On July 19, Amy Powell, the head of Paramount TV, was fired, and asked to leave the studio lot on Los Angeless Melrose Avenue immediately. What set this dramatic dénouement in motion was mundane: a notes call—Hollywood speak for creative feedback—between Powell and other executives about a TV series based on the film The First Wives Club, which is being rebooted with an African-American cast. Two days later, Powells 14-year career at Paramount was over, after she allegedly made racially offensive remarks on the call—and then denied it.
While Powell has engaged attorney Bryan Freedman—who alleges the firing was due to gender bias—what remains undisputed is who reported Powells comments to H.R. and spurred the investigation. It was someone Powell likely didnt register was on the line: the assistant to another executive.
Few outside of Hollywood understand the insight of and the access granted to film-industry assistants. “Id say every call in Hollywood has no fewer than four people on it,” said an employee at a management company, one of four current and former assistants interviewed for this article. “You have the two people who are actually talking, and then both of their assistants, who are on mute and listening in.”
The thinking behind this compulsory eavesdropping is simple: subordinates hear the day-to-day business that needs attending to, from scheduling travel to sending out scripts, without a boss having to tell anyone specifically what to do.
Beyond that, party-line calls are the cornerstone of an apprenticeship that largely hinges on observing the film business up close. “Lets say your boss has to fire someones client. Youre listening in and learning how to fire someone while maintaining a good relationship,” said the managers assistant. Most A-list agent, manager, or executive careers launch only after years of overhearing every word uttered between Hollywood insiders. (Powell herself started as an assistant at Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.)
But mastering how to gently lower the boom is not all these honchos-in-training overhear.
“Its generally understood by 99 percent of the industry that the assistant is on [a call],” said the production-company assistant. “That being said, people also forget about us.” She described her time working at a major talent agency as “the entertainment equivalent of the C.I.A. You know everyones secrets.” A former studio assistant felt he had “full locker-room access; you see firsthand whats going on.” For those calls that demand utter discretion, the top brass will sometimes say, “Hey assistants, drop off,” after which those on the lower rungs are supposed to hang up, according to the managers assistant. “Ive heard rumors that people dont drop off.”
Employees must sign confidentiality agreements upon being hired, which are meant to protect the top-secret information theyll inevitably overhear. And the staffers interviewed agree that anything related to the details of putting a movie or TV project together is kept strictly under wraps. But “interpersonal stuff,” as one woman described it, is fair game as long as its in the press.
Which agent axed a flunky after leaving her own cell phone in the back of an Uber and waiting too long for its return; which female producer threw a metal Rolodex at her subordinates head; who has an escort service number listed in his phone—these are all subjects that might come up once fellow assistants know each other well enough to do away with small talk.
The information is traded to steer each other toward a good “desk”—jargon used to describe the work they do as the de facto gatekeepers to Hollywood players. One successful screenwriter, who was once an assistant himself, goes out of his way to be nice to everyone sitting outside the office of a powerbroker: “I know assistants need every boost they can get,” he said. “Its a grueling, grind of a job.” Others are not so savvy.
Generally, its still unusual to find someone low on the totem pole willing to speak out about questionable behavior—even in the supposedly more empowered, Times Up era. “I think you say something when youre ready to burn your bridges or its truly awful,” said the managers assistant—perhaps like ex-assistant Rosette Laursen, who made headlines in 2017 when she published on Facebook a sexist screed her boss had accidentally e-mailed her. Otherwise, bringing bad or ugly chatter to light might blow up your career.
Instead, they believe the industry will truly change only when the assistants themselves graduate, slipping behind those desks. Their millennial values have yet to be fully reflected in Hollywoods business culture—but someday, they will be. “Itll be our generation rising up through the ranks and stopping [bad] behavior organically rather than a concerted backlash like #MeToo” that truly changes Hollywood, said the managers assistant. That change could also affect the existing boss-lieutenant power strictures.
“I think about my friends who have abusive bosses, and theyre not going to be like that” when theyre in positions of power themselves, said the production-company assistant. “I hope that our generation is the one to break that cycle.” In the meantime, all the assistants will keep watching, learning, and listening.
Get Vanity Fairs HWD NewsletterSign up for essential industry and award news from Hollywood.Full ScreenPhotos:If You Love Old Hollywood Gossip, Put These Books, Films, and Podcasts on Your List
You Must Remember This
Karina Longworths must-listen podcast is a treasure trove of forgotten and secret stories from Hollywoods early decades. In its latest season, Longworth explores Hollywood Babylon, experimental filmmaker Kenneth Angers 1959 book that purportedly had all the juiciest gossip of Hollywoods golden age. In the series, Longworth dives right into the rumors, sussing out Angers wildest stories about figures like Fatty Arbuckle and silent-film star Olive Thomas.Photo: Photograph by Emily Perl. Courtesy of Panoply (cover art).
Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood
In the upcoming documentary, which opens in New York on August 3, filmmaker Matt Tyrnauer tells the story of Scotty Bowers, a Hollywood pimp who claims he set up old Hollywoods closeted stars with private trysts. His claims are grand and sexy. From Spencer Tracy to Katharine Hepburn to Cary Grant, theres no limit to the stars Scotty alleges he worked with. (Photo: Left, Scotty and friends; Right, Scotty in uniform.)Photo: Photos courtesy of Greenwich Entertainment.
Bright Boulevards, Bold Dreams: The Story of Black Hollywood
In this 2005 book, author Donald Bogle dives into the history and lore of famous black actors in Hollywoods earliest decades, from Stepin Fetchit to Dorothy Dandridge. Bogle traces what it was really like being a black star at the time, shedding light on the rise of figures like Lena Horne and Sammy Davis Jr.Photo: Courtesy of One World.
Bring on the Empty Horses
In 1975, Oscar-winning actor David Niven released this book, a collection of his favorite star-studded run-ins in his years in the business. There are detailed passages of his friendships with Clark Gable and Greta Garbo, charming and thrilling anecdotes of his lengthy career and personal life.Photo: Courtesy of Hodder & Stoughton.
Tab Hunter Confidential
In his autobiography (later made into a documentary, available on Netflix), actor Tab Hunter spoke freely about his acting and singing career, which began in the 1950s. The actor also shed light on his personal life, revealing his relationships with men like Pyscho star Anthony Perkins and ice-skater Ronnie Robertson. He also dished on what it was like working with studio heads like Jack Warner and getting set up on publicity tours with actresses like Natalie Wood and Debbie Reynolds. (Photo: Tab Hunter photographed in an LA court during the trial of Confidential magazine in August 1957.)Photo: From Everett Collection.
Tinseltown: Murder, Morphine, and Madness at the Dawn of Hollywood
This 2014 book by William Mann is a nifty crossover for old Hollywood and true-crime fans, a deep dive on the 1922 murder of noted director William Desmond Taylor. Tinseltown also folds in rumors and figures of the era, making special note of power players like Paramount Pictures founder Adolph Zukor (whose nickname was simply “Creepy”) and many, many others.Photo: Courtesy of Harper Paperbacks.
The Sewing Circle
Hollywood is the sort of place where actors can win awards for playing members of the L.G.B.T.Q. community, but openly gay actors risk possibly being thrust out of the business. Actors largely kept their mouths shut about their sexuality in the days of Old Hollywood, leaving a few clues to history as to how they might have truly identified. In the 1995 book The Sewing Circle, author Axel Madsen writes about the rumored bisexual or lesbian actresses in the industry, from Garbo to Crawford, detailing how they navigated their private lives away from the public eye. The books title is the nickname for the industrys closeted community. (Photo: Greta Garbo in the 1931 film Susan Lenox- Her Fall and Rise.)Photo: BettmannPreviousNext