The Last Mogul

on June 24, 2005 by Wade Major
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Penetrating biography is something film rarely does well -- time constraints and the need for some form of narrative structure generally result in oversimplified portraiture: villains, heroes and precious little in-between. Barry Avrich's "The Last Mogul" is that most invigorating exception to the rule, a remarkable 103-minute distillation of the larger-than-life executive widely credited with reinventing the film and television business from the ground up: superagent-turned-supermogul Lew Wasserman.

The son of Russian-Jewish immigrants, Wasserman's ascent from the tough streets of Cleveland to the so-called Black Tower office building in Universal City that now bears his name is, itself, the stuff of movies. More often than not, "The Godfather" comes to mind as Avrich maps out Wasserman's dalliances with politicians and mobsters, underscoring his remarkable facility for using them both to his advantage. Astonishingly, the low-key Wasserman, who died in 2002 at age 89, had a personal preference for the shadows, leaving others to soak up the limelight generated by his ferocious drive.

The film's enumeration of his accomplishments and contributions is, indeed, daunting. Famed primarily for building up the monolithic power of agency MCA (Music Corporation of America) and orchestrating its historic merger with Universal Studios, Wasserman was also key to the development of many smaller, but no less influential innovations. It was Wasserman who first negotiated back-end "points" for actors, who first conceived the made-for-television movie, who pioneered the concept of "packaging" an agency's various clients, to name only a few.

But Wasserman doesn't always come off like a gifted maverick. As often as not, he's just downright lucky, in the right place at the right time and surrounded by smart enough associates to mitigate his glaring weaknesses. Though it was under Wasserman's aegis that "Jaws" launched both the era of the summer blockbuster and the career of Steven Spielberg, Wasserman himself had to be convinced that hiring Spielberg was the right move. Nor could Wasserman possibly have known that his one-time client, Ronald Reagan, would someday ascend to the highest office in the land, giving him unprecedented access and leverage to build his seemingly unstoppable empire.

That Wasserman still casts a long shadow, even in death, is evidenced as much by the subjects who agreed to be interviewed as by those who didn't. The likes of Michael Ovitz, former MPAA head Jack Valenti and even former president Jimmy Carter all appear. Spielberg and former Universal Pictures chief Sidney Sheinberg, one of Wasserman's closest protégés, do not. Directed and written by Barry Avrich. Produced by Nat Brescia and Tori Hockin. A ThinkFilm release. Documentary. Unrated. Running time: 103 min.

Tags: Directed, written by Barry Avrich, Produced by Nat Brescia, Tori Hockin, ThinkFilm, Documentary
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