This NY Times book review has Janet Maslin critique a well written biography of MCA/Universal power broker, Lew Wasserman.
In our research for our recent books, we were aghast of the power of Wasserman to make or break careers. Janet Maslin gives an accurate look at this new book that we also recommend.
Thanks for your support of this blog and Like of our Facebook page!
WHEN HOLLYWOOD HAD A KING
The Reign of Lew Wasserman, Who Leveraged Talent Into Power and Influence
By Connie Bruck
Illustrated. 514 pages. Random House. $29.95
In 1950, while arranging for his client James Stewart to appear in ”Harvey” and ”Winchester ’73,” the wizardly Lew Wasserman had a novel idea: to reward the star with part of the movies’ profits instead of a salary. This was only one of countless innovations devised by Wasserman as president of MCA, then Hollywood’s most powerful talent agency. As we know, the idea of profit participation for actors would have huge consequences and drastically affect the way that films were made.
But one of the astonishing testaments to Wasserman’s business acumen was his ability to work both sides of this equation. As MCA became an ever-more-imaginatively tentacled octopus, acquiring Universal Studios and moving presciently into television production, its role as a talent agency began to interest the Justice Department. To avoid antitrust issues, the talent agency had to go.
As Connie Bruck fascinatingly reports in ”When Hollywood Had a King,” a deal-by-deal analysis of the Wasserman executive style and the business climate in which it thrived, Wasserman’s having to get out of the talent business looked like a form of poetic justice. Here, after all, was the visionary who had driven stars’ salaries sky high and set them up as producers. And now here he was, on the other side of the negotiating table, having to hire those same stars on those same studio-punishing terms.
It will surprise no one who reads Ms. Bruck’s complex business history and character study that Wasserman, while heeding the Justice Department’s warnings, found a way out of that trap. ”The outcome,” she writes, ”was so sublimely advantageous that many who knew Wasserman would remain forever convinced that the government ended up doing for him what he could not do himself,” turning the talent agency into a much weaker entity.
Machinations like that had a way of happening around Wasserman. He had a genius for appearing to be acted upon while managing to get exactly what he wanted, time and again. He also had an immensely effective and pragmatic approach to dealing with the tough realities of the entertainment industry, from the intricacies of labor union issues to the inevitable interest of organized crime. He liked to tell a story about being grilled about his acquaintance with Jimmy Hoffa, then head of the Teamsters’ Union. ”I said: ‘Yes, and I’m glad I know him. We hire about 15,000 of his members a week. I’d rather be hiring them from someone I know than someone I don’t.”
Ms. Bruck, with the same dogged reportorial finesse she brought to ”The Predators’ Ball” and ”Master of the Game,” delves far back into the history of MCA to unravel these connections. Her book begins with Jules Stein, the agency’s founder, and its pioneering practitioner of vertical integration. Stein began in Chicago by managing dance bands, then became involved with the hotels that booked them and the radio stations that played them, then even began supplying those hotels with liquor, party hats, ashtrays and confetti. As Ms. Bruck illustrates, it would not be a surprise in this atmosphere to learn that ”Rose of Picardy” was Al Capone’s favorite song.
Ms. Bruck does not so much implicate MCA in mob-related activities as explore what was the price of doing business at that time. And as she moves on from Mr. Stein — who never fully gave up control of MCA, although he became something of an executive emeritus — to Mr. Wasserman, her approach remains frank and essentially admiring. From afar there would be many who questioned Wasserman’s close friendship with Sidney Korshak, a lawyer with close ties to organized crime. But from within the context of ”When Hollywood Had a King,” Mr. Wasserman appears savvy, realistic, utterly business-obsessed, and quick to recognize relationships that might prove helpful.
Although ”When Hollywood Had a King” is more concerned with business dealings than personalities (this is a book where the investment tax credit looms larger than some of its human subjects), Ms. Bruck ably captures Wasserman’s personal mystique. ”The defining characteristics of the persona he had created were that he never lost in a deal, never made a mistake, could see around corners into tomorrow, and that his reach, from the underworld to the White House, gave him a matchless control,” she writes.
She also captures the qualities that were most awe-inspiring among his colleagues, and would be most imitated by younger managers (most notably Michael Ovitz). Insisting that his staff dress with all the sartorial flair of C.I.A. agents, keep as few notes as possible, return all phone calls and always do the necessary homework, he cultivated an absolutism as fearsome as it was admired. A Wasserman secretary tells Ms. Bruck (who talked to her subject, who died last year, only late in his life and did not have access to his widow, Edie Wasserman) of being instructed to accept no busy signals on the telephone; if someone was busy, she would break into the call on an emergency basis. She also describes seeing men leave her boss’s office in tears.
But the central figure found in this book is a tremendously impressive one. Through her study of one exceptionally tough and talented individual, Ms. Bruck pulls off a coup of her own: locating history, politics, cultural shifts and business brilliance all in the inner workings of ”a shark you almost had to admire as he circled you.” Her portrait of that dapper, bespectacled shark is the stuff of wheeler-dealer legend.