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. 

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