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Martin London

Martin London

Posted: June 1, 2010 08:17 AM

Smash That Infomercial!: The Omissions and Lies in HBO's Film About Ron Galella

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On Tuesday, June 1, HBO is throwing a party to celebrate its ill-advised decision to televise Smash His Camera, a so-called "documentary" film about photographer Ron Galella. I turned down the invitation and here's why:

Last July, I gave a 2-3 hour interview for the film upon the assurance the final product would be fair, balanced, even-handed. It is none of those. Not even close. A major segment of the film (including its title) focuses on Galella's misbehavior toward Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and her children, and the resulting lawsuit. I was part of the trial team that represented Mrs. Onassis in that six-week trial. Almost everything in the film about that case is a misrepresentation, deception, or an outright lie.

Four federal judges (one trial, three appellate) who reviewed the trial evidence found that Galella was an inveterate liar and that his conduct was beyond the pale. But instead of telling it like it is, the producer (who is the son of Galella's trial lawyer and who works at his father's law firm) blithely provided a showcase for Galella to rewrite history via a re-telling of some of the same lies he told at trial. In the courtroom, Galella was often forced to admit his perjury, but in this forum he gets an unopposed second shot to deceive and takes full advantage of it while hawking his books and prints. Yuck.

The sucky nature of this infomercial is not limited to Galella telling whoppers. The production team ran the whole gamut:

A) A gratuitous slander of the now-deceased trial judge, B) Omission of any reference to published Court findings that Galella is a manifold perjurer who has no respect for truth, C) Gross omission of mention of a large number of incidents in which Galella's undenied conduct was not only harassing in the extreme, but physically dangerous to Mrs. Onassis and her children, and D) Selective editing and material omissions to create the false impression that the testimony of Mrs. Onassis and the Secret Service agents assigned to protect her children was exaggerated or untruthful.

Let's take them in order:

A) Slander of the trial judge
The senseless defamation of the trial judge was accomplished by having Galella's lawyer tell the camera that "we knew we would have trouble" at trial because presiding federal judge Cooper had, some ten years earlier, been appointed by JFK. What purpose could there be to this irrelevancy other than to convey the impression the trial judge's findings were the result of his pro-Kennedy bias and that's why Galella lost? But the film failed to inform viewers that:

i) Three federal appeals court judges (not a Kennedy appointee in the bunch) reviewed the entire trial record and unambiguously and unanimously affirmed Judge Cooper's conclusions about Galella's conduct. Upon its own review of the evidence, the appellate court wrote, "Galella cannot successfully challenge [Judge Cooper's] finding of tortious conduct. ... Galella's action went far beyond the reasonable bounds of news gathering. ...Galella's constant surveillance, his obtrusive and intruding presence, was unwarranted and unreasonable. If there were any doubt in our minds, Galella's inexcusable conduct toward defendant's minor children would resolve it", and

ii) Galella's lawyers never moved to remove the trial judge. When a lawyer really believes a judge is biased, he can move to recuse him, but is required to swear to an affidavit certifying that his request is made IN GOOD FAITH. Did Galella's lawyers, including the one who made the appointment-bias comment on film, ever submit such a sworn statement? No. Did Galella nevertheless raise the appointment-bias issue in the courtroom? Yes. Did he raise it again on appeal? Yes. Did the appellate court address this issue? Yes. Did those three judges hold that Galella's claim lacked merit? Yes. Did the film report any of this? No.

iii) Oh yeah, by the way, while it was Judge Cooper and the three-judge court who ruled against Galella's claim against Mrs. Onassis, it was a fifth judge, Judge McLean who earlier threw out Galella's claim against the Secret Service agents. I did not see any mention of that either.

B) Galella has demonstrated he has "a galling lack of respect for the truth." Why would anybody believe anything he had to say?
The trial judge wrote:
"The record is studded with instance after instance where [Galella's] testimony was clearly perjurious...on occasion he was forced to acknowledge the falsity of his testimony." and "He sought to subporn perjury by witnesses who been subpoenaed or have them conceal matters called for by subpoena."

And the three judge appellate court found:

[Judge Cooper's] findings on credibility are indeed broad, but they are supported in the record. Galella demonstrated a galling lack of respect for the truth and gave no indication of any consciousness of the meaning of the oath he had taken. Not only did he admit blatantly lying in his testimony, he admitted attempting have other witnesses lie for him.

That's headline stuff coming from two federal courts. Did the film reveal any of this to the audience? Nada. Instead we see Galella make some of the same discredited claims he did at trial. And remarkably, we are treated to Galella's trial lawyer telling the camera that Galella told him that when, on cross examination, Galella admitted that he tried to extort a payoff to cease harassing his Mrs. Onassis, he was really lying! Pathetic.

Just two examples of Galella on film pitching lies that were discredited at trial:

The incident in Central Park when Galella jumped out into the path of 9-year-old John riding his bicycle is of special significance. Not only did Galella cause the child to swerve and nearly lose control as he approached the traffic on Fifth Avenue, but the Secret Service agents' reaction to that event led to Galella's arrest, and eventually to his suit against them and Mrs. Onassis. Given the centrality of that event, one could well understand the producer's addressing it in the film. But as the exclusive means of doing so he chose to have Galella re-tell his thoroughly discredited version of the event: Galella tells us that the Secret Service agents assigned to protect the son of the murdered president were not justified in their response because Galella did not frighten John: Galella never jumped into the path, in fact he was not in the path, he was BEHIND A TREE, TEN FEET OFF THE PATH, and he took his photos from there. And then, as if to reinforce that claim, we are shown a photograph of Galella hiding behind a tree!

But:
i)Three Secret Service agents testified unambiguously that Galella did jump into the path front of John's bike.

ii)Galella's own photos proved, and an expert witness testified without challenge, that Galella was IN the path, not OFF the path behind a tree when the pictures were shot, and

iii) it was not only Judge Cooper who found that Galella was in the path; the Circuit Court of Appeals, in its unanimous opinion, wrote, "Gallela ... jumped out into the boy's path, causing the agents' concerns for John's safety. ...The agents saw Galella jump into the path of John Kennedy who was forced to swerve his bike dangerously as he left Central Park and was about to enter Fifth Avenue." Hmmm. How could an even-handed, fair, balanced film present none of these facts?

The Title -- "Smash His Camera" is a great title. Sort of like a New York Post headline. Galella says he heard Mrs. Onassis say that to a Secret Service agent. But the credible trial evidence is to the contrary: Not only did both Mrs. Onassis and the Secret Service agent testify it was never said, the agent's testimony was not even challenged on cross-examination. The trial court found that "contrary to Galella's false testimony, Mrs. Onassis gave no instructions whatsoever to anyone." I didn't see that finding in the film either.

When I was a teenager, I loved it when Perry got the witness to say on the stand, "You're right, counselor, my testimony was false." Most trial lawyers spend a whole career never hearing those words directed to us. In this one case, I got several lifetimes worth.

C) Galella's conduct toward Mrs. Onassis and her children
While the film mentions several of Galella's pursuits of Mrs. Onassis, -- one in a restaurant, one in a theatre, etc., it omits the most offensive ones, and gives the viewer no idea of the consistency and number of the acts of harassment, many of them putting Mrs. Onassis and her children in harm's way. For example the film omits any mention of Galella's conduct in causing John's horse to bolt, Galella's seafaring enterprises endangering Mrs. Onassis and the children on several occasions by buzzing them in a rented speedboat, his additional physical intrusions into John's and Caroline's school buildings, hiring a "Santa" to harass the children to create a staged photo-op, intruding himself into a revolving door with the children, leaping out in the dark setting off a flash that frightened John and caused him to fall to his knees, frightening Caroline in the park as she was walking her dog and then chasing her as she tried to run away from him, bringing her to tears by harassing her at tennis and then having the the gall to say to her, "I'm not frightening you, am I honey?" and then offering to bribe her tennis instructor for information so he could get more access to the child, and more. There is a large catalogue of events in which he intruded into beauty salons, department stores, theatres, schools, churches, at funerals, He surveilled Mrs. Onassis and her children day and night, here and abroad, and his surveillance even included going into stores after she departed and asking the sales staff what items of clothing she bought, asking restaurant servers what she had eaten. None of this is in the film. Fair and balanced? This film could teach Fox News a thing or two.


D) Editorial Bias
1. The film unfairly suggests Mrs. Onassis was not really discomforted by encounters with Galella, because she was smiling in many of his photographs. This an outrageous claim.

i) There can be no real issue of the family's discomfort. The evidence is overwhelming the family was harassed by Galella and he knew it. The courts so found. Most striking is a conversation with Aristotle Onassis in which Galella does not deny he knew he was inflicting pain on Jacqueline Onassis but he says he does not think of himself as a sadist because he believes his conduct "will help her forget" the tragedy in her life! This is the same conversation in which Galella offers to stop photographing Jacqueline Onassis if Aristotle Onassis would give him a job with Olympia Airlines. How could the film omit this?

ii) As to her smiling visage, Mrs. Onassis was asked directly about that at trial, and she testified:

I always try to keep smiling when Galella is there. I know he wants to catch me looking terrified... [W]hen Mr. Galella is photographing me I tried to keep a smile, keep my head up, act as normal as possible because I believe he wants to provoke an unusual response or gesture, a frightened look or shielding one's face or something, so I try to keep my head up and keep smiling.

She was correct: Galella specifically said he hid and jumped out at Mrs. Onassis because he wanted to "get emotion and expression" in his pictures. None of this was in the film. Indeed, Galella is so very proud of his iconic shot of Mrs. Onassis running away to deflect him from further interference with Caroline's tennis lesson in Central Park. (One of the film's incisive commentators, who presumably has no children, or at least none he likes, criticized her running away as "undignified" behavior. Consider please the editorial decision to include that brilliant statement in the film.) But Galella was pleased he caused Mrs. Onassis to run away. He snapped pictures of her fleeing, and then chased after her and got more shots of her effort to elude him. Of her running away, he testified at the trial, "She performed very well." And he boasts the picture of her running away sold very well.


2. The film quotes Galella's lawyer as defending Galella's conduct because, he said, Galella did not commit a crime, as if that were the only test of civilized behavior. But the three judge appellate court found that the relief granted by Judge Cooper "is no doubt sustainable under New York's prosciption of harassment", that ..."Harassment is a criminal violation under [the] New York Penal Law"... and that Galella's "criminal liability for harassment" justified the injunction. The film editor elected not to mention that.

3. I chuckled when I heard Galella say on camera that Mrs. Onassis spent $500,000 on legal fees on the case, and he spent only $40,000. Would fairness not have required some reference immediately thereafter to what Galella's legal bill would have been had his contingency-fee lawyer not lost the case?

4. Interviews with Galella's detractors are cut off, snippets are taken out of context, -- the whole range of "advocacy filmmaking." The modus operandi here looks to be "Bias is okay, it's my camera." But this producer promised fairness, balance, objectivity, and even-handedness. And the truth was always readily available: Two published court opinions tell it all.

5. The film would drape Galella in the robe of a "photojournalist". The photojournalists union, if there is one, ought to picket the project. A journalist is a person who reports what other people are doing or saying, and a photojournalist is someone who takes photographs of what others are doing or saying. Journalists report news, not manufacture it. A person who creates and tries to sell pictures of himself photographing his unwilling subject, who tries to provoke a desired expression or conduct, who hires Santa Clauses to harass and try to pose with an unwilling subject, who offers to terminate his "journalistic" efforts if he gets a payoff, that person is no 'journalist". He is quite something else. Whatever the word is, "journalist" ain't it.

After seeing the final cut of the film, I brought all these faults to the attention of the producer. He did not take issue with a single one of these facts about Galella's conduct, his perjuries, the courts' findings, or the film's omissions but nevertheless refused to honor my request to rescind my pre-interview agreement to participate in the film, or even give me a copy of my 2-3 hour interview.

The film is a disgrace. I'll stay home and eat pizza on June 1. Smash that infomercial!

The writer of this article, along with Simon H. Rifkind and Lewis A. Kaplan, represented Mrs. Jacqueline Onassis at trial. The other lawyers at trial were Mr. Michael Hess, an Assistant United States Attorney representing the United States Secret Service, and Messrs. Al Julien and Stuart Schlesinger who represented the plaintiff, Ronald Galella.