Indecent Exposure

The Book of the Week is “Indecent Exposure, A True Story of Hollywood and Wall Street” by David McClintick, published in 1982. This volume with the provocative but misleading title had nothing to do with sex. It actually consisted of a suspenseful, albeit long story seen mostly through the eyes of Alan J. Hirschfield, the CEO and officer at Columbia, the movie company. It was about how a lack of honesty, the power of propaganda, and clashing egos basically resulted in the redistribution of wealth among the wealthy. This sort of thing happens all the time.

In February 1977, then-famous actor Cliff Robertson received a document saying he owed taxes in connection with a check he never received. He later found out that the check had been forged and cashed in his name, by David Begelman, a high-level executive at the aforesaid Columbia.

It was common practice for Hollywood studios to send movie actors checks for thousands of dollars (usually unreported to the IRS) that defrayed a small portion of their promotion expenses for a new picture. The IRS had just then begun cracking down on that taxable income. Robertson’s reaction set in motion a series of consequences that affected thousands of people; mostly financially.

Columbia was a public company, and the bad publicity resulting from news of a serious crime committed by one of its executives was a serious public relations problem. Hirschfield, who was on the board of directors, was told by an attorney that he had a duty to inform the executive committee, corporate counsel and the SEC after an internal investigation had been conducted.

As has been the case since the discovery of journalism/tabloidism, (supposedly said by Mark Twain), “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.” Begelman’s friends in the Hollywood community (of which the check forger had many) rushed to his defense, having heard only vague rumors that described his transgressions in euphemisms. They really had no clue that he had actually committed several felonies, it turned out. They didn’t want to know.

The friends planted tabloidy messages in the media making the excuse “Everybody Does It” because they took unethical liberties with their own expense accounts, and made Hirschfield the villain, saying he was a power-hungry, vindictive executive, as he technically did compete for power with Begelman in the company hierarchy. Hollywood’s and the public’s gullibility in automatically believing in Begelman’s innocence and Hirschfield’s treachery is human nature.

At the board meeting that initiated the long, heated discussion that would determine whether Begelman was fired, Begelman acted like a prisoner on death row who had suddenly found religion. He implied he might kill himself if removed from his primary job. But actually, anyone who knows this kind of person knows that he would be too arrogant to kill himself.

A preliminary inquiry into Begelman’s history yielded more than one serious crime during his Columbia tenure, and previous lying and other worse misdeeds. Hirschfield argued for termination, saying Begelman was unlikely to change his spots, as dishonesty was a lifelong habit with him. Over the next few years, the Hollywood community and the public, however, still having heard only distorted soundbites that minimized Begelman’s sins, fooled itself into believing they weren’t that bad, and continued to defend him.

Interesting sidenote: In 1982, in a joking context, Hirschfield exclaimed to a female friend who was high on the corporate ladder, in front of some colleagues: “Female executives suck!” She laughed. Clearly, if that was uttered in 2018, hilarity would NOT ensue.

Read the book to learn of the consequences of the stupid actions taken by most of the main characters of this entertaining saga.