Much of this is fun to read, but not much of it is new. As long ago as 1946, MCA was dubbed "The Star-Spangled Octopus" by the Saturday Evening Post. That was before MCA gave up the agency business (one step ahead of the Justice Department) in favor of movie and television production, studio tours, theme parks, and — McDougal says — stage-managing events in the Oval Office itself through Wasserman’s best-known client, the otherwise unemployable (but pliant) Ronald Reagan.
Rumors and allegations about mob-related activities have swirled around MCA for years, as have stories of excessive and sinister political influence, most of them already aired in Dan Moldea’s Dark Victory: Ronald Reagan, MCA and the Mob (1986), which McDougal acknowledges as a source. This is not to suggest that McDougal has left unturned any stone or clipping that might yield fresh evidence. He has not. A former Los Angeles Timesreporter who knows how to dig, he is the co-author (with attorney Pierce O’Donnell) of Fatal Subtraction: How Hollywood Really Does Business (1992), in which he demonstrated that he is nothing if not dogged.
McDougal’s publisher no doubt raised libel flags at every fact or allegation he crammed into The Last Mogul and probably a few that didn’t make the cut. But a disturbing number of his sources — including Wasserman’s ex-son-in-law — have prison records and/or obvious axes to grind. For all I know, they are all beyond reproach, but too many of them wind up suicides or dead in motel bathtubs; too many relationships are "cozy"; too many associates are "cronies"; too many sources are anonymous, relating too many "unexplained series of events" for the evidence to be persuasive in the absence of a smoking machine gun, preferably in a violin case.
McDougal is no F. Scott Fitzgerald, but even so, the exhaustive research that has gone into The Last Mogul is undermined by journalistic prose and undone by the hundreds — thousands? — of footnotes, which suggest promiscuity in the clipping files. They substitute poorly for the source notes this book lacks and desperately needs in order to establish and sustain credibility. This may be an editorial decision, but the pages suggest no editor at all to catch things like "nothing short of an oracle," when "miracle" is clearly intended. Nor does it inspire confidence in a book claiming to reveal the "Hidden History of Hollywood" to read that Mary Pickford was "The Biograph Girl" (it was Florence Lawrence) or that Pickford was discovered by Universal’s founder, Carl Laemmle (her discoverer was D.W. Griffith). Hitchcock was not forced by Wasserman to use Paul Newman and Julie Andrews in Torn Curtain; he boasted that stars were his insurance policy against failure. Sabrina Fairwas not a small off-Broadway show; it was a whopping big hit on Broadway with Joseph Cotten and Margaret Sullavan.
There are so many errors of this kind that I stopped counting, but the book’s greatest weakness is that, in overestimating him as an enforcer, McDougal underestimates the degree to which Wasserman truly changed Hollywood.
Wasserman virtually invented packaging when Mike Ovitz was still a law-school dropout and tour guide at Universal, dreaming of himself as a baby Wasserman. At a time when most Hollywood executives were selling off their patrimony, Wasserman was buying (the Paramount library, for instance), and imposing a corporate structure and strategy that ensured survival without reference to nostalgia or nicety. He took MCA from an agency that collected 10 percent to a corporation that not only divvied up the pie, but baked it. McDougal refers to "the indelible mark of Lew Wasserman" on pictures like Operation Petticoat and Imitation of Life (there’s a legacy for you), but where? The mark Wasserman left, unlike Thalberg’s, is not on pictures; it’s on contracts.
MCA is no more, of course, having been sold to Matsushita and then to Seagram’s, something Wasserman read about in the papers. Sic transit gloria. Seagram’s Universal has yet to find its own identity in the wake of Meet Joe Black and Babe: Pig in the City, but must do so in an industry Wasserman transformed as surely as he transformed a band-booking agency into an entertainment empire reaching all the way from the Bates Motel to the Lincoln Bedroom. McDougal acknowledges that Wasserman long ago earned a reputation as the smartest man in Hollywood, which isn’t the same as the nicest, or most tasteful, or most visionary. Along the way, he made himself at least a half-a-billionaire by "reduc[ing] movie making to the science of the slide rule," as McDougal writes. His real crime is, he may have reduced movies, too.Steven Bach is the author ofFinal Cut andMarlene Dietrich: Life and Legend. His biography of Moss Hart will be published by Knopf.