Saturday, February 11, 2012

Book Review | Mr. & Mrs. Hollywood: Edie and Lew Wasserman and Their Entertainment Empire (2003)

The Empire Strikes Back

by Thomas Delapa

When Hollywood histories are usually written, surprisingly few shine any light at all on the late Lew Wasserman. Even in Ephraim Katz’s essential Film Encyclopedia, Wasserman doesn’t merit his own entry, whereas Lassie and Rin Tin Tin fetch several paragraphs each.

Yet modern Hollywood as we know it wouldn’t exist without Louis “Lew” R. Wasserman, the secretive super-agent-turned-mogul who transformed Universal from a broke, low-budget studio into a worldwide multimedia colossus.

From the 1940s to well into the 1990s, Wasserman and his wife Edie were one of the U.S. entertainment industry’s high-voltage power couples, consorts and counsels to everyone from stars to presidents. A king and queen among Los Angeles royalty, this matched pair finally got their close-up—warts and all—in Mr. & Mrs. Hollywood: Edie and Lew Wasserman and Their Entertainment Empire (2003), by Kathleen Sharp.

Not that Wasserman (1913-2002) would have wanted the scrutiny, even after death. A famously behind-the-scenes puppet master, he shunned the spotlight, preferring to pull strings from the wings. Few know that it was Wasserman who, as James Stewart’s agent in 1950, negotiated a momentous deal with Universal that gave the star a big chunk of the profits on his film Winchester ‘73. A model for “above the line” talent contracts to this day, it was a shot heard ‘round Hollywood, and one that would be another nail in the coffin of the old studio system.

Sharp traces Wasserman’s personal and professional trajectories from his childhood in Cleveland and marriage to the zesty Edith Brickerman, and on to his near-lifelong association with the formidable—and feared—Chicago-born talent agency MCA (Music Corporation of America) founded by Jules Stein. For every Wasserman success and triumph along the way, Sharp uncovers shadowy counterpoints, from antitrust investigations to mob connections and underhanded labor tactics, once in concert with a minor 1950s actor named Ronald Reagan.

At MCA, Wasserman was Stein’s indispensable right-hand man as it grew into Hollywood’s most powerful and aggressive talent agency after World War II, signing a galaxy of such A-list clients as Stewart, Marlon Brando, Marilyn Monroe, Dean Martin, Judy Garland and Charlton Heston, as well as directors Alfred Hitchcock (a close Wasserman friend) and Billy Wilder. But as the old Hollywood studios began to eclipse in the late 1940s, buffeted by the TV revolution and antitrust busting, Wasserman and MCA saw the future before anyone else. In 1950, he engineered a deal to create Revue Productions to make TV shows, renting space at Universal’s massive, 367-acre lot in the San Fernando Valley. By 1958, MCA/Revue was so successful it bought outright the cash-poor Universal City lot for virtually a song. Wasserman’s prescient Midas touch would also include the purchase of undervalued studio film libraries (like Paramount’s), which would turn into a gold mine owing to TV showings and eventual re-releases through the post-1970s home-video bonanza.

While Sharp’s highly readable history glitters with accounts on Hollywood’s critical transition years, the book is a bit tarnished by the author’s resistance to chronological rigor. Rather than starting at the beginning of Wasserman’s life, she drops in jigsaw flashbacks to the 1930s and 1940s. Though strict biographical timelines might seem as prosaic as an old Andy Hardy picture, they’re also usually more complete. (Dennis McDougal’s 1998 The Last Mogul: Lew Wasserman, MCA and the Hidden History of Hollywood has a tighter focus.)

Most of Mr. & Mrs. Hollywood spans from the late 1950s to Wasserman’s death in 2002. (Edie died just this past year.) During that time, he reinvented himself at least once, dissolving from talent agent into studio mogul. When MCA tried to purchase the Universal studio in 1962, the government stepped in, charging that the deal violated antitrust laws; Wasserman would have to either get out of talent business or nix the deal. He and Stein chose Universal.

In the decades that followed, Wasserman and his executives—like production head Ned Tanen—transformed the former studio best known for monster movies and Deanna Durbin musicals into a conglomerate monolith. Not only did Universal become a major player on TV (with hits from Leave it To Beaver to The Rockford Files), and in the recording industry (Decca), it also morphed into a big-time movie studio, boosted into the stratosphere by such 1970s New Hollywood cash-cows as Steven Spielberg. Tearing a page from Walt Disney, Wasserman's multi-platform business genius also extended to his decision to start a small public tour of the Universal lot in 1964 (see Lana Turner’s dressing room!), which has since grown into one of Southern California's biggest tourist attractions.

As one of New Hollywood’s studio godfathers, Wasserman made his share of enemies, usually because of the lowball offers his many minions couldn’t afford to refuse. With a deadeye on profits, he has been cited as one of the originators of the notorious “Hollywood accounting” system, in which seeming financial winners are dubiously written off as money losers. James Garner, star of the lucrative, long-running Rockford Files, was rebuffed for years by Universal lawyers in his efforts to gain his rightful compensation.

Sharp plays a doggedly good flatfoot in this detailed investigation, finding her man (and woman). In The Last Tycoon, F. Scott Fitzgerald famously wrote that “not a half-dozen men have been able to keep the whole equation of pictures in their heads.” Add up all the facts in this book, and it’s easy to figure that Lew Wasserman was one of them.


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