Beat the Press

Sphere of Influence
In Citizen Kane, after Kane's paramour gives a dreadful opera performance, Orson Welles finds Joseph Cotten back in the office, passed out drunk on top of a half-written negative review. Kane finishes writing the pan, OK's it for publication -- and then fires Cotten. As rumors of a Phil Bronstein-Sharon Stone engagement flitted around town (rumors trumped when the pair married in Beverly Hills last Saturday), the entertainment editors at the Examiner, where Bronstein is executive editor, must have been wondering what to do about the upcoming movie Sphere. The pair met last year while Stone was in town filming the sci-fi thriller, which was directed by Barry Levinson and also stars Dustin Hoffman and Samuel L. Jackson. The buzz on the movie said it was a stinker; Beat the Press saw Sphere a week ago and can testify that it is as tedious an alleged action film as has been made recently, though Stone is not the worst thing in it.

Last week, in a touchy situation, Bronstein demonstrated that he's no Charles Foster Kane. The Ex took film critic Barbara Shulgasser off the hook and printed a review from a Seattle daily -- which was, to the paper's credit, resoundingly negative. About the best thing writer William Arnold found to say about Sphere was that it wasn't quite as awful as Congo. He also singled out Stone for chewing the scenery. "We chose the outlet beforehand -- the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, a Hearst newspaper," reports Examiner Style Editor Heidi Benson. "[We said], 'OK, Bill Arnold, he's a great reviewer. Whatever he writes, we'll print.' " There were no Kane-like repercussions. "Everything's fine," Benson says. "We followed our plan. It was the right thing to do." The Chronicle, meanwhile, praised Sphere as "an adult, thinking-person's movie," and described Stone's performance as "forceful."

Slow Read
It took the Chron's entertainment section two years to hire a new rock critic; now nearly a year has gone by while the powers that be ponder what to do about the book section. In the spring of last year, Patricia Holt, the longtime book review editor, told the paper's editors she wanted to step down to concentrate on reviewing. A candidate from Los Angeles has apparently been given the job, but there's no official word. Chron editors aren't talking.

Holt's not complaining. The 16-year Chron veteran says, however, that's she's looking forward to spending more time reviewing books -- a notoriously time-consuming activity by itself -- and less on the administrative tasks that go into putting out a text-packed 12- or 16-page section each week. "I don't even count the reading time," she sighs. "I haven't read anything for myself in 16 years, that's for sure."

Holt, now 54, is an S.F. native who attended Lincoln High School. She began in publishing with Houghton Mifflin in Boston, eventually turning to covering the non-New York book scene for Publisher's Weekly; "Back then they had no one else west of the Hudson," she says.

At the Chron she headed one of the few stand-alone book sections in the country. It was never The New York Review of Books, but it was a routinely competent and rarely embarrassing endeavor, a claim few Chronicle sections can make. Either from uninterest or respect, the paper's editors left her alone. "I must say that the section was given its head and allowed to grow organically," Holt says. "We never get memos saying, 'Why didn't you review this?' "

The section concentrates on local writers. "We have a bias toward the Bay Area, then California, then the West Coast, then the Pacific Rim," says Holt. "If it's local we must look at it." If the word comes back negative, "any Northern California book gets a second read" -- but in the end, she says, "we don't trash unknowns."

She proudly says that the greater Bay Area is the No. 1 per-capita book region in the country, and No. 3 in sheer volume, after New York and Los Angeles. "It's splendid that books are so visible here," she says. And without prompting she'll wax rhapsodical about the spirit that created everything from City Lights and The Berkeley Barb to the city's central role in the desktop-publishing explosion: "There's a freedom from institutional life that's so dug-in here. It's not like the East Coast, where all of the people in one city dictate what's important. The farther away you got from that the more reckless and undifferentiated it was. People began to write something and go into a printer and pay $5 and sell it to anybody. It's in their blood."

Brown Alioto -- Dead
De mortuis nil nisi bonum, goes the saying; speak only good of the dead. Willie Brown took the adage to heart after the passing of Joseph Alioto, and the Chron pretty much went along. The Examiner's funeral story was careful to note that the two were political enemies, even quoting a slicing Brown witticism. (Brown said that while there were a lot of Alioto friends at the funeral, others were there "to make sure you're here, Joe.") In the Chron, besides a quick mention of "decades of ill-will" in a story about a civic memorial to Alioto, everything was rosy, with Brown recalling Alioto as "a fighter throughout his life" and even as a "champion of racial diversity long before it was fashionable."

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