Les Moonves, Kevin Tsujihara and the Art of Hollywood Self-Sabotage

Fire Hills LA - H - 2007

Even before the #MeToo era, there was a long tradition of Tinseltown executives destroying their own careers.

In the early 1970s, Columbia Pictures was on the verge of collapse. Movies from Lost Horizon to The Hireling had bombed at the box office; top agents and filmmakers were shopping their best material anywhere but there. A few more years and it was evident the place would go bottom-up.

And then a miracle happened. A former agent named David Begelman, a smoothie and a charmer, was named president in 1973 and the studio began to turn around. Its new leader didn’t just greenlight hits, he gave the go-ahead to blockbusters like Taxi Driver and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and soon the Burbank-based company (as it was then) crackled with electricity and excitement.

Then he was fired, having made the ultimate faux pas: embezzling thousands of dollars from his employer.

The sums were so small by mogul standards, nobody could understand why he’d done it. This was money he might have borrowed, cash that would barely make a dent in his expense account. True, he was a big-time poker player, but the amount he’d stolen from Columbia was in the five figures when it could have been in the millions.

Some said he was ill, others just a petty crook. Either way, he never really recovered. True, he landed various subsequent executive jobs, but his name was forever tarnished. In 1995, he committed suicide at the Century Plaza Hotel.

Begelman was neither the first nor the last in a long line of Hollywood satraps who’ve triggered their own downfalls. In the past year and a half alone, we’ve seen the implosion of behemoths from producer/financier Harvey Weinstein to CBS chairman Les Moonves to Warner Bros. CEO Kevin Tsujihara, each brought down by a personal flaw.

These are men who earned up to tens of millions per year, who wined and dined with superstars, who were courted by presidents and potentates, who hopped and skipped from private jet to private island as happily as we hop and skip from an Uber to a Lyft.

Some of those who fell were addicts — like Begelman, a gambler. Others were perverts and criminals, their sense of power engorged by their victims’ weaknesses. But all were also exemplars of what’s fast becoming a Hollywood epidemic: the art of self-sabotage.

Even more than Washington, Hollywood is the epicenter of do-it-yourself immolation. Just ask Charlie Sheen. Or Kevin Spacey. Or Felicity Huffman. Or Roseanne Barr.

You see it all the time. I don’t mean on the scale of a Weinstein, whose alleged crimes go way beyond their ramifications for his own career. I mean with dozens of lesser players who again and again make such foolish decisions you have to wonder: What the hell were they thinking?

What possible lack of judgment led Huffman to bribe her daughter’s way into a good school or Barr to send incendiary tweets she must have known would bring a guillotine down on her show?

What on earth went through Tsujihara’s mind when he sexted a young actress and allegedly tried to finagle her a job?  And why, oh why, did he ever use director Brett Ratner as a go-between in the first place?

What was Moonves imagining when he took on CBS’ largest shareholder, Shari Redstone, in the misguided belief he could halt her plans to merge CBS with Viacom? Didn’t he consider he might need her when his alleged sexual harassment and abuse became public?

They're not alone. What about the agent who asked for a broker’s fee when his client, George Clooney, bought a house in Italy, only to lose both the fee and the star? Or the HBO exec who flushed his employee’s love letter down the sink only for it to be regurgitated back up a few minutes later?

Or Paramount chairman Brad Grey, who allegedly hired a private eye, Tony Pellicano, to snoop on a producer, without pausing to think someone might find out? Or Die Hard director John McTiernan, who lied to the FBI about using self-same sleuth to tap producer Chuck Roven’s phone and got a prison spell for his efforts?

Some call this the arrogance of power. I’d argue the opposite: These men’s very doubts about their power contributed to their demise.

The more power Hollywood’s alpha males have, the more they feel its absence. The greater their authority, the less authority they believe they possess.

Partly that’s because all power is relative, and even A-list jobs come with a laundry list of limitations. And partly it’s because impostor syndrome is alive and well at the summit of the business, just as is it in the lower depths.

Not all power players feel this way, of course, only a particular breed of striver. Nor do these men and women consciously will their own failure, but in each case a dark undertow yanks them away from success.

You can ask a hundred psychologists why that is: self-doubt, self-loathing, the stress of pressure-cooker jobs. The greater the expectations placed on them, the greater they need to break free.

And so, subtly and subconsciously, they sow the seeds for their own destruction. Like victims of vertigo, they’re drawn to the abyss. Because, as miserable as it is to be at the bottom, in some ways it feels more authentic than being at the top.