Colorful agent Sue Mengers on center stage in Hollywood bio
“Can I Go Now? The Life of Sue Mengers, Hollywood’s First Superagent” (Viking), by Brian Kellow
Movies that were brash and downbeat, mature and ambitious, even nasty and vulgar marked the New Hollywood of the late 1960s. Matching them in temperament was a new kind of talent agent, and Sue Mengers may have been the most colorful of the bunch.
“Colorful” is the kind of code word one uses when actual examples can’t be published in a review. Author Brian Kellow fills his lively book “Can I Go Now?” with enough ribald tales of Mengers being “colorful” to fill a crayon box. That she could be endearing as well as rude and insulting to the people she represented is surprising — and just one aspect of a fascinating personality Kellow places squarely in the context of the way the movie business worked at that time.
Mengers climbed up in this man’s world in part by being memorable. When she was starting out in New York, she approached actor Tom Ewell at Sardi’s restaurant and dropped her business card in his soup. She liked to shock people — she would sit at her desk with her feet up so that her panties were showing — and enjoyed knowing that she made an impression. To her, sex was a natural tool for getting what she wanted.
A hard worker, Mengers devoted herself to finding jobs for her clients. She excelled at “packaging” by putting together scripts, stars, directors. One example: She brought stars Barbra Streisand and Ryan O’Neal and director Peter Bogdanovich onboard for the hit comedy “What’s Up, Doc?” Pushing clients was nothing new, but Mengers threw aside diplomacy and tact in favor of a tart insistence that her client get the job.
Social gatherings at her Beverly Hills, California, home were all about building and maintaining the client list. With pot and cocaine on hand and business connections on the minds of many guests, her parties were central to the Hollywood scene. If she wanted to represent a person, she could be charming and engaging. Once she realized a prospect wasn’t signing on, however, she would disappear.
Kellow traces the skyrocketing salaries for stars to the fuel Mengers brought to negotiations. She managed to get $1 million for Gene Hackman to join the cast of “Lucky Lady” (1975) and $1 million for Ryan O’Neal for five days’ work on “A Bridge Too Far” (1977). She wasn’t always successful, of course. In the case of Rod Steiger and “The Hospital” (1971), Mengers miscalculated by holding out for another $50,000, only to see George C. Scott get the job — and an Oscar nomination.
Did Mengers display a cruel wit or a cruel streak when saying outrageous things? It may have depended on whether you were hearing a story or part of it. When Barbra Streisand expressed concern about her own safety after actress Sharon Tate and others were slain by the Manson family, Mengers was reassuring. “Don’t worry, honey,” she told Streisand. “Stars aren’t being murdered. Only featured players.” She had a nickname for movie executive Sherry Lansing, a friend whom she thought was too positive and liked people too easily: Rosemary, a reference to the Kennedy sister who had been lobotomized.
She seldom saw boundaries when scrutinizing the professional and personal lives of her clients and friends. “I just had a call from someone telling me that you are running on the beach in sweats,” she snapped at actress Dyan Cannon. “If you’re going to run on the beach, you don’t wear sweats.” Having tea with Nazi filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl angered or puzzled some of her friends, especially given that the German-born Mengers, who was Jewish, had left the country with her family in 1938. “But Sue would not back down from her position,” Kellow writes. “Riefenstahl was a star — and that alone was justification for spending time in her presence.”
Mengers’ myopic attention to major stars and her lack of interest in developing up-and-coming talent eventually hurt her career. She began losing influence when Hollywood changed again, in the 1980s, and marketing became the chief driver behind the movie business. Rifts with clients and friends were commonplace for Mengers, though when she died at home in 2011 at age 79 she still had a loyal group at her side and others calling on the phone with farewells.
A sign of Mengers’ unique qualities: Dozens of people shared their memories with Kellow, allowing him to tell her story in all its dimensions. Instead of staying silent and letting her slide into obscurity, they have helped Kellow give Mengers the place in Hollywood history that she deserves.
Douglass K. Daniel is the author of “Tough as Nails: The Life and Films of Richard Brooks” (University of Wisconsin Press).