NEW YORK — Other people have probably lied to Warner Bros. President Terry Semel. There probably aren't too many first-time directors who would turn it into a good story.
But then other first time directors wouldn't be ensconced, as Arnold Glimcher is, on the fourth floor of the 57th Street gallery he calls his own--the Pace Gallery, where the mighty from Lucerne to Los Angeles come to buy paintings by Picasso, Rothko, Julian Schnabel and Chuck Close.
Glimcher can wear a California denim shirt (he says it's Italian) and tweed jacket in place of the regulation 57th Street pin-stripes; he can look around him and say, "Listen, the gallery's my identity. The gallery's always going to be my identity. It's 32 years of my life."
This is no garden-variety first-time screen director in his 20s, trembling before a studio chief, Glimcher wants you to know. He may be making his debut as a film director with "The Mambo Kings," but he is accustomed to having power, hobnobbing with power and doing things his way. Studio chiefs pick up the phone when he calls--he might just have the Rothko they want to buy.
But he knows how to play the game. He adopted, for West Coast purposes, the nickname Hollywood types gave him: Arne. He acquired the screen rights to "The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love," Oscar Hijuelos' novel about Cuban immigrant musicians in 1950s New York, while it was still in galleys, months before it won the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for literature. And he appointed himself director, because "I just felt I was the only one who could do this."
It was also his way to cast relative unknowns as the Mambo King brothers--Cesar, with his gargantuan appetite for life, and Nestor the poet, with his melancholic yearning for the past--even though "that was my hardest fight. Once the novel won the Pulitzer, great actors wanted the role, actors any first-time director would kill to work with."
Glimcher's not saying who, but "Mambo Kings" screenwriter Cynthia Cidre is: Kevin Kline, Robert De Niro and Jeremy Irons.
Instead, Cesar is Armand Assante ("Little Darlings," "The Marrying Man," "Q&A") and Nestor is Antonio Banderas, the Spanish star of several Pedro Almodovar films, including "Labyrinth of Passion" and "Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!"
This is Banderas' American film debut, and how it happened is the story of Terry Semel and The Lie.
Glimcher had caught Banderas being poetic and melancholy in the Almodovar film "Matador," and so he went off to London to meet him. "Antonio, who as you can see is about the most charming man in the world, was smiling, laughing, grabbing my arm. But about three or four minutes into the conversation, I said, 'You don't understand a word I'm saying, do you?' And he laughed."
Glimcher said he'd fight for Banderas on the condition that he study at Berlitz for six hours a day for the next two months and also work with a Cuban English dialect coach.
"And he said he would; he wanted the role desperately. I came back, and--excuse me, Terry Semel, you had so much faith in me and I lied to you--Terry asked, 'Does he speak English?' And I said, 'Perfectly.' "
Arne Glimcher will do almost anything to get what he loves. He's forever falling in love. "Everything happens through relationships," he says.
Sculptor Louise Nevelson swept into his life when he was 21 and she was 60, her chinchilla-lined paisley sweeping the floor, fabulously fake lashes sweeping her forehead. She was Russian, like his mother, a self-made masterpiece to rival her own sculpture. He coddled her, wrote a 1972 book about her, inducted her into the gallery--and promoted her as the greatest-living-woman-artist by the time she died at the age of 88 in 1988. When she couldn't stop the Whitney Museum in 1967 from exhibiting "Mountain Woman," an early work she hated, he helped Nevelson "rearrange" the show, carrying the sculpture across the room and, at her command, dropping and smashing it.
He was so fixated on becoming Willem de Kooning's dealer that in 1989 he told a court-appointed lawyer, investigating whether the then-84-year-old painter was competent to handle his own affairs by reason of Alzheimer's, that "the work currently being carried out in the studio . . . (is) among the best De Kooning work he had ever seen."
Glimcher came on too strong for De Kooning's conservators. "Arne Glimcher's a forceful man, but he's not lovable," fumed De Kooning's lawyer, Lee Eastman, at the time.
The conservators have yet to show the paintings to anyone, or choose a dealer. Was that one of the few failures in his life?
He shoots over a laden look. "But no other gallery has him yet," he points out. "The Museum of Modern Art just bought a 1983 De Kooning painting from me, at a world record price." It isn't over.