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'I'll Eat You Last' chronicles Sue Mengers' old Hollywood

The one-woman show stars Bette Midler as the storied talent agent who got left out in the cold when CAA took over the town.

April 24, 2013|By Rebecca Keegan, Los Angeles Times
  • Bette Midler in a dress rehearsal for "I'll Eat You Last."
Bette Midler in a dress rehearsal for "I'll Eat You Last." (Richard Termine )

A Hollywood striver in the 1970s would have learned oodles from Sue Mengers — how to woo a client, sass a studio exec, host a dinner party, smoke a joint. And, had she pulled up a seat in Mengers' Beverly Hills living room one particularly gloomy day in the agent's career in 1981, she would have learned how it feels when the town's warm winds suddenly blow cold.

That's the point when we meet Mengers in "I'll Eat You Last," a one-woman show opening Wednesday on Broadway. The eagerly anticipated production stars Bette Midler as Mengers, the onetime rep for stars such as Barbra Streisand, Candice Bergen, Michael Caine, Faye Dunaway, Gene Hackman, Ali MacGraw, Burt Reynolds and Nick Nolte. Mengers, who died in 2011, was known as much for her own wickedly witty persona — a kind of bulldozer in a caftan — as she was for her stable of "twinklies," as she called her clients.


FOR THE RECORD:
"I'll Eat You Last": In the April 24 Calendar section, an article about "I'll Eat You Last," a Broadway show based on the career of Hollywood talent agent Sue Mengers, said that the playwright, John Logan, is represented by Creative Artists Agency's Brad Silberman. Logan's agent is CAA's Brian Siberell. —

The play, written by "Skyfall" and "Hugo" screenwriter John Logan and directed by Joe Mantello ("Assassins," "Take Me Out"), takes place over an afternoon in Mengers' home, against the backdrop of a pivotal era in Hollywood when "the business" was becoming big business. It's funny and profane — and something of a cautionary tale.

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"In Sue's era, Hollywood was a very social business fueled by dinner parties, by openings, by cocaine," Logan said in an interview at his SoHo loft last week, while the play was in previews at the Booth Theater. "The people making the landmark movies of that period knew each other and interacted on a certain level. Nowadays you go in for an early studio meeting and there are publicists and financiers in the room.

"As the corporate identity of Hollywood has changed, Sue's very personal, very pungent, very aggressive brand of interaction with artists and studios has ceased."

Logan met Mengers at a dinner party at producer Richard D. Zanuck's house in 2008, decades after she had reached the height of her power in Hollywood. But he found her captivating, as she held a cigarette in one hand, a joint in the other and declared to him, "Honey, we used to have fun."

"She was an astoundingly complicated woman," Logan said. "On one hand, she was expert at playing the part of Sue Mengers: the glasses, the hair, the cigarette, the joint, the rough language, the diamond-edge timing, just killingly acidic. But the thing that really fascinated me was a sort of vulnerability, a poignance, because this was a woman who was a queen, and she had a reign in Hollywood, and that reign was over — partly due to herself and partly due to the way old Hollywood became new Hollywood."

Mengers, born to Jewish parents in Hamburg, Germany, in 1932, migrated to Utica, N.Y., as a young child. After her father, a traveling salesman, committed suicide when she was 11, she and her mother moved to New York City, where Mengers would eventually take a job as a receptionist at MCA, at the time the dominant talent agency. She would go on to work for several other agencies, including William Morris, rising on her brains and chutzpah.

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Mengers made her biggest splash at Creative Management Associates, a boutique agency that was a precursor to International Creative Management (ICM). She became a key player in Hollywood's new golden age, pushing forward the careers of directors such as Peter Bogdanovich and Sidney Lumet, and insisting on the then unlikely casting of Hackman as a leading man in "The French Connection."

"Sue Mengers was the first agent to have outsized influence beyond the narrow confines of the agenting business," said Frank Rose, author of "The Agency: William Morris and the Hidden History of Show Business." "She was one of the people who defined Hollywood."

Years after meeting Mengers, Logan mentioned the idea of a play about her to Vanity Fair Editor Graydon Carter, who knew Mengers well, and Carter began making introductions to her other friends and former clients. (Carter is a producer of the play.)

Their stories — Mengers' discovery of Streisand singing in a dingy gay club in Greenwich Village, the agent's rough and hilarious negotiation with Paramount production chief Bob Evans over casting Dunaway in "Chinatown," a bittersweet visit with a connubially blissful MacGraw, who was in the midst of leaving show business for Steve McQueen — provide the key beats in the show. Logan's script is not pure transcription, however — many of the tart one-liners Midler delivers are his.

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