Lew Wasserman's Hollywood

Two pairs of twin stars orbit the center of the universe of desire. One is made up of wealth and power, the other of fame and love. Some people see the twins as singletons, often with confused, even dire consequences. Smart, successful people seem unusually capable of keeping the twins apart. They may know that power brings wealth, and vice versa, but they decide which one of these goods is their true heart's desire, and don't think much about the other. Matters are not quite so symmetrical between love and fame, of course; to be successful in love is a good way of guaranteeing a complete lack of celebrity, and celebrity can kill love. But it is not impossible to reconcile the two. It makes sense that love and fame would be a more complicated couple, because they both excite enthusiasm in others. Power and wealth have always been seen to be comparatively cold-blooded.

You can do one of two things with power. You can become a leader, inspiring followers and enlisting their support in the pursuit of a common objective. The example of Adolf Hitler shows us that leadership can be malign, and recent generations have tended to see all would-be leaders as egotistical, ill-informed oppressors. This is careless, however, and I classify malignant or inept leadership as having more to do with the other thing that can be done with power. The other thing is that you can become a thug.

Two years ago, I read an excerpt from what would become Connie Bruck's book, When Hollywood Had a King: The Reign of Lew Wasserman, Who Leveraged Talent into Power and Influence (Random House, 2003). The excerpt appeared in The New Yorker, I gathered that it was part of a story without many appealing figures. Indeed. Having read the book, I must say that I couldn't find a sympathetic character anywhere in it. Even Jackie Kennedy, corresponding with Jules Stein about fine furniture (of which Stein was a collector, and which the First Lady, determined to polish up the White House, longed to acquire), at a time when the Justice Department was investigating the Stein's talent agency for antitrust violations (thus precluding any gifts from this source to the White House), comes off looking just a bit foolish. Books about Hollywood always make me glad that I don't live anywhere nearby or have any friends in the industry. Movies may be great, and the development of American cinema may be fascinating. But the people who make the movies happen have not, as a rule, been the sort of people I'd want to live next door to. What's surprising about Ms Bruck's book is how much worse than average-for-Hollywood a person Lew Wasserman was.

The Music Corporation of America was a grandly named, skin-of-the-teeth agency founded in 1924 by Jules Stein, a medical doctor with an interest in dance bands. It grew the way most things grew in the Twenties, by a combination of muscle and exhilaration. But it held on because Dr Stein and his men did their homework. In 1936, the decision was made to move the center of operations to Beverly Hills. In 1939, the agency signed its first major star, Bette Davis, and it never looked back. But like an exotic weed, MCA flourished in the very atmosphere that the old studios found toxic: that of television. By the time television began to outgrow its infancy, MCA could expect to collect commissions on every aspect of production, from the stars that it represented to the network stagehands who (otherwise) had no connection with the agency. Thanks to a waiver of Screen Actors Guild rules, arranged by Ronald Reagan, MCA could even produce its own television shows and collect commissions! The beauty part of the inevitable antitrust proceedings was that the government forced MCA to do what its president most wanted to do anyway but could never have done voluntarily: dump the agency business altogether. By then, MCA had acquired Universal Studios, and Lew Wasserman, president of MCA since 1946 (under Stein's chairmanship), became top dog in Hollywood.  

Coming up today, Wasserman would probably have found a way into computers. He was a numbers man with a photographic memory who appears to have reduced everything important to a figure which could be retrievably placed in an interior galaxy. He wrote almost nothing down, and his meetings were always brief unless prolonged by one of his tirades. Wasserman's displays of temper were no less terrifying for being rigorously controlled - just as everything in Wasserman's life was rigorously controlled. An oversight, a violation of one of his rules (however well-intentioned), or an act tinctured by disloyalty would all trigger eruptions from which men were known to leave in tears. So far as I know, Wasserman never had anybody killed, but he could cut people out of his life, which sometimes meant cutting them out of the industry altogether.

He was not a decent man. His rock-ribbed loyalty was legendary, and his displays of generosity were not uncommon, but without more these are not virtues. They are both the plumage of the thug and the engine of his authority. Wasserman had little interest in the movies themselves; what engaged his attention, aside from grosses, was labor relations. Hollywood was a union town by the time he got there, in 1939, and far from struggling against the organized labor, as most of the early tycoons had done, Wasserman exploited his connections with union leadership. The Teamsters, for example, acting alone, could bring film production to a halt. Wasserman staved off such threats with the help of a shadowy éminence grise, the lawyer and fixer Sidney Korshak. Wasserman also took an interest in politics - or, rather, in political contributions. Money spent in Washington was money spent on protection.

The film industry operates on the frontier between regular, heavy industry, where widgets are produced day and night by companies that stay in business for decades, and the drug underworld, where every deal stands alone, and may, but probably won't, involve a serial cast of participants. Every film is made, technically, by its own production company, or by a company formed to make two or three films; such companies are usually limited partnerships. A film studio is simply an outfit prepared to act as the general (or responsible) partner for limited partnership production companies. It may own the rights to film distribution, but it does not actually own any movies all by itself. Because of the need to create every product (film) from scratch, and because the film industry is even less predictable than the trade in illegal drugs, it is natural that underworld-type figures, lawful behavior notwithstanding, rise to eminence in Hollywood. The lawfulness of Lew Wasserman's behavior is something that Connie Bruck's biography leaves open to question.

This is a serious failing for so comprehensive a book. Ms Bruck anatomizes the industry that Wasserman wrought, and she clearly charts the course of that industry's undoing by forces that Wasserman had unleashed long before but that he could no longer control. But she does not judge. One suspects that she would pronounce Wasserman's work as ultimately benign. Certainly the man kept intramural strife to a minimum, and almost everyone involved got rich. But to leave us with the portrait of a benign, if occasionally terrible, dictator, without assessing the nature of the dictator's regime, is to shirk what ought to have been a principal objective. The days in which the success of a business can be determined by its balance sheet are over.

On top of the structural differences from mainstream industry that I have already pointed out, Hollywood is unusual both for the nature of its product and for the intensiveness of its demand for human talent. Movies don't have to be any good at all, and many aren't (and hardly any work done for television is any good), but the fact that some movies rise to prominence, and even eminence, in our cultural pantheon implies a responsibility to the world at large that is rather like the chemical industry's responsibility to avoid environmental contaminations. Simply cranking out mediocre fodder for hungry 'outlets' is morally bankrupt. (It worried me very much that, unlike almost every other writer on Hollywood history that I've come across, Ms Bruck has nothing to say about the merits, apart from popularity and earnings, of a single motion picture.) Trained in the utterly ephemeral atmosphere of booking dance bands, Stein and Wasserman seemed unaware of any long-term implications that might attach to their work. Alfred Hitchcock's movies of the Fifties would probably not be so sleekly harmonious to watch if it hadn't been for Lew Wasserman's wizardry as a packager of talent, but Hitchcock himself appears to have responded with a very ambiguous gratitude, as if to say thanks for an unintended gift.

It is difficult to feel any enthusiasm for a book about a successful thug whose achievement seems ever more evanescent. Ms Bruck writes with great brio, considering the density and darkness of her material, but transitions from foreground to background are not well-modulated. On at least two occasions, her book lurches into protracted episodes that don't much concern Wasserman himself, and these episodes seem to be the fruit of irresistibly piquant research that would probably never see the light of print between the covers of a more appropriate volume. (The history of Richard Nixon and Taft Schreiber - Wasserman's deadliest rival at MCA - climaxes on a note that's more Watergate than Hollywood.) The illustrations seem miscellaneous rather than illustrative, more the trophies on an executive's wall (which is what almost all of them undoubtedly were) than sources of information. Thanks to the always pulse-quickening appearances of mobsters and strongmen, this is a hard book to put down, but the reader can expect to have a nasty hangover. How can a book of nearly five hundred pages, with 'Hollywood' in its title, say so little about the movies? How can a book about dreamworks be so silent about fame and love? (August 2004)

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