Over The Edge?
The Jenny Jones verdict and columbine killings Hollywood on the hot seat
Following the stunning $25 million verdict on May 7 against The Jenny Jones Show, which a Michigan jury found negligent in the 1995 murder of one guest, Scott Amedure, by another, Jonathan Schmitz, Amedure’s father told reporters, “Maybe [this verdict] will do something about these shows, and there will be no more killing.” Maybe, but Jones herself remains unbowed. “It is a terrible tragedy that Scott lost his life,” she told Scoop. But, she says, “it was not the ‘Jenny Jones murder.’ It was the Jonathan Schmitz murder.” And the verdict, she adds, may simply be the result of bad timing. “With all the violence in the news, such as the [Columbine High School] shooting in Colorado,” says Jones, “there is a climate right now that puts people in the frame of mind of blaming the media. The media is a scapegoat.”
The media are certainly under fire these days. At a May 10 White House summit on youth violence, some critics cited TV, movie and video-game violence for contributing to tragedies such as Columbine. Meanwhile, two controversial films, 1994’s Natural Born Killers, about two mass murderers, and 1995’s The Basketball Diaries, in which Leonardo DiCaprio shoots up a classroom in a drug-induced dream sequence, have each been blamed in two separate multimillion-dollar civil suits for allegedly triggering real-life copycat acts of violence.
The Jones case had already fueled a separate furor about the excesses of tabloid TV. At Schmitz’s 1996 homicide trial, his attorneys argued that he had been humiliated after a Jones producer lured him onto a March 1995 show about “secret crushes” and then let Amedure, a gay acquaintance, tell the studio audience he was infatuated with Schmitz. Three days later, Schmitz shotgunned Amedure to death. Though Schmitz was found guilty of second-degree murder and sentenced to 25 to 50 years in prison, a Michigan appeals court last September ordered a retrial, citing the judge’s refusal to let Schmitz’s attorneys remove a juror. Last March, Amedure’s family went to trial against the Jones show and its owners, including Warner Bros. “The show caused Scott Amedure’s death,” said his family’s attorney, Geoffrey Fieger, after the verdict. “This case has nothing to do with free speech.”
“This is very much a First Amendment case,” disagrees prominent New York attorney Floyd Abrams. “This jury was certainly trying to send a signal in loud voices that they disapprove of this sort of programming. But I don’t believe that juries should be able to make programming decisions. I do think the ruling will be reversed.”
Or will it be a precedent? “I think the Jenny Jones verdict is very helpful to us,” says Jack Thompson, one of the attorneys in the Basketball Diaries case. Thompson claims that the movie—along with violent video I games and Internet sites—influenced 14-year-old Michael Carneal to go on a shooting spree at a Paducah, Ky., high school in December 1997, killing three classmates, whose families have filed a $130 million suit against 25 entertainment companies. “The American people have figured out,” says Thompson, “that if you make a product and you harm somebody with it, you can be and should be held accountable.” That message seems to be already registering in Hollywood. Killing Mrs. Tingle, a Dimension movie about high school students who plot against their history teacher, is still coming out as planned this August. But the title was recently toned down—to Teaching Mrs. Tingle.
She’s still best remembered as Baba Wawa, Lisa Loopner, Roseanne Roseannadanna and other Saturday Night Live zanies, but 10 years after Gilda Radner’s death from ovarian cancer at 42, “Gilda’s Club is just as much her legacy as comedy,” says her friend and former SNL collaborator Alan Zweibel. indeed, Gilda’s Club, the counseling and family-support center for cancer patients cofounded in 1995 by Radner’s husband, actor Gene Wilder (who has since remarried), and her psychotherapist, Joanna Bull, is still going strong, with seven chapters in the U.S. and 11 more about to open. While there are no plans to mark Gilda’s passing, her presence can still be felt. “There are joke tests, where the prize for the best joke is a rubber chicken,” says Bull, now the club’s president. “We are very silly here even as we deal with issues of living and dying.” Adds Radner pal and fellow SNL alum Martin Short, who hosted a March 22 fundraiser for the club: “There’s certain people that you lose in life that you really expect to walk in the door. So by supporting something that meant so much to her, it’s like paying her a visit.”
The Jedi Strikes Back
As the juggernaut that is Star Wars: Episode I The Phantom Menace approaches, one skeptical voice can be heard. And it belongs to…Sir Alec Guinness? Say it ain’t so, Obi-Wan. At 85, after a distinguished 65-year career marked by knighthood and a Best Actor Oscar for The Bridge on the River Kwai, Sir Alec is more than a little dismayed that total strangers holler, “May the Force be with you!” when he’s out and about. In A Positively Final Appearance, the latest volume of his memoirs just published in Britain, he writes blithely about throwing away unopened Star Wars fan mail and says he first became concerned about the trilogy’s influence on young minds 20 years ago, when “a sweet-faced boy of 12” told him he had seen Stars Wars more than 100 times. Guinness writes: “Looking into the boy’s eyes, I thought I detected little star-shells of madness beginning to form and I guessed that one day they would explode … I just hope the lad, now in his 30s, is not living in a fantasy world of secondhand, childish banalities.” Asked by Guinness to promise never to watch Star Wars again, the lad, he says, burst into tears and was bundled off by his indignant mother.
Guinness’s comments about Star Wars mania leave George Lucas unfazed. “We talked about it, especially on the second film,” he says. “I warned him. I told him, ‘Hey, you could be Leonard Nimoy.’ ”
You Talkin’ to Moi?
Robert De Niro is back on speaking terms with France. The last time he saw Paris, in February 1998, De Niro, there to film Ronin, was summoned from his hotel bed to answer questions about his alleged connection to a call-girl ring. (No charges were brought against him.) “I’ll never come back to France,” De Niro stormed. On May 6, though, De Niro returned for an exhibition of paintings by his late father, Robert Sr. According to the newspaper Le Parisien, he also took the opportunity to give a statement to Hervé Stephan—best known as the investigating magistrate in the Princess Diana case—backing up his complaint of improper conduct against the judge who grilled him. Although De Niro remains close-mouthed about I’affaire, a friend says: “He’s out for blood.”
Woody the Unforgiven
The Woody Allen-Mia Farrow split in 1992, after Mia discovered that Allen was having an affair with Soon-Yi Previn, her 21-year-old adopted daughter, set new standards for nastiness—and the nastiness hasn’t ended. After seeing newspaper photos of Allen and Soon-Yi with their apparently adopted infant daughter (Allen won’t say how the couple became parents), Farrow, 54, told The Atlanta Journal and Constitution, “I don’t know how the courts permitted this” in light of a 1993 New York court ruling that limited—and in one case barred—Allen’s contact with his and Farrow’s three children. “I’m frightened for that infant…I guess if you have enough celebrity, you can snow anybody.” Allen declined to comment.
Downs Not Out, Just Moving On
Hugh Downs, celebrating his 60th anniversary in broadcasting—including more than 50 in television—announced last week he was leaving network TV and his long-running post on ABC’s 20/20 to explore teaching, new media and cable opportunities. Scoop caught up with Downs, 78, to talk about the past, present and future.
What are some of your most memorable stories?
One of my favorites was [award-winning physicist] Stephen Hawking. I spent four evenings in his home in England. I got a real glimpse into that cauldron of a mind he has, and it made me realize why they call him the smartest since Einstein. Emotionally, I think the most moving was Patty Duke and her escape from manic depression. For once, during an interview, I could not talk for a moment. When I went to the South Pole, I was privileged to move the pole to a corrected position. The actual pole was a marker, a 15-foot bamboo pole, believe it or not, with a tattered green flag on top of it. This business has allowed me access I could not buy my way into even if I were an eccentric billionaire.
How would you describe your relationship with Barbara Walters?
She has described it as kind of like a marriage. We don’t have the same style, but I have always been fond of her. She is very direct; maybe I coddle interviewees. If she thinks there’s something that I’m doing that isn’t right, she’ll let me know. She doesn’t want me to look bad.
How do you feel about the state of the news business right now?
You can always get flash ratings by going the sleaze route, and we haven’t done that. When I see things like hot-rod-type reportage I have to smile. In the early days, I thought, ‘Oh, my God, that’s going to take over the whole thing.’ But that sort of thing will never become mainstream television.
Do you ever get tired of the business?
I don’t tire of any aspect of the business, because there is so much else that I love to engage myself in. I’ve gotten a lot of contacts through my job. There is an accumulated experience that will stand me in good stead for this future I anticipate. I am going to pick and choose carefully things I’m really interested in.
On The Block
Hey, Down In Front
Sharon stone and husband Phil Bronstein like the views from their San Francisco home but may be losing them. Earlier this month the couple tried unsuccessfully to block city approval of next-door-neighbor TV producer Candyce Martin’s two-story addition onto her 4,027-square-foot house (left). Stone and Bronstein (the executive editor at the San Francisco Examiner) believe the work would block their views of the Golden Gate Bridge, as well as limit their privacy. The couple bought their home (right), with nine bedrooms and seven baths, four months after their Valentine’s Day 1998 wedding. They can appeal the city’s ruling.