Living the Life

Andrew O’Hagan

  • Powerhouse: The Untold Story of Hollywood’s Creative Artists Agency by James Andrew Miller
    Custom House, 703 pp, £20.00, August 2016, ISBN 978 0 06 244137 9

If you lived on another planet and depended on American pop culture to tell you what a human being is, you’d be in tears (if you had tears) but mainly you’d be baffled, especially when it came to an entity called the talent agent, who spends his days torturing people he likes (but says he hates) in order to gain benefits for individuals he hates (but says he loves). In Some Like It Hot, the talent booker, Mr Poliakoff, is on the phone to the William Morris Agency. Standing in his office are Jerry and Joe – Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis – a bass and a saxophone player. Jerry tries to persuade Poliakoff to give them the job – three weeks in Florida with Sweet Sue and her Society Syncopators – but Poliakoff tells them to beat it, they require female musicians. ‘Look, if William Morris doesn’t come through …’ Jerry says, as Joe drags him out the door. More recently, in Entourage, the HBO series about a young movie star and his gang, we see how the agent-as-harbinger-of-comic-confusion has become, in the modern era, the agent-as-conductor-of-cosmic-chaos. In Series Two, our young actor, a Hispanic on the brink of superstardom, wants to play Pablo Escobar in a new project, Medellin. The actor’s friend and manager goes to a restaurant with the star’s agent, Ari Gold. The manager is called E.

E: He has read Medellin and he wants to do that.

Ari: Where d’you get that one, huh – Josh Weinstein?

E: A little insecure, Ari, eh?

Ari: How d’you get it?

E: Turtle found it on the subway. What’s it matter? We wanna do it.

Ari: Yeah, and I want to fuck Angelina Jolie. The only difference is: I might actually have a shot.

E: What? We don’t have a shot?

Ari: No. You wonder why? They’re out to a guy … I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of him, his name is Tom Cruise.

E: Tom Cruise is going to play Pablo Escobar? Come on, the guy’s not even Hispanic.

Ari: Yeah, and Hilary Swank has a vagina and she won an Oscar pretending she has a dick. That’s what actors do – they pretend.

Here is a world where dignity is not uppermost. The old agencies were run by men who had four martinis for lunch. They belonged to the same country club, the same church or synagogue, they wore suits from Sears and had wives from Stepford. The good agent was a man who told lies with obvious charm, a backslapper, an arse-kisser, a tower of obstinacy, and someone who prided himself on seeing every client as a unique cause. ‘When I was at William Morris,’ the agent Ron Meyer says, ‘you felt that you were working for the Pentagon.’ They represented everything except the need for change. ‘There were all these cronies sitting on the second floor,’ Michael Ovitz adds, ‘who just hung out at the business and sucked the profits out of it.’ In 1975, Meyer and Ovitz joined forces with Bill Haber, Mike Rosenfeld and Rowland Perkins, and together they founded Creative Artists Agency (CAA). At first they were working on bridge tables with the wives answering the phones. Then: world domination. Welcome to the inside track on what Scott Fitzgerald called ‘the orgastic future’. In Britain, soap operas tend to be about poor people, and the drama of American capitalism can seem both obnoxious and ridiculous, yet the rise of CAA is a wonderful story of greed and genius.

What is a good agent? Before we go into detail I’d say that the basic thing is to answer the phone. A good agent is a person with bargaining skill, a professional who can negotiate his way in and out of lucrative situations, one who has a certain amount of clairvoyance about what the business needs and what the client can do. But a brilliant agent is a person with information. Often, with a poor agent, the client is the one with the information, who makes the bullets for the agent to fire. A brilliant agent will typically have an arsenal unknown to the client, and unknown to anyone. Such an agent will know what the plan is before the client is out of bed in the morning. He will build a career, not do a deal; he will see the bumps in the road and smooth them, or install the talent in a bigger truck, so that they don’t feel the bumps. This agent will not manage expectations: he will produce, direct and dress expectations, he will light them, and he will bring the client to achieve things that nobody expected, especially the client. Agenting is full of lazy people who do nothing but sit down waiting for luck: the great agents construct the worlds they profit from, and, in the movie business, they make those worlds go round, feasting on the film executives’ perpetual fear that they might miss the next big thing. A person who does this brilliantly can become a legend in their own lunchtime, someone who is slightly beyond the habits of normal living. ‘I think I’m going to be a hundred and ten,’ says Bill Haber, the least egotistical of CAA’s founders. ‘I’m going to go down kicking and screaming. There will be nobody at my funeral because you’ll all be dead.’

The great agent becomes great not by knowing everything, but by seeming to know something. The young director whom they all want to sign is a person with creative insight and commercial sense that only the great agent can divine, and the marriage between a talented person and his worldly representative is one of the odder sorts of arrangement that our culture has devised. The marriage vows are based on the notion that nothing is luck and everything is knowledge. It was in the 1970s that agenting in Hollywood got to the point where the agents were in charge, ‘packaging’ their talent in a manic, prodigiously cross-fertilising way. CAA taught Hollywood how to do this and it changed the nature of film-making. The five guys who founded CAA also understood that new things were happening with the technology: film stars wanted to work in TV, and soon, films were also about videos, and soon after that, computer games would require storytellers – and that’s before we even get to the internet. In the age of ‘streaming’, of Netflix, Amazon and YouTube, there are 700 agents at CAA, but the story told in James Andrew Miller’s riveting book is really about the personalities who invented the game. It is, more particularly, the story of what Michael Ovitz gave to the world and what that world took away from him. It’s Citizen Kane to a disco beat with the moral sophistication of Forrest Gump.

The ‘package’ deals arranged by CAA were revolutionary, not only in giving the agent a producer’s role, but in letting him put in place the scriptwriter, the director, everyone, before taking it to a studio. This didn’t mean the agent could give up wrangling what we might call the everyday human problems, such as those endured on the last of the Pink Panther movies. The CAA agent had got Peter Sellers three million dollars to do the film. He got Blake Edwards, who hated Sellers, the same amount (not to direct, but because he co-owned the rights). The agent also represented the scriptwriter, the director, and two of the producers. ‘It was about a $9 million package,’ the producer Adam Fields says, ‘That was game-changing for that agency. And every day, without exception, Peter [Sellers] would call, usually at five … either quitting the business or quitting Panther and every day Marty [the agent] would talk him off the cliff, because so much was riding on the movie.’ Sometimes, Sellers would call up and imitate the voice of someone from the studio backing the movie, saying terrible things about himself, and then he would call back in his own voice to complain about all the things the agent had said about him ‘when his back was turned’. Blake Edwards and Sellers both lived in Gstaad and there were only two good restaurants in Gstaad, so – to avoid them ever meeting – the restaurants had to be rung each day to see if either of the ‘talents’ had booked a table, and, if so, a table would hastily be booked at the other place for the other client.

You could call this ‘The Pimp’s Tale’, but in Hollywood the pimp is never less than the second most brilliant guy in the room. Bizarrely, in a universe of supersonic egos, the good CAA agent was trained to drop his. A client was represented by the whole group, not just by one person, and they’d all pitch in, which meant the client was tuned into every department and had group muscle around him. (‘The primary pronoun at staff meetings was always “we”,’ the agent John Ptak says, ‘“We are doing this; we are doing that.” That never happened anywhere else.’) It is sometimes a symphony of bathos nonetheless, as one poor agent, brilliant but fearful, has to pay obeisance to some majorly talented nut-bag or other, just to keep him from storming out. ‘We used to have meetings with Prince,’ the music agent Tom Ross says. ‘He would sit in the room with his back to us, and we weren’t allowed to make eye contact at any time. We were told: “Do not look at him. If you look at him, you will probably lose a client.”’ Prince wanted a film, and he didn’t want a film where he played the part ‘of a drug dealer or some jeweller’, and they got him Purple Rain, on which he demanded that his name be above the title. Around the same time, they say, Madonna arrived at the office with her little dog and immediately demanded that a bowl of Perrier water be found for the animal.

It’s really just a giant, gold-plated playground. Barbra’s not talking to Suzy because Suzy didn’t tell her about Zimmerman’s movie and Brad is finished with Leonardo because Leo got the part in ‘The Aviator’ that he wanted, and, anyway, Marty was his friend not Leo’s. And yet, as followers of British politics know, there is no shortage of life in the persistently grotesque, and I was impressed by how ingenious these agents were at riding rapids, clients in tow. The thing about people in showbusiness is that they never imagine they’re just in showbusiness: they imagine their work is an aspect of international relations, part of God’s plan. ‘At the end of the day,’ Jennifer Lopez says, ‘it’s not just building a brand that is trying to make money, but trying to make history and trying to be a part of something bigger.’ ‘Bigger’, it seems, can mean many things. Often it means being an amalgam of other showbusiness figures. ‘I want to be Oprah,’ says ‘actor-producer-director-writer’ Eva Longoria, ‘crossed with George Clooney crossed with Tom Hanks.’ Poor Eva, if she doesn’t die of hyphenasia, she is bound to expire from the adverse effects of being too many people at once. Some of us can’t get enough of this stuff, and I began to see how the interview material – the book is presented as an oral biography – might easily become a suite of free verses. The following is plucked from a speech by perhaps the most loved of the CAA agents, Ron Meyer:

I’m not a schmoozer on the phone;
I tend to get off quickly.
When people call me, even clients,
I’d find a way to say goodbye
As soon as I’d said hello.
Some clients liked to dissect and understand everything;
Others, like Jane Fonda, I would call up and say:
‘Jane, you’re too skinny,’
And she would say: ‘Okay, bye.’

Being an agent isn’t a job, it’s a lifestyle, and the people who are really good at it are having a wonderful life, though none of them is going to heaven. The agents at CAA sometimes got speeding tickets on the way to work, not because they were late, but because they couldn’t wait to get to the office. Every night there was a drink or a dinner or a screening or a premiere, and they earned millions of dollars a year. Agents live the whole thing 24 hours a day; their motto: ‘Shit Happens.’ And they put up with infinitely more shit than the average office worker, who lives in the expectation that nobody will ever ask them to risk their position, or justify it, or state an opinion, or invent something that isn’t already in front of them. Adam Venit went on to become one of the most powerful film agents; once, in his early days, he was told that there was a stain on the office carpet in the reception area. He told his boss that he’d just graduated from one of the top law schools in the country and wouldn’t be scrubbing any carpets. At that point, one of the senior men came into the office and said to him that if he didn’t want to remove the stain it meant he didn’t want to work there. ‘He literally handed me a spray bottle and a sponge,’ Venit says, ‘and I went out to the lobby and Sylvester Stallone is sitting in the lobby, wearing a big double-breasted suit with wingtip shoes, and one of his big wingtip shoes is pointing to the stain. I had to bow down to him and wipe the stain away to the point where he says: “Want to get my shoe while you’re down there?” The beauty of Hollywood is I now represent Sylvester, and we laugh about this story.’

*

Meanwhile, Michael Ovitz was bigger than God. At one point in the 1980s he seemed to run it all. He was up at six in the morning and he wanted to have read everything and be deeper in the know than anybody. He would study the form on any possible deal or acquisition. He took the view that one must always know more than the opposition, and never allow oneself to be in the position of being asked a question one couldn’t answer. He had a bank of assistants fielding calls and doing research, so that he’d know what to say and when to say it. He would know when a client’s child’s nanny’s birthday was. Being prepared isn’t the same as being informed: it can mean being on top of what you don’t know, and managing it. A good agent not only understands that but lives by it, and Ovitz took it far, never admitting to weakness and seldom allowing circumstances to run out of his control. If you’re trying to win, then everybody else is the enemy, and Ovitz was never sentimental. Ari Emanuel, now CEO of William Morris Endeavor and the brother of Rahm Emanuel (Obama’s former chief of staff and now mayor of Chicago), once listened into a call his then boss was having with Ovitz. ‘It was the first time I heard Ovitz,’ Emanuel says, ‘and the first time I ever heard my boss’s voice wobble. Ovitz was a genius. He was the man.’

‘I think I was put on a blacklist by Michael Ovitz because stuff started happening that was very strange,’ Rosanna Arquette reports. ‘I had projects fall apart. They were like the mafia.’ When the writer Joe Eszterhas (who made $1.2 million a screenplay) told Ovitz he was leaving the agency, Eszterhas claims that Ovitz said: ‘My foot soldiers who go up and down Wilshire Boulevard each day will blow your brains out.’ In the book, Ovitz says this was a joke, but it caused him a lot of trouble because Eszterhas replied to him by letter and sent a copy to the Hollywood Reporter. These were the chinks in Ovitz’s armour: he promised too much, he threatened and got too angry. Yet if we don’t yet have a word for being obsessively, punctiliously ready, it might be ‘Ovitz’ – ‘Well, I’m totally Ovitz, aren’t you?’ – given that it was this particular super-agent who invented the method of training yourself to see things coming that were not, strictly speaking, coming, until the moment they arrived in your waiting hands. Ovitz became fond of Japanese culture, he studied it to death, and he appears to have fashioned a particular sort of business jujitsu that allowed everybody to think they were getting more than they wanted while he was getting more than anybody, carefully manipulating the opponent’s force against itself.

In 1990, he got interested in Matsushita Electric, the company that owned Panasonic. Ovitz learned that they had $12 billion to spend. He worked out that they were a ‘copycat’ company in fierce competition with Sony. Given that Sony had just bought Columbia Pictures, Ovitz divined that Matsushita would want a studio. He read every single thing there was to read about the Japanese company, including the seven books written by its chairman, Mr Matsushita. Ovitz sent one of the mailroom boys to pore over Japan’s English newspaper to find references to the company. Through a junior, Ovitz inveigled himself into the mind of one of Matsushita’s representatives, who began asking for a meeting, which Ovitz repeatedly refused. For five weeks the guy asked every day for a meeting and then, on the fifth week, Ovitz gave him 15 minutes. The agent turned up with business cards that were English on one side and Japanese on the other, and bamboozled everyone present with the depth of his knowledge about their company. ‘In Japan, they don’t ask you how you feel,’ Ovitz says to Miller.

If you have a cold, they don’t ask you if you have a cold. If you have cancer, you’re not allowed to discuss it. You’re not allowed to sit with the soles of your feet toward your guest. You’re not allowed to cross your legs. You’re not allowed to take your jacket off unless you ask: ‘Can we all have our jackets off?’ I can go through a hundred things like this. I know how to use chopsticks better than many Japanese. I knew the history of sake.

Matsushita soon hired Ovitz as a consultant and he assembled a team of lawyers and PR people. Everyone at Matsushita was amazed because Ovitz seemed to know their product line – every single screw and rivet in their catalogue – better than they did. At no point during any of those initial meetings did Ovitz discuss fees. ‘Our trips to Japan were highly orchestrated, even scripted,’ Ovitz’s colleague Sandy Climan says. His boss flew back and forward and did everything on a handshake and a deep bow. He arranged that MCA/Universal be sold to Matsushita Electric and he took $46 million in consulting fees.

Not everyone approved. ‘His power and his impact was enhanced by his ability to set people against one another,’ says Jeffrey Katzenberg, a former chairman of Disney and the present CEO of DreamWorks, ‘to utilise relationships, and to put himself at the centre of that. That’s how he operated.’ (Katzenberg, to be fair, might hate the fact that Ovitz took a job at Disney after his own acrimonious departure.) And what about Ovitz’s colleagues at CAA?

Ron Meyer: I was just living the life. I was making more money than I’d ever dreamed of, I was popular, I was going out with great-looking actresses, I mean – fuck, don’t let this end. There are very few guys whose ass I couldn’t kick, physically. Don’t just assume that because I’m a nice guy I couldn’t just grab somebody by the throat and fuck him up.

And this, remember, comes from the kindest soul in the company. But if you study Hollywood people you see they are almost all, to a man and a woman, driven out of their minds by the torrid inflations of success. Ovitz had the world at his feet and it started to crumble because he got greedy, he made mistakes, he got paranoid, and his attempts to move into corporate life were a disaster. He knew nothing about the way a corporation functions and was basically a 10 per cent guy. And what came with his particular brilliance was an inability to show vulnerability or ask for help. He left CAA with a frown like Hamlet’s and was fired from his next job within 15 months.

As someone’s agent, you’re always about to be fired. In that sense talent agents are not unlike actors, whose popularity is waning from the moment it is born. It is a world, therefore, in which the precarious represent the precarious, and where the acting-out of basic survival fears is a common theme. Ron Meyer happened to be on a call to Edgar Bronfman Jr, a wealthy businessman, at six o’clock one morning, around the time when he was feeling undermined and tired, keen to get out of CAA. At one point he had to break the call for 15 minutes. ‘Please don’t tell anyone,’ he said when he rang Bronfman back, ‘but this is why I have to get out of the agency business. Hugh Grant just got arrested for getting blown. We had to bail him out.’