Theater News Online
I’LL EAT YOU LAST: A CHAT WITH SUE MENGERS
at the Booth
NO MINCED WORDS
By BILL STEVENSON
May 10, 2013
One would never guess that Bette Midler hasn’t been on a Broadway stage since she was in the chorus of Fiddler on the Roof four decades ago. That was before she got noticed singing at the notorious Continental Baths, with Barry Manilow on the piano. In I’ll Eat You Last, she seems utterly at home in Scott Pask‘s gorgeous set, which looks exactly like the kind of chic modern living room that superagent Sue Mengers would have had “in the Hills of Beverly.” Lighting a joint in one hand while puffing on a cigarette in the other, and barking out four-letter words faster than the cast of The Book of Mormon, the divine Midler holds court as Mengers and holds our attention without even getting off the overstuffed couch.
John Logan wrote the diverting and dishy solo show, which feels rather slight at 80 minutes and ends too abruptly (with Mengers finally up off the couch). As a play it’s not in the same league as Logan’s two-hander Red, about artist Mark Rothko. But it is an undeniably enjoyable portrait of the foul-mouthed, brash Mengers, who truly loved movies and movie stars (or “twinklies,” as she calls them). Her story is worth telling.
Her family left Germany as the Nazis gained power and moved to Utica, New York. After her father committed suicide, they moved to the Bronx. Mengers got a job as a secretary at the William Morris Agency and worked her way up, signing Julie Harris as her first client. Her next big client was Barbra Streisand, whom she discovered at a downtown cabaret. At her peak in the 1970s her client list included Streisand, Gene Hackman, Faye Dunaway, Mike Nichols, Michael Caine, Bob Fosse, Burt Reynolds, Sidney Lumet, Ryan O’Neal, Peter Bogdanovich and many others top talents. Through her force of will and unwillingness to take no for an answer, she because the most powerful agent in Hollywood.
The highlights of the play are the juicy anecdotes. One of the best involves her visit to Sissy Spacek’s farm in Virginia, when Mengers was trying to woo the actress from a rival agency. “I tip-toe over to meet Dame Spacek, who’s all dressed in early Waltons,” she says. “Then she proceeds to give me a tour of the ‘farm,’ which only results in mud up to my twat.” No, Mengers was not one to mince words.
Her stories about putting deals together are a crash course in how Hollywood works. For instance, William Friedkin considered practically every actor in Hollywood before he finally gave in to Mengers and cast Hackman. A year later both men won Oscars. After that, Hackman owed Mengers. Unfortunately, she convinced him to make the flop Up All Night, directed by her Belgian husband, Jean-Claude Tramont. Even worse, Mengers convinced Streisand to costar. As Mengers admits, it wasn’t the best advice she ever gave La Streisand. On the day the play takes place, in 1981, Streisand has fired Mengers via her lawyers and Mengers is awaiting her call.
It’s apt that I’ll Eat You Last contains so much gossip about 1970s Hollywood, because Mengers loved to dish the dirt at her parties filled with A-list stars. According to Logan, Mengers thought Steve McQueen was “a total fake.” Besides calling him abusive and alcoholic, Mengers resented him because he married her client and friend Ali MacGraw and convinced her to stop acting. “He couldn’t stand her star wattage, so he pushed her into the shadows,” she says.
Besides McQueen, Mengers’ harshest words are for the man who would steal many of her clients: Mike Ovitz of CAA. Mengers says he was a glorified accountant who didn’t love movies the way she did. “Oh, did I say Stalin? I meant Mike Ovitz.” Mengers’ career went downhill in the 80s, though she continued throwing glamorous parties. She died in 2011.
Needless to say, Midler’s legions of fans will love her pretty much no matter what she does. The good news is that Midler proves that she can still be convincing as someone other than herself. With director Joe Mantello she does a great job of bringing Mengers back to life. It’s an excellent role for her, and she definitely rises to the challenge. Connoisseurs of 1970s Hollywood will also eat up I’ll Eat You Last. “We used to have fun,” Mengers would say, remembering the old days before the numbers crunchers took over. Thanks to Midler, the superagent is having fun once again, this time on Broadway.