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The Last Mogul | The Nation

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The Last Mogul

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The Seagram deal ended Wasserman's career, although for Bruck it seems to have ended several years before. She devotes only ten pages of When Hollywood Had a King to the five-year Matsushita-MCA era--far less than she devotes to the deal itself, in which she contends that Wasserman had "been had" by Ovitz, signaling the effective end of his half-century reign. "Wasserman lived so long that he outlasted his myth," writes Bruck, and so the last decade of his life, and his last years atop MCA, are of little note.

About the Author

Thomas Schatz
Thomas Schatz, a professor of film studies at the University of Texas, is the author of The Genius of the System (...

Lew Wasserman outlived the myth of his own sovereignty, perhaps, but not the reality of his long-term influence, even if his vision was realized by a later generation of media barons. The Seagram buyout of MCA coincided with a number of other media deals--Viacom's takeover of Paramount and Blockbuster, for instance, and Disney's purchase of ABC--which endorsed Wasserman's vision of a tightly diversified, vertically and horizontally integrated media conglomerate. Indeed, Wasserman's MCA provided the veritable template, the new paradigm for the blockbuster-driven, synergy-obsessed media giants that now rule the global media landscape. MCA may have been dismantled, but Wasserman's legacy survives in the very nature and structure of the New Hollywood.

Thus the tough questions at the end of Wasserman's career are scarcely about mob ties and power plays--which seem increasingly penny ante in this post-Enron world. The tougher questions involve a cartel of media conglomerates that evolved in MCA-Universal's image, dedicated to turning out soulless replicas of Jaws and Jurassic Park. And as the media giants grow richer and more powerful, despite their cultural and artistic bankruptcy, the toughest question of all, at least from my viewpoint, is simply: What hath Wasserman wrought?

That question is never posed in When Hollywood Had a King, not even in the funeral-cum-reflection that closes the book. This is somewhat puzzling in light of Bruck's concerns with Wasserman's "power and influence." Then again, her fascination with Wasserman has less to do with cultural production and actual products--movies and TV programs, music and theme-park rides--than with the political economy of Hollywood at a "higher" level, particularly as it relates to Wall Street and Washington. In the tradition of Saul Steinberg's legendary New Yorker cover that maps out the world as seen from 9th Avenue, Bruck's view extends from the boardrooms and brokerage firms of Manhattan westward to the Potomac, but beyond Washington it grows more vague and indistinct. Remarkably, she scarcely ventures inside MCA-Universal itself and never even mentions many of its most vital films, from Spartacus and The Birds at the time of the merger to Jurassic Park and Schindler's List on the eve of MCA's demise.

Wasserman's role in the making of these films, as well as their impact on the industry and on media culture, are simply not on Bruck's agenda, a significant oversight, since Wasserman was in many ways a throwback to the hands-on, in-the-trenches studio bosses of old. McDougal's muckraking aside, his title was on target; Wasserman really was "the last mogul" in the mold of Jack Warner and Darryl Zanuck. He understood power and cultivated relationships, yes, but he was also fiercely invested in talent, filmmaking and "product"--which set him utterly apart from the new breed of media barons.

A deeper concern involves Bruck's inability, despite her direct access to Wasserman, to get beyond his formidable defenses. I too had the opportunity to talk with Wasserman in his last years and came away with the same sense that his well-worn anecdotes had been carefully edited to suit his own and his company's needs. Interestingly enough, Bruck closes her book with a similar disclaimer to the one in her introduction mentioned above. In a telling coda, Bruck wonders whether Wasserman's "famous stories" may have been "part of the elaborate facade Wasserman constructed, which kept others from glimpsing what was within and projected what he chose." One has to wonder whether Bruck herself has failed to penetrate that facade.

In fact, little if any of the crucial information in her account comes from Wasserman and is pieced together by Bruck herself through other interviews and her arduous research. These efforts do pay off, however, producing an absorbing chronicle of both a man and a company that adds immeasurably to our understanding of both. And thus any concerns about Bruck's getting "inside" either the studio operations or the man himself are easily offset by her overall achievement. When Hollywood Had a King provides a rich and evenhanded view of Lew Wasserman, doing justice both literally and figuratively to the most recent, if not the last, of the Hollywood giants.

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