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17 of 19 people found the following review helpful
on July 25, 2003
Cinema fans of a certain age will no doubt recall the grand films of the 1940s and 1950s with a wry thought of "They don't make them like that anymore." The current boffo box office consists of pyrotechnical sequels starring beefcake (and cheesecake) performers, not matinee idols like Peck, Hepburn, Bogart and Lancaster.
But in the old days . . .
Connie Bruck, a veteran writer for The New Yorker, has compiled this fulsome biography of Lew Wasserman, one of the most powerful movers and shakers of an era when movies were virtually the only form of popular entertainment. The power wielded by Wasserman and his contemporaries could mean the difference between professional (and sometimes personal) life and death. (Bruck often discusses the Hollywood "gang" in terms of organized crime. Indeed, there was a great deal of dubious dealings with labor unions, often considered under the concern of the gangster trade.)
Wasserman was the type of leader who drew a mixture of respect and fear. He was "an entertainment mogul without peer," according to one admirer. To another, "he had an aura. He was my god." And like many such men, "his explosive tirades were legend."
Most of the book concerns the wheelings and dealings of the industry. For such a potentially juicy subject, Bruck dishes very little dirt/gossip. Instead she seems more concerned with the financial aspects, which readers will either find fascinating or tedious. There is often too much background that detracts from the overall sense of entertainment a book like this would seem to merit. In fact, Wasserman isn't even mentioned until well into the first chapter. Even the title is a bit hard to get through.
Another concern is that the author can't quite decide the direction of her book. The depth of research indicates a scholarly tome, but the voice seems more "popular" in nature.
Taken as a whole, however, Bruck offers a respectful look at Wasserman and a homage to the system when, to paraphrase a popular expression of today's younger crowd, "Hollywood ruled."
--- Reviewed by Ron Kaplan
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on August 6, 2003
When Hollywood was King and MCA ruled through aggressive, imaginative, creative, dirty, underhanded, political ways. This is not my favorite Hollywood book as I found "Showman, the life of David O. Selznick" by David Thomson and Peter Biskind's "easy Riders, Raging Bulls" far more entertaining. But Connie Bruck's book is more epic, covering as it does the business careers of Jules Stein and Lew Wassermann from the 1920s into the 21st Century in addition to telling the history of their company MCA and the industry they "ruled". Note I reference business careers because these individuals did not seem to have a personal life that did not revolve around business. There is not much surprising celebrity scandal that unfolds, except some strong hints that Ronald Reagan was a charming empty suit who received many sweetheart deals from the industry and he gave back in return. In some ways the Wasserman life story told here is one of the rise and fall, the young mans glory being used by younger students against him. And even though MCA associated with the mob and the mob with them Wasserman gave heavily to his industry and charity. A book for anyone interested in the history of Hollywood as a business in the 20th century.
An epic work that I highly recommend.
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21 of 25 people found the following review helpful
Long ago, I recall someone suggesting that diplomacy is "letting others have it your way." (I forget who said it.) As I read Bruck's holograph (it's more than a portrait) of Lew Wasserman, I was reminded of that observation. According to her account, Wasserman had a special talent for achieving his objectives while preserving cordial relationships with a wide and diverse range of potential antagonists. For example, with the heads of various studios with whom he aggressively negotiated on behalf of MCA's clients; with James Hoffa from whose union Wasserman hired 15,000 members; and with other talent agents after MCA became a major producer of films and television programs. As I completed reading this book, I felt gratitude for the brilliant presentation of the material about Wasserman but I was also favorably impressed by Bruck's demonstration of skills which we normally associate with a cultural anthropologist. As we all know, "Hollywood" is far less significant (if significant at all) as a place than it is as a state-of-mind. Bruck appropriately establishes Wasserman as the gravitational center of her book but she also probes deeply into basic sources of power and influence within the evolving culture of the entertainment industry, sources which remain long after Wasserman was no longer actively involved. For me, the entertainment value of Bruck's book is derived much less from the glitz and glamor of stardom of "Tinseltown" than it does from her examination of all manner of business issues, relationships, and conflicts. It is impossible to understand who Wasserman was and to appreciate what he achieved without correlating his personality and career with the history, economics, art, politics, and psychology of the empire over which he reigned for so many years. Bruck makes such correlations with consummate precision while preserving, throughout her examination of Wasserman ("a shark you almost had to admire as he circled you") the nuances of his multi-dimensional humanity.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on July 22, 2003
When Lew Wasserman was growing up in his native Cleveland the Horatio Alger books were popular. They traced the rise of often penniless young men to the high pinnacles of economic and social power. I do not know if Wasserman read any of these stories in his boyhood, but he certainly ended up living them.
Beginning as a theater usher and later becoming a musician, Wasserman hooked up with Jules Styne and began booking musical acts. The dynamic duo recognized that the swing era of bands, which was their bailiwick, would have a limited life span. The Music Corporation of America then expanded into the world of motion pictures, retaining the name of an organization that sounds like and began as a company rooted in the movie field. One of Wasserman's clients in the late thirties was a young actor under contract to Warner Brothers by the name of Ronald Reagan. He would later be in a major position to assist Wasserman and MCA both as president of the Screen Actors Guild and beyond that as U.S. President. Reagan would always remain a bit miffed, however, that Wasserman, who developed solid relationships with presidents Lyndon Johnson and Bill Clinton, would retain his reputation as a loyal Democrat and hence supported Reagan's opponents. The firm was crafty, however, in keeping a foot in each camp, with Jules Styne and Taft Schreiber supporting Republicans assiduously. This factor helped when Reagan and Richard Nixon were in office.
Connie Bruck has provided an impressive body of research, including numerous interviews with the late Wasserman as well as those who worked with him and knew him well. Her industry pays off in the form of a fascinating study of a man who rose meteorically through the agent's ranks to become the supreme giant of the motion picture industry, the man others feared and envied, often at the same time.
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8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on July 2, 2003
This fascinating book is not only a look at Lew Wasserman and the MCA Hollywood empire he created, but a stunning and incisively written piece of business history -- indeed, a look at U.S. commerce, politics, and entertainment in the modern era. Bruck has the great ability to write about complex business issues and deals in a lucid and readable way. This is a must-read book for those interested in business stories, in modern American politics (Johnson, Nixon, and Reagan play key roles in the book), in Hollywood history (the break of the studio system, the movie stars, the move into TV). Bruck's canvas is so wide, yet she manages to combine all these various elements in a dramatic and compelling narrative. It's a brilliant book.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on August 2, 2008
Connie Bruck is a masterful biographer, one of the best.
Her books read like political thrillers. She has multiple threads
keeping the plot moving, and each thread reveals important
information about the character. She outwrites most fiction thriller
writers.
"When Hollywood had a king" kept me rivited to my audiobook the entire time.
Basically, Lew Wasserman is a constantly scheming, completely self-centered,
with no interests except business dealings and enlarging his fortune.
Bruck portrays him as a crass, nouveau rich executive. He and his wife
hold parties, and only include those with the right social status.
Yet they themselves come from lower-middle class backgrounds.
Wasserman is ruthless in his dealings with everyone, both other business
executives and his employees. This man is the epitome of the ugly businessman.

Bruck does a spectacular job of showing how the origins of the Talent Agent
business that Wasserman started in had mafia ties. wassermann continued
to use the Mafia practices of intimidation, fear and punishment in all
his business dealings, a true shark suit. If you worked at MCA and quit,
it was viewed as an act of betrayal, and Wassermann would do his best
to impede your career. Bruck shows how Wassermann kept you in your
place, giving you small rewards for doing as he said, and big
punishments for doing what was best for you.

The book shows how JFK & Bobby Kennedy were influenced to make the anti-trust
changes light the year they spun off the MCA talent agency business.
Wassermann chose this division to spin off, then just fired all the
employees who were loyal to him for 20+ years; no pension, no nothing.
That was the kind of guy he was. Do what he wants and you're 'part of the family'. But he doesn't
help you when it doesn't benefit him.

I can't imagine a work of fiction being more engaging than this book.
Plus, when you're done, you have a good understanding of the whole
hollywood business scene, and how project (movies) get done in Hollywood.
Wassermann was a talented business guy, no doubt. But in his brand of
business, other humans have no meaning except how they benefit you.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on January 7, 2009
I had high expectations for this work after reading `Predators' Ball' and `Master of the Game.' I was not disappointed. It's a stunning portrait of a legendary Hollywood mogul and his genius for cultivating unparalleled power and influence. Though nonfiction, it's a narrative worthy of the best fiction.

The saga begins in 1922 with future MCA founder Julius Caesar Stein and union heavyweight James Caesar Petrillo in mob-ruled Chicago. It ends 80 years later with Wasserman's death (slightly past his prime) in Hollywood.

It's a story of timely innovation - in performance bookings, agency representation, studio production, television content agreements, union exclusives, tax loophole exploits, political lobbying, fundraising, influence, and leverage. Ultimately, it's the story of the `entertainment' industry,' complete with celebrities, politicians (from JFK; Nixon's history alone is worth the price of the book), and even Japanese suitors.

Highly recommended.
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on January 26, 2014
Connie Bruck does a great job in this work of showing exactly what type of man Lew Wasserman was. Through anecdotes, stories, and interviews, the author makes a rather mysterious man seem more real. Moreover, she shows how Wasserman came to be so powerful and how he expanded Hollywood's reach into Washington.

Despite this, the book felt uneven and there were numerous instances when the story wandered. Although I was glad to learn more about Jules Stein and the rise of MCA, I really didn't need the endless discussions about labor relations, mergers and business deals, and various individuals hardly central to the main story. At times, there discussions felt like distractions. At 450 or pages, she could have chopped roughly 200 pages and this would have been a fascinating read. As written, it was merely an "OK" one.
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on July 27, 2012
A well written bio of one of the most powerful men in Hollywood and so much more. You'll find a history and progression of Hollywood and all entertainment back to the dance hall band and radio and how Wasserman and Stein came to rule them. But there is much, much more too. Connections with the mafia and Presidents, and more than a few hints about how Reagan's path from the B-list to politics was paved...and at what price.

Highly recommended.
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on August 14, 2010
I worked at Universal Studios during some of the Wasserman years and even so I found this book full of new material and interesting on its own. Well researched. Movies are our cultural legacy and Mr. Wasserman was certainly instumental in bringing that about following the so-called Golden Years of the 30s and 40s. He was one of the last studio moguls and Hollywood would be a different place today without him.
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