Mengers is the subject of an excellent new biography Can I Go Now? The Life of Hollywood's First Superagent by Brian Kellow. The title of the book comes from Mengers' passive-aggressive way of ending phone conversations.
Kellow's previous work includes books on Broadway legend Ethel Merman (Ethel Merman: A Life, 2007) and film critic Pauline Kael (Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark, 2011). He was also on the staff of Opera News for many years.
The idea of writing a biography of Mengers came to Kellow from his own (literary) agent. At first Kellow was skeptical, thinking that there wasn't enough substance in the life of Sue Mengers to warrant a biography. "My last book had been a biography of Pauline Kael, and I was very keen to follow it up with another biography of a writer," Kellow told The Committee Room. "To write a book about an agent seemed like a questionable project, especially after having written about someone as complex and brilliant as Pauline. But I was wrong: Sue was complex and brilliant in her own right, and once I began the research, I knew that this was a great topic. It was also a wonderful opportunity to write about the films and stars and filmmakers of the late '60s, the '70s and early '80s--still, to my mind, the most stimulating era in American movie-making."
|Sue Mengers with Jack Nicholson, 1977.|
In her Hollywood prime, the middle aged Mengers worked and partied non-stop in a haze of tobacco and pot smoke, and offered blunt, profanity-laced career advice to those she considered worthy enough to be her clients. Kellow told TCR -- "[Mengers] wielded enormous power. So many stars wanted to be represented by her, and a lot of studio heads and producers hated and feared her, with good reason...She also had a very keen gut-level understanding of the New Hollywood--of the change in material, the move toward more provocative and unusual topics. She knew that there was an audience for that sort of thing. And it was a great audience, while it lasted."
|Sue Mengers with Christopher Walken, 1989.|
Photo/Ron Galella/Wire Image/Getty Images
British star Michael Caine, under the guidance of Mengers, joined the ranks of Hollywood's big time leading men. "In the case of Michael Caine, the game was to put him on a level with some of the top American actors," Kellow told TCR. "She also wanted to show audiences his versatility; she encouraged him to play gay men in California Suite and Deathtrap at a time when a lot of movie actors wouldn't have gone near [such roles]."
|Mengers with Barbra Streisand, c. 1980.|
Photo/Los Angeles Examiner
Kellow says that Mengers' greatest strength was her honesty. "She could tell her clients the truth, even when they might not want to hear it. In Hollywood, that's a rare gift," Kellow told TCR. "She was also brutally tough: she delighted in holding studio heads over a barrel. The story of how she got Gene Hackman $1 million for that awful movie Lucky Lady is hilariously funny. She knew the studio was in a bind and she made them pay."
For most her career Mengers was employed by Creative Management Associates (CMA), founded in the early 1960s by Freddie Fields and David Begelman. Though Fields and Begelman were Mengers' bosses, the pair are barely mentioned in Can I Go Now? This is in stark contrast to Judy + Liza + Robert + Freddie + David + Sue + Me, a memoir by Stevie Phillips, another 1970s superagent and Mengers' CMA colleague (discussed in TCR in October 2015), in which these two wheeler-dealers are major characters. Kellow told TCR -- "Freddie Fields and David Begelman really let Sue build up steam on her own, They weren't at all jealous of her, and they didn't try to keep her in her place. I think they too were quite intrigued by her and wanted to see exactly how much she could pull off. And then they could get credit for backing a winner."
|What's Up Doc? poster, 1972.|
Mengers' favorite client was Barbara Streisand, whom she considered something akin to a sister. Despite this closeness of agent and star, Streisand was among those clients who resisted lending her time and talent to low quality material just for the sake keeping in the public eye and fattening the wallet. One of Mengers' biggest triumphs was What's Up Doc?, a sendup of 1930s screwball comedies, that teamed Streisand with two other premier Mengers clients, Ryan O'Neal and director Peter Bogdanovich. The movie was smash with both critics and the public. Still, Streisand only reluctantly agreed to reteam with O'Neal in The Main Event, a lame romantic comedy directed by journeyman Howard Zieff. Though savaged by critics, The Main Event was another box office smash but it was also the kind of commercial schlock that led Streisand to eventually seek another agent.
|Mengers with Woody Allen, 1981.|
By the 1980s, most of the performers Mengers' had taken to the top had moved on to other agents. Such changes are par for the course in show business but Mengers took it personally. In Can I Go Now? Kellow writes -- "Sue's contempt was fearless, epic, freely vented and unleashed and indiscriminate. It was one thing to be angry that a client had left; it was another to wish that he would get cancer and die."
|Mengers with early client Anthony Perkins, 1960s.|
|Author Brian Kellow|
|Mengers with Kris Kristofferson at premiere of |
A Star is Born, 1976. Photo/Wireimage
Is there any equivalent to Mengers in today's Hollywood? Kellow says -- "I"m sure it's likely that someday someone will do a definitive biography of Ari Emanuel. But that person won't be me. I've done my one and only book about an agent!"