“How the hell do we get out of this mess?” asked a frazzled Lauren Bacall, who had once sat coolly on Harry S. Truman’s piano and campaigned majestically with Adlai E. Stevenson in the days before New York Democrats had to hide in secret meeting places like the Ziegfeld Theater on 54th Street. Ms. Bacall was emerging from the mega-screening of Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 at the Ziegfeld Theater on Monday, June 14, which seemed a great deal more Party and less party than New York had seen in a long while.
The movie had ended and the celebrity-packed audience came stumbling out onto the street, with images of usurpation in their heads, seething with a passion for restoration. If Bill Clinton had walked into the theater-or John Podesta!-the place might have levitated. But they didn’t, and there was no goal in sight except bourgeois revolution, which made Ms. Bacall’s question perfectly understandable after Mr. Moore’s 110-minute piece of stunning, farce-and-shrapnel anti-war agit-prop. The film had left at least part of its audience stunned, silenced, even crying at what President George W. Bush had wrought by taking the nation to war in Iraq.
But Ms. Bacall wasn’t talking about Iraq. Mired in the crush of greasy paparazzi and rowdy civilian voyeurs, she was just trying to find a taxi among a few hundred liberal stars and a media glut. Before the Age of Schwarzenegger, liberal stars were a dime a truckload; now, like Munchkins, they had begun crawling back out from under their houses, new ones, old ones, ancient ones: Sean Lennon looking scruffy and bearded with lady-friend Elizabeth Jagger and Yoko Ono, Leonardo DiCaprio, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Tom Brokaw, Leslie Stahl, Ed Bradley, David Dinkins, Carson Daly, Moby, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., Tina Brown, Air America den mother Al Franken.
It left some muttering with fury about Mr. Moore’s cinematic tactics. This, after all, was not Cannes, where Fahrenheit 9/11 had been met by an ecstatic Mediterranean standing ovation. But mostly it was received with stunned, vengeful pleasure, so that when the now-expected shot of Paul Wolfowitz dousing his comb in saliva before using it was shown at the top of the film, the Ziegfeld erupted in an “ohhhh, groosssss !” groan, and when Condoleezza Rice’s face showed up on the screen, the sound of hisses rose from the red plush seats on West 54th Street.
But others were more circumspect. The day after the film, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., the 87-year old Pulitzer Prize–winning historian, former special assistant to President Kennedy and former film critic for Vogue , said, “I think it was a powerful film showing the folly and futility of the war against Iraq, but it seemed to me it could have been more effective if it had any perceptible structure. I think it could have an effect: It crystallizes a lot of apprehensions and anxieties about the war. And because the media have been in favor of the war, I think it’s very useful.”
Supervising it all was the comparatively svelte, cold-eyed Miramax co-chairman Harvey Weinstein, wearing a black suit with a white shirt undone at the collar and a Band-Aid on his left ear, floating across the poorly ventilated lobby. “I’m not here tonight,” he growled serenely before moving on to greet the actress Kyra Sedgwick. “There are so many other people who are here tonight.”
But a little later, Mr. Weinstein stood at the top of the Ziegfeld escalators, viewing the influx of New York media, political and show-business power-mongers flowing up to pass judgment on Mr. Moore’s film. If it had been just another movie commenting on the political landscape in which he has taken such a passionate interest, he might not have cared quite so much. But it was also a film that seemed to be precipitating the excision of Mr. Weinstein’s Miramax from its partnership with Disney.
And it was something else in which he had a personal interest as well: It was the first massive rally of the Manhattan liberal-chic elite in its long, sweaty march leading up to Manhattan’s very own spectacular political anomaly, the Republican National Convention, to begin here Aug. 30. After a circumspect week commemorating Ronald Reagan’s death, postponing other events, declaring their own reluctant acceptance of the late President they once reviled, they were ready to roar forth and find out if they had a real weapon in Mr. Moore’s movie, if it was a heat-seeking missile or merely a flatulent blast.
At 7:20 p.m.-nearly an hour before the film began-the scene outside the Ziegfeld was Fahrenheit -mania, a heated, humid summer storm of literati, glitterati and lackey-mania.
“Have you seen Richard Gere? Has Richard Gere gone in? Where’s Richard?” called a panicked press agent as the actor strolled casually-and directly-behind her through a mob of screeching photographers and into the theater.
By the time he’d gotten upstairs, Mr. Gere was deep in a strategy session with the designer Donna Karan at the popcorn stand. “It’s got to be the wings, the wings of freedom,” said Ms. Karan, borrowing the language of couture as she described her desire to galvanize the A-list crowd. “Because that’s my thing-that’s what I do!”
Mr. Gere nodded and began to reply, but Ms. Karan kept talking over him, with dramatic eye make-up that glowed against her very tanned skin. “What we’re working on now,” Mr. Gere finally managed to say, “is to create an umbrella so that there’s a larger movement, but you don’t stop anybody from doing their thing.”
“Exactly! That’s what I said,” Ms. Karan said. “You and I are talking the same language.”
Before Mr. Gere headed with popcorn bag into the auditorium, he paused for a personal word. “Most of us have probably made up our mind already that we’re going to vote them away,” he said, meaning the Bush administration. “But to have the kind of evidence that Michael Moore usually gives us is a great thing. It’s a great sense of community, too, that we’re not in this alone, that we can rally around some point of view and a sense of truth that is heart-connected, not head-connected.”
Mr. Gere had been followed in by Gretchen Mol and Vernon Jordan, and amid this frenzy-barely noticed-the mammoth, Michael Moore himself, lumbered up to the edge of the crowd in signature saggy jeans, New Balance sneakers and a dark green baseball cap pressed low over a thatch of matted hair. He had, however, added one new accessory to his wardrobe in consideration of the new age he seemed to be documenting: a coterie of stolid-looking security guards monitoring everyone who approached him, from the twiggy Brit journo angling for an interview to a spiky-haired Tim Robbins, whom he thanked for showing up.
Mr. Moore was accepting the thanks and embrace of the desperate, determined mob, a pragmatic post-Clintonian congregation looking for the galvanizing vehicle, for assistance. Mr. Moore is generally a little hot and sweaty for that bunch: They’re waiting for Senator John Kerry and Senator John Edwards to lead them to higher land. Still, whatever it takes, man. And Michael Moore might have the secret weapon. After all, they muttered, if Harvey thinks so …. The man who made Miramax might not always be right-a lot of them had Peter Biskind’s book stowed in the back of their bookshelves-but he was right enough enough of the time to be a media prophet in an age of ciphers.
And besides, a sea change has occurred at the pulpit of Michael Moore-who just last year, in early March 2003, on the eve of the war with Iraq, was on the receiving end ofHollywood’s indignation. Nearly ostracizedafter his televised performance art uponwinningthe Academy Award forBestDocumentary of 2002, Mr. Moore’s words about a “fictitious war”hadproven prophetic-and consequently, he has proven that the film industry’s anger can be as fickle as its love. Not unlike Mel Gibson, first ostracized for The Passion of the Christ , then embraced after the box-office receipts were tabulated, Mr. Moore had proven that success works.
And particularly in New York, where he was spreading the Gospel According to Moore with Fahrenheit 9/11 -declaring his own world view, that the Bush family’s connections to the bin Laden family had moved American history before, during and after Sept. 11, that they were tinny, cynical farceurs implementing self-interested schemes around the globe, a Shakespearean clan of layered, thin-skinned royalty who had imposed the goofiest, least worthy and most cold-hearted of their princes on the nation.
And tonight, Mr. Moore was preaching to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir of liberalism, right there at the Ziegfeld Theater.
“Hey, man, nice of you to come,” Mr. Moore told Mr. Robbins, as a crowd of fans began closing in on them like magnetized debris. Upstairs, the area surrounding the free popcorn reached a fever pitch. Actor Laurence Fishburne stood beside Lauren Hutton and did not care to discuss the film. A confused Bryant Gumbel wandered towards the entrance of the theater with a bag of popcorn nestled to his breast. His former boss, NBC president Jeff Zucker, in a black blazer and khakis, made his way past a table with glasses of wine. He stopped and asked an acquaintance, “Are you drunk?”
“Well,” came the reply, “not yet.”
‘You And I Are Talking the Same Language’
“I’m not a real political guy,” said Carson Daly, standing before the press gallery with his hairy arms bristling. “I don’t feel like anybody wants to hear from Carson Daly about whether or not they should vote or not.”
“I think a lot of people are going to be talking about this film,” said Leonardo DiCaprio as he stood, arms folded, face broad and puffy, in front of panting reporters. “And I think a lot more people who are on the fence about who to vote for, after they see the film, they’ll be solidified in their vote.”
Inside, Al Franken was holding forth from his front-and-center seat, his arms outstretched Jimmy Swaggart style. The mob swarmed, waving and embracing until Mr. Weinstein took his place at the front of the vast theater and announced how, earlier that day, he had attended the unveiling of Bill and Hillary Clinton’s official White House portraits. He then swerved into a memory of the bipartisanship he said was embodied by the relationship between Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill, saying that he “remembered as a kid growing up and following politics and seeing how great it was to watch Reagan’s friendship with Tip O’Neill. More of that please, and more debate.” Mr. Weinstein was well into his 30′s by the Reagan administration, but apparently the compact between the two men still made a deep impression on him, which he may have carried into his negotiations with Michael Eisner at Disney.
Once the movie started, they kept up a running antiphonal applause-commentary whenever any of the movie’s subjects sounded a particularly anti-Bush note. When a white-haired granny, who sat kvetching with a friend in an old-age home, declared onscreen, “Where are the weapons of mass destruction? We were duped!”, the audience showed its approval with a round of whoops and claps. Even at less seemly moments, the crowd couldn’t seem to contain itself, glaring, groaning, expelling noises of deep frustration and disgust.
When one of Mr. Moore’s central protagonists, a bereaved mother, quoted her dead soldier-son’s last letter home-”I really hope they don’t re-elect that fool,” he had written his family-they erupted into applause. And when the film ended with a foolish-looking Mr. Bush stumbling over one of his most quoted trademark gaffes, they roared and exhaled. But the exhalations floated high into the theater air and diffused. And when the lights came up and the enormous red curtain swept over the screen, they stood and applauded and applauded for Mr. Moore, and streamed out onto the street full of rageful resolve, horror and giddy humor, as unsure as the night was long where to invest any of it.