Julia Phillips may have been the only person watching the 1990 Academy Awards show last month who didn’t hear the joke Billy Crystal told about her. Just as the show began, the phone rang in Phillips’ New York hotel suite with the news that her daughter, Kate, had been accepted at the University of Michigan. None of the friends Phillips had invited to the suite, including her hairdresser and her ex-shrink, could get her off the phone in time to hear Crystal coo, ”I’m sorry I’m late. I was having lunch with Julia Phillips and she was telling me all about yooouuu.” Phillips, trying to hear her daughter from L.A., covered an ear and turned away from the TV. It didn’t matter that her acid-dipped Hollywood memoir, You’ll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again, was a best-seller its first week out — or that her name was once again on everyone’s lips. After all those ragged years as a movie producer (The Sting, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Taxi Driver) and drug abuser (marijuana, cocaine, heroin), she seemed determined to concentrate on new priorities. Fame — exactly what helped undo her years ago — could wait a couple of minutes.
Later, between cigarettes and glasses of bottled water in her suite, it’s clear that Phillips, 47, is trying to keep the wisecracks about herself in perspective. ”I thought the Billy Crystal joke was significant because it was a gentle joke,” she says hopefully. The gravel of long nights over a burning beaker of cocaine is still in Phillips’ voice, but the movie producer’s innate optimism has survived. ”The U-turn is beginning,” she says.
Ever since her book hit stores in March, the show-biz cognoscenti haven’t been laughing about Julia Phillips — they’ve been screaming. Overnight, she replaced Saddam Hussein as the favored target of verbal cherry bombs lobbed from Hollywood podiums. (”Julia Phillips, see your car in the parking lot,” one speaker said. ”It’s on fire.”) Once a fixture at the best-set tables, she now finds herself ”uninvited” (her word) to the power restaurant Mortons. Its ! patrons, one guesses, might feel self-conscious.
Hollywood’s reaction may be excessive, but Phillips, with her vicious eye for detail and John Dean-like memory, provided plenty of provocation. Lunch is already renowned for its observations of celebrity grooming habits and mating practices. Producer Ray Stark had ”jagged, yellowing teeth.” Goldie Hawn was ”borderline dirty.” Warren Beatty suggested a ménage à trois with Phillips and her daughter. The author is disappointed that her critics can’t seem to see past the barbs. ”Why are people so crazed? Don’t they realize that’s how Warren says hello?” she asks. ”I knew this is what the press would glom on to. It’s infuriating.”
Phillips likes to say she started at the top — winning the Best Picture Oscar for The Sting (1973) — and worked her way to the bottom. By the time she was snorting coke off restaurant knives in 1977, her career was pretty much over. ”I’m the one the industry tried to erase. The last thing anyone heard about me was I had a drug problem. But before that, I was a force. Just like them.”
But the force is no longer with her; her anecdotes may have cost her friends. ”After I wrote each one of those stories I wrote one about me and drugs, and cried. I think I took myself apart more than any of these people.” It’s not the broadsides that have made her old friends so angry, she supposes. ”The idea that maybe someone treated these people as 20 years’ worth of research for a book makes ‘em mad. Maybe that’s all they were,” she sighs. She waits for the beat. ”Research.”
Her lab rats included even those she admired: In this interview she cited Steven Spielberg (”He’s become a business and an icon, but E.T. was as far as you could take a movie. Perfect”), Martin Scorsese (”He hasn’t won the Oscar because the Academy doesn’t like geniuses”), and calamitous studio chief David Begelman (”He was my mentor. He made a big difference in my life”).
Phillips accepts the idea that she was the designer of her downfall — up to a point. ”I don’t blame anyone for my drug addiction. But it occurred to me that maybe I wasn’t the only one to blame.” She fingers the Hollywood Old Boy network for not supporting her. ”If I had been a man, they would have closed ranks around me. They hated the woman thing. And I wasn’t even regarded as a woman, I was a girl. But I was very smart, I was very rambunctious. I had a lot of personal strength.”
With Lunch, she is in demand again; the talk show invitations pour in. But , she is still uncompromising, a live wire with a ready jibe that belies her sweet demeanor. Moments before appearing on Donahue the day of the Oscars, she checks the distance from the studio to the bathroom and clocks her cigarette breaks. But a few minutes later she is clearly relieved when the audience is sympathetic. Female callers praise her courage to speak out. ”There’s a lot of rage out there among women,” Phillips says later. ”They see a woman being attacked by a male establishment. I may have picked up my fifth column: angry middle-aged Jewish ladies.”
But no great army of the night, however enlisted, will likely get Phillips a power booth again. David Geffen canceled plans to make Anne Rice’s Interview With the Vampire with Phillips after reading her book. Of Lunch itself becoming a film, her agent, Lynn Nesbit, will say only that ”people have called. There’s been talk.” But Phillips has no plans to get back behind the camera. Her future includes a novel made from material that had to be cut from Lunch for legal reasons. In the meantime, Phillips has gotten support from old friends like Joan Didion and even Ray Stark. With her book at No. 1, Phillips believes she’s on her way back. ”Here’s what I know about Hollywood: They love celebrity. They love success. They can’t help themselves.”