The Last Mogul (subtitled The Life and Times of Lew Wasserman on the posters but not in the movie) is an extremely good, impressively uncompromising portrait of the iconic powerhouse agent-turned-longtime head of MCA/Universal. Though a familiar presence in Hollywood for half a century - those famously oversized eyeglasses, gaunt frame, toothy grin, and a head shaped like an inverted triangle - he remains practically unknown outside the entertainment industry and political circles. But to say Lew Wasserman was the most significant force in postwar Hollywood would not be an overstatement.
"If Hollywood were Olympus," concurs Jack Valenti, longtime president of the MPAA, "then Wasserman was Zeus." He's not far off. Probably more than any single individual, Wasserman dramatically changed the way movies were packaged and produced, had a profound impact on American television and, to a lesser extent, the recording industry, and nurtured careers as diverse and far-reaching as Ronald Reagan and Steven Speilberg.
The film about The Last Mogul is shrewdly made in just about every respect. Eschewing obvious star "names" for on-camera interviews, writer-director Barry Avrich has assembled an almost ingenious mix of uniformly articulate former studio executives, trade journalists, essayists, and family friends, including Peter Bart, Dominick Dunne, William Link, Alan Ladd, Jr., Sydney Pollack, David Carr, Jack Valenti, and, a surprising presence, actress Suzanne Pleshette, who turns out to have been extremely close to the Wassermans for many years. Even producer Richard Zanuck, who has come off badly in other documentaries, and Larry King, the famous but often annoyingly gushing talk show host, come off extraordinarily well.
Though the film's chronology sometimes feels out of whack, mostly it does a good job breezing through the history of Wasserman's life: from his childhood as the son of poor Russian immigrants to his tutelage under the Music Corporation of America's (MCA's) Jules Stein, through his incredibly lucrative, precedent-setting Winchester '73 deal with Universal-International which enabled client James Stewart a percentage of the gross in lieu of the actor's normal fee. It traces the development of Revue Studios/Universal TV, MCA's (and later Universal's) prolific TV production arm, and the transformation of Universal City into a major tourist attraction.
Through it all, The Last Mogul doesn't shy away from the darker aspects of Wasserman's power broking (oh, if this documentary had been produced by Universal's home video division!). Having worked in speakeasies as a teenager and a band booker into clubs owned by Al Capone and others, Wasserman held lifelong connections to organized crime, and the film fascinatingly recounts the mogul's continually successful efforts to ward off federal investigations by carefully nurturing a direct line to the White House. Indeed, without Wasserman Ronald Reagan the politician might never have existed, television might have been the exclusive domain of the networks and sponsors, and the cushily self-regulating MPAA might never have seen the light of day.
Avrich doesn't take sides, allowing his interviewees' Wasserman stories - some reverently complimentary, others petulant and nasty - to paint an intimate mosaic of the man that's both harshly critical and curiously attractive. Wasserman's story is the story of Hollywood for half a century, from the 1940s through the 1990s, yet the extremely complex machinations of all that wheeling-and-dealing probably scared away other filmmakers from trying to make sense of it all. But Avrich's script and good use of public domain footage, archival news clips, stills, and interviews keeps everything coherent at all times.
But, most importantly, by the end one really gets a handle on this enigmatic figure who never wrote an autobiography, steadfastly refused to be interviewed and, perhaps terrified about leaving a paper trail, never kept so much as a pencil on his desk, let alone paperwork that might someday come back to haunt him.
Because the interview subjects are so articulate, the film is full of choice remarks. For instance, David Brown: "I think the only orgasm Lew Wasserman ever had was at the opening of Jaws." And, as Peter Bart crudely but accurately sums it up, Wasserman was a man who "had Hollywood by the scrotum."
Video & Audio
The Last Mogul is presented in a disappointing 4:3 letterboxed transfer that's roughly 1.85:1 but stupidly not 16:9 enhanced. Otherwise, the image is okay, and the noirish soundtrack and other sound recording is up to contemporary standards. There are no subtitle options, and the only Extra Feature is a meager Photo Gallery.
For anyone with a serious interest in Hollywood history, or for that matter postwar American history, The Last Mogul is an absolute must, an excellent documentary about one of Hollywood's most famous yet most shadowy figures.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf - The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune and Taschen's forthcoming Cinema Nippon. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.