Barry Avrich’s “The Last Mogul” is a refreshingly honest film about the life and times of Hollywood uber-power player Lew Wasserman. Pic draws a full and balanced measure of the man, from his stratospheric rise to a remarkably humbling fall, and includes as thorough a study of the super-agent-turned-mogul’s shady ties with organized crime as any feature docu could hope to muster. Fests should scramble to nab this slice of Hollywood before ThinkFilm’s May release, and any serious Hollywood maven must make room in the permanent vid library.
Extremely classy, clever title design (by Crush) over Jim McGrath’s and Frank Kitching’s film noirish music announce a project with a sense of humor, a grasp on style and an aptitude for summing up complex notions in engaging terms. Longtime friend and confidante Jack Valenti’s early summary — “If Hollywood was Mt. Olympus, then Lew Wasserman was Zeus” — characterizes Avrich’s ability throughout the film to get many key Wasserman insiders on camera, and then let them provide scrumptious sound bites.
Early years growing up in tough streets of Cleveland’s Jewish section are covered with personal color (including interviews with childhood pals) and social understanding. Wasserman can be viewed as the by-product of a world of speakeasies, vaudeville and gangsters all ruled by dog-eat-dog competition — in essence, some of the very stuff out of which Hollywood emerged.
Like Chicagoan Jules Stein, an ophthalmologist who doubled as a music booker, Wasserman’s skill at booking flowed easily into agenting and his pacting with Stein’s Music Corp. of America, which soon controlled 90% of performing bands in the country.
Michael Ovitz, who modeled his own agenting empire on Wasserman’s, explains the booking biz made Wasserman a perfect agent, since it brought him close to the talent. With tentacles everywhere, as the New York Times’ David Carr terms it, MCA’s Hollywood operation went full-throttle with Wasserman in charge, beginning with a pair of unlikely clients — Hattie McDaniel and Ronald Reagan.
Avrich and ace researcher Barbara Gregson dwell on the Wasserman-Reagan connection, documented in several books, but which will nevertheless stun viewers with how a mogul like Wasserman could mold, revive and reposition a career. Nothing better demonstrates Wasserman’s ability to know which levers to press than his efforts to get Reagan elected as SAG president, which in turn allowed MCA to circumvent SAG rules preventing agencies from also being producing companies. MCA’s Revue Prods. was left unfettered to develop into a powerhouse at the dawn of TV.
Wasserman’s power was also reflected in the revolutionary deal he crafted for James Stewart on Anthony Mann’s “Winchester ’73,” giving a movie star a percentage of profits.
These and other deals underline what Valenti sums up as Wasserman’s gift for perceiving industry trends long before his rivals, which led to MCA’s creation of Universal Pictures, its TV arm and Universal City.
Pic’s title will be misleading for some Wasserman watchers, who might assume Avrich’s docu is close cousin to Dennis McDougal’s finely detailed bio of the same title. In fact, it’s biographer Kathleen (“Mr. and Mrs. Hollywood”) Sharp, not McDougal, who participates here, offering insights into Wasserman’s durable and socially brilliant wife Edie, and how her personal connections made them the ultimate power couple.
Alongside the elegance, though, is a more nefarious dimension, embodied best by Sidney Korshak, MCA’s own brand of consigliare, and thought to be the model for Robert Duvall’s Mafia lawyer in “The Godfather.” Variety editor-in-chief Peter Bart — in Paramount’s executive suites during the making of “The Godfather” — provides several amusing comments on attorney Korshak and his tight relationships with Wasserman and “da boyz” in Chicago that stemmed back to the Al Capone days.
It was these ties, plus Wasserman’s extreme secrecy and refusal to keep a paper trail, as well as the sad deterioration of Wasserman’s power — climaxing in his inability to comprehend that a sale of MCA to Japanese media conglomerate Matshushita meant a profound ceding of control and power — that had killed many attempts at Wasserman docus and bios. Though no living family members appear onscreen, the friends who do, like the remarkably frank and unforgettable Suzanne Pleshette, provide the pic with the invaluable perspective, texturing a life that can’t be reduced to business or tabloid reports.
Most stunning of all is Kay Coleman, Wasserman’s favorite waitress at Nate n’ Al’s, whom Avrich filmed before her death, and who perhaps best illustrates the fleeting nature of power, recalling how she once reminded Wasserman that whether he was on the ladder going up or coming down, she was still the one he needed to serve his corned beef sandwiches.
Archive footage and stills sum up a century of Hollywood and America, woven and paced with consummate skill by editor Alex Shuper. Only off-key note is provided by narrator Neil Shee, whose delivery is too canned for such a vivid subject.