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4.88

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1 review, 2 user ratings


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Last Mogul, The
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by Chris Parry

"The quintessential look at a man who made Hollywood what it is."
5 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2005 SXSW FILM FESTIVAL: Lew Wasserman was a giant in American entertainment history. A Cleveland-born stringbean who went from nightclub booker to talent agent to music industry magnate to Hollywood powerhouse, the man behind this rags to riches tale would seem to be the very individual that the American dream was designed for. When people say that “the Jews control Hollywood”, what they actually mean is “Lew Wasserman controlled Hollywood”… because he did, from the unions to the talent to the music to the theaters. He built it all from nothing, using mob money and favors to leverage a small Chicago music booking agency and turn it into an entertainment powerhouse the likes of which will never be seen again… yet he died a lonely man.

Toronto documentarian and advertising executive Barry Avrich wasn’t deterred by Wasserman’s long-standing refusal to talk to the press, nor by the fear he instilled in friends and family, even years after his death. Long inspired by Wasserman’s story, the director soldiered onwards and made his movie regardless, placing full page ads in the Hollywood trades asking family members to cooperate, being told by industry players that he’d “never have lunch in this town again,” and making scores of phone calls to anyone who ever had anything to do with his subject. And eventually they began to talk.

Boy howdy, did they talk.

A ton of dirty laundry comes out – Wasserman’s ties to the Capone family, his further ties to the Gambinos, his double-dealing, his electioneering, his union-rigging, his creation of Ronald Reagan the politician, his funding of Clinton, his ballsy moves to beat antitrust lawsuits brought about by the Justice Department… But to assume The Last Mogul is a True Hollywood Story hatchet job, where Wasserman is portrayed as an evil man out for personal glory, is to completely miss the substantial other side of the coin.

Wasserman’s defense when he was accused of running several monopolies (and he was – at one point his company, MCA, produced 60% of the content of all network TV and owned theaters, studios, theme parks, actors and musicians) was that his company created monopolies “where everyone does better.” The theaters were full, the actors well paid, the networks full of content, the crew members getting constant work, and the audiences packing in to see the end result. And, to be fair, Wasserman had a decent point. Though nothing much happened in Hollywood from the 30’s to the 60’s without MCA getting a piece, he was a visionary, packaging talent, offering actors backend deals, and even creating the TV movie back when every other studio was sure such a thing would never make any money.

The sheer number of interviewees involved in the film allows a real cross-section of opinion, which adds both to the mystery and the reality of the exercise. Jack Valenti, for example, talks openly of how Wasserman and Lyndon B. Johnson joined forces to help secure the power bases of both camps after Wasserman refused an offer to join LBJ’s cabinet because he would have had “less power” in Washington than he enjoyed in Hollywood. Valenti also makes ridiculous excuses for Wasserman’s connection to a Chicago mob lawyer, saying there’s “never been any indictment” of the guy, while others talk of him as a gangster and mafia boss like there’s never been any doubt about the fact. Valenti does himself no favors by crowing about Wasserman’s ingenuity in creating new revenue streams such as the TV movie, at least not in the shadow of Valenti’s early-80’s testimony to Congress that VCRs, if allowed into American homes, would destroy the film industry. But hey, any time a documentarian can let Valenti put a noose around his own neck, I’m an instant fan.

If you know much about the history of Hollywood, this is incredible stuff, but if you know absolutely nothing about Lew Wasserman or his legacy, I can’t think of a better way to discover his story than through this documentary. Credit where it’s due, Avrich brings a polished style and a corporate level of excellence to the documentary format, a genre long tarnished by cheap and nasty looking projects that may have a message, but allow that message to be presented in an unappealing way. But he adds to that glossy veneer by digging up an amazing array of old footage and big names to tell stories about the man who once ruled all, from ex-President Jimmy Carter to MPAA honcho Jack Valenti, to CNN man-owl Larry King, to Michael Ovitz, Peter Bart, Suzanne Pleshette, Robert Evans, Richard Zanuck and David Brown, George Christie, Alan Ladd Jr, Sidney Pollack, Dominic Dunne and dozens more.

From the opening imagery of early Cleveland to the final images of Wasserman’s funeral, this is an impeccable job in documenting both the dark and light side of one of the most successful, yet secretive, celebrities North America has ever known. It’s almost scary just how closely history seems to be repeating right now in the entertainment world, with fewer companies owning more and more of the business.

The Last Mogul is a documentary biography that does everything well, leaves out a lot of rumor and innuendo, and serves as both a fitting tribute to a great man of the arts, and a damning portrait of a mob executive who didn’t know how to do anything but gather more power. Wasserman’s family might not have wanted anything to do with this film, but they might have been well served to drop their guard and have their own say… Barry Avrich hasn’t pulled punches in his tribute to Lew, but he shows more than enough respect and puts the Wasserman legacy exactly where it should be – in the forefront of our minds.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=11487&reviewer=1
originally posted: 03/13/05 07:58:43
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2005 Palm Springs Film Festival. For more in the 2005 Palm Springs Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2005 SXSW Film Festival. For more in the 2005 South By Southwest Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2005 Seattle Film Festival For more in the 2005 Seattle Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

3/14/05 pooper Really solid movie-making. 4 stars
1/26/05 chase cooper saw this in palm springs - it is an uber bio on great era and a great power in the biz 5 stars
IF YOU'VE SEEN THIS FILM, RATE IT!
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USA
  24-Jun-2005 (PG-13)
  DVD: 08-Aug-2006

UK
  N/A

Australia
  N/A


Directed by
  Barry Avrich

Written by
  Barry Avrich

Cast
  Lew Wasserman
  Robert Evans
  Larry King
  Michael Ovitz
  Sydney Pollack
  Frank Price



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