A Hollywood striver in the 1970s would have learned oodles from Sue Mengers â€” how to woo a client, sass a studio exec, host a dinner party, smoke a joint. And, had she pulled up a seat in Mengers’ Beverly Hills living room one particularly gloomy day in the agent’s career in 1981, she would have learned how it feels when the town’s warm winds suddenly blow cold.
That’s the point when we meet Mengers in “I’ll Eat You Last,” a one-woman show opening Wednesday on Broadway. The eagerly anticipated production stars Bette Midler as Mengers, the onetime rep for stars such as Barbra Streisand, Candice Bergen, Michael Caine, Faye Dunaway, Gene Hackman, Ali MacGraw, Burt Reynolds and Nick Nolte. Mengers, who died in 2011, was known as much for her own wickedly witty persona â€” a kind of bulldozer in a caftan â€” as she was for her stable of “twinklies,” as she called her clients.
The play, written by “Skyfall” and “Hugo” screenwriter John Logan and directed by Joe Mantello (“Assassins,” “Take Me Out”), takes place over an afternoon in Mengers’ home, against the backdrop of a pivotal era in Hollywood when “the business” was becoming big business. It’s funny and profane â€” and something of a cautionary tale.
“In Sue’s era, Hollywood was a very social business fueled by dinner parties, by openings, by cocaine,” Logan said in an interview at his SoHo loft last week, while the play was in previews at the Booth Theater. “The people making the landmark movies of that period knew each other and interacted on a certain level. Nowadays you go in for an early studio meeting and there are publicists and financiers in the room.
“As the corporate identity of Hollywood has changed, Sue’s very personal, very pungent, very aggressive brand of interaction with artists and studios has ceased.”
Logan met Mengers at a dinner party at producer Richard D. Zanuck’s house in 2008, decades after she had reached the height of her power in Hollywood. But he found her captivating, as she held a cigarette in one hand, a joint in the other and declared to him, “Honey, we used to have fun.”
“She was an astoundingly complicated woman,” Logan said. “On one hand, she was expert at playing the part of Sue Mengers: the glasses, the hair, the cigarette, the joint, the rough language, the diamond-edge timing, just killingly acidic. But the thing that really fascinated me was a sort of vulnerability, a poignance, because this was a woman who was a queen, and she had a reign in Hollywood, and that reign was over â€” partly due to herself and partly due to the way old Hollywood became new Hollywood.”
Mengers, born to Jewish parents in Hamburg, Germany, in 1932, migrated to Utica, N.Y., as a young child. After her father, a traveling salesman, committed suicide when she was 11, she and her mother moved to New York City, where Mengers would eventually take a job as a receptionist at MCA, at the time the dominant talent agency. She would go on to work for several other agencies, including William Morris, rising on her brains and chutzpah.
FULL COVERAGE: 2013 Spring arts preview
Mengers made her biggest splash at Creative Management Associates, a boutique agency that was a precursor to International Creative Management (ICM). She became a key player in Hollywood’s new golden age, pushing forward the careers of directors such as Peter Bogdanovich and Sidney Lumet, and insisting on the then unlikely casting of Hackman as a leading man in “The French Connection.”
“Sue Mengers was the first agent to have outsized influence beyond the narrow confines of the agenting business,” said Frank Rose, author of “The Agency: William Morris and the Hidden History of Show Business.” “She was one of the people who defined Hollywood.”
Years after meeting Mengers, Logan mentioned the idea of a play about her to Vanity Fair Editor Graydon Carter, who knew Mengers well, and Carter began making introductions to her other friends and former clients. (Carter is a producer of the play.)
Their stories â€” Mengers’ discovery of Streisand singing in a dingy gay club in Greenwich Village, the agent’s rough and hilarious negotiation with Paramount production chief Bob Evans over casting Dunaway in “Chinatown,” a bittersweet visit with a connubially blissful MacGraw, who was in the midst of leaving show business for Steve McQueen â€” provide the key beats in the show. Logan’s script is not pure transcription, however â€” many of the tart one-liners Midler delivers are his.
Logan and Mantello launched a Mengers-style charm offensive on Midler to convince her to play the part, which is essentially an 85-minute soliloquy. It would mark Midler’s return to Broadway after more than 30 years.
“I knew that whoever played the part would have to be a proper stage animal,” Logan said. “In a one-person show, the personal charisma has to be magnetic to seduce the audience. â€¦ Bette understands what it is to create a persona, to have to live up to it and how exhausting that can be. Finally, she knows how to land a laugh.”
In the play, as Midler’s Mengers is lounging beside her phone waiting for a very important call, dispensing wisdom while the sun slowly sets outside the window behind her, a dark cloud is gathering over Hollywood â€” CAA.
“For you civilians out there, CAA is Creative Artists Agency,” Midler-as-Mengers tells the audience. “The fastest rising of the so-called new wave agencies, the shape of things to come we are all breathlessly promised. They’ve built the agency on a puritanical screed of complete dedication: an Armani-clad samurai culture of monkish sublimation of the individual to the corporate entity, to quote their mentor, Stalin … Oh, did I say Stalin? I meant Mike Ovitz.”
CAA was founded by Ovitz and other William Morris agents in 1975. In the play, Mengers, whose currency was the human touch, seems bewildered by Ovitz’s talk of back-end points and merchandising deals but confesses she loses about a client a month to the new agency.
Logan’s script contains several biting references to CAA, and the agency is a key part of the show in other ways that reflect its power in the post-Mengers era â€” CAA represents not only Logan but also Midler, Mantello and Carter. Brad Silberman has been Logan’s agent since he was a little-known playwright â€” now Logan has won a Tony Award (for “Red,” in 2010) and received three Oscar nominations (for “Gladiator,” “The Aviator” and “Hugo”).
“In good client-agent relationships, everyone feels that to a certain extent that someone has your back,” Logan said. “They’re not afraid to give you the bad news, they share the good news with you and they ride out the inevitable peaks and valleys with you. That’s the key thing, and some of the reason why clients left Sue. … Directors felt that once they had a couple unsuccessful movies, she didn’t have their back anymore. But that’s not been my experience.”
Currently booked through June 30, “I’ll Eat You Last” has seen brisk advance ticket sales.
An insider at CAA declined to comment on the record about “I’ll Eat You Last” but said the agency saw the show as all in good fun.
After all, 1981 is a very long time ago â€” an eternity in Hollywood years.
“It’s never going to go back to that combination of friendship and business,” Rose said. “Agents and clients have relationships, but it’s not about schmoozing anymore. … Tent poles, the international market, the blockbuster mentality. … There’s a way in which the Hollywood of the ’70s was a small town, and it’s just not that way anymore.”