June 22, 2008

The Last Mogul (2005)
Grade: 82/100

Director: Barry Avrich
Stars: Larry King, Suzanne Pleshette, Jack Valenti

What it's about. A biography of top Hollywood executive Lew Wasserman, who controlled Universal studios between 1962 and 1990. His career began as a booking agent for MCA, which secured a near-monopoly of the acting and musical talent for nightclubs and radio. Wasserman extended that monopoly into Hollywood movies, and later into television, where his production companies dominated the prime time lineup.

MCA, once entirely a talent agency, was able to move into production because of Wasserman's savvy with unions. Various unions controlled the music and film industries, and these unions were in turn manipulated by gangsters. Wasserman dealt with these men, but the publicity-shy mogul was so discreet that his hands remained clean.

Nonetheless, ambitious and ruthless populist Bobby Kennedy, as attorney general under his brother, broke up MCA. Thereafter, Wasserman concentrated on Universal. A lengthy string of uninspired Universal movies threatened his hold on the studio, but Airport (1970) finally made the company's film division profitable, and further successes were capped by Jaws (1975).

Then came Wasserman's decline. He failed to appreciate the growing importance of cable television. Universal was a publicly held company, and its falling stock price made it vulnerable to corporate raiders, who had no respect for the aging Wasserman. His hands forced, Wasserman sold Universal (which included his large personal chunk of company stock) to a Japanese corporation. Overnight, the mogul was powerless. He was no longer a Hollywood deal maker. But he remained extremely wealthy, which made him a force in Democratic Party politics until his demise.

The most important protege of Wasserman's career was Ronald Reagan. Wasserman was the first to recognize that even though Reagan was merely competent as an actor, Reagan was a charismatic public speaker. Wasserman promptly installed Reagan as the head of the Screen Actors Guild. Soon, the actor's union changed its rules to favor Wasserman's producer ambitions. As his reward, Reagan was given favorable business dealings and plum acting assignments, such as the host of General Electric's television theater. Soon, Reagan had speaking engagements at various GE branches. Wasserman helped fund Reagan's 1966 election as the governor of California, which in turn led to the White House. Reagan was instrumental in ending yet another Justice Department investigation into Universal's ties to organized crime.

How others will see it. This film is prime rib for intellectuals and Hollywood history buffs. But it was made without the cooperation of Universal or Wasserman's family. Wasserman himself would have hated the movie. He wrote no memoirs and gave no interviews, and indeed, anything he said or put down on paper could have been used against his company.

Thus, most film buffs are unaware of the movie. They also have little or no interest in its subject, which I am sure is exactly as Wasserman would have liked it. It is an unsung great movie that will remain nothing more than an off-tune blip within the perpetual noise of cable/satellite movie channels.

How I felt about it. Everyone adult knows that behind every show, there is an unseen producer. Miley Cyrus is currently enormously popular, but someone is pulling her strings. That producer cherishes his/her power, but avoids the spotlight since it will also reveal the strings themselves, which are his/her livelihood.

For decades, Wasserman was perhaps the leading unseen power behind theater, radio, film, and television. His story, and his example, is important. Once you reach a certain age or level of understanding, this unseen person becomes more interesting than the talent itself. Unless you think Miley Cyrus, the pretty daughter of a well-known celebrity, is anything more than a marketing phenomenon. Which would make you younger than the voting age.