'Powerhouse: The Untold Story of Hollywood's Creative Artists Agency': Book Review

Powerhouse Book Cover P 2016
Harper Collins
Too much of a not-good-enough thing.

Peter Biskind writes that James Andrew Miller's book buries some juicy anecdotes in what's otherwise a turgid and often tedious account of the company's rise, fall and resurrection.

If packaging were everything, Powerhouse would be an important book. It is elegantly produced — the jacket paper is thick enough to withstand an IED — and prefaced by an impressive list of 516 named “Featured Players,” intended, presumably, to make the reader assume that James Andrew Miller has interviewed all of them (it turns out that most are just mentioned in the text). The shame of it all is that it could have been an important book; its ambition rivals that of its subject, but unfortunately, it is not as successful.

Books are tricky creatures. Writers think they have all the space in the world, but every subject has an internal rhythm that dictates a suitable length, and they ignore it at their own risk. Worse, Powerhouse has no index, which is infuriating in a 700-page book that is repetitive and too often confusing. The reader has to be really enthralled by CAA to get through it; there are stretches of story examined in such granular detail, that are so deadening, they make Ambien seem like a pick-me-up. 

Miller does deserve credit for doing something that no one has been able to do: crack the code of the secret society that is CAA, somehow getting all the principals, with the exception of Bryan Lourd, to talk frankly about the DNA that built the agency out of nothing and turned it into the entertainment industry’s most formidable — yes, powerhouse — in just five years, crushing the competition and virtually monopolizing the talent. Here is Mike Ovitz, once the “most powerful man in Hollywood,” unplugged. He is the Caesar of this drama — or perhaps its Richard III, depending on whom you believe — while everyone Miller interviewed seems to agree that the hero, its Brutus, is his close friend Ron Meyer.   

Powerhouse essentially is an oral history that features a who’s who of boldfaced Hollywood names, like Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Bill Murray, David Letterman, Tom Hanks, Goldie Hawn, Sylvester Stallone, Joel Silver, Tom Pollock and Dustin Hoffman, as well as scores of agents both inside and outside of CAA, whose names will be meaningless to the general reader. Displaying a taste for whimsy, Miller even includes fixer Anthony Pellicano, the real-life Ray Donovan, who was sentenced to a long term in prison (recently vacated) in 2008.

ass," but the town's rivals and players (including Michael Ovitz) reveal the truth is far more complex in James Andrew Miller's new book 'Powerhouse: The Untold Story of Hollywood's Creative Artists Agency.'"]

The book covers the rise of CAA, when the five founders left the sclerotic William Morris Agency in 1975; the fall, if it can be called that, when Meyer and Ovitz left in 1995; and the resurrection, led by the so-called Young Turks who, continuing in Ovitz’s footsteps, transformed CAA from a talent agency into a multi-armed octopus with tentacles in everything from banking to sports.

Miller identifies the unique approach adopted by CAA that contributed to its stunning success: a one-for-all-and-all-for-one spirit of cooperation within the agency that differed dramatically from the rigid, hierarchical, compartmentalized William Morris, combined with a ferocious, take-no-prisoners attitude toward the competitors. Ovitz famously used military metaphors to refer to his agents, describing them as “soldiers.”  

There are plenty of gems buried in the avalanche of words, among them a funny story about Ali MacGraw, with whom Meyer was having an affair, walking out on him because he wouldn’t get off the phone with a client.

The most Shakespearean, and therefore the most riveting parts of this tale, concern the ways in which success, money and power corrupted the ideals of the founders. Disabused agents repeatedly charge Ovitz with concealing information, lying and cheating them. No one knew, for example, that Ovitz and Meyer had their own plane. Recalls David “Doc” O’Connor, one of the Young Turks: “I remember getting on the plane and seeing matches that said 'Ovitz' on them and I said, 'Hey, Mike, is this your plane?' And he said, 'No, no, no. They just put that stuff out there because I’m a frequent customer.'”

CAA was so successful that eventually it banged its head against the ceiling. Ovitz once said, when he was asked if he’d like to take over a studio, “I don’t have to run a studio, I run them all now anyway.” And again, near the end of his tenure there, he complained, “There wasn’t anybody really left to sign.”

Ultimately, the close, almost fraternal relationship between Ovitz and Meyer became a casualty of this success. Meyer took the job heading Universal that Ovitz thought belonged to him, while Ovitz bought the land on which Meyer was going to build his dream house. Both men speak candidly about their relationship.

Unfortunately, the book’s greatest asset — its worm’s eye view of the CAA saga — is perhaps its greatest weakness. In the introduction, Miller asserts that “CAA has played a major role in transforming the entertainment business and the media in general,” but the book never tells us how; the author never zooms back to give us the big picture. In 1980, after only five years in existence, Ovitz announced that his ambition was to “own the '80s.” He succeeded, but discounting the filmmakers who survived the talent die-off at the end of the '70s, only a handful of really gifted directors emerged in the following decade, along with a precious few great films (Blade Runner, Salvador, Diner, Blue Velvet, et al). The '80s were a dismal decade, hammocked between the New Hollywood of the '70s and the explosion of independents in the '90s. The reasons for this are legion, but CAA bares its share of the blame. To be fair, it did have a hand in outstanding shows like Twin Peaks and Thelma and Louise, but by driving star salaries through the roof, it forced the studios to respond by protecting their investments with mega-budget hi-concept blockbusters. CAA did change the business, but not necessarily for the better.

Peter Biskind, a film historian and author of books including Easy Riders, Raging Bulls and Down and Dirty Pictures, is a contributing editor to Vanity Fair.