A Hollywood Outcast Treats the Stars to An Acid-Dip Memoir
Liza Minnelli, at the 1976 Golden Globe Awards, is reported snorting coke behind the stall in the ladies’ room. During the filming of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Richard Dreyfuss has a propensity for downing eight ounces of vodka in a few fast gulps and one day passes out on the set. Music and film producer David Geffen is described as having “a puffed-out face…which makes [him] look like a middle-aged baby.” Director Martin Scorsese cast Cybill Shepherd in Taxi Driver “for her big ass, a retro Italian gesture.”
If all this seems a little rough, it should be noted that Julia Phillips, who slings these barbs in You’ll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again—a book so controversial that, in the same week, it sold out in Los Angeles and cost her a producing job—is equally hard on herself. Phillips, 46, is a Hollywood prodigy turned pariah. She was the first woman producer to win an Academy Award, for The Sting—which she made in 1973, at age 29, with then-husband Michael Phillips and actor Tony Bill. She went on to produce Scorsese’s 1976 Taxi Driver and Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind in 1977. She also ruined her career with drugs, burning up her professional bridges and most of her private life and fortune.
Earning what she estimates as “between seven and 10 million dollars” in four years, Phillips spent $120,000 on cocaine in two months at the height of her addiction in the late ’70s. At that time, she writes, her business manager told her she owed $774,000 in taxes. “I’ve never seen anyone spend quite so much in one year,” he said. “Oh, yeah,” Phillips responded, “well, you try doing a quarter ounce of freebase a day with a boyfriend who keeps destroying your house.”
Why write such a brutal book—except for the fact, as Phillips admits, that she desperately needs money? “I’m just being honest,” she says in her funky old house in Hollywood’s Benedict Canyon. “I didn’t write the book to get back in the business. I had to accept the fact that I wasn’t in the business before I wrote the book. There is no rancor.”
But her aggressive style of dress—which can best be described as in-your-face—and almost every word she writes belie her. The clothes are punk tough, the graying hair cut brush and brash as a Marine’s. A chain-smoker, Phillips jumps on her exercise bike four times a day—and still it seems insufficient to burn off the energy and pain and rage. Pain at being pushed out—as she sees it—from the producers’ club; rage at Hollywood sexism. All coupled with that quality which, she says, made her at first amusing and then appalling to the all-male powers of Hollywood: an inability to shut her funny but formidable mouth.
“I keep saying, ‘When is everyone going to notice that Mike Ovitz [head of the Creative Artists Agency, the most powerful in Hollywood] first ruined movies, then sold out to the Japanese?’ ” she says. “And everyone keeps going, ‘Shhhh.” ‘
Least of all is she discreet in Lunch. Lawyers at Random House, her publisher, excised or revised approximately 25 percent of the 1,000 pages Phillips turned in. Nevertheless, many big names are furious. She says that the maître d’ at Morton’s, a chic eatery, recently told her he could no longer take her reservations: Some 20 high-powered regulars wanted her out. (Owner Peter Morton subsequently told PEOPLE, “If there’s room, she’s welcome.”) Producer David Geffen, one of the town’s richest men, fired Phillips from her one job: producing a movie of Anne Rice’s novel Interview with the Vampire.
“How are you going to make the creative process work when somebody is there reporting about meetings and reporting them inaccurately?” Geffen says. “She had me saying I consider myself a better filmmaker than Stanley Kubrick. Kubrick is a genius, a friend of mine. And I don’t even consider myself a filmmaker.”
Most others who are targeted have declined to comment, some saying they have not yet read the book.
Lunch is not merely a snort-and-tell compendium, it’s a scathing, witty, fearless documentary of Hollywood life in which no detail is too intimate, no assessment too cutting. Here, for example, is Phillips’s account of a hospital visit to producer Jeff Wald (ex-husband of Helen Reddy), recovering from surgery after years of cocaine abuse: “Mr. Wald is not that great looking to begin with, and this operation is wreaking havoc on his face. For starters, they have pinned his left eye I back on] with pins with little colored balls at the end. Just now he is sporting orange and blue. His mouth is already fixed in a permanent snarl because of childhood polio. He could end up with his facial features looking like a Picasso.”
Wald is not upset. “She reported the truth.” he says.
As for the others. Phillips is used to harsh talk. The elder of two children, she was raised in the brainy, opinionated milieu of Greenwich Village, her father a gifted scientist, her mother a brilliant, impossible-to-please woman who was dependent on tranquilizers. “My mother was this kind of ’50s Miltown freak,” says Phillips. “She had a terrible temper, though she was screamingly funny. Nothing was ever good enough for her. Once she made me rewrite a school paper five times. I was 8 years old.”
After graduating from Mount Holyoke in 1965, Julia married Dartmouth grad Michael Phillips. She became a story editor at Paramount’s New York City office, then hooked up with producer David Begelman. When Julia found a script entitled Steelyard Blues, the Phillipses and their friend Tony Bill went into business for themselves. Optioned together with The Sting for $3,500, Steelyard earned them $100,000. The Phillipses rented a house in Malibu, fell in with a flashy film set and had a daughter. Life was good.
But drugs—even before she hit Hollywood—were also part of her scene. In New York City, says Joni Evans, an old friend as well as her editor, Phillips was “always on a slant, always on cocaine.” She wasn’t, however, says Evans, “a drug person. What she was about was extraordinary drive and energy and saying what she felt.”
By the evening Phillips picked up her Academy Award for The Sting, she was a drug person by anyone’s standard. She downed, she writes, “a diet pill, a small amount of coke, two joints, six halves of Valium, and a glass and a half of wine.” Two years later, producing Close Encounters, her marriage breaking up, she was using cocaine daily. “Cocaine had never been a problem before,” she insists. “It was only after I started working with Steven [Spielberg]. He was such a perfectionist.” Spielberg himself, Phillips concedes in Lunch, found her so wired he dubbed her the Madwoman of Beverly Hills.
Phillips was fired—not because of her drug use, she says, but because she demanded a percentage of the movie merchandising rights. Nonetheless, she admits, her drug use was escalating. In 1977 she began freebasing cocaine. In 1978, strung out from drugs and alcohol and involved with a violent addict, she missed her mother’s funeral. “I let [the addict] beat me up the night before after a long day of martinis and coke, and I oversleep,” she writes. The same man. in a fit of jealousy, later leveled an AR15 rifle at Julia and her daughter. Kate, then 5. Julia managed to get Kate next door.
“It was Kate who saved my life,” Julia says. “I got off drugs because of her.”
Drug-free since 1980. Phillips lives alone, sharing custody of Kate, 17. Her rambling house feels empty despite its clutter, as if the person who lived there never learned those intimate touches that make a home. Phillips’s Oscar stands forlornly in a small hallway, face to the wall. Though Phillips has had a number of development deals, only one, The Beat, has been turned into a film in the last 10 years—and that was a flop.
Lunch—for which Phillips, uncharacteristically discreet, declines to name her fee—is, however, doing splendidly. Doug Dutton, owner of L.A.’s Dutton’s bookstore, calls it “the fastest-selling Hollywood book I’ve ever seen.”
And if that means even more former colleagues will hate her, Phillips professes—a bit too insistently—not to care. “I think the reaction will be, ‘Oh, that Julia, God, I love her,’ ‘Oh, that Julia, God, I hate her,’ ” she says. “Just like it’s always been with me.”
Joyce Wadler, Doris Bacon in Los Angeles