Try, for a minute, to imagine a Hollywood in which everyone is as good as his word. If you find it almost impossible, you’re not alone. In the wake of the jury decision that Kim Basinger’s departure from Boxing Helena violated an informal agreement, moviemakers may have to replace Samuel Goldwyn’s famous assertion, ”A verbal contract isn’t worth the paper it’s written on,” with a radical idea: A promise is a promise. ”Hundreds of people lost their jobs because (Basinger) backed out,” says Helena’s producer, Carl Mazzocone. ”From now on, when a star says commit, it will mean commit.”
If that proves true, it will mean a painful reeducation for Hollywood’s hottest actors, who have long viewed dropping out of roles as a divine right. Their changes of heart have shaped many a current movie: Audiences wouldn’t be seeing Marisa Tomei in Untamed Heart if Madonna hadn’t walked off the film. And Woody Harrelson won his role in Paramount’s Indecent Proposal only because he skipped out on a commitment to appear in MGM’s Benny & Joon. MGM resented the turnabout enough to sue Harrelson and Proposal’s producer, Sherry Lansing, for $5 million, later settling out of court for about one tenth of that. But in the post-Helena era, Harrelson might think twice about risking any lawsuit: The damages Basinger was ordered to pay exceed her personal worth by more than $3 million. Among those who might be unsettled by that judgment is Whoopi Goldberg, currently facing her own breach-of-contract suit for leaving a dinosaur comedy called T. Rex; the producers want $4 million and an order preventing her from doing any other films before theirs.
Many in the industry who have battled balking stars are reveling in the Helena verdict. ”There’s a modicum of glee,” says one studio executive. ”We spend our lives chasing after directors and actors who change their minds after we pay them a lot of money to be available to us.”
But others caution that the verdict will only keep big stars from committing themselves even tentatively to small projects, meaning that films like Boxing Helena, ironically, will suffer the most. Independent producers, relying on no more than a handshake agreement with a star, will often create a movie poster and raise money by using the lure of a big name to sell rights to foreign distributors before a foot of film is ever shot. (A recent issue of Variety carried ads for so-far-nonexistent movies starring, among others, Tim Robbins, Morgan Freeman, Kurt Russell, James Spader, and Dolph Lundgren, each adorned with the tiny-print caveat ”Credits not contractual.”)
”This may be an enormous victory for this independent producer,” Tom Rothman, president of worldwide production at Goldwyn, says of the Helena verdict. ”But over the long haul, it’s going to have a negative impact. The enormity of the damages scares the hell out of everyone. The next big star who is thinking about giving a little movie a shot will think again.” On the other hand, so will Spago schmoozers who make promises they have no intention of keeping. ”Now the A-listers will be stopped from saying, ‘Love ya, babe!’ too quickly,” exults Helena’s director, Jennifer Lynch.
But even if the verdict is upheld when Basinger appeals, Lynch shouldn’t count her precedents just yet. After all, Basinger’s departure from Helena came far later than the typical actor’s cut-and-run. And even Basinger’s own lawyer, Howard Weitzman, admits that the contours of this case were strange indeed. ”There was a tremendous dislike for Miss Basinger,” he says. ”Perhaps they thought Kim was too pretty or her boyfriend (Alec Baldwin, present in court throughout the trial) was too handsome.”
Or perhaps the eight women and four men in L.A. Superior Court thought Basinger — who once made headlines by buying a Georgia town — was too rich. If so, they did their best to rectify it. As the jury read damages of $7,421,694 for breach of contract and $1.5 million for acting in bad faith, Basinger and Baldwin looked grimly at them, then rushed out and sped away in a black BMW. Although Weitzman plans an appeal, a settlement may still be possible. ”(Basinger) is a little upset right now,” he says. ”But business judgments may make things simpler as time goes on.” Except in Hollywood, where Kim Basinger’s ill-starred encounter with Boxing Helena may make the art of the deal more complicated than ever.