I'll Eat You Last (2014)

From the Reading Room | The art of the deal

‘Actors get hot, you see? And I know what heat is. It’s a killer instinct, to know that. Jeff Berg has it, Ovitz has it, Ron Meyer has it. Only a handful. It’s knowing the right price. And the right price is never an unfair price.’

Sue Mengers

Self-consciousness was one of the keys to her charm. Sue Mengers knew she was an anomaly and she traded off it. She would frequently marvel out loud how a plump, little Jewish princess – this blonde – became a serious powerbroker among Hollywood’s community of manly, ball-breaking wheelers and dealers. Throughout the seventies and into the eighties she was the film industry’s top agent. Her clients were the crème de la A-list: Barbra Streisand, Faye Dunaway, Gene Hackman, Michael Caine, Jon Voight, Ali MacGraw, Cybill Shepherd, Ryan O’Neal, Rod Steiger, Nick Nolte – to start with actors. She also represented the top directors: Sidney Lumet, Peter Bogdanovich, Brian De Palma, Jonathan Demme, and Arthur Penn. For a time, you couldn’t make a movie in Hollywood without dealing with Mengers, and Mengers dealt hard. ‘In the beginning [the other agents] were very kind to me,’ she told the LA Times in 1987. ‘I was this amusing, aggressive blonde. As I played for higher stakes, I think I became less amusing and a little more threatening.’

In the seventies, Hollywood agents were men in suits who did a lot of face-to-face meetings, exchanged cards, shook hands and cut deals. It was a serious, civilised business. Mengers never wore a suit or even a jacket; in fact, she was partial to kaftans and clothes with plenty of drape to cover her zaftig figure. Most of her business was done on the phone, often from her bed at home or snuggled in the armchair in her office at Creative Management Associates. Her phone manner was pushy-friendly: she joked, she wheedled, she kvetched, she flirted, occasionally she nagged. She spritzed the showbiz jargon with a vivid dockside vocabulary. She was best friend and confidante to her clients; a garrulous and incessant buzz in the ear of producers. She never let up.

In a 60 Minutes profile from 1975, you can see her in full flight (minus the foul mouth; it was a family show). She looks to be having a good time. She was. ‘I thought being an agent was better than being President of the United States,’ she told the New Yorker many years later. ‘I couldn’t imagine more to life than getting a part for Nick Nolte … I was good at it because I loved it so much.’ And she was funny. She could step outside herself and look at the business she was in and reduce all its overblown importance and insularity with a single quip. ‘Don’t worry, honey’ she famously told Streisand at the time of the Charles Manson murders, ‘They’re not killing stars, just featured players.’ The sharp tongue, however, was double-edged, and frequently used to cut people down. She made as many enemies as friends.

This is an excerpt from the I’ll Eat You Last programme. Programmes are available during the production’s season, 31 October to 20 December, at Arts Centre Melbourne, Fairfax Studio.

Published on 28 November 2014