In the hour before dusk, Marty Singer, the man celebrities call when a career is skidding toward scandal, stepped to a window on the 24th floor of his Century City law firm. A wisp of smog stretched from the ocean to the skyline, and Singer noted that the air was dirtier when he moved here from Brooklyn decades ago.
"The pollution was thicker back then," he said. "But I don't look out the window much."
His deep, polished voice and demeanor, which on this day had the feel of a well-tailored accountant, belied his reputation as Hollywood's favorite legal hit man. His mission is to keep dirt out of the rarefied air cushioning his A-list clients -- a group that has included Bill Cosby, John Travolta, Scarlett Johansson, Arnold Schwarzenegger and, currently, producer-director Brett Ratner. Singer spends much of his time trying to kill unflattering stories, scrub unseemly headlines and prevent his celebrities from stepping into a courtroom.
His "cease and desist" and "proceed at your peril" letters to media outlets and accusers on behalf of clients are legendary. Recently, as the Los Angeles Times prepared stories in which more than 10 women accused Ratner of sexual misconduct, the lawyer sent the paper multiple letters filled with florid language and threats of litigation. The missives, which would not have seemed out of place in the Hollywood novels of Michael Tolkin and Elmore Leonard, were the pummeling prose of a legal pugilist looking for an early knockout.
"Marty's like when (Mike) Tyson bit the ear off that guy," said Sharon Stone at a tribute in 2012, when Singer was named Entertainment Lawyer of the Year by the Beverly Hills Bar Association. "That's like Marty in law." Similar testimonials flowed from Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis and Charlie Sheen; Singer had just won Sheen a reported settlement in excess of $100 million after Warner Bros. fired the troubled star from "Two and a Half Men."
But as accusations against Ratner, Harvey Weinstein and a seemingly ever-widening cast of others increase, Singer's hard-edged style is colliding with a sudden cultural shift toward empowering women (and men) to speak out about abuse. Strategies such as Singer's of pointedly challenging an alleged victim's account, history and possible motivations are being questioned during a time when men in entertainment, government, business, academia and the arts are being called out for sexual misconduct.
"Attacking the victim today doesn't work like it used to," said an entertainment lawyer who has argued cases against Singer and preferred to remain anonymous. "Everyone's kind of on to this. You've got to be very careful about how you do that today. When you deal with celebrities, you're on a dual path. First and foremost is the litigation, but parallel is the public relations image part of it. There's a lot of issues at stake."
Singer has been criticized for his interactions with Melanie Kohler, who in October alleged in a Facebook post that Ratner had raped her about 12 years ago. Singer called Kohler, now a scuba shop owner in Hawaii, when the post went up. She says he frightened her into taking it down; he says she has changed her account multiple times and removed it after he calmly confronted her.
Soon after, a story appeared in The Times in which six women accused Ratner of sexual harassment (Kohler was not one of them). Ratner sued her for defamation. Kohler has since told her story publicly, but Singer's strategy is to chisel away at what he argues are inconsistencies that undercut an accusation's veracity. For which he is unapologetic.
"I know people think I'm attacking victims. I'm this horrible person. I'm just trying to do a job," Singer said. "Nobody screws my clients. If someone tries to go after them, I look out for them as if they're my family." Singer added that he did not threaten Kohler. "I never raised my voice," he said, a characterization supported by another attorney in his firm.