Review: Peggy Olson Meets Ari Gold in Bio of 1970s Super Agent Sue Mengers

'Can I Go Now' chronicles the life of the first really powerful female agent whose key client was Barbara Streisand.
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Imagine if Peggy Olson landed in Hollywood instead of Madison Avenue. Now imagine she swore like a sailor, screwed like Don Draper and looked like a caftan-wearing, throaty voiced Jewish woman. Got that picture? Meet Sue Mengers, who rose from secretary to super agent agent in the 1960s and 1970s and is the subject of Can I Go Now (Viking, $27.95, Sept. 8), a new biography by Brain Kellow, an opera journalist whose previous biography was about famed New Yorker critic Pauline Kael. Can I Go Now is an entertaining but not entirely satisfying look at an important figure in Hollywood’s history.

Mengers heyday was an important transition period in Hollywood’s history. The old power of the studios was ebbing as independent producers and talented young auteurs like Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola (joined by George Lucas and Steven Spielberg) inaugurated a golden age of American cinema. Talent agencies were in transition as well, moving from an era when they were more personal services firms to the high-powered full-service corporate agencies of the eighties and onward, an era inaugurated by the creation of CAA in 1975.

Like Peggy Olsen, Mengers got her start as a secretary at MCA in 1955 when she was 23 before moving to William Morris and then to Korman Associates in 1963 where she was made a junior agent, partially on the strength (or the implied strength) of her relationship with Broadway producer David Merrick. In 1966 she jumped to Creative Management Associates (CMA), which was then run by the legendary Freddie Fields and would become ICM in 1974 after a merger with another agency. CMA had a rich talent list that included such stars as Paul Newman and Robert Redford. Mergers soon emerged as the biggest agent in Hollywood, building up a roster of clients that included Candice Bergen, Ryan O’Neal, Dyan Cannon and many others.

But her biggest client was Barbara Streisand. The two met in 1963 when Streisand was in Funny Girl on Broadway. Mengers represented her co-star Kay Medford but seemed to spend more time trying to cultivate a relationship with Streisand. When she moved to CMA in 1966 she started helping Fields with Streisand, his client, and by 1972 Mengers was the actress’ sole agent. The seventies were a boom time for both as Mengers repped Streisand during a period in which she made What’s Up Doc, The Way We Were, A Star is Born and The Main Event. The two were also close friends but their relationship unraveled in the late seventies over Streisand’s passion for Yentl and Mengers’ indifference to it. But the end came when Mengers got Streisand to star in her husband Jean-Claude Tramont’s 1981 film All Night Long, which was a critical and commercial failure. Streisand told Mengers she didn’t want her to be her agent anymore but they could still be friends. Mergers replied, “I won’t be your friend if I’m not your agent.”

That more or less marked the end of Mengers heyday. She left ICM in 1986 when she just 54 years old but made a short-lived ill-fated two-year comeback with William Morris in 1988.

There’s no doubt Mengers was a colorful character and the book is full of juicy anecdotes. She claimed to have had a short fling with Paul Newman, telling friends: “It wasn’t intercourse, just a blowjob  — but it still counted, ­because it was Paul Newman.” (Maybe my favorite line in the book). Or there’s the time she accidentally mooned a CMA staff meeting in the early ‘70s. At William Morris staff meetings she would dismissively mime a man masturbating when an agent she didn’t like was talking about a client. Then there was the time she told Faye Dunaway’s agent on the night she won an Oscar for Network—and within hearing of Dunaway, a former client— “Don’t let this little trophy make Faye think she’s a movie star. She’s not. The only movie star in the whole town is Barbra Streisand.” It is easy to see why so many movies of the time featured a character inspired by Mengers–Myra Breckenridge, Last of Sheila, S.O.B., The Love Machine–she's such a larger-than-life made-for-the-screen character. (Mengers was also the subject of a well-received one-woman play I'll Eat You Last that had Bette Midler in the role).

In the way that presidents read biographies of former presidents, I would recommend agents read this book for insight in how to — and how not to — advise clients. (Though as former presidents go Mengers is probably something like Andrew Jackson — colorful personality, a reputation exceeding actual accomplishments). Mergers had uneven record picking pictures for her Streisand and her other clients. Every agent is going to have an uneven record but its hard to see a strategy behind her choices. Most important, she became to personally involved in her clients' choices, mistaking her interests, taste and desires for those of her client. Beyond that I’m not sure there are any firm lessons to be drawn, but the stories are like mini business school case studies to ponder and debate

In the end though, Can I Go Now reads like it was written by someone who has watched one too many episodes of Entourage and that’s a problem. Sure Jeremy Piven’s Ari Gold was entertaining but it doesn’t really teach much about how the business really works. (Imagine a book titled All I Know About Agenting I Learned from Ari Gold). Similarly Can I Go Now mistakes entertaining stories for insight. You’ll laugh more than learn with this book.
 

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