On Wednesday, The Hollywood Reporter published a searing op-ed by Woody Allen’s son Ronan Farrow, in which Farrow discussed but did not name the “powerful publicist” who helps his father continue making movies. On Thursday, “in retaliation for publishing Farrow’s essay,” THR was banned from covering a Cannes lunch for Allen’s new film Cafe Society.
The decision came from Allen’s longtime publicist Leslee Dart, who told THR, “it’s only natural that I would show displeasure when the press goes out of its way to be harmful to my client.” This is not the first time Dart had done something like this; in 2010, she banned Armond White—then at the NY Press, now at the National Review—from a screening of Noah Baumbach and Scott Rudin’s film Greenberg.
This time around, THR missed a lot of action. Allen directly addressed the comment Cannes master of ceremonies Laurent Lafitte had made at the Cafe Society premiere, which appeared to be a reference to both Roman Polanski and Allen (“It’s very nice that you’ve been shooting so many movies in Europe, even if you are not being convicted for rape in the U.S.”), as well as Farrow’s piece. Allen said he had no issues with the joke, and then, in response to a question about Farrow’s piece, he reiterated that he doesn’t read press about himself and had no further comment. More notably, Allen referred to Farrow’s piece as written by a “critic.”
Lafitte’s “joke” did not go over well with some. Blake Lively, one of the stars of Cafe Society, said she didn’t care for it, especially in context of the “beautiful” event they were at. She also said she hadn’t read Farrow’s piece, and therefore didn’t want to talk about it, but that it is “dangerous to factor in things you don’t know anything about” when deciding to work with people.
Lively joins a long tradition of actors who collaborate with Allen and are rarely asked to speak to his controversial personal life, largely due to the tireless work of Leslee Dart, his publicist and Principal Partner of the company 42 West. When Farrow wrote about the “spin machine” that allows Allen to prosper, he was really talking about Dart and her team.
Named one of the most powerful women in New York by Crain’s in 2007, Dart founded 42 West—formerly known as the Dart Group—in 2004, after being dramatically fired from the firm PMK (the same year, PR Week described her as, “not only respected, but genuinely liked”; two years later, Nikki Finke put Dart on her list of influential women in Hollywood). She had been part owner of PMK, and after her ousting over what was deemed a power struggle, many of her clients came with her (Deadline reported she took a third of their roster with her). She now runs 42 West with Amanda Lundberg and Allan Mayer. Dart once said the PR industry should be “less self-centered, and kinder,” but that doesn’t mean her new firm has lived by that mantra, or avoided drama; when a publicist departed 42 West in 2011, another in the industry described Dart as “very imperious, very rigid,” adding that “she doesn’t like dissent.”
On 42 West’s website, Allen’s film Midnight in Paris is listed first in the list of work Dart has helped shepherd. But aside from Allen, Dart works with a all-star list of established filmmakers and actors, including the Coen brothers, Martin Scorcese, and Francis Ford Coppola. She is often thanked in the credits of films she has done PR for, including the documentary short Woody Before Allen.
Also from 42 West’s website, with emphasis added:
Our media relationships—trade and mainstream, business and entertainment, broadcast and online—are second to none... we also recognize that truly strategic communications involves a lot more than just placing stories. It’s about understanding a client’s objectives—whether they are related to growing a business, building a reputation, advancing a cause, creating an image, or promoting an event— and then creating a comprehensive plan to support those goals.
None of this is any different from the work done by PR firms for any other actor or movie out there, but it takes on a different color when you consider Farrow’s claims, and the amount of concealed effort that has likely gone into suppressing Allen’s two biggest transgressions: his affair with and eventual marriage to Soon-Yi Previn, the adopted daughter of his then-partner Mia Farrow, and his alleged molestation of his adopted daughter Dylan Farrow. From Ronan Farrow’s piece:
Being in the media as my sister’s story made headlines, and Woody Allen’s PR engine revved into action, gave me a window into just how potent the pressure can be to take the easy way out. Every day, colleagues at news organizations forwarded me the emails blasted out by Allen’s powerful publicist, who had years earlier orchestrated a robust publicity campaign to validate my father’s sexual relationship with another one of my siblings. Those emails featured talking points ready-made to be converted into stories, complete with validators on offer — therapists, lawyers, friends, anyone willing to label a young woman confronting a powerful man as crazy, coached, vindictive. At first, they linked to blogs, then to high-profile outlets repeating the talking points — a self-perpetuating spin machine.
The open CC list on those emails revealed reporters at every major outlet with whom that publicist shared relationships — and mutual benefit, given her firm’s starry client list, from Will Smith to Meryl Streep. Reporters on the receiving end of this kind of PR blitz have to wonder if deviating from the talking points might jeopardize their access to all the other A-list clients.
This isn’t the first time we’ve gotten an inside look at how Dart functions. In 2014, following the publication of a New York Times blog post in which Dylan Farrow spoke out about her experiences with Allen, Dart said Allen had “read [Dylan’s] article and found it untrue and disgraceful.” (Allen followed that up in the form of a New York Times op-ed.) Shortly after, The Wrap reported that Dart “sent out four emails in less than three-and-a-half hours” to a slew of journalists. The emails reportedly included links to various takes on the story, emphasizing the flaws in flattering pieces on Farrow and the strengths of pieces critical of her story. (After the Sony Hack, one of those emails was posted online.)
In the unauthorized biography The Unruly Life of Woody Allen, Marion Meade writes that Dart has worked with Allen “since the mid-eighties.” Until Allen’s separation from Farrow and relationship with Soon-Yi in the early ‘90s, Meade explains, Dart had never had problems with her client.
Among the stable of movie clients handled by PMK are probably a number of stars who have been arrested, divorced, or spent time in psychiatric hospitals. But Leslee Dart had never been required to perform crisis management for Woody Allen. In her eyes, he was a responsible, thoughtful man.
But then, in 1992:
On June 10, Richard Johnson, a New York Daily News columnist, was the first to break the story. “I reported that Woody and Mia had broken up,” recalled Johnson, “but I didn’t say why.” He was still trying to squeeze further details out of Woody’s publicist about the family romance. “But Leslee Dart, the incredible, unbelievable Leslee Dart, denied to me up the yin-yang that Woody was boning Soon-Yi.”
Dart pretended to be shocked at Johnson’s suggestion. “How can you say such a thing?” she snapped. “That’s horrible.”
“What’s the problem?” Johnson replied. “It isn’t his daughter.” Nevertheless, for the moment he held back on the story of Woody and Soon-Yi.
This exchange, along with a handful of other publicized incidents, would eventually prompt the Post to label 42 West “a school for liars.” (And more seriously, when Allen was being investigated for sexual abuse against Dylan, Allen’s team of “different lawyers and subcontractors”—members unnamed by Connecticut magazine—reportedly hired private investigators to look into the police officers investigating him.)
As Variety’s Peter Bart wrote in 1996, Dart is supremely adept at her job, and her skills seem to align with Allen’s needs specifically.
...The architect of Woody’s image renovation, Leslee Dart, is a uniquely skilled and gracious practitioner of her craft.
At the same time, I believe that there is an array of contradictions in Woody’s behavior that I find irksome. We are repeatedly presented with the image of an inept, guilt-ridden nebbish of a human being stumbling through life, yet all the while exercising fierce control over a mind-bendingly efficient PR machine. Clearly Woody is a positive genius at “mass-marketing his anxieties,” to borrow John Lahr’s phrase.
Woody seems intent on announcing to the world, “Here’s my work, it represents my personal voice and vision, judge it as you will.” And yet every time a new Woody movie opens in New York, only his most trusted sycophants get interviews and only his personal biographers have a first shot at the accompanying commentaries. Thus we find a whole new phenomenon, the nebbish as control freak.
In 1997, Dart was one of only a few publicists named in a survey done by Glenn Lovell of The San Jose Mercury News of publicists who would “blackball” entertainment journalists they weren’t pleased with. Industry newsletter O’Dwyer’s PR Report wrote that journalists felt “as much fear as exasperation” about four particular publicists.
“They, not the studios, are responsible for the written waivers and pledges that specify where a story may run and which sensitive areas must not be broached,” said Lovell.
“If you want to do a round-robin interview with Woody, you’ve got to promise not to ask about Mia,” Lovell wrote.
A New York Times piece at the time of her firing from PMK said, “Ms. Dart became known not only for promoting clients who wanted coverage but also for protecting those who did not.” She has clearly earned the endless fealty of said clients; the day after she was pushed out of PMK, New York reported, they “were already lining up behind her.” Her client list has included Tom Hanks, Nicole Kidman, Harvey Weinstein, Wes Anderson, Ron Howard, Anthony Minghella, Sydney Pollack, Meryl Streep, Scott Rudin, David Chase, Hugh Grant, Jessica Lange, Keanu Reeves, Calvin Klein, Mike Nichols, Jessica Tandy, and Anthony Perkins.
In an industry where loyalty can be fickle, Dart has established herself as someone journalists might feel they can’t afford to cross. She gives no ground over to the media: in a 2004 interview with Newsweek after her firing, Dart said she was still close to Woody Allen, and that it was tabloids who distorted the truth in general—not publicists. “Not me,” she said.
Dart appears to be meticulous about giving comment on her own life, about which little has been written. We know that she is married, lives in New York, and has a son. In a 2002 New Yorker piece about “How Publicity Really Works in Hollywood,” Dart comes off as decidedly human, and exceedingly smart.
For “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” the 1999 film about a psychopathic killer, Leslee Dart, of PMK/HBH, the preeminent entertainment-publicity firm, was convinced that she needed to anchor her campaign with what she called a “media leader” piece. She wanted a writer “who would explain the complexities of the movie accurately and positively, setting the tone for everyone else.” She chose Frank Rich, of the Times, who was then looking for a big cultural piece to write about the movies. Dart is a consummate publicist, in part because she’s a consummate worrier. In 1995, when Hugh Grant took her advice and appeared on the “Tonight Show” to explain why he’d solicited oral sex near Hollywood Boulevard, Dart was so nervous before the interview that she threw up in Grant’s dressing room. She was nearly as anxious about placing “Mr. Ripley”’s prospects in one journalist’s hands. “There’s no way I could say to Frank Rich, ‘Now, this needs to be positive!’ “ Dart says. “But he saw two edits of the film, he had hours with Anthony Minghella, the director, and he knew he was getting unheard-of access.”
“Rich dismisses the possibility that he was manipulated,” the piece continues:
“You’re always aware of publicists’ agendas,” he says. “And you always ignore them.” As is standard practice, Rich mentioned neither Dart nor her agenda in his celebratory seven-thousand-word cover story for the Times Magazine, which called Minghella’s Ripley a “Gatsbyesque dreamer who goes too far.”
Much has been made by journalists lately about the ratio of PR people to reporters in the U.S., but the quantity of flacks doesn’t matter as much as the quality does. The same is true of journalists, who, as we have seen, seem to be pushing back on Dart’s agenda, much as Farrow hoped they would. Recall that it was THR that, last week, published a profile that barely addressed the allegations against Allen, and certainly didn’t push him about them.
“They can trust that the press won’t ask them the tough questions. It’s not the time, it’s not the place, it’s just not done,” Farrow wrote in his piece, of actors who find themselves doing press for Cafe Society. For once, and perhaps thanks to his own efforts, he was wrong.
Image via Getty.