The most hated man in Hollywood

Tinseltown culture sprang forth from the sharp, charismatic and often vengeful head of Lew Wasserman.

By Heather Havrilesky
Published July 10, 2003 7:00PM (EDT)

There's a particular flavor of Hollywood bluster that's easy to spot, even from a few yards away. Whether it's a fledgling producer, a development executive on the rise, or a hot young agent, they share a clean, self-consciously polished look, an exaggerated, overconfident swagger, and a smirk that suggests that they're only prepared to tolerate you long enough to figure out if you can help their career. Most relatively normal, unglamorous citizens of L.A. instinctively distrust these slick types, suspicious of their hunger for money and power and the allure of being somebody in a tangled mess of nobodies. Maybe they'll bring out our basest urges, or, worse, convince us that we're missing out on a shinier, more exciting existence that waits for us on the other side of some massive social obstacle course.

As selfish and manipulative as these players might seem from the outside, a closer look at the history of Hollywood sheds some light on how aggressive and even vindictive behavior has become a part of the culture. Connie Bruck's "When Hollywood Had a King: The Reign of Lew Wasserman, Who Leveraged Talent Into Power and Influence" offers a detailed portrait of the power dynamics of Tinseltown over the past 60 years, weaving together labor unions, the mob, actors, agents, studios, lawyers and politicians in a comprehensive study of MCA's rise and fall. Although Bruck's clunky subtitle hints at the sometimes tedious, sometimes digressive narrative that lies ahead, she makes a strong case for just how admired, hated and most of all feared MCA president and CEO Lew Wasserman was for decades in Hollywood. With everyone from Michael Ovitz to Steven Spielberg admiring Wasserman and romanticizing the shrewd and often ruthless tactics that fueled his rise to power, it's not hard to grasp what an impact Wasserman had on the culture of the industry.

The word "Hollywood" is actually listed as a synonym for "hypocritical" in Roget's Interactive Thesaurus, alongside such glowing terms as "artificial," "duplicitous" and "unreliable." While equating Hollywood with fraudulence may have more to do with painted backdrops than it does with the character of those involved in the business, the association between the entertainment industry and hypocrisy has been in place for years, perhaps in part due to Wasserman's influence. For, while the scope of his power and his willingness to wield it were consistent, the parties and values he fought for shifted dramatically, depending on his current focus. As an agent, he almost single-handedly dismantled the studio system, freeing stars from oppressive contracts, and then he entered TV production and happily played the part of the oppressor. He rewarded his agents' loyalty to MCA, above all else, but dissolved the agency when it came under pressure from the Justice Department for antitrust violations, seemingly because he wanted to shift his focus to production, and didn't want to have to secure talent from the juggernaut agency he had helped to build once it was no longer under his control. He cultivated relationships with several presidents, and lobbied for whatever initiatives happened to benefit MCA's particular needs at the time. Then, after decades of building MCA into an empire, all the while stressing the importance of allegiance to the company like a benevolent but intimidating patriarch, he sold MCA to the Japanese corporation Matsushita in 1990.

With his policy of putting aside the personal or ethical concerns for the sake of the bottom line, Wasserman made plenty of enemies, many of whom found it impossible to speak out against him for fear of being cast out. While he was universally described as perhaps the sharpest and most forward-thinking figure in the industry for decades on end, he often made examples of people unfairly, and would abandon long-standing relationships if they stood in the way of his objectives. Securities lawyer David Wexler worked for MCA for 20 years, only to have Wasserman fire him over a minor detail. While Wexler admits that he benefited over the long term because he was forced to diversify his client base, he was astounded at Wasserman's behavior: "I was expendable. It was a lesson to those around him that his orders were to be obeyed. Decent people don't do things like that."

Sidney Korshak, a high-profile lawyer with notorious mob ties, enjoyed a relationship with Wasserman that spanned several decades, but when the New York Times reported Korshak's association with mob elements, Wasserman distanced himself from a man who was said to be one of his oldest and closest friends. After getting burned by a deal with MCA that fell through due to Wasserman's last-minute shifting of the terms, Paramount CEO Martin Davis said of him, "You think you're close, but that was because he was one of the great manipulators of all time. We were all his toys."

Connie Bruck, who also wrote "Master of the Game," about Steve Ross and Time Warner, and "The Predators' Ball," about Michael Milken's tango with junk bonds, has an obvious interest in the complexities of business relationships. Despite the absurdly rich landscape of mid- to late-century Hollywood that Wasserman navigated, Bruck is no sucker for celebrities or salacious details. In fact, Bruck seems far more focused on outlining power dynamics and tracing complicated associations and relationships than she is in crafting a compelling story from the countless resources at her disposal, which included hours of interviews with Wasserman before his death in June 2002. Her book includes very few details about Wasserman's personal life, glosses over a myriad of celebrity anecdotes, and rarely uses the tools of narrative to distinguish crucial turning points in Wasserman's story from minor digressions. In other cases, she drops a bomb and then clears out of town, like when she refers to Wasserman's wife, Edie, as a widely acknowledged "philanderer," then never offers another detail or even revisits the subject again. Such omissions can leave the reader feeling a little bit shafted, as when Bruck brings up the mob, Frank Sinatra and Bobby Kennedy, then barely mentions either Kennedy assassination, lingering interminably on lesser-known associations of Lyndon B. Johnson's, or digressing endlessly into MCA agent Taft Schreiber's relationship with Nixon.

Without a doubt, there are great tidbits here, like when union leader James Petrillo reminisces about the 1920s in Capone's Chicago, where Jules Stein started MCA. "What people don't realize is what it was like in those days," Petrillo says. "It's almost impossible for an outsider to realize that in those days if a guy sneezed everybody went for his gun. It was a son of a bitch."

Unfortunately, it takes so much work to wade through the minor players and stories that longing for the good parts can feel like mining for gold in the Pacific Ocean. If you've already read a handful of books on Wasserman, Kennedy and Hollywood's ties to the mob, and you're looking for a comprehensive dissection of power dynamics, legislative initiatives, labor disputes and political lobbying involving MCA and its major players, "When Hollywood Had a King" might be your book. However, if you want a more dramatic telling of those dynamics, one that includes details about the bigger picture historically, doesn't shy away from Wasserman's personal life, and delves into anecdotes and gossip involving celebrities and politicians, then Dennis McDougal's "The Last Mogul: Lew Wasserman, MCA, and the Hidden History of Hollywood" is a stronger choice. Either way, it's understandable why so many are rushing to tell Lew Wasserman's story. His history and the history of MCA present an exhaustive blueprint of the business, culture and politics of Hollywood, and offer a fascinating glimpse into the exchange of power in this country during the last century.

Heather Havrilesky

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

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