By Sherrie Li
By Falling James
By Amanda Lewis
By Amy Nicholson
By Amy Nicholson
By Jennifer Swann
By Scott Foundas
By Sherrie Li
Two things emerge: Stein and Wasserman made MCA and Universal in their own image — the stress was so much on business that the product was usually overlooked. Thus, it’s very telling to learn that Universal never won a Best Picture Oscar between All Quiet on the Western Front(1930) and The Sting(1973). Lew made MCA agents enforcers of harsh, tireless rectitude — guys in dark suits, white shirts, dark ties and horn-rimmed glasses. Depending on your point of reference, they looked like CIA men, or Michael Corleone, or like the black tower built at Universal City, and now the Wasserman Building.
Lew Wasserman doesn’t come across as a human being so much as a force meant to impress or intimidate others. He lived by the barren credo “A tidy desk and a tidy mind.” MCA had no office love affairs — the screwing was all on a higher, fiscal plane (for example, the SAG waiver that allowed MCA to be both agent and producer in television, which lasted nearly a decade, made a fortune, and was enabled by Reagan and Walter Pidgeon). The involvement in charity, in art collecting and in politics all came along as extra refinements in this dark model. Lew believed in very little but power, staying in power and having the respect of others. He stressed loyalty and honesty in many small things and totally ignored their betrayal in larger matters.
And there’s the second point about this book, and maybe the chief reason for writing it — the steady history of links between Stein and Wasserman and organized crime. Lew was a donor to charity; he was a guiding force in the Democratic Party in Hollywood — and a more secret but just as effective promoter of Republican interests. He was also someone who preferred to believe that Moe Dalitz (from Cleveland, Lew’s birthplace) had given up old habits before he got into Las Vegas; that Willie Bioff, Sidney Korshak and Jules Stein were unfairly maligned business associates rather than people who grew up working with organized crime and who easily lifted its dress code, its language and its use of menace.
Don’t even pretend to be shocked by this — and don’t pretend that you or we are going to do anything about it. The histories of show business, the movies, Las Vegas and organized crime make an archipelago of deeply motile land masses in the stream of cash flow itself. Those “dirty” businesses are much cleaner now, but their lessons have all been learned on Respectability Row. It’s unorganized crime that we abhor.
But make no mistake: That shady alliance led to a condition in which the business, the deal and the money are vital, and no one much cares anymore what the product is. Mighty in their day, MCA and Universal are now wrecked. Did Lew cause that, out of fatigue? Or did he do it to highlight his own achievements in contrast to the desert to come? If you want great movies — and America has to decide about that — trust an untidy desk to produce them.
David Thomson’sThe New Biographical Dictionary of Film was published in October by Knopf and is now in its sixth printing.
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