Excuse me, but where the hell is my private jet?

Andrew Gumbel on stars whose demands match their egos

Francis Coppola once said that the shock of becoming famous "is no different from the shock of death; when you come out of it, you're a different person". Which might explain why film stars can be petulant, demanding, spoiled, arrogant and obnoxious and sometimes not even know it. A precious insight into the movie star mentality offered itself unexpectedly last week when a letter from Sean Penn to Twentieth Century Fox, the studio owned by Rupert Murdoch, was leaked to the entertainment newspaper Variety.

Penn, a man not exactly celebrated for his even temper, blew his top when the studio turned down his request for a private jet to take him to a screening of Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line, in Houston, Texas [see David Thomson, front page]. The company winced at the thought of spending $40,000 (pounds 25,000) to send an actor to a screening it had not even organised (it was a private soiree arranged by the director). Moreover, the film was modestly budgeted, and Penn had done almost no publicity to warrant such vast travelling expenses. A reasonable point of view, one might have thought. But of course movie stars do not exist to be reasonable.

"I have yet again run into another of the endless bureaucratic hurdles that your company relentlessly plants in my path," Penn wrote in a missive so raging with sarcasm that it verged in places on the incoherent. "As I have two movies, two children and (as each woman is at least two people) two wives presently in distribution, my schedule is rather hectic. I therefore requested that Mr Murdoch's gigantic corporation might be so generous (with the money they've earned exploiting the pain and suffering of myself and my peers in their tabloids) as to supply me with a private jet to travel to Houston. The response was a clear NO."

Mr Penn took issue with the studio's $40,000 price tag, saying the jet would have cost no more than $16,000, half of which would have been covered by the production on the actor's other current movie, Hurlyburly. Subtracting the price of a first-class commercial flight ($2,000), Penn calculated that the private jet would only really cost the studio $6,000 "which, against the price cut I offered in my deal to act in this movie, seemed equivalent to the fair market price of one hair on Mr Rupert Murdoch's formidable ass". And so the letter went on, combining gratuitous insult with righteous rage, making out that Penn was doing the studio a favour by demanding the private jet and suggesting - without a hint of shame - that senior Fox executives had forgotten what the inside of a commercial airline terminal looked like. And he signed off: "If my name is unfamiliar to you, you can check your computers under Movie Buff. I believe they consider me to be someone with a career."

The letter was so over the top (among the listed recipients was God Almighty) that it was tempting to see it as some kind of joke. Penn even remarked in his preamble that "its less than humble writer has found grounds for amusement in its content". But of course movie star petulance is nothing new. This is an industry that thrives on excess, and top actors and directors are notorious for making outrageous demands to match their outrageous pay cheques. Coppola, for example, became notorious for ordering Lalique crystal, fine wine and gourmet food from San Francisco while on the set of Apocalypse Now in the Philippines. Fresh pasta was flown in from Italy daily, and on one occasion he summoned a top Tokyo chef to make him a side of Kobe beef - all this while his crew was struggling with tropical disease and a desperate shortage of food and drinking water.

More recently, the trend has been for top stars to insist on enormous entourages - John Travolta had no fewer than 25 for his latest movie The General's Daughter - including masseurs, acupuncturists, nutritionists and fortune-tellers. Bruce Willis and Demi Moore have also been known to send nannying bills to the film company to compensate for their long absences from home.

Private jets, too, have become an increasingly common demand. The latest Richard Gere-Julia Roberts vehicle, Runaway Bride, was supposed to be set in New York but the production was moved to Baltimore to save money. But when the two stars insisted on being flown home every weekend, all the savings made by working outside New York were instantly eradicated. The excess is far from universal, however, particularly in these times of escalating film costs and ever more corporate-minded studios.

Some actors are even happy to show a little modesty in the face of colossal expenditure. Another performer working at Fox was recently offered a private jet for a trip he could not easily make by commercial airliner, but turned it down when he discovered it would cost the studio $140,000.

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