Friday, October 28, 2016

Living the Life

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). (...)

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. (...)

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.’

by Andew O'Hagan, LRB |  Read more:
Image: CAA building via: