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Bette Midler Gets It Right as Sue Mengers, Says Peter Bart

Geffen Playhouse opens "I'll Eat You Last"

Sue Mengers, the late, great talent agent, would have loved attending the Geffen Theater Dec. 5 for the gala West Coast opening of “I’ll Eat You Last.” She would have relished the star presence (Bruce Willis, Dustin Hoffman, Helen Hunt) and reveled in the stellar performance of Bette Midler. Especially since Midler was portraying Mengers in a reprise of her triumphant Broadway performance.

At the Geffen the industry-centric audience wallowed in the inside jokes, the scatological gossip as well as the blitz of f-bombs. Seated imperially on her on-stage sofa, smoking incessantly, Midler artfully spun the Mengers war stories, revealing both her ferocity and the poignancy of her downfall when her banner clients from Streisand to Gene Hackman and Michael Caine and Ali MacGraw ditched her.

Mengers, the play written by John Logan reminds us, triggered her own demise by trying to be a bigger star than her clients. She lost Streisand by manipulating her into a dreadful film, “All Night Long,” directed by Mengers’ husband who, though a charming man, was not a director.

I personally had a soft spot for Mengers, often attending her parties which she cast carefully to help land roles for clients — the “right” director always was seated next to the “right” star for whom Mengers was trying to get a job. During the play, Midler relates her fierce campaigns to land Hackman the lead in “French Connection” and her chain of deceits in securing the lead for Faye Dunaway in “Chinatown.” She describes Elton John as her ideal dinner party guest “because he’ll eat anything — except pussy.”

I was personally appalled by some of Mengers’ bullying tactics as well as many of her judgments. Midler, as Mengers, characterizes Steve McQueen as a force of evil (I liked him). Praising Streisand’s star power, she nonetheless describes the star’s “genius” for picking the wrong material — making “Yentl” rather than “Cabaret,” for example.

Midler artfully captured Mengers’ ingratiating mannerisms and R-rated diatribes and deservedly brought the Hollywood crowd to its feet for a sustained ovation at the end of the show. The Geffen has a home run on its hands.

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