He was tall and unsmiling, his steely eyes peering out from behind glasses that Steven Spielberg described as resembling twin movie screens. He wore dark suits and ties, and insisted that his underlings do the same, perfecting the Men in Black look of sharkish boardroom intimidation back when Michael Ovitz was still in short pants. He hated desk clutter, vacations, and any corporate soldier who dared to quit his employ for any reason. He and his wife slept in separate bedrooms, yet he avoided other women. (Power was his only aphrodisiac.) His sphere of influence ranged from the infamous Mob lawyer Sidney Korshak, whom he used to control the Teamsters (and, by extension, the film-industry unions), to Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan, with whom he forged the Hollywood-Washington axis. He could be charming when required, but his tantrums were legendary arias of rage. Most of all he was ruthless, and 10 steps ahead of everyone else – a deal maker who ruled with the cunning of Sun Tzu, the omnivorousness of Bill Gates, and the vengeance of Darth Vader. It’s not remotely clear that he ever cared about movies.
At the height of his career, which spanned more than five decades, Lew Wasserman was so feared and respected in Hollywood that he could reduce grown men to tears. Yet as you read Connie Bruck’s gripping anatomization of the modern movie business, When Hollywood Had a King: The Reign of Lew Wasserman, Who Leveraged Talent Into Power and Influence, it becomes clear that Wasserman had a vision to match his aggression. Arriving in L.A. in 1939 as an agent at MCA, he built the company into the biggest agency in town, then used his clout to acquire the Universal lot in 1959 for the fire-sale price of $11 million, extending his octopod reach from there. The key to his strategy was to centralize Hollywood, with himself as the pivotal figure. Described by one associate as ”a walking computer before there were computers” (in his bid for secrecy, he almost never wrote anything down), he was obsessed with details, and for him that meant one thing: numbers. He may have barely roused himself to exchange pleasantries with his secretary, but each day she would phone him on the hour, every hour, to update him on exactly how many people had visited the Universal Studios tour that day, and how the tally compared with the year before.
”When Hollywood Had a King” isn’t a biography, exactly. It’s a study, at once panoramic and thrillingly detailed, of how Wasserman sought, gained, and maintained his hegemony by bending the values, and the very structure, of the movie industry around his will. Back in the ’40s, Wasserman was the first to grasp that the new medium of television wouldn’t be the death of the film business (as everyone else feared) but, indeed, its most potent partner. He transformed MCA into a production factory that fed NBC with so many shows that it became an instant entertainment monopoly. Along the way, he broke the back of the studio system, shifting the clout over to the stars and, of course, to their agents – a pendulum that Ovitz would bump even further, decades later, in his flagrant imitation of Wasserman.
Bruck, a staff writer at The New Yorker, is an extraordinary reporter – on page after page, she places you behind the closed doors of corporate collusions – and her writing has a vigorous elegance driven by an almost magnetic attraction to the intricacies of power. Her portrait of Wasserman and his associates may not be overtly obsessed with ”character” (she doesn’t go in for thumbnail psychoanalysis), yet she envelops you in the drama of embattled tycoons and politicians who reveal, through the cut and thrust of their actions, their truest selves.
Wasserman ran his company with a fear and domination derived, in spirit, from his shadow link to the Mob. Blending enticements with implicit threats, he made offers that, in essence, couldn’t be refused, and he was able to flout antitrust laws through the vastness of his connections. Yet it’s fair to say that none of this might have worked nearly as well if Wasserman had shown any deep concern about the product he was turning out. He built his empire by eradicating the line between television and movies, and so he instinctively thought, and acted, in mass terms. When ”Jaws” came along, produced at his studio in 1975, he knew exactly how to market it. Was he a giant? Undoubtedly. But a giant of a special kind. In a Hollywood that he, perhaps more than anyone else, helped to turn into a machine, he was King Cog.