On the second day of the Winona Ryder shoplifting trial, Peter Guber took his seat in the back row of the jury box in the Beverly Hills courthouse dressed down in a black fleece vest, shirt and jeans. With his fellow jurors, who include a teacher, an aerospace engineer, a gynecologist and a UCLA graduate student, he spent the morning considering evidence presented by Deputy District Attorney Ann Rundle.
Seated next to her attorney, Mark Geragos, Ms. Ryder stared hard at Mr. Guber as he inspected a hole in a black fringed Dolce & Gabbana bag, part of the $5,560.40 in booty she allegedly lifted from Saks Fifth Avenue. Mr. Guber’s demeanor was intense as he scrutinized the merchandise. A Saks Fifth Avenue security guard testified to bolster the prosecution’s contention that Ms. Ryder had cut the security sensors off not only the bag, but also a white ruffled Gucci blouse and a thermal T-shirt. Jurors were shown the visible holes in all three items and the sensors she allegedly removed from them, to which fabric matching the items was still attached.
In Beverly Hills, this is what a jury of one’s peers means: The fate of a wealthy actress accused of grand theft can be decided by the former studio boss who green-lit three of her films, enriching her by millions of dollars. Mr. Guber, former chairman of Sony Pictures Entertainment and currently running the faltering Mandalay Entertainment Co., is well known as one of the smartest, slickest executives in Hollywood, a man who has managed to prosper in multiple ventures even when everyone else seemed to walk away with depleted pockets. His most visible victim was Japanese giant Sony, which was forced to take a staggering $3.2 billion loss a few years into his stewardship of Sony Pictures Entertainment.
Mr. Guber’s presence on the Ryder jury stunned the town last Friday when both Ms. Rundle and Mr. Geragos approved him during jury selection. “Can you fucking believe it?” was the response of one usually dignified studio chief. “I just about passed out. I thought, ‘Are they nuts? Why didn’t the prosecutor disallow him? What kind of a schmuck would put Peter Guber on a jury?'”
Mr. Geragos must have been agog to have Mr. Guber sit in judgment of his client. Nothing like it has come up in Hollywood history. Plenty of stars have sat in courtrooms-Robert Mitchum, Robert Downey Jr., Charlie Sheen. But Mitchum wasn’t being judged by Howard Hughes or Harry Cohn.
Mr. Guber played to type: On Friday, he caused a ripple of laughter when he motioned to a courtroom sheriff to bring him a bottle of water. On Tuesday, he brought his own water, apparently having learned that the alternative was waiting in line at the fountain in the hallway with his fellow citizens.
“What helps the defense is that Guber is probably more familiar than your average person with the fact that celebrities don’t have to shop the way normal people do,” says Laurie Levenson, Loyola Law School professor and veteran commentator on high-profile L.A. trials.
Some said that Mr. Guber misled the court during the jury selection process.
“I was the chairman of Sony when one of the companies under our control-she made a picture for them,” he told the court. That statement would have stopped short anyone who had inside knowledge of the motion-picture business.
” One of the companies under our control ” was an allusion to Columbia Pictures-the studio’s flagship. One former top Sony Pictures executive said that Mr. Guber sounded as if he was referring to “the gumball-manufacturing division,” not one of the most famous brands in filmdom. And many grumbled that he affected a detachment that he couldn’t support. There was the reference to “a picture.” The real number was three pictures-not little pictures, not pick-ups produced by another company, but three high-profile films: Gillian Armstrong’s Little Women , Martin Scorsese’s Age of Innocence and Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula .
Dracula was the most expensive-$40 million was a lot of money in those days- and it was extremely troubled during the production process. Mr. Coppola’s vision was dark, erotic and bloody; Mr. Guber certainly remembered that the picture grossed a stunning $32 million in its opening weekend, setting an industry record for a non-summer release and an overall opening record for the studio. Like so many pictures that opened during Mr. Guber’s tenure, however, Dracula wilted quickly. But he was ecstatic enough about the opening weekend to throw a party on the Sony lot the Monday after the film was released.
In fact, Mr. Guber knew what an odd situation he was in when he was under oath during the jury-selection process-the previous day, he had spontaneously remarked in a courthouse elevator being shared by a reporter for the Los Angeles Times , “I have about as much chance of getting on this jury as the man in the moon. I only made three pictures with the lady.”
Ms. Rundle was nevertheless satisfied with Mr. Guber’s assertions that he would feel comfortable judging Ms. Ryder. And she still did the next time court convened, even after she had the opportunity to read a press account of Mr. Guber’s elevator oratory in the Los Angeles Times and learned of his role in employing the defendant and paying her big salaries.
And the issue was aired again.
After the jury was impaneled last week, we, as reporters, asked the spokesman for the Superior Court about the decision to let Mr. Guber serve. The press office then sent a letter to the judge detailing our inquiries and Mr. Guber’s involvement with Ms. Ryder.
On Monday morning, the judge shared that information with the prosecution and the defense. Mr. Guber was called into chambers and, after a 20-minute closed-door meeting, remained on the jury. A spokesman for the prosecution said with the trial still underway, it would be “inappropriate” to explain why Ms. Rundle did not object to his presence.
Whatever contact Mr. Guber may have had with Ms. Ryder, it’s odd to think of him even wanting to be on the jury. As one of his colleagues said, “If you’re chairman of a company making three movies, then you’re going to form some opinion, aren’t you? … She’s good, she’s bad, I like her, I don’t like her.”
The mystery is why Ms. Rundle, with a whole pool of potential jurors available, chose not to peremptorily strike Mr. Guber. She didn’t question him closely during selection on his relationship to Ms. Ryder, and that has Hollywood sputtering. Most of the executives around town refused to go on the record, but seethed with comments like this one: “He is clearly conflicted-he knows her, he’s worked with her, he has feelings for her. To say that he just ran the studio is disingenuous …. I would think he would be compromised whichever way it goes-if she’s guilty or innocent.” Said another: “If I were the judge, I wouldn’t believe he’s neutral. I think it’s despicable.” Said yet another: “Read his book. See how he refers to actors. I think he has a disdain for actors and, if anything, he would try to hurt her.”
And this from Mr. Guber’s former partner, Jon Peters: “If it were me, I would have removed myself, because I like her.”
Some in Hollywood were sympathetic, putting forth the idea that Mr. Guber actually didn’t want to be there, that he had just gone to court as a good citizen and asked to get off the jury. This, despite the fact that he had ample opportunity to bow out simply by declaring that he could not be objective.
For the most part, though, the industry took a less kindly view, wondering what Mr. Guber’s motives were, certain that he would revert to his old studio-executive’s stance and crush the talent in the docket. Many surmised he chose to serve just out of boredom-his production company at Universal is said to be sorely out of funds. And whatever his final posture on the jury, the general consensus in Hollywood is in agreement with the rather imperial mogul gris who said: “She’ll be acquitted.”
The question is if Mr. Guber has been up nights memorizing Henry Fonda’s lines from 12 Angry Men , or if he’s still mad about Dracula ‘s second weekend.