Businessweek Archives

Barbarians Have Feelings, Too


Top of the News

BARBARIANS HAVE FEELINGS, TOO

The RJR dealmakers aren't exactly gaga over the upcoming HBO film

Any movie producer will tell you word of mouth is the best advertising you can get. So what's the word on HBO's TV-movie version of Barbarians at the Gate? Most of those who saw previews think it's hilarious. But not those actually portrayed in the film about the RJR Nabisco Inc. buyout. From Henry R. Kravis to James D. Robinson III, they either plead lack of interest or are said by friends to be upset.

One big clue came when none of them showed up at the celebrity-studded party that HBO threw at New York's "21" on Mar. 16. Attendees included the star, James Garner, who plays F. Ross Johnson, Warren E. Buffett, Lauren Bacall, Robert A. and Georgette Mosbacher, and Carl C. Icahn. Appetites whetted by Oreo cookies and caviar, they dined on filet mignon and salmon. But none of the principals wanted anything to do with helping HBO's $1 million marketing campaign for the fast-paced farce, written by M*A*S*H scriptwriter Larry Gelbart.

NICE DOGGIE. The HBO movie, which is scheduled to premiere on Mar. 20, portrays the principals as greedy and egotistical--it's a pointed, fictionalized version of the raw capitalism portrayed in the best-selling book by Bryan Burrough and John Helyar. "It strays from the truth on a number of occasions," contends one participant in the deal. Burrough, however, says the movie is a fair reflection of his book, although he feels most of the characters come off softer in the movie. "The debate I've heard is about the casting," he says.

The principals say just about the only character played to a tee is Rocco, Ross Johnson's German shepherd. The dog is seen being chauffeured around in Johnson's private jet, complete with an air-traffic controller who O.K.'s the takeoff of "Mr. G. Shepherd's" flight. "Rocco was terrifically cast," says Nabisco CEO H. John Greeniaus, who is older and sterner in the movie than he is in real life. Still, Greeniaus comes off as one of the few sane people in the movie because he disapproved of Johnson's lavish spending.

Johnson should be delighted with his portrayal. While the book depicts Johnson as selfish and uncaring, Garner makes him a lovable, wisecracking, good old boy who just wants to get his company's stock price up. Garner even makes an impassioned speech--pure Hollywood--about protecting employees' jobs. Johnson says he hasn't seen the movie.

Henry Kravis gets a makeover as well. Instead of being short with an Oklahoma drawl and an ace salesman's charm, he is played by the tall English actor Jonathan Pryce with icy reserve and ruthlessness. One participant notes that the roles of Kravis, of Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co., and his former partner George R. Roberts are reversed. In the movie, Kravis comes across as the tough guy, while Roberts plays a conciliatory role. "In the real world, George is the bad cop and Henry is the good cop. George is the heavy," says one person who knows them both. With Pryce, "you get the sense of what Henry Kravis ought to be," says Burrough.

Kravis isn't commenting, but he has seen the movie. Instead of attending an HBO preview, he got the review copy given to New York magazine, which Kravis conveniently owns.

`OLD POTATOES.' Peter A. Cohen, the former head of Shearson Lehman Hutton Inc. who assembled Johnson's losing bid for RJR, won't be seeing the movie. "He thought the book was not accurate, so he doesn't believe the movie will be, either," says the executive's spokesman, who denies that Cohen curses a lot, despite his character's nonstop profanity in the movie. Cohen's friends agree that he is mischaracterized.

Next to Cohen on the movie's skewer is public-relations maven Linda Robinson, whom Johnson hired to do the impossible: put a positive spin on the RJR Nabisco deal with the press. Actress Joanna Cassidy plays her as a New York social climber who is tricked by Kravis into thinking that he might drop out of the bidding. In contrast, the movie goes easy on Linda's husband, James, the former chief executive of American Express Co. But even Robinson is miscast. Although he looks like a trim CEO from central casting in real life, he's played by balding, paunchy Fred Dalton Thompson. The Robinsons say they haven't seen the movie.

Theodore Forstmann is also studiously ignoring Barbarians, the movie. His buyout firm, Forstmann Little & Co., considered mounting a bid for RJR Nabisco but decided the price was too high. He is depicted as a humorless madman whose diatribes against junk bonds, along with his juvenile rivalry with Kravis, provide comic relief. Forstmann hasn't seen the movie. His only comment, through a spokesman: "It's old mashed potatoes." Forstmann is more interested in his effort to help refugees in Bosnia than he is in the movie, the spokesman says.

The grousing among the real-life characters hasn't derailed the publicity drive for HBO's $7 million account of the record-breaking $25 billion deal. And it's unlikely to. Barbarians at the Gate, whatever its relation to reality, provides a ribald reminder of how crazy those times were. Leah Nathans Spiro and Judith H. Dobrzynski in New York


Tim Cook's Reboot
LIMITED-TIME OFFER SUBSCRIBE NOW
 
blog comments powered by Disqus