Abbie Hoffman Movie: Soon to be a Minor Motion Picture
by Al Giordano
August 14, 2000
A new film by Lions Gate Productions, "Steal This Movie," premiering on
August 15 in Los Angeles, is under fierce attack, even on its own web site,
for fictionalizing the history of American revolutionary Abbie Hoffman.
Hoffman, who died in 1989 at the age of 52, came to prominence in the 1960s
as a colorful and humorous activist against the Vietnam war, for civil
rights, and "for a better means of exchange than money."
Someone ought to remind the Hollywood film producers of the latter plank,
and of Abbie's legendary sense of humor, which is missing, like Abbie, from
the screenplay. The film fails on many levels but especially in its
nostalgic and apologetic stance on the youth rebellion of the '60s. "Steal
This Movie" is the last, worst, example of a "capitalizing on the sixties"
trend that was the marketing sensation of the 1980s.
The Hollywood Reporter, one of the few movie zines to pay this confused
film any mind at all, described "Steal This Movie" as "a clumsy steal
attempt schizoid in its approach and a disappointingly square attempt to
tell the story of radical Abbie Hoffman."
A pamphlet distributed by the former fugitive Abbie's friends, outside of
one preview screening, blasted: "Abbie is missing again!"
Movie-goers won't know it from the film, but Abbie Hoffman's most enduring
legacy came after the '60s decade. Abbie was one of the first and sharpest
critics of the US war on drugs. He authored "Steal This Urine Test" (1987,
Viking-Penguin), still a classic of drug policy literature.
Abbie was one hell of a writer, too. He authored "Fuck the System" (1967),
"Revolution for the Hell of It" (1968), "Woodstock Nation" (1969), "Steal
This Book" (1971) and "Square Dancing in the Ice Age" (1982).
Here is the Narco News angle: Hoffman spoke fluent Spanish as a result of
his fugitive journey in Mexico that began in 1974. He had been busted for
drugs, so he went underground. As an anti-prohibition author and activist
and passionate Mexiphile, Hoffman planted the seeds that today grow in the
form of The Narco News Bulletin and so many other current activist projects
by the next generations:
Hoffman took his passion for Latin American social movements to Nicaragua
in the 1980s.
In 1986, he defeated the US Central Intelligence agency in court in the
"CIA on Trial" case in Northampton, Massachusetts, with a score of student
co-defendants including presidential daughter Amy Carter.
The film, by producer-director Robert Greenwald, has been promoted by three
former Hoffman associates, attorney Gerald Lefcourt, ex-yippie Stew Albert
and Hoffman's late second wife, Anita, who died in late 1999 -- all of whom
served as advisors to the film. And they are pretty much isolated in their
self-serving praise for a film that elevates their roles in history as it
The movie rewards its handful of ex-radical defenders by distorting the
facts: It exaggerates the role of Lefcourt, now a high-class New York
lawyer (by contrast, authentic radical Hoffman attorneys William Kunstler
and Leonard Weinglass do not exist in the film's fictional portrayal of
After Abbie's 1989 death I wrote his obituary in the Valley Advocate:
There, I had praised Lefcourt for never having sent Hoffman a legal
bill. Perhaps I was premature in that praise. The bill has now come due in
the form of an untrue movie that offers exaggerated publicity to one lawyer
while ignoring the historical contributions of the more committed radical
attorneys who labored by Abbie's side. Just as Abbie never sold out,
Kunstler (who died in 1995) and Weinglass (still fighting the good fight),
they never left the full-time practice of radical law for more lucrative
Am I being unfair to Lefcourt? This is what the movie's own web site says
about the attorney's involvement in creating the film:
"Gerry Lefcourt... provided a treasure trove of information and
recollections, and became a key member of the creative team in developing
Thus it's clear that Lefcourt was "a key member" in the willful
fictionalization of Hoffman's life.
The Anita role in the film is saddest of all, and the worst aspect of this
production was Greenwald's manipulation of the second of Hoffman's three
wives in her dying months. This is especially sad because Anita, for most
of her life, never was the helpless victim of anyone. I say this in respect
for her. Anita knew exactly what she was doing with this film. And she did
wrong by Abbie's legacy, and by her own.
The movie portrays Anita, against all historical record, as the continuing
love story in Hoffman's life, even after their separation in 1974. This
fiction by itself would not be so harmful to Hoffman's radical legacy
except for what Greenwald did with it: To exalt his source-consultant,
Greenwald's movie mutated into a veiled attack upon Hoffman's long term
running-mate Johanna Lawrenson.
Greenwald used his film to punish Lawrenson because she had declined to
cooperate with the film: it portrays Lawrenson, a widely respected radical
New York intellectual and activist, instead as a shallow model that, in the
movie, keeps trying to get Abbie to give up the fight. ("Abbie always did
want a blonde," laments the Anita character in the film; but Lawrenson is
neither blonde nor shallow). The historic record shows the opposite:
Lawrenson and Hoffman were an activist team unprecedented in modern
history. Hollywood is a perverse place but it doesn't get any sicker than
attacking widows with malicious portrayals as punishment for not
cooperating with a movie.
The film is scheduled for release in Los Angeles on August 15th, and has
drawn wide grassroots opposition from Abbie allies including on the movie's
own web site.
The movie producers have countered the grassroots opposition by planting
public-relations Astroturf: they are offering the movie for benefit
screenings to Planned Parenthood and any other organization that is willing
to take the money and hush up about the film's severe problems, thus giving
the movie an activist gloss that does not shine in its execution on the screen.
From Vanity Films to Revenge Movies
The phenomenon of "vanity films" is nothing new to Hollywood; the motion
picture industry has long rewarded real-life characters in historic events
for being sources and promoters of movies about those times. Hollywood
informants are rewarded with heroic portrayals often way beyond their
factual behavior in the real life events that are portrayed.
"Steal This Movie," however, has taken filmmaking to a new level of
industry sleaze in its attempts to punish people who did not cooperate.
Hollywood as culture cop: cooperate and you get off easy. If you don't
inform, the screen throws the popcorn at you.
In recent weeks, the film's own web site has seen a raging controversy on
its public message board. Some of the messages on the web site, a message
board purportedly in tribute to the Free Speech hero Hoffman, were
censored, according to a message posted by Steal This Movie's own
web-master. The movie's hypocrisy abounds from the big screen to the little
In recent months, hundreds of people, including many who knew the late
Hoffman, have seen sneak previews of the movie. The buzz is almost entirely
Viewers have taken the film to task for "apologizing for the '60s,
something Abbie never did" (the Anita character played by Jeaneane Garafolo
consistently makes those apologies in the movie) and for placing Anita at
the 1986 CIA-on-Trial events in Massachusetts, although Anita was not
there. Hoffman was there together with Lawrenson.
The movie's cyber-message board reveals a very interesting catfight between
movie consultant Stew Albert and anonymous critics (they posted their
critiques of Stew, at best a supporting cast member in the 1960s yippies
movement, by using the names of "Abbie," "Kunstler" and radical folksinger
"Phil Ochs" among other late figures from Hoffman's life).
As one critic described the "surreal" nature of this cyber-argument, "Stew
was shadow-boxing with his ghosts."
In place of responding to the critiques, a stream of personal insults -
"schmuck! Putz! Dumbass!" - came from the consultant toward the movie's
anonymous critics. It was not Stew Albert's highest yippie moment.
Meanwhile, young people who admire Hoffman are asking on the same web site,
"Who is this Stew Albert anyway?"
The movie's web page also offers a chronology of Abbie's life that mentions
one of my own collaborations with Abbie, this time in Pennsylvania:
"January 1982: Abbie and Al Giordano come up with the idea of "Valley Forge
II: Dump the Pump" as a method of garnering patriotic resistance to the
proposed pumping station. He will spend most of his time helping Del-AWARE
people in their fight."
In fact, that moment took place in January 1983, not in '82 as the official
web site says, but if all the film's mistakes were so minor I would not be
writing this critique.
Full disclosure: I know all the Hoffmans, most of them as friends, although
I was critical of the book by Abbie's brother Jack ("Run, Run, Run," 1994)
in a Boston Phoenix review, in part, because Jack's book engaged in a
similar kind of publicity-vendetta against all of Abbie's wives (Anita, in
fact, thanked me for writing that harsh review, and then went on to repeat
Jack's mistakes with this movie).
When Abbie's daughter Ilya was married in 1995, she had me represent her
father at the wedding, to provide and read a text by Abbie. It ended:
"Young people, don't give up hope. The future is yours."
I liked Anita as a person, but she did not make good decisions regarding
her involvement with this film, and she did some harm to history in the
process, including to her own.
In the Spring of 1996, Anita Hoffman and I were in regular contact. Anita,
saying she wanted to show her appreciation for some help I had given her
and others on an urgent matter. Anita offered me work as a consultant on
this film. Anita even suggested that Hollywood would pay me for having
known Abbie so well:
Hoffman had named me his authorized biographer nine months before his death.
Anita said that she was a paid consultant to the film, and wanted me to
join her in that venture. That struck me as kind of strange.
I've always cooperated with Hoffman's other biographers, but never for money:
I hosted three of them in my home and offered hours of direct testimony on
my travels with Abbie to his published biographers; Marty Jezer ("American
Rebel" Rutgers University Press), Jonah Raskin ("For the Hell of It" U. of
California Press) and Larry Ratso Sloman ("Steal This Dream" Random House).
The Jezer and Sloman books extensively recount my travels with Abbie and
did so accurately. The Raskin book devoted only about ten pages to Abbie's
final (and best) decade as a radical, but at least was reasonably faithful
to the historic record in what it did report in that chapter.
Abbie, when he recruited me as his biographer in 1988, knew he was not long
for this world. Abbie was very proud of the facts about his life. And he
knew that the vultures would circle when he checked out.
I never asked for nor took a cent from any of my colleagues in Hoffman
biography. More important, to me, was working to tell the truth about
Abbie, who had invested so much in me and in others as young political
organizers in the '80s.
Jezer sold the movie rights to his book to Greenwald (who, in movie-speak,
writes that he "optioned" the Jezer book), but the movie doesn't resemble
the facts in Jezer's book. Marty Jezer never placed Anita as a major player
after 1974 in Abbie's story, and not at all near the CIA trial. So what
gives with the movie? And I wonder what Marty feels about the movie taking
so many liberties with his book and signing his name to an invented story
line that he never penned.
So it took me by surprise on that day in 1996 when an assistant to producer
Robert Greenwald then called me by telephone, Anita had given them my
number, seeking to sign me up and pay me to do what I've always done
gratis. Two things that the assistant said bothered me. I was so turned
off that I told the Greenwald assistant, immediately, that in spite of the
movie's generous offers I would not cooperate.
The first alarm on my bullshit detector went off when I asked the producer
what other kinds of films this Greenwald person had made. She said that his
most recent prior film was "about a cop and an informant and its moral was
that informants are people too." Knowing what Abbie felt on the matter of
snitches he'd been betrayed many times and paid a high price for it legally
and economically, it didn't sound like these people grasped at all who
Abbie was nor did they understand the causes that he championed.
The second reason I declined the Greenwald company offer to participate was
what I perceived then, and has been proven now by their bad screenplay, as
a vengeful attitude by the Greenwald group toward Johanna Lawrenson because
she had declined to participate in the movie.
"Well, if Johanna won't talk to us," Greenwald's assistant told me in our
phone conversation, "we'll just eliminate the years that Abbie spent
underground from the movie. We don't need the facts of the underground
story to make this movie!" They carried out that threat in the final product.
It is no secret that when I traveled with Abbie in Nicaragua, in the
Thousand Islands, in Canada, in New York City, and in other places, more
often than not we were with Johanna and with other young activists like
myself. We always worked as a team. And Johanna was the guiding force who
kept all of us, the organizers, not just Abbie, but also the young folks,
organized and working together as a team. Abbie and Johanna were a great
American love story; a love that included even the people of all America.
Johanna, like Abbie, with a long radical personal history of her own
(before meeting Abbie she sued the FBI in a landmark espionage case and
won), was and remains a friend to a generation of young activists; most of
us are still active today because of the personal time that Abbie and
Johanna put into us.
In stark contrast to people like Stew Albert and Gerry Lefcourt, we haven't
abandoned the fight at middle age or sold our souls for a peck of
publicity. We have the bigger prize - revolution - as our motive.
Just last week, the Mexican national weekly, La Crisis, which has published
various Narco News stories in Spanish, reported a story about the
demonstrations planned outside the 2000 Democratic National Convention in
Los Angeles this month.
In that article, Lisa Fithan, who was with Abbie, Johanna and I in
Nicaragua in 1984-85, was quoted as an organizer of the Direct Action
organization that is planning the convention demo in 2000. From Los Angeles
to Mexico, the movement marches on.
The streets may not be coming to the movie theaters this summer but the
theater that Abbie pioneered is still in the streets.
The Autobiography of Abbie Hoffman (1980) was written during the
underground era that the movie largely ignores. The publishers titled it
"Soon to be a Major Motion Picture." Abbie hated that industry-imposed title.
The Abbie Hoffman story may well be a major motion picture someday, but it
will not be anytime soon, and certainly not this summer. Abbie will be in
the streets in August 2000, not at the cine-plex.
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