What Jared Kushner Can Learn From Hollywood's Mistakes

Left, from Photofest, right, from Getty Images
Irving Thalberg, Jared Kushner

The White House boy wonder should study that film business boy wonder, Irving Thalberg.

The older man was feeling his age. It had been years, decades even, since he’d grappled his way onto the world stage, launching his tenterhooks at a small property and, once it was his, enlarging his domain until he’d built an empire of his own.

He was rich and Republican, had a staff of thousands and an audience of millions, and yet something was wanting. He craved attention, demanded it, but could never quite get enough. Thin-skinned and insecure, he would fly off the handle at a hint of disapproval — not least from his children, whose relationship with their patriarch was more troubled than many knew.

His daughter, unlike him, was cool and collected; she rarely unleashed her demons, if she had any at all. She was on the ice-blue edge of the spectrum, whereas he was molten hot; if he was all id, she was all superego. People thought she needed him, but in truth he needed her, and when she couldn’t always be available for him, he turned to the next best thing, a young man who could.

The fellow was in his 20s when they met, but passed for much younger. Soft-spoken and cerebral, he was as classy as the old man was crude. People called him a boy wonder, but the wonder was that he’d ever been a boy at all, so mature did he seem.

The old man admired him, and yet secretly feared him, too. One was the sorcerer, the other the apprentice; so why did the apprentice seem to confuse their roles? Love and envy began to jostle for space, until nothing but envy remained, and then it was clear the apprentice had to go. 

***

I’m talking about Louis B. Mayer and Irving Thalberg, of course, whatever similarities you might have detected to the current White House occupants.

Mayer was the founder of Hollywood’s most storied studio, MGM; Thalberg, the bright young thing he brought in to help him run it. Together they achieved exceptional success until greed and jealousy tore them apart.

A former scrap metal dealer, Mayer bought a burlesque house and transformed it into a theater, leading to his ownership of a chain of New England cinemas. He was an entrepreneur to the core, a gambler who risked it all to buy the rights to 1915’s The Birth of a Nation — “I pawned everything I owned — my house, my insurance, even my wife’s wedding ring,” he recalled — then puffed at the embers of that sensation until he’d grown the fire of MGM. He was Trumpian before Trump, a media mogul before the words “media” and “mogul” had pervaded the vernacular.

Thalberg was his opposite. Sickly as a child, with a heart defect that later would lead to his premature death, he got his break when he was barely out of his teens, working as a secretary to Carl Laemmle, the head of Universal, and then skyrocketing up thanks to his “astonishing way of making decisions,” as David Thomson writes in The New Republic.

When Thalberg joined Mayer, the older man “dreamed for a moment that Irving might be a perfect match for one of his daughters.” That was Irene, the worldly-wise woman who later married David O. Selznick and produced Broadway’s A Streetcar Named Desire. “But then he sighed,” Thomson continues, “recollecting the common wisdom that the kid wouldn’t see past thirty.”

In fact, Thalberg not only saw past 30, he survived to the age of 37, though his relationship with Mayer didn’t.

Their double-act of legerdemain — the perfect pairing of sorcerer and apprentice — foundered on the shoals of envy and mistrust. In 1933, Thalberg was banished as MGM’s head of production; he died three years later.

The very person everyone said was indispensable proved dispensable, after all.

***

Jared Kushner is now 36, almost the same age as Thalberg when he died (though apparently in better health), and the resemblance between them is striking.

Both are (or were) boyish-looking, so much that either could pass as a decade younger, though each peaked in his 30s. Both are slender and even spectral, though steely willed inside.

Like Thalberg, Kushner flinches “from showiness, melodrama, and acting out,” all traits Thomson finds in his Hollywood homologue. And like Thalberg, Kushner remains something of a mystery, definable not so much by who he is as who he isn’t: his blubbery and blustery patron.

There are differences, of course. Mayer wanted the younger man as a son-in-law, but never got him; Trump did. And while Thalberg was self-made, the latter-day boy wonder inherited his wealth; he was born with a silver spoon, though a knife might have proved handier.

Tale as old as time, song as old as rhyme: in the Hollywood case the patriarch and the protégé became mutually dependent, and their very closeness led to their split, because old lions don’t like young ones in their lair. A “pride” of lions is aptly named, because the pride of each man led to his fall.

And if Kushner isn’t careful, that could prove his destiny, too.

Already, he has erred by overlooking the Thalberg lesson. Once invisible, he has become ubiquitous, a mistake his predecessor never permitted himself to make. He has made it seem as if his position is there to serve him, when he should be serving his position.

Trump, according to The New York Times, was furious that Kushner vanished on a skiing vacation at the very moment he needed all hands on deck to pass his health care legislation — just as Mayer was furious that Thalberg took off on a monthslong trip to Europe, though the latter at least had the excuse of poor health.

Then, last week, when the president should have been dominating the news cycle thanks to his Supreme Court pick, Kushner was hogging the limelight with a secret but strangely publicized visit to Iraq. “[Trump] privately scorned the coverage of Mr. Kushner’s recent high-profile trip to Iraq,” noted the Times, “and questioned the need for his son-in-law’s newly created office to overhaul the government.”

Days later, Kushner was at it again, photo-bombing Trump’s Mar-a-Lago “war room” in a picture tweeted by White House press secretary Sean Spicer. It was Kushner front and center, with Trump back and to the side.

Thalberg was wiser. Not only did he never photo-bomb a picture, he never even took credit for the pictures he produced. He understood that real power resides in the shadows and the shade, in the palace hallways, in the alleys and byways hidden from the light. Only when others shone a flashlight on him did he allow it to linger, and even that proved too long.

He knew what Kushner may not — that alpha males don’t easily cede their power, much less to other alpha males, even those disguised as betas and omegas.

Thalberg learned this the hard way when Mayer replaced him during a trip abroad — not with an outsider, but with another man he thought of as family — this time real family: his daughter’s husband, David O. Selznick.

“The son-in-law also rises,” insiders quipped at the time.

But the son-in-law can also sink.

Selznick and Thalberg were pushed out at the peak of their power. Now Trump, in a moment of pique, could prove his own power by pushing out Kushner.

For more Galloway on Film, please check the archive. 

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