It's completely personal. Between me and him. Karl Malden fucked up my life, he really did. No matter how much I dig his talent - and I certainly do, he's a Strasberg acting God, and I studied with Strasberg in New York in 1970 where he was treated as such, so I know - Malden is still the premiere putz in my professional life. Or was. He's dead now. Great. Now I get to be pissed off at a dead man.
I know you're sick of celebrity obituaries in this horrible week of death and chaos, but this one's different. At this point I've got to pin you to the wall like a drunk in a Hollywood bar, slurring my speech, hot breath in your face, "You don't understand, no matter how good he was in Baby Doll, I'm glad he's dead, that bastard..."
Luckily, I'm not that drunk. Here's what happened 20 years ago.
The 80s was my decade as film critic for the L.A. Weekly. While trashing their films in print, I met most of Hollywood, and I considered it my duty to photograph and distort it all. In a storage locker in Desert Hot Springs there are thousands of ridiculous SX-70 Polaroid portraits of the famous, the insane, and the dead. They've never been published and rarely been seen by anyone except the subjects themselves - who usually expressed either glee or abject horror. Due to copyright law, or maybe just good old fashioned good taste, I've had an incredibly hard time getting my work shown in public.
In 1989 a horrible mistake was made and I was voted in as a member of the Los Angeles Film Critic's Association. Meetings in the incredible homes of other film critics was truly inspiring. I was in a profession that could lead to the good life. One day, just for fun, I brought a book of my Polaroids to a meeting where it was eventually passed to Doug Edwards, who turned out to be the curator of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the ones who give the Oscars. I had no idea. He asked me if I'd like to have a show in their lobby. Holy shit. The Academy lobby leads to the Samuel Goldwyn Screening room, which is used almost every night for preview screenings and premieres of major films. It's a perfect location to be seen by all of Hollywood. Total legitimacy at last. You bet I said yes.
We picked 250 images for a mammoth show. Fifty would be blown up to poster size, the rest displayed in eight groupings of 25 original Polaroids. My opening date was Sept. 18, 1989. I met with their PR firm and they drew up a press release.
The Polaroid Corporation agreed to sponsor the opening night party, and we expected the press to show up to photograph celebrities standing in front of their portraits. Entertainment Tonight, here I come. My career was made. The anti-Annie Liebowitz.
Then the Academy voted in a new president, Karl Malden, who took one look at my pictures, cancelled the press release, and said "Wait a minute. Do we have releases from all of these people?"
Of course I didn't. I was a film critic for a local paper. The subjects of the show were public figures whose pictures I was literally invited to take at press conferences. I've been assured by the constitution of the United States that nobody needs permission to display a public figure's image on their wall. Nevertheless, Malden decided that my pictures were weird and that some people might not like them. He declared that no pictures would be shown without signed releases from the subjects.
Okee doke. No problem. That week, the Academy sent out black-and-white Xerox copies of my pictures to all of the subjects themselves, along with a letter asking for permission to display the picture in their lobby. The Xeroxes were atrocious so I knew this was a bad idea, but I couldn't stop it.
Some of my subjects know my work. I was sure that Emilio Estevez would say yes because one of my photos was once spied on his refrigerator. But I was concerned about people like Ted Turner or Hugh Hefner or Menachem Golan. To them, I would have been just another schmuck paparazzi who took their picture one day and disappeared into the crowd. What would they think when they opened their mail to find ugly Xeroxes of their faces distorted into hideous mutants, along with a letter asking permission for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to make an enormous blow-up of the monstrosity to display in a popular public place where all their friends went?
66 people said yes, 22 said no, and 72 didn't respond. A lot of the answers surprised me. Hefner said yes! Golan & Turner both said no. Steve Martin and Whoopi Goldberg said yes.
Robin Williams said no, even though he's handsome and not distorted at all in the picture.
Don Siegel said yes, Clint Eastwood said no, and they were both in the same shot!
But what did it matter who said no. My reaction was "Great, let's go. 66 pictures is plenty for a show." When's the last time you saw a gallery show with 66 goddam photographs. More than enough. Doug Edwards agreed and the blowups were actually ordered, but then the word came down from Malden. The whole thing was cancelled. 66 yeses somehow confirmed in his mind that the show must not go on. It was a question of whether the glass was half empty or half full, though 22 noes is only a third of the yeses. He was worried about the people who didn't respond. (Huh? Maybe they wouldn't like the ugly pictures of other people who gave their permission?) Also, some of the negatives were big negatives. Harry Dean Stanton not only said no, he threatened to sue the Academy if they displayed my picture of him. (On what possible grounds? Malicious surreal facial reconstruction of a celebrity in an artwork?) Here's the shot.
Come and get me, Harry!
In any case, Doug and I got the runaround. The Academy was enthusiastic about the show, they looked forward to doing it, some time, maybe the next spring, unless they got that new air conditioning system, which would mean the lobby might be torn up, so they might do the show in another location, or possibly later in the year.
Doug had a suggestion. "Let's just wait for the Academy to vote in a new president," he said.
Two years later, it happened, Malden was out on his ass, and Doug re-submitted the show to the new president, Robert Rehme, and he assured me it was a shoe-in, asking me to call the following week.
The very next Monday, I opened the Los Angeles Times and was stunned to read Doug Edward's obituary. He had died of AIDS. I didn't even know he was sick.
The Academy was in turmoil. Nobody knew who would replace him or where my portfolio was, and so I waited. On March 10, 1993, four years after the whole process got started, I got my portfolio back from the Academy along with the following letter.
I could blame Bruce Davis or Bob Rehme or the Los Angeles Times for delivering the bad news. Harry Dean Stanton, you got some splaining to do. Hell, I could even blame AIDS. Stupid fucking disease that ruined my career. But I tend to blame Karl Malden because everything was fine till HE butted in his potato proboscis. Even though Harry Dean Stanton's reply proved he was right in starting the vetting process, that's no excuse for cancelling the whole show. You just drop the offending photo.
Somewhere in the Academy archives there are 66 signed releases from major celebrities giving the Academy, and ONLY the Academy, permission to display my pictures in public. Yeah, that's right. I can't even use them to get a publishing deal. Nobody else will ever be able to compile such a list. You got Baryshnikov's address?
It's not often you can point your finger at an individual who deliberately called your career as a celebrity dickwad to a grinding halt. Maybe that's a stupid thing to aspire to, but I can't help imagining the photos I'd be cranking out now if things had gone another way. Maybe I wouldn't have gained all this weight. It's Karl Malden's fault!
Sorry Karl. Yeah, you were in On the Waterfront, and you and your method pals got me to New York for a whole series of adventures, but now when Marlon Brando says "You don't understand! I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody instead of a bum, which is what I am," it's got a whole other meaning. It's me talking to you.