A documentary crew from the BBC arrives in L.A. intent on interviewing Heidi Fleiss, a year after her arrest for running a brothel but before her trial. Several months elapse before the interview, so the crew searches for anyone who’ll talk about the young woman. Two people have a lot to say to the camera: a retired madam named Alex for whom Fleiss once worked and Fleiss’s one-time boyfriend, Ivan Nagy, who introduced her to Alex. Alex and Nagy don’t like each other, so the crew shuttles between them with “she said” and “he said.” When they finally interview Fleiss, they spend their time reciting what Alex and Nagy have had to say and asking her reaction.
eidi Fleiss’ business was no General Motors, but maybe she wielded enough power in Hollywood to deserve a documentary that recalls “Roger and Me.”
So Nick Broomfield’s “Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam” is a lively, bawdy, bizarrely fascinating first-person chronicle of Mr. Broomfield’s efforts to track her down.
Interviewing prostitutes and pornographers, Mr. Broomfield immerses himself so tirelessly in the hunt for Ms. Fleiss that he initially raises questions of journalistic integrity, not to mention an eyebrow or two.
When the filmmaker heads for Ms. Fleiss’ favorite bars, conducts motel room interviews or approaches a streetwalker (who threatens to spit on his camera), he appears to be showing several shades more investigative zeal than the subject warrants.
But Mr. Broomfield, an accomplished documentary film maker whose last profiles were of Margaret Thatcher and the serial killer Aileen Wuornos, winds up justifying his interest in Ms. Fleiss and her world.
Exploring the strange subculture of pimps, thugs and high rollers that nourished Ms. Fleiss and her entrepreneurial instincts, the film exposes a story that is pure Hollywood. Everyone seen here is obsessed with illusion. Everyone cares more about keeping up appearances than about telling the truth.
And, as Mr. Broomfield makes clear by handing out $100 bills to those willing to talk on camera – including former Los Angeles Police Chief Darryl Gates – everyone here is for sale.
(In answer to a question, Mr. Gates explains patiently that the Los Angeles Police Department tried to arrest clients as well as prostitutes. “Then why didn’t you arrest your brother for being with prostitutes,” Mr. Broomfield asks pleasantly, “particularly as he was a police officer at the time?”)
“Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam” – made for the BBC, shown last fall on Cinemax – reveals Mr. Broomfield to be much craftier than he first appears. Seen driving through Los Angeles and trying to solicit interviews via his car phone, he seems hopelessly overmatched.
The people he seeks are tough customers, like Madam Alex and Ivan Nagy, the two alleged mentors who helped Ms. Fleiss early in her career and later came to regret it. Like many of the people Mr. Broomfield approaches, they take stock of his milquetoast manner and underestimate him. Big mistake.
“You want me to be fully descriptive?” asks Victoria Sellers, Peter Sellers’ daughter and Ms. Fleiss’ accomplice and ex-friend. “I’m unclear; you sure?” Yes, Mr. Broomfield encourages his subjects to be as blunt as they choose (very), but he’s not after sordid details or the names in Ms. Fleiss’ notorious black book.
Instead, “Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam” tries to understand Ms. Fleiss herself. From Madam Alex’s casual insults (dismissing the young Heidi as “a little groupie”) to Fleiss home movies of the middle-class family watching the birth of Heidi’s baby brother, the film collects a wide range of clues to Ms. Fleiss’ motives.
One of its chattier sources is Mr. Nagy, Ms. Fleiss’ sometime lover, who presents himself as a successful businessman. (He is now marketing a pornographic CD-ROM about Ms. Fleiss’ hookers. Mr. Broomfield also includes glimpses of a grotesquely violent Nagy-directed porn film in which the victim is a whore named Heidi.)
Mr. Nagy’s comments unwittingly reveal a love-hate relationship with Ms. Fleiss, made even more tortured by the possibility that he helped get her into trouble with the police.
Mr. Nagy manages to seem an even more sinister and peculiar figure than Madam Alex, who died last year. He laughs off talk of drugs, violence and pimping, though he eventually grows angry enough to turn on Mr. Broomfield. (“You’re a rube and a philistine,” Mr. Nagy tells him. “You’re an idiot. You’re not in the club.”)
At another point, Mr. Nagy cheerfully sells the film maker a home movie of himself that, he says, shows “a very nice emotional interaction between two people.” This consists of Mr. Nagy coaxing Ms. Fleiss to take her clothes off and Ms. Fleiss teasingly suggesting that he displays symptoms of venereal disease.
So where, in this morass, is Ms. Fleiss herself? She refuses Mr. Broomfield’s attentions at first, even after he sneaks into the clothing store she owns carrying a hidden camera. Later on, thinking he has talked her into an interview, he returns there to find Ms. Fleiss being interviewed by a Los Angeles television station.
“They’re doing a documentary,” Ms. Fleiss explains to the woman from the Los Angeles station. “They want to film me right in the middle of my trial. Crazy, huh?”
“I’d probably be in my house with the covers over my head,” says the woman, who already has her Heidi sound bite.
Mr. Broomfield erupts, waving his BBC microphone at the one from Channel 5. “Just ’cause you’ve got a number on yours and I haven’t got a number on mine? This is the voice of reason here? I’ve devoted six months of my life to this!”
“Six months?” says the woman from Channel 5. She is incredulous. “To . . . Heidi?”
But it pays off, and long before Ms. Fleiss finally agrees to speak. Blunt, flirty and obviously frightened by her legal troubles, she speaks of running a prostitution business as if, in Hollywood, it were a sensible adjunct to many other Hollywood business operations.
One of her most telling anecdotes is of being paid $40,000 a night to do little more than play Scheherezade to a jaded client.
“You’ve got to be well compensated for that kind of stuff,” she shrugs. “It’s hard to do, to keep that going for a couple of hours.” She may have been, among other things, the best actress in town.
— Janet Maslin (New York Times)