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It wasn't about cinematic art

When Hollywood Had a King: The Reign of Lew Wasserman, Who Leveraged Talent Into Power and Influence, Connie Bruck, Random House: 514 pp., $29.95

June 08, 2003|Richard Schickel | Richard Schickel is the author of "Good Morning, Mr. Zip Zip Zip." His latest film is "Charlie: The Life and Art of Charles Chaplin."

"Not half a dozen men have ever been able to keep the whole equation of pictures in their heads," F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in "The Last Tycoon." Like some of his other well-known apercus, this one requires a couple of asterisks. For one thing, the equation is not mathematically fixed; it changes all the time as the market for commercialized dream work shifts. Can we imagine Darryl F. Zanuck putting "Dumb and Dumberer" on Fox's schedule? This suggests the need for a second asterisk; Fitzgerald's "half a dozen men" are ever in a state of flux. Overpaid and over-worshiped geniuses one minute, off to the land of indie-prod and unreturned phone calls the next.

Eventually even Lew Wasserman, whose reign as Hollywood's "king" was longer and more absolute than anyone's, was shuffled off too. But that was only at the end of a very long career, when age had slightly rusted the springs of his steel-trap mind. Before that, he had not just mastered Fitzgerald's "equation," he had completely rewritten it, in a language that no else could speak with so perfect a mastery of accent and nuance.

He was of a different breed than the legendary moguls in that he seems not to have cared even slightly about the content of the movies and television shows his company made. It was OK with Lew if, sometimes, they were good -- "American Graffiti," "The Sting," "Jaws" -- but it was equally all right if they were schlock, which they mostly were. At no point in Connie Bruck's engagingly written, richly reported and endlessly fascinating study of the man and his works does he express either satisfaction or dissatisfaction with his company's products.

His genius lay elsewhere. It was for structure. Or should we say restructuring? He was born in 1913 and came out of Cleveland, where his skill at publicizing bands and nightclub acts brought him to the attention of Jules Stein, founder of Music Corp. of America, the slightly weird eye doctor, antiques collector and stock market investor who in a few years had made MCA the dominant agency in its field. He sent Wasserman to Los Angeles in 1939 to see if MCA could break into the movies. In another few years, its secretive, black-clad agents (none of whom ever saw a complete list of MCA's clients) were all-powerful in that arena too.

Next came the creative part, with Wasserman, in the early '50s, imagining a new form of compensation for his clients: Instead of salaries, they would take a percentage of their pictures' grosses, which made many of them, beginning with Jimmy Stewart, rich, powerful and independent in ways undreamed of when they were bound to the studios by oppressive long-term contracts.

This was more or less fine with the studios. Their bosses, the Mayers, Cohns and Warners, were aging, incapable of dealing with television, which had robbed them of two-thirds of their audience. Hard-pressed financially, they were happy to rid themselves of starry overhead. They also hated and refused to do business with the new medium. Not Lew. He saw that television, with its endless demand for cost-controlled product, could restabilize the business. He bought a TV production company (Revue) from Decca Records and got a waiver from the Screen Actors Guild (whose pliable president, Ronald Reagan, was an old friend and client), which enabled MCA to go on representing the very actors Revue sometimes employed. Since labor peace was essential to the smooth functioning of his embryonic machine, he agreed (again with Reagan) to pay residuals when their work was rebroadcast. This was not idle generosity; it drove out less-well-financed production entities. And it did not include payments on material made prior to 1948, which, not entirely by happenstance, included the entire pre-'48 Paramount library, which Wasserman picked up at a fire sale price.

Now he bought out the rest of Decca, including its film production arm, Universal, though Bobby Kennedy's Justice Department thought it not entirely right that MCA should be in both talent and production and forced Wasserman to choose between the two. He gave up agenting for the more profitable production business. Soon Universal's movies of the week and dramatic hours almost completely dominated NBC's schedule. The network's president, Sylvester Weaver, had idealistic, educational dreams for TV, but he was quickly brushed aside. MCA's cowboys and gumshoes were much more predictably profitable than the aspiring "Omnibus."

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