Steve Bannon’s Adventures in La La Land

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Not long after the election, The Hollywood Reporter published an embarrassingly slobbering profile of Steve Bannon that cast the CEO of Donald Trump’s campaign as some kind of Machiavellian genius. “Darkness is good,” began the pull quote. “Dick Cheney. Darth Vader. Satan. That’s power.”

The New Yorker‘s Connie Bruck has a fascinating article on Steve Bannon’s Hollywood ties that brings the now-presidential advisor down to size. The piece, titled “How Hollywood Remembers Steve Bannon,” is a rebuke to the romanticized vision of Bannon as a brilliant, misunderstood political mastermind. Bannon, Bruck notes, “became himself in the byways of the movie business,” and it’s more than a little revealing to read what his former partners in Hollywood have to say about their one-time colleague.

Bannon moved to L.A. from New York in 1987, to help Goldman Sachs establish a presence in the entertainment industry out west; two years later he followed a Goldman colleague who’d left to establish his own investment firm. (Within a year, his partner left, and the company was acquired by a French bank in 1998.) He had a “fabulous” office on the tony Canon Drive.

It appears that after 9/11, Bannon was able to start funneling his ideas about the world into movies. Tim Watkins, an ad man who came to Bannon in the early 2000s with a proposal to produce a film based on a book called Reagan’s War: The Epic Story of His Forty-Year Struggle and Final Triumph Over Communism, recalls, “Something ticked in us—that life is about good versus evil, and history repeats itself.” In one of the many unbearably ironic details in Bruck’s piece, she writes, “Throughout the film, a female narrator invokes ‘the Beast,’ an authoritarian force that threatens ‘anything that elevated or empowered the individual.'”

Perhaps the least surprising detail in the piece — aside from the emphasis on the dangers of radical Islam in Bannon’s films — is the fact that Bannon was (presumably is) an admirer of the Nazi propagandist Leni Riefenstahl. “Her playbook was key for him,” says Julia Jones, Bannon’s longtime screenwriting partner. “I think he used her technique of fear.”

Also not terribly surprising: Bannon promised more than he could deliver. Watkins recalls that he had to put up two-thirds of the Reagan film’s funding himself: “Because Steve was a Hollywood guy, I hoped there was going to be a great distribution program behind it, and there really wasn’t.” According to Bruck, people who remember Bannon from his Hollywood days were baffled by his self-proclaimed mogul status years later, when he was beginning to attract media attention as the chairman of Breitbart News:

“I never heard of him, prior to Trumpism,” the media mogul Barry Diller told me. “And no one I know knew him in his so-called Hollywood period.” Another longtime entertainment executive said, “The barriers in Hollywood are simple. First, you have to have talent. And, second, you have to know how to get along with people. It’s a small club.”

Are we meant to believe Bannon has neither? Certainly the profile’s sources make clear that Bannon lacked the get-along spirit required for a long career on Hollywood. As one former colleague told Bruck, “The business runs on talent relationships. He had this real will-to-power vibe that was so off-putting. He came on so strong, and in a way that I couldn’t imagine he would be successful with creative people.”

As for talent, well, Bannon tried. One of his earliest projects was an adaptation of Shakespeare’s strangest and most gruesome play, Titus Andronicus. He and Jones planned a space-age version featuring “galactic travel and an episode of ‘ectoplasmic sex’ between a ‘lower human’ (a Moor in the original play) and a space queen.” Charming. He wasn’t able to sell the script, but he wound up with an executive producer credit in the 1999 film version directed by Julie Taymor, though Taymor claims she wasn’t aware of Bannon’s involvement prior to seeing his name on the poster. Bruck notes that the film wasn’t particularly successful — but that “Bannon told Jones that if Taymor had used his ideas” it would have been a hit.

After failing to become a part of the Hollywood establishment, it appears Bannon decided his new goal would be to take down the Hollywood establishment. In 2005, Julia Jones enlisted an entertainment journalist, James Ulmer, to write about a series of movies Bannon had planned to work on for the conservative organization Citizens United. (“I’d never heard of Steve Bannon,” Ulmer told Bruck, “and when I called my friends in L.A. none of them knew who he was.”) Bruck writes that in conversations Ulmer had with him in 2005, Bannon compared himself and Ulmer to “peasants with the pitchforks storming the lord’s manor.”

According to Ulmer, Bannon saw Hollywood as “the great Satan,” and he recalls details of a meeting with Bannon in his office, where he’d written out the titles of a few just-released movies on a board:

“On Ash Wednesday, ‘The Passion of the Christ’ is released theatrically, and on Sunday, ‘Lord of the Rings’—a great Christian allegory—wins 11 Academy Awards. So here you have Sodom and Gomorrah bowing to the great Christian God.” Ulmer recalled, “I was watching him draw all these configurations and connecting lines about the Beast and Satan, and half of my brain was saying, ‘This guy’s a comic stitch,’ and the other, ‘He’s really off the deep end.’ ”

Bruck’s account of Bannon in La La Land is the story of an ambitious man desperate to be taken seriously, and it’s also a troubling account of the rise of the American conservative propaganda machine. But the more instructive takeaway from this profile is that history belongs to those who persist.