The Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival (M-SPIFF) is in full swing, mostly in Minneapolis but a bit in St. Paul. (The University of Minnesota campus has two venues within walking distance and a quick bus ride downtown to a third.)
Instead of making agonizing decisions based on reading extensive reviews, Mary and I just pick a time, read descriptions, and pick a film. It is very difficult to choose a film that won’t rank equal or above current popular fare. And much of this work will never be seen in this area again.
Last night, I saw The Last Mogul, a documentary about the life and times of Lou Wasserman. Wasserman ran MCA which was one of the first big media conglomerates. What you learn from the film is how much of our media culture is shaped by decisions in a boardroom. Wasserman’s group owned just about all the movie stars for a while and when TV came along, MCA was one of the only companies to see the potential and exploit it.
If you grew up in the fifties and sixties in the US, you likely remember watching old films on TV. As I understand it, most of these were owned by Wasserman’s group and leased to stations because TV needed content.
There are rumors but no real proof, that Wasserman had mob connections. His group was busted at one point (by Robert Kennedy) for monopoly practice. He then got more involved in politics and did a lot to help Clinton. He was also best buddies with Ronald Reagan, brokering some very sweet deals that kept Reagan working in film and television even though he was, at best, an average actor. He also helped in getting Reagan elected as president of the Screen Actors Guild, the main acting union. If you’re running the whole entertainment show, it helps to have your buddy as union president.
Given that Wasserman left no shred of paper behind describing his dealings and that his wife (who was very much involved with the business) was not interviewed in making the film, this is an excellent documentary.
Here’s the blurb from the festival site:
The Last Mogul
DIRECTOR: Barry Avrich
CAST: Petr Bart, David and Helen Gurley Brown, Jimmy Carter,Larry King,and others
The life and times of Hollywood super- talent agent -turned -mogul Lew Wasserman is a textbook study of how Hollywood power brokers operate behind complex wheeler-dealer scenes even that even avid filmgoers fail to appreciate. Many key insiders come on camera to help draw the full measure of the stratospheric rise and the humbling fall of a person who represented the very stuff out of which Hollywood emerged to dictate film tastes of a good share of the world. Growing up on the tough streets of Cleveland’s colorful Jewish section, Wasserman deployed skill as a music booker just after WWII when as agent for Music Corporation of America his contracts soon controlled 90% of performing bands in the country. His closeness to talent including such clients as Ronald Reagan and Hattie McDaniel —brought him to Hollywood and access to the right levers to press. His getting Reagan elected as Screen Actors Guild president at the dawn of tv revived a waning screen career that ended you know where. The frank and engrossing doc offers lessons on how to gain power and control in the top executive suites of the industry and how it was finally lost to Japanese media in the Nineties. Veteran Canadian filmmaker Barry Avrich was born in Montreal, Canada in 1963. Aside from a vibrant career making films, Avrich is the President/COO of a leading advertising agency and author of two books including Selling The Sizzle: The Magic + Logic of Entertainment Marketing.
PRODUCER: Tori Hockin, Nat Brescia,Brian Linehan
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Charles Haggart
EDITOR: Alex Shuper
MUSIC: Jim McGrath, Frank Kitching