James Andrew Miller: CAA's Michael Ovitz Writes His Memoir — And Re-Writes Hollywood History

Michael Ovitz Story - Publicity - H 2018
Courtesy of Michael Ovitz

The author of an oral history of the storied talent agency reviews its co-founder's new memoir, 'Who Is Michael Ovitz?,' and his recollection (and revisionist retelling) of Michael Eisner feuds, Ron Meyer's gambling and more: "It's like he wants to get to heaven but doesn't want to die."

Anyone in the entertainment industry during the 1980s or '90s is likely to be perplexed, surprised or outright flabbergasted to learn that Michael Ovitz has titled his just-published memoir Who Is Michael Ovitz? Widely considered the most powerful man in Hollywood at the time, Ovitz was beyond ubiquitous, taking up so much oxygen during his reign that most knowledgeable souls would likely have expected a title more like I, Claudius.

Or make that, I, Hollywood.

As it turns out, however, the supremely confident Ovitz, who often brilliantly acted as chief puppeteer for other people’s careers and mergers, and who put together 20 startling years of achievement from 1975 to 1995, proved spectacularly unequal to the challenge of orchestrating his own fate. And that is why he needs the question mark in 2018.

1995 was the pivotal year in Ovitz’s professional life; needing to be at his very best, he wound up being at his very worst. Craving new challenges (more power, more money) and knowing all too well that he had to leave Creative Artists Agency, the company he had co-founded with four other former William Morris agents (he was no longer welcome) Ovitz, long admired for his decisiveness, somehow contracted a virus of indecisiveness. He then displayed new levels of hubris and cranked up his somewhat Trumpian relationship with the truth. As a finishing touch, he mixed a toxic cocktail of Sun-Tzu and Machiavellian doctrines that left him ironically without any game plan, but that didn’t stop him from engaging in discussions about his future fueled by a sense of entitlement that proved astonishing even to Hollywood veterans.

That, in turn, led to botched negotiations with the Bronfmans to run MCA-Universal, and a shockingly brief and senseless marriage to Michael Eisner at Disney. After his Burbank exit, there was a muddled attempt to re-engage in the representation business called Artists Management Group, but by that time, Hollywood had already flipped off its Ovitz switch. When AMG folded, Ovitz flipped off his Hollywood switch. The past 20 years have been dramatically quieter than the previous 20, with Citizen Michael spending much of his time in Silicon Valley and the mercurial world of art.

Memoirs afford writers (or ghostwriters) the opportunity to perform a capital R Reset: If you don’t know who I am, let me tell you, according to my version of events. Movies aren’t written, they’re rewritten — as every waiter with a script must know; maybe lives can be rewritten, too. After years of considering and reconsidering the idea of whether to finish a memoir, it’s clear Ovitz couldn’t resist the opportunity to shove a ton of toothpaste back into its tube and to alter fundamentally the narrative attached to him for the past two decades.

The obvious questions raised by Ovitz and his book include: How close does he come to reality in this history lesson, and how much has he learned about himself since his exodus from the Hollywood scene?

To answer those questions fully, herewith a thank-you that I deem essential: During the years in which I researched and wrote Powerhouse: The Untold Story of Hollywood’s Creative Artists Agency, Ovitz was incredibly gracious with his time for me. Given his reluctance to cooperate with several authors and journalists in the past, I never took a minute of that time for granted and remain appreciative to this day. We had more than 70 conversations in person or on the phone, along with many email exchanges. I enjoyed almost all of them. I also conducted more than 500 interviews where Ovitz was discussed with current and former employees of CAA, other agents, studio and network executives, along with individuals from Wall Street and the worlds of art and advertising. Given that access, four major elements come to mind when thinking about the veracity of Who Is Michael Ovitz? and whether Ovitz has become more self-aware since the days of yore:

First, Ovitz begins his book by likening himself to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character in The Terminator, being “relentless” and “inhuman” and later acknowledging how much disdain some others had for him. It’s good, candid stuff, but unfortunately for the reader, Ovitz’s goal with the book to emerge as respected and liked gets in the way of him being totally transparent about how he acted to get there. He rarely showcases the raw, unforgiving and, yes, brutal way he sometimes thought about and acted toward others.

It’s like he wants to get to heaven but doesn’t want to die.

In our background or off-the-record conversations, Ovitz was unbridled, characterizing others in a manner that explains how he would wind up considering himself inhuman, being so disliked, and showcasing a clear affinity to disregard boundaries, convention and, at times, civility. This chasm between what was on the record and what I couldn’t use in Powerhouse was frustrating for me, to say the least, but when Michael told me he had decided to go ahead and finish his own memoir, I hoped like hell he would give it to us, as LBJ used to say, “with the bark off.” Or to put this all in Freudian terms, Ovitz goes an awfully long way to convince readers he (now) has a superego, but in doing so, he fails to let us experience his id. And let’s face it: It was his id that made him, and his id that made him so wealthy.

Second, the book confirms that Ovitz may be one of the easiest big-time Hollywood players to both acquit and convict. There is plenty evidence for each argument. Ovitz does a terrific job in the book revealing the fabric of his days, the way he organized himself and others, how his interests became so protean, and his obsessiveness with preparation. Put it together and it’s not only useful, but downright inspiring. He does an excellent job of taking us through his greatest hits, and the list is stunning, including his work with David Letterman, Robert Redford, Coca-Cola and Matsushita. Ovitz loved the word “disruptive,” and basically redefined it. In short order, he was at the forefront of disrupting four major arteries that intersected with the world of entertainment: the agency business, financial modeling and dealmaking with networks and studios, advertising, and investment banking. Most of his clients believed he made them more successful and far wealthier, ditto many of his employees. The book, understandably, showcases example after example of his successes. Indeed, if this were fiction, someone would probably say, “Enough already!” — particularly with all the big celebrity names — “This is getting unbelievable.” But these triumphs did happen, and chances are even Ovitz’s loudest enemies believe he has much to be proud of.

How exactly these victories and far fewer defeats happened, and why, is a different story. For a man who, while still in the arena, suffered serious blows to his credibility because of his relationship with facts, it’s instructive to remember the famous axiom of the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan: “Everyone is entitled to their own opinions but not their own facts.” That’s often not the case here. Many I’ve spoken to are already taking issue with Ovitz’s interpretation of the truth in the book; there are even points where he argues with his own memory. It’s as if he’s almost admitting to us that he’s told so many versions of his rise and fall that even he isn’t certain of the true story anymore — so let’s try this one on for size.

Ovitz wants us to believe that while he was at Disney, Eisner ordered him to fire Bob Iger and that he refused. But does Ovitz expect us to forget that history shows Eisner could at times be like the George Steinbrenner of Burbank, firing people at will, including his headline-grabbing dismissal of Jeffrey Katzenberg? Anyone with a triple-digit IQ knows that if Eisner truly didn’t want Iger to stay, Iger would have been gone, despite anything Ovitz did or didn’t do. It’s also worth noting that shortly thereafter, Eisner promoted Iger to president and COO of Disney, and Iger wound up being the only candidate Eisner brought to the board to succeed him. Virtually everyone I spoke with about those days believes that Ovitz was actually trying to convince Iger to leave, so there would be one less formidable alternative when the time came to choose an Eisner successor.

Another major exhibit in revisionist history surrounds the tipping point in Act 2 of Ovitz’s career: Losing the top job at MCA to his longtime friend and CAA partner Ron Meyer.

Ovitz ends Chapter 10 with the line, "It certainly never crossed my mind to worry that Ron would take me down,” but pesky facts clearly prove that was never the case. Charles Bronfman, Edgar Bronfman Jr. and several other key figures in that odyssey confirmed to me in no uncertain terms that after Ovitz had done his long run as Hamlet — going back and forth about whether he wanted the MCA job in the first place, then finally upping his price of admission to a level that made one want to become a Bolshevik — the Bronfmans had had enough. They had seen and heard enough of Michael Ovitz and wanted no part of him. That was Ovitz’s doing. In fact, Meyer had no idea he was even being considered for the job. It was David Geffen who told Edgar that Meyer was the best candidate for the job. Ovitz himself blew the most important negotiation of his career, yet somehow, he felt the need to park the blame at the feet of the person he called his brother and best friend.

Third, despite a recent and protracted rapprochement between Ovitz and Meyer that I was fortunate to bear witness to and that needs to be taken to the Broadway stage one day, the subtitle of Who Is Michael Ovitz? might as well be “Someone who can’t stop loving and hating Ron Meyer.” Meyer remains the most dominant relationship in Ovitz’s professional life and probably one of the two or three most significant personal relationships of his entire existence. Yet on page after page of this book, Ovitz basically admits to the reader that he can’t help himself — he’s going to play this not-so-passive-aggressive game of running Meyer up the flagpole, saluting him, then taking out a rifle and shooting him down. It starts in the prologue. After talking about being “on cloud nine” after Dustin Hoffman thanked him in his Oscar acceptance speech, followed by director Barry Levinson and producer Mark Johnson doing the same thing for Rain Man, Ovitz (who deserved such praise) feels the need to point out that Michael Douglas and Cher didn’t thank Meyer when they won best actor awards, but that Cher thanked her hairdresser, adding that Meyer was devastated.

You know why Ovitz includes this? Because it was one of the few shining examples where Ovitz won the “Most Popular” crown. He may say that his relationship with Meyer was perfectly constructed, with Meyer being the loved one and him the feared one, but Ovitz’s subconscious never fully bought into that. He was resentful of the love Meyer received from employees, clients and the town, and instead of admitting to it back then, which would have been understood by many, he had to prove he didn’t care, that there was no jealousy at all, and that he was all about business. He wound up displacing those repressed feelings onto Meyer in deleterious ways — an unhealthy dynamic that continues to this day.

There are two other areas Ovitz chooses to attack Meyer on: Meyer’s gambling and his relationship with Bill Haber, another CAA partner. In the book, Ovitz exhibits a need to infantilize Meyer in a strangely framed discourse on Meyer’s gambling. Ovitz used different numbers with me when he discussed Meyer’s losses after a particularly unlucky night in 1987, but in the book, he writes that Meyer lost $6.5 million, forcing Ovitz to put him on an allowance and take away his company credit cards. Meyer tells me none of that is true, including that Ovitz lent him any money, and adds a telling coda: Ovitz never reached out to him to discuss or fact check any of the figures he uses in the book. Needless to say, they are — according to my research, Ovitz’s previous recollections and, more importantly, Meyer’s own word — way off.

Ovitz also creates a mythology of a Meyer-Haber conflict by repeatedly alleging that Meyer wanted Haber gone from CAA. But once again, that wasn’t the case. What Meyer wanted was a bigger percentage of the agency’s equity, a lingering consequence of Ovitz engineering a shareholder grab in the late '70s from the other four partners that left a bitter taste in their mouths. Indeed, Rowland Perkins remained furious about it up to our last conversation, (after Powerhouse was published), and Haber told me, “Agreeing to give to Michael some of my own shares is the only professional regret I have in my life.” To this day, Meyer and Haber are close friends. Indeed, Haber helped Meyer get ordained so he could officiate at Haber’s recent wedding.

Fourth, and finally, as the book itself repeatedly confirms, Ovitz all too often devalued the work of others around him. Many of the stories in the book fail to mention the key involvement of his partners and employees, and worse, attribute their contributions to Ovitz’s own efforts. “I” dominates “we” in a revealing, sad way. This is particularly ironic given the fact that Ovitz not only championed the team system at CAA but was merciless with those who ignored it. Even for a memoir, there’s little space in the book dedicated to the triumphs of others, particularly to the group known in their earlier days as “The Young Turks,” who have refused to waste a nanosecond resting on any of Ovitz’s laurels, somehow managed to keep the lights on without him, and who have now been at the helm of CAA longer than Ovitz was.

In the end, one can think of Who Is Michael Ovitz? as perhaps a very long version of an Oscar acceptance speech that might have gone like this: “No man could ask for more than I have received — but I want it anyway.”

James Andrew Miller, a Hollywood Reporter contributor, is the author of several books, including Powerhouse: The Untold Story of Hollywood’s Creative Artists Agency, and the host of the Origins podcast.