Monday, October 26, 2015

TCR on Show Business: "Judy + Liza + Robert + Freddie + David + Sue + ME" by Stevie Phillips

"What is an agent?" asks Stevie Phillips in her recently published memoir Judy + Liza + Robert + Freddie + David + Sue + ME  (St. Martin's Press). Phillips knows the answer. She was once among the most powerful talent agents in the entertainment industry, having shepherded Liza Minnelli and Robert Redford to superstardom.

"An agent is a fraud, but a fraud with good intentions...someone totally willing to sublimate herself to be the person the client wants her to be. Do you want me to be angry on your behalf? Here I am. Do you want me to be docile for you? Here I am. But regardless of what role-playing takes place, an agent must always maintain integrity and never lead a client knowingly in the wrong direction," Phillips writes.

Unlike the legendary agent Irving "Swifty" Lazar, whose Oscar night parties were the height of Hollywood A-list gatherings. or the world class schmoozer Sue Mengers, such a big personality that she was brought back to life in 2013 by Bette Midler in the one-character Broadway play I'll Eat You Last and is the subject of a just published biography (Can I Go Now? by Brian Kellow) Phillips never became more famous than a lot of her clients. Her stock in trade was cool, calm, behind the scenes efficiency.

Stevie Phillips, 2015.
In classic pre-feminist days style, Phillips begins her career in a secretarial pool, this one at ABC-TV in New York in the late 1950s. Her competence, willingness to work long hours and, she admits, her good looks, get her a temporary gig as a production assistant on the ABC game show Who Do You Trust?, hosted by a not yet famous Johnny Carson. The pretty and hardworking Phillips is included in regular pre-showtime drinks at Sardi's. "The way that guy knocked back two double shots showed me he'd had a lot of practice," Phillips recalls of Carson.

Carson appears only fleetingly in Phillips' narrative and he doesn't seem to have done anything bad to her, yet she pauses to take a swipe at him. Hostility runs through the whole of Phillips writing. This still contemptuous after all these years edginess gives Phillips' memoir a compelling vitality. Decades old events seem as if they happened yesterday.



Judy Garland, c. 1960
Leaving ABC, Phillips moves to the Music Corporation of America (MCA), the most powerful talent agency of the time, where she is assigned to type and file and get coffee for rising agents Freddie Fields and David Begelman.  "Both were in their late thirties, both were sharp-witted, smart, flamboyant hotshots...They were both the most amusing men I'd ever met, and they liked that I liked them," Phillips writes. When Fields and Begelman (in the book, to simplify things, Phillips calls them F&D, short for Freddie and David) start their own agency, Phillips jumps at the chance to go with them as a kind of agent in training.

F&D get their new company (which eventually becomes the powerful Creative Management Associates or CMA) off the ground by engineering a comeback for Judy Garland via an extensive concert tour. At this point -- 1960 -- Garland is seriously overweight and living in relative isolation in London. As soon as Garland lands back in the USA, Phillips is given the task of looking after this extremely high maintenance star. "Judy was needy to the point of desperation, and they [F&D] had to find a way to handle it," Phillips writes.

Liza and Judy, 1960 (photo/Getty Images).
Tending to Garland's needs both professionally and personally becomes Phillips' job for two years. And a demanding, depressing, and sometimes dangerous line of work it is. Phillips does everything for Garland from stage managing performances on her concert tour -- the highlight of which is a triumphal show at Carnegie Hall in 1961 -- to taking her children to the zoo. Phillips makes sure a cold bottle of liebfraumilch -- the sweet German wine that Garland swigs like water -- is always at hand and keeps a watchful eye on the precious carrying case full of the pills that Garland can't live without. Phillips laughs at Garland's usually mean-spirited jokes and listens over and over again to stories about the old days at MGM. When Garland decides to slit her wrists just before a performance, Phillips rushes out to find bangles needed to cover the bandages. When a drug crazed Garland comes at Phillips with a knife, Phillips manages to escape and is coaxed back to work by F&D with a promise of a salary increase.

Stevie Phillips, 1960s.
To Phillips, Garland is, more than anything -- more than a drunk or a drug addict or a raving lunatic or a legendary star  --  a supremely self-involved bore. "I was a prisoner yearning to be free," Phillips says of her time with Garland.

Occasionally, the tough talking Phillips exhibits some sympathy for the troubled star. "Put her in an institution. Get her the help she needs! That's the scream that was raging inside me. It never came out of my mouth. Could anyone have institutionalized Judy without her permission? Maybe not, but it didn't matter because there we no candidates. Everyone was too busy exploiting her," Phillips writes.

Garland, despite her selfish excesses, isn't the villain in Phillips' book. That role goes to the D in F&D, David Begelman, who is portrayed as a scoundrel of the first order. "He was a slime," Phillips writes of Begelman, who later became a leading Hollywood film studio executive. At first, Phillips is captivated by Begelman's sophistication and his beautifully tailored suits. As the years pass, the dazzle fades. "He was toxic," Phillips says."His was the charm of a psychopathic personality: totally flamboyant, witty, intelligent, and intellectual on the one side; a liar, a cheat, a complete fraud, irresponsible, and self-destructive on the other."

David Begelman. "He was a slime," says Phillips.
Phillips calls Garland's on again, off again husband Sid Luft an "ape" but in retrospect she thinks Luft was correct in believing that Begelman was stealing money from Garland. In the late 1970s, Begelman was ousted as head of Columbia Pictures while facing charges of embezzlement. In 1995, a bankrupt Begelman committed suicide. "I did not shed a tear," Phillips writes.

The F in F&D, the handsome Freddie Fields, is a "sport-coated, charming smart aleck."  Phillips praises Fields, who died in 2007,  as a "wonderful mentor" and "one of the all time best agents on the planet." She also calls Fields a "user" and suggests that he must have known about the illegal and immoral activity Begelman was engaged in while they were business partners but chose to look the other way.

Liza Minnelli in Flora, the Red Menace,
Broadway, 1965 (photo/Friedman-Abeles).
When finally released from the Judy detail, Phillips is rewarded by F&D with the status of fully-fledged agent at the New York office of the thriving CMA. The first client Phillips signs is none other than Garland's daughter, Liza Minnelli, a "dirty and unkempt" teenager with tons of ambition but no proven talent. "Liza was a mess. Her waist length hair often looked as if it might have been home to both animate and inanimate things...My two bosses thought she was a waste of time," Phillips writes of the youthful Minnelli.

Initially acting out of pity, Phillips helps Minnelli -- whom she refers to as "Li" -- get a part in an Off-Broadway revival of the musical Best Foot Forward. To the surprise of all, Minnelli shines in the production. Phillips capitalizes on this success by booking Minnelli as a guest on television variety and talk shows (abundant in the 1960s) and getting her on Broadway in the musical Flora. the Red Menace. Flora is a flop but earns Liza a Tony Award.

Liza's wedding to Peter Allen, New York, 1967. "I was
heartbroken for Liza," Phillips writes
Despite her burgeoning stardom, Minnelli remains something of a little girl lost. Phillips allows Minnelli -- homeless since her mother decamped to the West Coast -- to stay at her apartment. "She slept on the couch in my living room for the best part of a year. She co-opted my wardrobe, ate solid food from my fridge, and didn't have to struggle...not all celebs are freeloaders, but Judy and Liza were," Phillips says.

Phillips organizes Minnelli's 1967 wedding to singer-composer Peter Allen, mainly because nobody else is interested in doing it. "I watched and waited, but there was only shattering silence. I was heartbroken for Liza," Phillips writes. The wedding is the last time Phillips sees Garland, who dies two years later. "She was wrinkled and pale and so wasted that I momentarily lost the ability to speak...she was macabre," Phillips recalls.

Phillips isn't directly responsible to the two projects that propel Minnelli to superstardom -- the television special Liza with a Z and the film version of Cabaret.  "All I can boast about is that I brought Liza, along with her hard work and considerable talent, to a place where the sale of this show [Liza with a Z] could profitably be made," Phillips explains.

Robert Redford, 1960s. Before the Sundance shagginess.
The other big name on Phillips' roster is Robert Redford. He is already a hot property, if not a first rank star, when she gets him to sign with CMA in 1968 after helping him land the coveted part of Sundance in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, directed by another CMA client (and Phillips' friend) George Roy Hill. "When I delivered Redford's signature, my stock at the agency shot up sky high," Phillips writes. "Sign an actor who has both good looks and real ability, and you've a managed a minor miracle. That actor can go on for forty years easily."

Or more than forty years. In the summer of 2015, at approximately the same time Phillips released her memoir, Redford, who is, along with Phillips, approaching age eighty, released his latest film, A Walk in the Woods.

Redford, 1974. He looks great
but the movie "wasn't good."
The self-assured Redford doesn't require Liza-style micro-managing. For the most part, he chooses the projects he wants to do. "He had a strong sense of what suited him -- playing interesting Americans from different walks of life -- and he chose well," Phillips writes. She does talk Redford into The Great Gatsby -- a film which she admits "wasn't good" -- and tries to talk him out of The Way We Were because the final script isn't finished. Though Phillips doesn't choose Redford's material, she does handle his business negotiations."I did all his deals [which] helped burnish my image," Phillips writes.

In 1975, Redford leaves Phillips and CMA for another agency.  Phillips admits that his departure is mostly due to her failing to understand that he needed to be challenged.  "I dropped the ball by not knowing he wanted to direct, by not pushing the envelope with him...I was on automatic pilot," Phillips writes in a rare display of humility. Indeed, Phillips speaks of Redford in an almost reverential tone.  She thanks him for giving her "the American West as a present...he showed me the beauty of that part of our country for the first time. I owe him."

Phillips and Liza, c. 1972
(Photo/Stevie Phillips via Columbia University website)
Minnelli breaks with Phillips. too, but under more contentious circumstances. In the mid-1970s, F&D move on to become producers (according to Phillips, all agents want to be producers) and CMA merges with another agency to become International Creative Management (ICM). Phillips decides it's time to strike out on her own, taking star client Minnelli with her. But Minnelli, giving no warning or reason, backs out of the deal. This leaves Phillips, who has resigned from ICM, with no job and no star client be a foundation for her new agency. "I'd been unceremoniously dumped by an actress who could not have cared less." Phillips writes.

The new agents send Minnelli, who Phillips depicts as something of a dimwitted party girl, out on concert tours that are lucrative but do nothing for her long term career."They weren't film packagers trained by Freddie Fields; they were merely order takers," Phillips says. The pressures of touring leave Minnelli vulnerable to bad habits. "[I]t was rumored that most of Liza's earnings were going right up her nose," Phillips says. Minnelli's movie stardom, which Phillips had planned to carefully nurture, dies from neglect. In the ensuing decades, an increasingly pathetic Minnelli occasionally contacts Phillips, sometimes for career advice, sometimes just looking for a shoulder to cry on. "I had been the most stable person in her life. We both knew that," Phillips writes.

Bette Midler as superagent Sue Mengers in I'll Eat You
Last, Booth Theater, Broadway, 2013.
"Sue" of the book's title is Sue Mengers. For many years, Mengers was Phillips' colleague and friendly rival at CMA.  "She was forever burnishing her image and trying to get her name in the papers. She was a publicity hound [but] it was the right decision for her, and it served her well," Phillips says of the flamboyant Mengers who died in 2011. Mengers stayed on at CMA after it became ICM and was a leading agent in the 1970s and 1980s.

All agents want to be producers, Phillips says. Eventually Phillips becomes a producer, too, by working out a deal for Universal Pictures to back the Broadway musical The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. The show, opening in 1978, is a smash. Following through with the deal Phillips helped to craft, Universal comes out with a screen version. The movie, released in 1982, is a dud.  Phillips blames the failure of the movie on star Burt Reynolds. "He was tasteless," Phillips says of Reynolds "He made changes to the script and the casting that turned a funny and touching show into a sadly second-rate movie."

Actress Joan Hackett, 1960s. 
Phillips is Al Pacino's agent for a time in the late 1960s. "I'd always found Al difficult to talk to, and consequently we never grew close," Phillips' writes. Her recollection of watching Pacino, not exactly a song and dance man, auditioning for a part in the Broadway musical Zorba is the book's comic highlight.

A question that Phillips leaves unexplored is why some performers with potential don't become big stars. F&D's very first client back in 1960 was Freddie Fields' then-wife, the actress/singer Polly Bergen. Bergen, who died in 2014, had a long but haphazard career that included major roles on television, Broadway, and in films but nothing panned out sufficiently to take her to first rank stardom. Another early F&D client was the actress Joan Hackett. Hackett, who died of cancer in 1983 at age forty-nine, appeared regularly in films and on television in the 1960s and 1970s and is always interesting to watch if you happen to catch her in reruns. "Joan was an actress with [a] wonderful voice and a certain quirkiness that separated her from the rest of the blond beauties," Phillips writes but adds nothing more other than a mention that she and Hackett became "great pals" and that it was Hackett who first introduced her to Redford. One is left to wonder whether the machinations of superagents like Phillips and Freddie and David and Sue may not matter so much if good luck isn't part of the deal.


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