03 October 2015

Lost Empires, the Sequel: The Life of Sue Mengers

As perhaps the world’s preeminent scholar in the work of author Brian Kellow, I long since congratulated myself for identifying the recurring theme in his work: “the pains Brian has taken to document worlds that no longer exist. …Brian is playing at Proust’s game. He doesn’t mourn the past but recaptures it by recording its details, and there’s something joyful at times in the process.”* Thus far he’s tackled outsize personalities and distinctive talents for whom the performing arts mattered: the singer Eileen Farrell, the Bennett family of actors, Broadway’s Ethel Merman, and The New Yorker’s Pauline Kael.

Brian’s latest book, Can I Go Now? The Life of Sue Mengers, Hollywood‘s First Superagent, didn’t seem at first to fit that pattern. Sure, I thought, the performing arts mattered to her, but mostly so that she could get a commission when one of her clients made a movie. Sure, she was an outsize personality — enough so to warrant fictionalized portrayals onscreen from Dyan Cannon, Shelley Winters, and Loretta Swit. But where did Mengers really stand within the gallery Brian has painted so far?

As I read, I understood — with increasing certainty — why Mengers mattered to Brian. She’s another representative of his Lost Empires, all right.

First, the personality. I’d heard about Mengers, but nothing could have prepared me to see her wit and audacity laid out this way. Particularly once her career is launched, there is virtually no page among the 284 in this book that does not contain two anecdotes and three zingers — or more. (If you’ve got friends who love gossipy Hollywood yarns, just sprinkle your conversation with quotations from the book, and they’ll fall at your feet.) We see instantly that Mengers was a colossal pain in the neck to almost everybody. At the same time we see that her humor, her charm, and her sheer outrageousness helped her to storm past all obstacles, including those she herself had posed.

A German–Jewish refugee and wannabe actress, Mengers rose from the secretarial pool to the highest echelons in her business. Brusque, often vulgar, she did everything people aren’t supposed to do when they want to succeed: hectoring, chainsmoking marijuana, forgoing underwear and making sure everyone knew it. Yet at the peak of her powers, she knew when she’d gone too far, and she’d come back with a quotably funny remark or with the sudden appearance of “Baby Sue,” her alter ego, the naïve little girl anyone could love. (Anyone except her mother, that is.) She knew when to sweet-talk, when persuasion was better than pushiness.

As Brian makes clear, Mengers possessed all the qualities to make her a wheeler-dealer of legend, but she backed these up with hard work. By day, it seems she was incessantly on the phone or in meetings, and by night she threw phenomenal parties and dinners. She was always on the go, and yet she devoted countless hours to reading screenplays. Always on the lookout for the next big project, she applied her astute, but not infallible, critical judgments. Her clients included some of the biggest names of her era, including Barbra Streisand, Faye Dunaway, Ryan O’Neal, and Peter Bogdanovich — and it was no coincidence that they made some of the most important films of her era, too. Brian talked to a staggering number of these folks, and every one has something memorable to say to him.

Mengers with one of her younger clients, Tatum O’Neal.
It’s fun to see how many figures from my book turn up in Brian’s.

Hardly had that era begun when Hollywood began to change. One of the changes originated with Mengers herself: for her superstars, the superagent commanded super-salaries. By our standards, the dollar amounts may not look like much, but they were far more than Hollywood actors received before Mengers came on the scene. Making a movie became an ever-more expensive undertaking.

The other changes, however, had little to do with Mengers. Even while her clients were making movies for grownups, establishing what we now perceive as a Golden Age, they were also crashing and burning, often due to substance abuse. Other filmmakers began to make blockbusters. For all their merit and craft, Jaws and Star Wars, and those that followed, required less thought from audiences than did, say, Chinatown, and thus blockbusters promised greater appeal worldwide.

A new mentality began to take over Hollywood. More and more, the studio executives were “Harvard MBAs,” who knew little (and arguably cared less) about movies. For Mengers, movies were a passion. For the new generation, movies were just another business, albeit a highly lucrative one. There was no place among them for Mengers, and long before her death in 2011, she was left behind.

In today’s Hollywood of comic books and reboots and mega-blockbusters, it’s almost impossible to imagine a filmmaker rivaling any of the classics of the 1970s. The originality and the infrastructure — and the will — simply aren’t there.

In her highly original way, Mengers laid the foundations of the infrastructure of her own Golden Age, and heaven knows she had an abundance of will. She is, in short, the very sort of person you’d expect to intrigue Brian — if you knew enough about her to begin with. Thanks to Brian, we can all understand better now the topography of another Lost Empire.

Standard Operational Bullshit:
Loretta Swit plays a character based on Mengers
in Blake Edwards’ satire of Hollywood, S.O.B.

*NOTE: I quote myself, of course. Because who else said it better?

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