia Pictures—money he had never received, for work he had never contracted to do. It was subsequently discovered that Begelman, then president at Columbia Pictures, had embezzled money from the studio by forging checks and padding his expense account. To McClintick, a Wall Street Journal reporter who exposed the $84,000 thefts, “It became clear over the months that there was far more to be told than just a scandal. There was a story of no-holds-barred infighting and bloodletting in contemporary show business.” In the ensuing power struggle at Columbia over Begelman’s fate, profits prevailed over ethics—and the loyalties of longtime friends. The success of several Begelman-backed films—notably the blockbuster Close Encounters of the Third Kind—temporarily saved the falling czar.

To reconstruct the brutal corporate battles, McClintick interviewed most of the major combatants, jogging their memory with painstakingly collected documentary evidence—appointment calendars, phone logs, diaries, court testimony and letters. Alan Hirschfield, then Columbia president and now chairman of 20th Century-Fox, emerges as the book’s pivotal character, and as a man more principled than many of his peers. Because of that portrayal, it was whispered in Hollywood that Hirschfield had bought McClintick off. “If he’d paid for the book, he’d certainly look better in it,” says McClintick. “If he bribed me, he didn’t get his money’s worth.”

McClintick is also seriously disturbed by an allegation that his book is anti-Semitic—one sentence that has raised hackles is, “Yiddish remains the second language of Hollywood.” To McClintick, “If anything, the book is pro-Semitic. It’s impossible to write about the contemporary film industry without acknowledging that most of the top executives are the cultural and psychological descendants of the people who founded it—first-and second-generation Jewish immigrants.” McClintick responds to charges of inaccuracy with categorical denials: “I invented nothing in the book—dialogue or anything else.” Producer Daniel Melnick concurs: “I got gooseflesh. As I read it I could hear myself talking.”

McClintick honed his investigative skills over 11 years with the Journal. Born in Kansas, the son of an oil equipment company executive, McClintick graduated from Harvard in 1962, studied journalism at Columbia University, and served with Army Intelligence. When Begelgate broke, the reporter saw his opportunity to become a full-time book writer.

McClintick has no illusions about reforming Hollywood. Begelman resigned from Columbia in 1978, when he was under indictment, only to be named president of MGM, which acquired United Artists the next year and installed him as chairman. Though UA axed him last month just as Indecent Exposure was published, Hollywood insiders attributed the downfall strictly to the failure of his films; of 11 Begelman releases at UA, only Poltergeist is a solid smash. But last month Begelman landed on his feet again as president of Sherwood Productions, a Hollywood company bankrolled by Bunker Hunt, the Texas billionaire. “Begelman is very much Hollywood royalty,” reflects McClintick. “Over the years he’s cultivated a strong network of friends and alliances that’s like a safety net.” Of Begelman’s resurgence McClintick says, “It’s Hollywood being true to form.”