Lew Wasserman was the pre-eminent figure in the film industry from 1960 through 1990, and quite possibly of all time — but to say this is almost to miss the point. Viewed through a broader lens, Wasserman, who died Monday from the effects of a stroke, was a major figure in the history of Los Angeles, a key figure in the history of American Jews, a critical figure in the history of American politics, even an important transitional figure in the history of capitalism itself. And, yeah — he changed movies too, not entirely for the better.
These identities cannot be kept separate, of course. Wasserman first made an appearance in the history of Los Angeles, for instance, largely because he was a Jew with money who could influence other Jews with money. When Dorothy Chandler first conceived the Music Center, she saw it as a way to expand the city’s governing elite. There just wasn‘t enough disposable income in the old Protestant civic establishment to build an acropolis grand enough for Los Angeles, so Dorothy turned to the Jews. That meant banking moguls like Mark Taper, but it also meant Hollywood. And since the old L.A. establishment basically defined itself by shunning Hollywood, with its arrivistes and its (as the old L.A. establishment put it, when being polite) Hebrews, this was quite a departure. So Dorothy Chandler became the first in the long line of powerful mendicants who realized that when you turned to Hollywood, you turned to Wasserman. (You could talk to Wasserman; he wasn’t like that awful Mr. Cohn, or Mayer, or Goldwyn, or Warner.) And soon a new civic elite, Jewish as well as gentile, supplanted the old.
Wasserman‘s effect on American politics was no less profound. It’s not too much of a stretch to say that, by raising so much money for Lyndon Johnson, Wasserman helped fund the rise of the Great Society. But his impact on the structure of politics was far greater. As Ron Brownstein documented in The Power and the Glitter, his authoritative history of the Washington-Hollywood nexus, it was Wasserman, and Arthur Krim of United Artists, who established the entertainment industry as a major source of funding and star-power for the modern Democratic Party. You can see the long-term effects that this relationship has had on the Democrats. It explains why the party is such a fierce champion of intellectual property rights in trade accords. Less parochially, it accounts for some of the party‘s tilt towards cultural liberalism, and a great deal of the party’s culturally liberal image. And, to return to the interpenetration of Wasserman‘s historic roles, the rise of Hollywood money in American politics can’t really be extricated from the rise of Jewish money in American politics (though Hollywood generally and Wasserman in particular didn‘t play major roles within the Israel lobby).
It was within the industry — for that matter, in the context of Anglo-American capitalism — that Wasserman made his most historically distinctive mark. For Wasserman was the most successful head of a company within a competitive industry, and, at the same time, the emissary for and binding authority within that industry. His authority was exercised in ways both horizontal (over his fellow studio heads) and vertical (over internal labor relations and, in dealing with the outside world, on behalf of both management and labor).
You have to look very hard to find business leaders who have simultaneously played the roles of top dog and tribal chief for any period of time, much less, as Wasserman did, for three decades. In a non-cartelized economy, this just isn’t done. (In organized crime, it is — whence Wasserman‘s designation as the Godfather.) From the original Rockefeller to the current Bill Gates, the most successful figures in an industry are customarily at war with their rivals. J.P. Morgan managed to play both roles, but even Morgan, probably the most brilliant capitalist in American history, exercised his authority only at times of financial crisis.
Oddly, one figure who did wear these two hats over several decades was, like Wasserman, one of the creators of modern Los Angeles: Walter O’Malley. The man who brought the Dodgers from Brooklyn built a franchise that was for decades the most profitable and valuable in American sports. At the same time, he served on Major League Baseball‘s executive committee — a rotating group of five club owners who decided the big issues, like which city should get the next franchise. Alone among his peers, however, O’Malley didn‘t rotate: He stayed on that committee for 20 years, and when he died, the slot was passed to his son.
In the end, however, both Wasserman and O’Malley paid for their success in very much the same way. O‘Malley made his club, and then the industry, so profitable that major corporations or the mega-rich in other industries added these franchises to their portfolios. Baseball ceased to have a distinct and unified structure. Wasserman, who led the film industry into television and recording and (after Disney) amusement parks, who oversaw the creation of blockbuster films, built enterprises beyond any mogul’s dreams of avarice — and eventually, beyond any mogul‘s control. In due time, the studios were bought by transnational conglomerates, where they became mere “entertainment divisions.” Wasserman’s Universal was passed along from whiskey (Seagram‘s, a Canadian company) to water (Vivendi, a French mega-hodgepodge). More than anyone else, Wasserman made Hollywood so successful that by the end of his career, it had ceased, as a distinct industry, to exist.
And movies? How did Wasserman change the movies? Back in 1950, when he was Jimmy Stewart’s agent at MCA, he cut the first deal giving a “creative person” — in this case, a star — some control over his picture. Putting the best possible light on this, I suppose this was the moment when the careers of a Martin Scorsese or a Francis Ford Coppola became possible. Then, back in 1975, Wasserman oversaw the production and promotion of Jaws — creating therewith the industry‘s permanent blockbuster mentality that has made mass entertainment so goddamn dumb.
In the world Lew Wasserman created and has left us, movies are ranked by their grosses, just as politicians are ranked by size of their campaign treasuries. The man with the oversized glasses tracked every nickel going out of and coming into the Black Tower, and those are the lenses through which, increasingly, we’re compelled to see the world.