Perhaps the greatest tribute to the way Lew Wasserman conducted his affairs is that few who read this will recognize his name. And yet the man had a greater effect on the movies we watch than anybody since the days of Louis B. Mayer. As an agent, then CEO of MCA/Universal, Wasserman changed the way Hollywood does business, not once but several times. He pioneered the use of profit participation for actors, which helped end the studio system. Then he pioneered the use of creative accounting by which the actors never saw any profits, regardless of how well the movie did at the box office. He more or less invented the TV Movie of the Week. He revived the studio tour, turned it into a theme park. He presided over the birth of the summer blockbuster. He kept Ronald Reagan in spending money even after the U.S. government took over the responsibility. And he did all this with the kind of discretion that The Godfather's Don Corleone would ever so subtly have tipped his hat to.
Now, three years after his death at 89, Wasserman is finally the star of the show, adored and deplored by the cast of characters that Barry Avrich has assembled for his even-handed documentary, The Last Mogul. After a stylish title sequence that seems like it's from another movie entirely, Avrich starts filling in the background ' a kid from the streets of Cleveland with a head for numbers and a willingness to do whatever it takes to get to the top. Wasserman made sure he never wrote anything down, so exactly what that might have involved may never be entirely known. He did have a career-long friendship with Sidney Korshak, the Mob's Mr. Fix-It in Hollywood, but whatever offer either of these gentlemen made that the other couldn't refuse, they appear to have been genuine friends. And as someone points out, Korshak was never indicted for anything. Nor was Wasserman, by the way, although it must have taken incredible skill to ward off all those Justice Department investigations.
The trials and tribulations of a Hollywood mogul don't amount to a hill of beans in this world ' not to the average moviegoer, anyway. And Avrich could maybe have done a better job of showing us why we should care about Wasserman on a personal level, not that Wasserman helps much. He certainly isn't as entertaining as producer Robert Evans was in that warm tongue-bath of blatant self-regard, The Kid Stays in the Picture. And although we hear about his legendary temper ' those on the receiving end would cry, faint, even throw up ' we never get to see it in action. Instead, we're presented with an extended piece of business reporting, which feels like something out of Fortune magazine. Nothing wrong with that, if it's what you're interested in. But Wasserman the man, not to mention Wasserman the businessman, remains an enigma wrapped in a spreadsheet. He knew where all the bodies were buried, because he buried them. But he took the juiciest parts with him to his own grave.