As Michael Ovitz reached his breaking point at the all-powerful talent agency C.A.A., which he had run like a warlord since cofounding it in 1975, he did the unthinkable: He insulted a superstar. It was 1995. Barbra Streisand was on the phone, complaining at length about sexism and unequal pay for women in Hollywood, when Ovitz blew a fuse. “Barbra,” he said, “you know my 15-year-old son? All he and his friends think about is girls, but you’re no longer on their list.”
The younger, slicker Ovitz would never have done such a thing. He explains in his back-patting new memoir that he specialized in keeping clients happy by identifying and then fulfilling their wildest dreams. As he says here: “It’s only blarney if you can’t make it happen. If you can, then it’s the truth — and the truth is the supreme sales tool.” A lot has been written about the more noxious qualities that outweighed Ovitz’s gift for flattery. But for a while he was making, he says, 300 calls a day to keep people happy. He would spend typical afternoons on the phone going from “Spielberg to Kubrick to De Niro to Hoffman to Murray, each call as important as the rest.”
Why is this book titled “Who Is Michael Ovitz?”? Some prospective readers will be young enough to pose this as an honest question: Who? They might not have any idea who Ovitz was before the high-profile incineration of his high-powered career more than 20 years ago. He got involved in the even more lucrative business of brokering sales of American movie studios to Japanese corporations (Columbia to Sony, MCA to Matsushita), and he began burning out at C.A.A. He left the agency and endured a brief, humiliating stint at Disney as second in command to Michael Eisner, famed for treating his underlings badly. For the select few still interested in Ovitz’s career, the self-searching title of this memoir promises a glimpse into What Made Mike Run.
But there’s very little self-reflection here. And the little there is seems a bit too neatly packaged. He writes of his life being “a story of three valleys” — the San Fernando Valley (his childhood home), Silicon Valley (where he is busy getting richer) and “a Valley I’d dug for myself.” He opens this book with a scene in which he watches “Terminator 2” and suddenly realizes that he used to be as ruthless, frightening and tough as the Arnold Schwarzenegger character.
“That was the image I took great care to project, anyway,” says the new and improved author. “It was an image I grew to hate.” You hated the cold, brutal, attention-commanding Ovitz? Take a number, sir.
Learning about C.A.A.’s rigid, Ovitz-imposed rules is one of the more interesting aspects of this memoir. Employees have talked about these rules, but they’re more interesting when articulated by the boss. Ovitz adapted the formal dress code enforced by one of his heroes, M.C.A.’s Lew Wasserman: suits, black shoes, white shirts, ties, no casual Fridays. (Wasserman may have been a hero, but when Ovitz was given the chance to deal him a tough business blow, he took it.) He was also influenced by many things Japanese and combative; sorry, no Zen. Ovitz famously had his troops read Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War,” and also insisted that they regularly read at least one newspaper and some magazines so they would have subjects to discuss with clients.
For a man who once knew everybody who was anybody without having to advertise it, Ovitz has now become a shockingly frequent name-dropper. The book’s selection of photos is a trophy wall of very dated shots (some signed) of Ovitz hobnobbing with Hollywood royalty. There are pictures of him adorning magazine covers, and a reprint of a New Yorker cartoon that name-checks him. (“So what if he doesn’t know Ovid,” one glamorous young woman says to another. “He knows Ovitz.”)
The book cites the lists on which he has appeared (Most Fascinating, Most Powerful, Most Intriguing and so on), and even includes blurbs praising C.A.A.’s ad campaign for Coca-Cola. The trouble with all this vanity is that it obscures Ovitz’s real accomplishments. The Coke campaign was a coup; it overturned the advertising model of an army of hacks and substituted a small, Ovitz-led S.W.A.T. team ready to throw conventional ad precepts out the window. Ovitz proved that manpower didn’t matter as much as having the right man. But he can’t tell this story or any of the others in this book without a brag tag. Most of its anecdotes end with lines like: “The movie grossed close to $300 million.”
Ovitz also displays a pettiness that just won’t quit. Despite the occasional psycho-gloss (“Bullied as a child, I spent my life bullying back”), he cannot stop competing with Ron Meyer, who was his longtime C.A.A. partner and close friend, until he was not. Even by Ovitz’s account, Meyer has a long list of legitimate grievances, many having to do with Ovitz’s simple greed. The two supposedly patched things up in 2016. And yet here we have Ovitz saying that two of his clients thanked him at the Oscars, whereas — nya-nya — Cher didn’t thank Ron. And she thanked her hairdresser.
Ovitz is in his 70s, and claims that he’s trying to make peace with his rivals and amends for his terrible reputation. He’s written this book hoping to accomplish that, but the memoir defines him better than he might like. Who is Michael Ovitz? A killer turned would-be sage. A visionary who won’t look inward. A guy who can’t get over who he used to be.
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