David Geffen a master of reinvention

Mogul's perpetual reinvention revealed in PBS documentary

It’s always fun to review the worst decisions of people who are famous for making smart decisions.

A case in point is David Geffen, whose remarkable exploits are celebrated in a new PBS “American Masters” documentary that premieres Nov. 20.

Now I have always felt a personal fealty for Geffen, but here are some Geffen gaffes: As a hot young Warner Bros. film executive, Geffen decided to tell Clint Eastwood how to re-edit his new movie. (Geffen was fired.) Eager to build his record companies, he overpaid advances for some stars (Elton John), sued others who underperformed (Neil Young) and was busted sneaking pot on a plane intended for David Crosby. Though always wary about reporters, Geffen nonetheless created such a burst of publicity over his affair with Cher (“my only heterosexual relationship”) that he submitted to 10 years of therapy when she dumped him for Greg Allman.

Some Geffen friends would include his feuds on this list — his obsession to exterminate Michael Ovitz, his battles with Brad Grey over the DreamWorks-Paramount deal and even, on the political front, his attacks of Hillary Clinton after Geffen joined the Obama camp four years ago. Geffen watchers have even challenged the wisdom of his decision to co-found DreamWorks, a venture that created some outstanding pictures but never became the major studio heralded in its buildup.

Second-guessing Geffen may be amusing, but the fact remains that his missteps were dwarfed by his long list of brilliant and brazen accomplishments. Thanks to his hits in music, film and the theater, the billionaire showman can smile down on his critics from his vast estate, once owned by Jack Warner, with its rolling lawns, bubbling waterfalls and superbly displayed art collection.

Titled “Inventing David Geffen,” the PBS take on Geffen’s life (directed by Susan Lacy) will be heralded at a party Nov. 5 in New York hosted by the customary circle of friends (Mike Nichols and Barry Diller included). Geffen may drop by, even though, as he approaches his 70th birthday, he is far from the party animal of his former years.

The new and calmer Geffen is taking a closer interest in philanthropy and art, assuming a less active role in DreamWorks Animation (he’s an adviser, not a board member) and is even taking a back seat during the presidential campaign (he is not an avid fund-raiser like his friend Jeffrey Katzenberg). Some suspect Geffen may be following the teachings of the philosopher Epicurus that “friendship and reflection are the bounties of old age.”

But the Geffen we’re reminded of in the PBS doc is the ferocious young Brooklyn kid who faked his application to the William Morris Agency (he claimed to be a UCLA graduate) and taught himself to read deal memos upside down so he could figure out what the senior agents were getting in their mail. As he started signing music clients, Geffen quickly understood he had come along at the right time. Just hovering around the Troubador meant contact with Jackson Brown, the Eagles, Crosby Stills and Nash and Laura Nyro, all of whom ultimately became recruits for his Asylum Records. Part of Geffen’s genius was to know when to sell, first to Warner, later to Universal (though some of his stars resented his new corporate cloak).

Geffen says his “Mount Everest moment” occurred in the mid-’70s when he recruited Bob Dylan for a national tour. But his highs were always followed by lows — a cancer diagnosis (it proved to be false), the implosion of Geffen Records. Displaying his mastery at reinvention, Geffen propelled himself out of one low by creating the Geffen Co., backing such idiosyncratic films as “Risky Business,” “Beetlejuice” and “Little Shop of Horrors.”

On a personal note, I have run into Geffen over the years during his good times and bad (and during my good times and bad) and always found him to be the same — empathetic, impeccably gracious and intellectually curious. I am thus grateful to have never been a victim either of his rages or his gaffes. Thanks to sharp editing and directing, the PBS doc is as vivid as Geffen’s personality.

Bucks from a Penny

Can a book sell even though bookstores refuse to carry it?

This may sound like a strange question, but several weeks ago this column reported on the curious publishing adventure of director Penny Marshall. Amazon Publishing paid almost $1 million for her memoir and launched a major promotion. Trouble is booksellers like Barnes & Noble and Walmart refused to stock the book because they resented Amazon’s encroachment into their turf.

The upshot: Marshall’s memoir, “My Mother Was Nuts,” isn’t selling well (7,000 copies since its Sept. 18 publication). An analysis in the Wall Street Journal estimates that Amazon will have to sell some 75,000 hardcover and 40,000 ebooks to recoup. That’s a daunting target.

By the way, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s memoir, “Total Recall,” isn’t selling well either, despite his massive publicity effort. And he doesn’t even have a bookstore boycott to worry about.