Michael Ovitz was ever the master of both confession and concealment — the shared confidence that really wasn’t, or the backdoor whisper that had to be denied. When I was pursuing him, in a reportorial sense, for a 1986 Wall Street Journal profile, for instance, he struck a pose of complete resistance. But he also had a certain highly placed studio executive spend two hours of expensive office time answering 50 or 100 detailed questions. Responding by proxy allowed him to say that he hadn’t helped, a fiction he maintains to this day. “Though I’d declined to cooperate with the Journal, I thought the story could help our business,” he writes on page 194 of his new memoir, Who Is Michael Ovitz?, from Portfolio/Penguin.
So it’s hard to know what to make of a book that purports to come clean about perhaps the most complicated and consequential career in modern Hollywood — Ovitz changed the business with his Creative Artists Agency, helped sell MCA out from under Lew Wasserman, blew up friendships with Ron Meyer and Michael Eisner during his agency exit and brief tenure as Walt Disney chief operating officer, and survived to become a failed manager and apparently successful investment banker — while openly acknowledging that the author’s relationship with the truth was always tactical.
“If the truth was bad for us, we had to change the reality, and then deliver it as we’d said it was all along,” Ovitz explains of the operating philosophy he enforced at CAA.
He continues: “I never viewed this kind of misdirection as lying. Lying, to me, is a point-blank misstatement with no purpose in mind. I viewed what we did as positioning, molding, manipulating: taking fact sets and making them work for the result we wanted. That mindset underpinned every single conversation we had with the buyers and they had with us, all day long.”
Therefore, caveat lector. Let the reader beware, or, rather, be forgiven if he or she takes this confessional memoir in exactly that spirit, as a construct designed to achieve the desired result — a kinder, gentler, more self-aware, more likable Michael Ovitz.
With that said, Who Is Michael Ovitz? is an unexpectedly good read, especially in its first half, which finally unlocks some of the personal psychology that propelled this particular Sammy Glick from a nondescript childhood in the San Fernando Valley — his father was a Seagram’s liquor salesman with a home on the somewhat lower end of Encino — to the pinnacle of Hollywood power, with an art collection to rival those of even wealthier East Coast gods.
At its core, the creation story is not all that complex; but there is pathos. In full confessional mode, Ovitz, who is now 71 years old, describes the constant humiliation of his father, David, by an in-house mother-in-law, Sarah, who kept telling her daughter, Sylvia: “You deserve more.”
More, in this case, was supposed to mean something like the pair of family-owned Westwood hotels supervised by Sylvia’s uncle, Sam. He shared them with nine siblings but made enough to keep buying new Fleetwoods, while David made do with less. Inevitably, Michael Ovitz, after a public school education, went to UCLA — after all, it was in Westwood, his far horizon at the time. He married a college sweetheart, Judy Reich, who was a little better off. (They are still married, though living apart.) More or less in keeping with Budd Schulberg’s Hollywood survival guide, What Makes Sammy Run?, young Ovitz gate-crashed the RKO studio, got a job on the Universal lot tour, briefly met Lew Wasserman, then head of Universal’s MCA parent, and jumped to Fox, where he started a rival tour and double-crossed his former employer by grabbing some of its Gray Line package tour business. “I felt a strange rush,” he says of the moment when Wasserman’s lieutenant Al Dorskind objected, in vain.
From there, it was on to the William Morris mailroom, then up the ranks into junior-agentdom and a relatively short stay that ended with more double-crosses. “It was an old, soft, corrupt place,” Ovitz writes of Morris. So he didn’t have much compunction about scheming with colleagues Ron Meyer, Rowland Perkins, Bill Haber, and Mike Rosenfeld to jump ship when the five felt slighted in the pay-and-promotion game. Ratted out by a banker, the rebels were fired before they could set up shop on their own. Early in 1975, they nonetheless managed to launch CAA.
What followed was the by now familiar rise-and-fall story, in which Ovitz, not yet thirty years old, became the agency’s organizational motor, then wrested control from his once-equal partners as they raided William Morris, sometimes worked without commission and made the transition from television, where they were all rooted, to the star-studded movie business. At its peak, reckons Ovitz, CAA represented 45 of the 50 top-grossing film directors. If you wanted Ivan Reitman, Sydney Pollack, Richard Donner, Martin Scorsese or Barry Levinson, you came to him. Among stars, where Meyer was the linchpin, Robin Williams, Paul Newman, Robert Redford, Sally Field and Dustin Hoffman were just a tiny part of the list. Books flowed from a pipeline fed by Mort Janklow and Lynn Nesbit in New York.
And resentment and betrayals flowed everywhere.
What makes Who Is Michael Ovitz? juicier than the average business memoir is that the author proves surprisingly willing to dish about the foibles of former clients and colleagues alike. Joanne Woodward? She always made him feel small but begged for help when her husband, Paul Newman, fell into a funk and needed a revival that came with Absence Of Malice. Steven Seagal? He wanted to direct and win an Academy Award. Redford was always late and ducked out of a restaurant to avoid Sydney Pollack, Out Of Africa notwithstanding. Debra Winger helped wreck Legal Eagles with her snits.
As for partner Ron Meyer’s gambling debts, Ovitz pegs them at $5 million after one poker game and $6.5 million after another. Yes, acknowledges Ovitz, he declined to bail Meyer out, “which we hoped would deter him in the future.”
In that, and in dozens of other incidents chronicled in the memoir, were born the anger, back-stabbing and recrimination that culminated in Meyer’s eventual exit for a job at Universal, and Ovitz’s surrender of the agency to a new generation of agents known as the Young Turks.
It’s all there in the book. Well, not all, but a lot of it. Many of the encounters can feel demoralizing. There’s nothing inspirational about Ovitz’s account of trying to make peace in 2000 with Bryan Lourd, one of the Young Turks, and being confronted the next day with a two-page letter from Lourd “laying out in precise, lawyerly detail all the reasons I was a horrible person.” It got even worse with Michael Eisner, the one-time best friend who forced Ovitz out of the Number Two spot at Disney after a humiliatingly short stay. “Twenty years later, I still have no interest in ever sitting down with him again,” writes Ovitz. “Even if he made the most spectacular apology in the world, he’s incapable of true change.”
But there’s the rub. Is Michael Ovitz, the confessional diarist, truly changed? The delightfully self-deprecating kickers at the end of many sub-chapters in Who Is Michael Ovitz? could certainly make you think so. “I had become everything I detested in the sixties when I was a bleeding-heart liberal at UCLA — the very symbol of the establishment. I had become The Man,” Ovitz writes of his now-gone power persona. “The win, nowadays, is breaking even. But I’ll take it,” he says in summing up a late attempt at reconciling with David Geffen. As for his final thought about show business, it is purely personal. “I miss the people,” he says.
But can you trust it? Does Ovitz really at least half-regrets the self-described vindictiveness, meant to instill fear in enemies of CAA, and convince clients and agents that they would be much safer inside the fold than out?
Or is this just another construct, a tactical lie designed to soften the Ovitz image in old age, and make him seem more approachable, more Yoda-like, to the younger Silicon Valley entrepreneurs with whom he now works. “They were never lies to me,” he at one point reminds the reader about his many deceptions. “They were tools I needed to use to get shit done.”
So is the memoir a genuine bid for redemption? Or is it one more deceptive tool in a bottomless kit? Even Michael Ovitz may not know the answer.