Bette Midler and Sue Mengers. Two iconic Hollywood female personalities of the last fifty years. Midler scored with her first movie The Rose in 1979, after many successful years in New York, on and off-Broadway. She was and has remained an iconic performer for the Gay community, and with strong choices, hard work and perseverance has become a super star in every medium she has played from New York to LA to Las Vegas. Super agent Mengers came to Los Angeles from New York with a German background and from a poor family and worked her way to the top as one of the strongest, gutsiest, hard-working and caring agents Hollywood has ever seen. So, the two ladies have a lot in common; Midler certainly fits the bill to play Sue Mengers in John Logan’s one-person play I’ll Eat You Last: A Chat with Sue Mengers, now at the Geffen through December 22 only.
Alone on a big comfy sofa in her Beverly Hills manse circa 1981, Mengers has just been fired by Barbra Streisand, when the play opens. Well, Steisand’s lawyers have let her go; she is anxiously, impatiently awaiting a call from Barbra, who, at Mengers insistence, had starred in the box office flop All Night Long for Universal. Steisand and Mengers could both count their losses as a result of that bad decision. At one point, she picks up the phone and screams. “Call me, you cunt!” Mengers did not mince words. There is much profanity, smoking, including pot, and drinking in the 90-minute piece, as we are properly warned up front. Mengers’ first line to the audience is “I am not getting up.” Formidable, irascible yet very funny she pulls us in and holds us captive, as she describes what a good agent is supposed to do with her client; “Sign and hold.” As well as a super agent, Mengers was the Pearl Mesta of Hollywood giving the grandest parties to which every big name in town was invited. She did not invite featured players and abhorred children.
If Mengers sounds like a monster, in some ways she was, but on the plus side, she got down and dirty, fighting tooth and nail with the big boys in the suits and really went to bat for her clients. If she liked you, you just might turn up a winner. She took pride in struggling, going that extra mile to get Gene Hackman the role of Popeye Doyle in his Oscar-winning The French Connection, or Faye Dunaway her role in Chinatown opposite Jack Nicholson, when the studio preferred Jane Fonda. Mengers enjoyed playing the game. She even went as far as visiting Sissy Spacek at her farm in Virginia to steal her away from another agency. It was normal for agents to steal clients, and so the title I’ll Eat You Last, apropo for the back-stabbing biz of Hollywood, which Mengers absolutely adored. She loved only show biz folks around her and loved to laugh. There are a few sad stories, like trying to get Julie Harris, an actress she admired, the role of Mary Todd. Hollywood considered Harris too old and not pretty enough. There’s also the story about Ali MacGraw and how she jeopardized her career by marrying Steve McQueen, whom Mengers hated, calling him weak, a fake. She desperately wanted to get MacGraw to wake up, leave McQueen and do a film, but when she saw how utterly happy she was as wife and mother, she, as a true friend, could only walk away, wishing her happiness.
We learn all of this through Midler’s storytelling and director Joe Mantello has wisely left her pretty much to her own devices. Her nonstop monologue is interrupted twice when she has a young man come up onstage to fetch her cigarettes and a flask. She insists he take his shoes and socks off before touching foot on her carpet, and then quickly tells him to get the hell out. Midler, it seems, was born to play this role. Mengers dishes, gossips about these celebrities and Hollywoodland, and who funnier than Midler? At one moment she has us in stitches, and the next we almost feel empathy for the old broad, whose clients are leaving her one by one. We see her demise coming. Midler’s ecstatically brings her whole persona to the work as she joyfully inhabits Sue Mengers. Snubbed at the Tonys last year? Indeed! Based on what I saw opening night, this is one of Midler’s triumphs. The script does get a little tedious after an hour, as there is little movement. She only shifts her body from cheek to cheek on the sofa, but with Midler’s deviously fun chatter, we feel like we are guests in her parlor, and we accept the treatment she gives us, as she staggers toward the stairs. “I have to get ready for the party. I’d invite you, but (with disgust) … just look at you!” Delicious!