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'The Last Mogul' revisits a bygone Hollywood era

June 24, 2005|Kevin Crust | Times Staff Writer

Nobody ever expected Lew Wasserman to exit Hollywood on anything other than his own terms, so when he was forced to sell his beloved company, MCA Inc., to Japan's Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. in 1990, it was one of those concepts that took awhile to sink in.

Wasserman stayed on as chief executive, but his power was greatly undercut, and he was pushed aside entirely when Canadian liquor firm Seagram Co. took over MCA five years later. The man who had started in the entertainment industry by working the door at Cleveland speak-easies and then rose to control a Hollywood empire died in 2002 at age 89, a bittersweet ending for one of Hollywood's greatest movers and shakers.

That may not be enough time for those who knew Wasserman to accept a film about him, but for those who are ready, Barry Avrich's "The Last Mogul" is a smart, well-paced documentary that balances the man's triumphs with his rare failures and discerningly explores the darker side of his power.

Beginning with a memorable, '60s-style credit sequence that plays off Wasserman's trademark eyeglasses, Avrich's jazzy film condenses a tremendous amount of information into less than 100 minutes. Since the secretive Wasserman did no interviews and left behind no written materials, Avrich's challenge was to combine research and archival images with new interviews of Hollywood insiders to tell a great American story of power, commerce and dealmaking.

The appropriately glossy film also charts the emergence of MCA from a depression-era, Chicago-based music booking organization to a powerful Hollywood talent agency built on two unlikely clients -- Hattie McDaniel and Ronald Reagan -- and finally into one of the first true media conglomerates through its acquisition of the Universal lot and, a few years later, of Universal Pictures itself.

Avrich's main thesis is Wasserman's everlasting influence over Hollywood, whether he was shepherding other moguls in labor disputes or changing the nature of studio/movie star relationships by negotiating James Stewart a revolutionary cut of the profits for "Winchester '73." For Wasserman, it wasn't the art of the deal but the deal itself, and even in defeat, he often came out a winner -- it was reported that he made more than $300 million on the Matsushita deal.


'The Last Mogul'

MPAA rating: Unrated

Times guidelines: Adult situations

A ThinkFilm presentation. Writer-director Barry Avrich. Producers Nat Brescia, Tori Hockin. Narrator Neil Shee. Director of photography Charles Haggart. Editor Alex Shuper. Music Jim McGrath, Frank Kitching. Running time: 1 hour, 39 minutes.

At the ArcLight Cinemas, 6360 Sunset Blvd., Hollywood, (323) 464-4226.

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