Early this month, the market research and data analytics firm YouGov published the results of a startling poll.
According to interviews with 1,254 adult Americans, 30 percent of millennials have no best friends, 27 percent have no close friends and 22 percent have no friends at all. Not surprisingly, the report named them “the loneliest generation.” But loneliness is all around and perhaps nowhere more profoundly than in Hollywood.
Here’s what surprised me: that the statistics weren’t worse, for older people as well as millennials.
Look around and you’ll see whole armies of workers engulfed in their professional concerns, scurrying in and out of buildings, manning computers and phones, earbuds jammed in their lobes, too busy and overwhelmed by the pressures of their lives to have time to reach out, let alone form deep and lasting bonds.
Social media, as we know, has made this worse. A University of Pennsylvania study published in December in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology found that symptoms of loneliness and depression went down when social media was used less. And no group is more attuned to social media than those in the entertainment industry. But that’s just one of multiple factors altering our relationships with others. Stress, uncertainty, overwork, the volatility of the workplace, narcissism, competition — all these things play a part, honed to a fine art in the film and TV world.
In other industries, the workplace is often a communal hub. In Hollywood, it’s too frequently the core of a maelstrom that pits one individual against another. In other industries, relationships build over time as men and women come to know each other better, aware they’ll likely be working on the same team for years; in Hollywood, things are far more transient. As one producer notes, “people come together for short periods, making a particular piece of content and then moving on to the next. It’s not the same for people who work in a law firm or the construction business and stay there for 30 years.” Transience is the very essence of the entertainment business, unpredictability its warp and weft.
Because of that, talk to most people in Hollywood and you’ll find this shocking truth: nobody has any real friends.
Not in the industry, at least. Not intimate, rock-solid, listen-to-my-darkest-secrets, hold-the-lifeboat-for-me friends. Not ones who’ll race to your house in the middle of the night because you’re sick or sad. Not ones who’ll succor you after a breakup. Not ones who’ll cancel their plans because you don’t just want them, you need them, and one day they’ll need you. Sure, there are relationships of convenience and some that are even fun. But ones that are a matter of life and death?
Of course, everyone has Hollywood friends. But that’s different. In the outside world, a friend is someone you know well, hang out with, depend on, trust. A real friend sometimes lends you money (verboten in Hollywood), lets you sleep on their couch, babysits your dog, godfathers your kid, even tells you harsh truths you might not otherwise wish to hear.
Real friends circle back when you’ve said rotten things, accept that you’ve changed as they know they’ve changed, too, tolerate your flaws as they hope you’ll tolerate theirs. They fix you dinner and supply you with booze — or, better still, don’t, at those times when you really shouldn’t. They won’t cheat on you or lie, except the white lies that lubricate any relationship.
But “friend,” in Hollywood, is a malleable term, one that has its own definition not to be found in a dictionary.
I realized this last week when a publicist called me, as he occasionally does, reminding me I was his “friend” (just as he reminds me each time he calls), in case I‘d forgotten. I realized it again when I interviewed a top executive who assured me he only took my call because I was his friend, though I can’t recall when we last met.
A friend in Hollywood is best understood as something else: the opposite of an enemy — because most people imagine countless foes lurking and waiting to pounce. A friend in Hollywood is an ally, a fellow traveler, someone who doesn’t pose a threat, at least not an immediate one, though that can change in the blink of an eye.
The history of Hollywood is full of faux and fractured friendships. Some have turned to feuds, others fizzled into innocuous and toothless acquaintanceships. Most sputter out or dribble away; few last a lifetime. Consider some of the more-publicized friendships and you’ll see what I mean.
When super-agent Michael Ovitz left CAA for Disney in 1995, hired by his bestie, then-Disney chairman Michael Eisner, their relationship blew up in less than a year, though they’d been proclaiming each other BFFs ever since Ovitz rushed to Eisner’s bedside after his quadruple bypass in July 1994. Their falling-out became public when Ovitz got fired in 1997, though he did walk away with a $100 million-plus golden parachute.
Another Ovitz friendship imploded with equal notoriety: the one with CAA co-founder Ron Meyer. When their relationship dissolved, Meyer exited CAA for Universal, leaving Ovitz to man the fort alone. But don’t fret too much: Mike staged a breathtaking revenge, snatching up a beach property Meyer had badly wanted before his ex-pal could close the deal.
The aforementioned Eisner lost another friend, too, his longtime colleague Jeffrey Katzenberg. So close had they been that Katzenberg was known as Eisner’s “golden retriever.” Of course, that’s a double-edged compliment: a dog may be man’s best friend, but who wants to be likened to a canine? They were “this close” for years until Eisner refused to give him a promotion and Katzenberg sued, walking away with $270 million.
And then there were the guys who never pretended to make friends — like Harvey Weinstein. In fact, he reveled in being a bully. He once held a reporter in a headlock and his tactics with rivals were only a smidgen more refined. He could shriek, swear, threaten and make even his closest colleagues tremble. Everyone knew that long before his more dangerous side became public.
The closest he came to feigning friendship was an email reminding me we got along well, and that came 20 years after he’d threatened to kill me, maim me, wound me, torture me or buy The Hollywood Reporter so that he could fire me. At least he didn’t pretend to be my friend.
He knew something others would be well advised to learn (or at least he does now): that friends are rare and valuable and sometimes nonexistent. Not merely for millennials. For everyone.