Saturday, August 29, 2015

Sue Mengers as Metaphor

 Have you ever read a book and actually been sad when the book ended? That’s how I felt when I finished reading the deliciously entertaining and gossipy new biography Sue Mengers, Can I Go Now?: The Life of Sue Mengers, Hollywood’s First Superagent by Brian Kellow.
Why was I was so affected by reading about the life of someone who, in her own words, was nothing more than a little pisher? Because (of course) she wasn’t a little pisher, that’s why.
For those of you under 35, let me give you some background.
Sue Mengers, as book’s title says, was Hollywood’s first superagent. But, more importantly, she was Hollywood’s first superagent during what I consider to be the greatest period in American film history: the seventies.
Let me explain why this is so.
The seventies were a period that occurred after the collapse of the studio system (roughly, the end of the sixties) and before the era of the blockbuster began (signified by Jaws and, later, Star Wars). This meant that Hollywood's writers, directors and actors were free to create some of their most brilliant movies: Network, Midnight Cowboy, Taxi Driver, Nashville, Chinatown, The Last Picture Show, etc. (I could go on, but Peter Biskind has already written an excellent book about this time called Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-and-Drugs-and-Rock ’n’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood.)
Sue Mengers was an interesting person and this is an interesting book because she was a mass of contradictions: someone who could be warm and funny one minute and cutting and sarcastic the next. She was indelibly shaped by two traumatic events in her life: her distant relationship with her overly critical mother and the suicide of her father when she was a child. This is what, I presume, made her the attention-seeking overachiever she eventually became.
Sue Mengers lived for what she called her “twinklies” (meaning her star clients) and, particularly, Barbra Streisand, with whom she had a spectacular falling out when a movie Mengers’s husband directed and Streisand starred in (Jean-Claude Tramont’s All Night Long) bombed at the box office.
By the time she was 54, Mengers was essentially retired. Although she would later sign a three-year contract with William Morris, she had already done her best work.
The New Hollywood was typified by bottom-line M.B.A. types like CAA’s Mike Ovitz, people who were essentially bean counters and didn’t espouse the schmoozy, dinner party lifestyle that Sue Mengers practically invented.
A few years ago, Mengers’s larger-than-life persona was captured on Broadway by another larger-than-life performer, when Bette Midler portrayed her in the play I’ll Eat You Last by John Logan. (The fact that Midler wasn’t nominated for a Tony Award for her performance is one of the most egregious omissions in Broadway history.)
From the perspective of 2015 chain store-and hipster-laden New York City, Los Angeles in the 1970s seems like an impossibly glamorous time and place and Sue Mengers seems like an impossibly glamorous character. 

Thursday, August 27, 2015

The New Normal

Paddy Chayefsky must be spinning in his grave. Because he predicted the collapse of American civilization 40 years ago. Only he underestimated our depravity. Because now we’re shooting people on live TV.
But don’t expect anything to change. If an entire classroom of children being slaughtered didn’t change anything, and a Congresswoman being shot in the face didn’t change anything, this isn’t going to change anything, either.
Because the N.R.A. has our country by the balls.
Because as much as many people are convinced that gun violence is out of control, that’s how much the other side is convinced that we’re trying to take their guns away.
So you better get used to there being a new mass shooting or some similar atrocity happening every week. (And isn’t that precisely what’s happened?)
We’ve already talked about the easy availability of guns and the lack of mental healthcare in this country, and that’s a good start, but I’d like to raise another issue that hasn’t entered the conversation yet. And that’s the collapse of our economy and our social safety net.
Because in many of these cases where already unstable people are pushed over the edge, there’s been some economic cause.
In this latest instance, it was some guy who lost his job at a TV station. But just last week, some guy walked into a federal office building in Soho and shot an innocent security guard because he lost his job twenty years ago.
Who are all these people we’re calling “terrorists” (both foreign and domestic) but people who have been economically disenfranchised?
I’m not condoning their actions. These people are nothing more than common criminals who are trying to elevate their senseless actions by attaching it to a so-called “noble” cause.
But it would be a mistake not to examine the underlying factors so we can perhaps understand them and try to prevent such things from happening.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

The Death of the American Workplace

This past weekend the New York Times did a front-page exposé about the working conditions at Amazon, the biggest company in America. It talked about such things as Amazon’s forcing women who just had a miscarriage to report for work the next day, making people work in a 100-degree warehouse with no air conditioning while ambulances were stationed outside, and encouraging employees to report on coworkers’ shortcomings, even if they had to make them up. It seems to have caught Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos by surprise. As news of the article spread like wildfire, Bezos was quick to issue a mea culpa and say that he was shocked that such things were happening at Amazon.
But who are we supposed to believe? The new, warm and fuzzy Jeff Bezos, whose employees are apparently so happy they do cartwheels down the hallway? Or the Jeff Bezos who perfected the art of undercutting his competition by selling products at a loss in order to gain market share? And who removed all of Hachette's books from Amazon's website in order to force them to pay Amazon a higher percentage of their sales?
How about all the Amazon employees quoted in the Times article?
For anyone who actually works for a living (or has had to look for a job), this article was no surprise. The American workplace has become a race to the bottom at least since President Reagan fired striking air traffic controllers. This has been followed in more recent times by union buster (and possible Republican presidential candidate) Scott Walker demonizing public employees and cutting their pensions as governor of Wisconsin.
In fact, the last 35 years have been an object lesson in how corporations collude with Republicans to apply downward pressure on wages.
And they’re succeeding spectacularly!
During the last 35 years, most people’s wages have either been stagnant (when adjusted for inflation) or have actually gone down!
Not only that, but benefits that were once taken for granted are now increasingly hard to come by at all.
Health insurance? Not when there’s Obamacare (which, of course, you have to pay for yourself).
Vacations? Not when you’re a freelancer.
In fact, an entire industry has sprung up for the sole purpose of allowing companies to get around those pesky benefits. It’s called the temp industry. (And you thought they existed to find people jobs!)
You see, when you’re a temp, you’re not even technically an employee of the company whose computer you’re using 35 hours (or more) each week, you’re an employee of the temp agency. And, as such, you’re not entitled to any benefits. (Some temp agencies do offer benefits, but you usually have work for them for longer than the typical assignment lasts. And if you’re working for a company that long, why aren’t you an employee of the company?)
You can also be let go at any time, for any reason, with no notice.
Try asking a member of Congress to work under those conditions!
In a kind of sweet revenge, though, the temp agencies are now finding themselves being “outsourced” as employers can go directly to LinkedIn to hire people.
But that doesn’t change the poor conditions endured by many workers today.
For example: There has been much debate recently over the $15/hour minimum wage for fast food workers. That comes to $31,200/year, based on a 40-hour work week. But one study has shown that in order to maintain a “middle-class lifestyle” in New York City, one needs to make $75,000/year. I’m not talking about living in the lap of luxury, I’m talking about being able to afford things we used to take for granted: a smart phone, cable TV, a two-week vacation and eating in a restaurant occasionally.
And that’s if you’re single. God forbid you have a family to support! No wonder people who work at Walmart have to go on food stamps!
Our country has become a victim of what’s come to be known as “quarterly capitalism.” That is, doing whatever is necessary to make your quarterly profits look good to investors. (And this usually means getting rid of workers, because that’s the easiest way to boost your bottom line.)
Remember how companies were supposed to use their record profits to create jobs? Instead, they used it to buy back their own stock and pay their executives even higher salaries and bonuses (even when their companies did poorly).
As Labor Day approaches, it’s more important than ever that we rebuild the labor movement in order to address some of the serious injustices in our workplace that have occurred over the last 35 years.
And on Election Day next year, we need to elect Bernie Sanders as president. He’s the only candidate who understands the huge income inequality that exists in our country and isn’t afraid to do something about it.