EXCLUSIVE: Morgan Spurlock’s Warrior Poets has acquired rights to Brian Kellow’s bestselling biography Can I Go Now: The Life of Sue Mengers, Hollywood’s Superagent. Spurlock will direct a feature on Mengers, writing a script and producing with Warrior Poets COO Jeremy Chilnick, with Richard Arlook also producing.
In her heyday, Mengers crashed the boys club that was Hollywood agenting, brandishing an outsized personality to go with her client list. In stints at MCA, ICM and WMA, she repped a list of clients that at one time or other included Barbra Streisand, Candice Bergen, Peter Bogdanovich, Michael Caine, Dyan Cannon, Cher, Joan Collins, Brian De Palma, Faye Dunaway, Bob Fosse, Gene Hackman, Sidney Lumet, Ali McGraw, Steve McQueen, Mike Nichols, Nick Nolte, Tatum O’Neal, Ryan O’Neal, Anthony Perkins, Burt Reynolds, Cybill Shepherd, Gore Vidal, Richard Benjamin, Paula Prentiss, and Tuesday Weld. She died at age 81 in 2011, and her life was previously turned into a stage play by John Logan, with Bette Midler playing the feisty dealmaker.
Best known for irreverent documentaries like Super Size Me, Spurlock said he found in Mengers all the ingredients for an unforgettable lead character, even if, in life, Mengers was the propulsion behind the star clients who held center stage.
“I’m a fan of big personalities, great characters, and she is both,” he said. “More than that, I love people who buck the trend and do things that haven’t been done before and go into spaces unheard of, whether it be of gender or race. Sue Mengers took over the boys club of Hollywood and did something groundbreaking. She proved not only that she could be part of this world; she dominated it in a way that hadn’t been done before, especially by someone so brash and outspoken and as charismatic as she was. She was almost like a breath of fresh air in Hollywood at the time, the one person who would tell you the truth, whether you liked it or not, it got her a lot of really loyal clients and carried her through the high points of her career.”
Mengers’ style, and client loyalty, was tested in a new era of dealmaking ushered in by the likes of Mike Ovitz. While she set high water salary marks for Streisand and others, Mengers didn’t became an expert in things like gross deals and minute contractual details. It left her vulnerable. “There was a great quote, in Vanity Fair, when her clients started leaving her in the late 70s, early 80s as the business started to shift. The line was, ‘Sue Mengers created a family, and Ovitz built an empire.’ There was a shift where this really became a business, and the world of Mike Ovitz was a lot different from the one Sue Mengers had built. These friendships became outweighed by business partnerships. People started to leave for someone who might not be their best friend, but was going to be the best choice for their business.”
There is an element of sadness as Mengers’ career declined, because her whole life revolved around throwing herself so hard into being an all encompassing influence in the lives of clients that left her. Spurlock said there’s a cautionary tale in there. “She was very alone at the end of her life,” he said. “She had built incredible business friendships but lacked a lot of personal friendships beyond that. One of the things I value is my friends and family and I don’t want to be solely defined by the stories I tell and the movies I make. We want to make our mark, to feel we are doing something important. But in the end, we want to be loved and cherished for who we are. That comes from family.”
If there is indelible mark that Mengers really left in her era, it was the way she helped a generation of important actresses to no longer be regarded as disposable. “She championed young actresses in a way that was new and really influential,” Spurlock said. “You look at who she brought in. Apart from Barbra Streisand, this mega star, there was Ali McGraw, Dyan Cannon, Faye Dunaway, Candice Bergen, Cybill Shepherd. She brought in and helped these young actresses and gave them something they didn’t have before, a female voice who understood where they were coming from and the way they were seen by the business.”
Spurlock hopes to have a script by the fall and then will put the movie together quickly. One of the opportunities will be not only in finding an actress to play Mengers, but also clients from Streisand, McGraw, Cannon and Dunaway to Bergen. CAA reps Spurlock and ICM Partners and Donadio & Olson’s Edward Hibbert brokered the deal for Kellow.
The one article I always felt best captured Mengers was the obituary that Nikki Finke wrote on Deadline. Here’s the link to a piece well worth reading if you really want to get a sense of a star agent and the way business was done in Hollywood when she flourished.