Leo the Lion on Life Support : FADE OUT The Scandalous Final Days of MGM <i> by Peter Bart (William Morrow: $19.95; 320 pp., illustrated; 0-688-08460-5)</i>
When I left the Los Angeles Times five years ago to enter film production, the common presumption was that I would end up writing a book about my new life. “Just have a tape recorder ready when you get home every night,” one studio executive told me. “You won’t believe the material that will present itself.” When a journalist trained as an observer is plunked down into Hollywood’s maelstrom of ego, greed and jealousy, the inevitable is assumed. How can you resist telling tales?
Peter Bart couldn’t. “Fade Out: The Scandalous Final Days of MGM” is Bart’s blow-by-blow, insider account of the financial cancer that has left Leo the Lion on Hollywood’s version of a life-support system. Bart began his career as a reporter for the New York Times, then went to work for Paramount Pictures and Lorimar Films before becoming an independent movie producer. In 1983, he was wooed back to MGM as a production executive. (He is now editor of weekly Variety.)
Bart retains the critical eye of a journalist, and clearly relishes the inherent drama of the destruction of Hollywood’s once-greatest studio. He peoples his story with a rogue’s gallery of outlandish characters: restless, manipulative Kirk Kerkorian, the principal shareholder in MGM who painted his lucky number 21 on his parking space at the studio; squat, pugnacious Frank Yablans, who peppered his dialogue with profanity and (according to Bart) once seriously considered running for President of the United States; slick and slinky Freddie Fields, an agent-turned-executive and a consummate masseur of Hollywood egos; and the man who ordered the now-infamous auction of MGM costumes and props (including Dorothy’s ruby-red slippers), James Aubrey, who seems fully qualified for his nickname, Jungle Jim.
The narrative drive of “Fade Out” is hampered only by Bart’s annoying habit of jumping back and forth between the 1970s and 1980s. Poignant characters such as David Begelman, the convicted embezzler of Columbia Pictures funds who was given a second chance at MGM that proved to be no chance at all, are lost in the confusing progression of events from 1973 to 1989. The odd structure also destroys most of the tension that Bart’s skillful prose builds, as one after another of Kerkorian’s financial miscues rocks the venerable studio.
The real object of Bart’s fascination isn’t Yablans, son of a Brooklyn cab driver, or Fields, who according to Bart, parceled out one development deal to his ex-wife and one to his current wife, but Kerkorian. Still, “Fade Out” might have been better had it focused more closely on the man whom Bart labels “The Boss.”
The son of an immigrant Armenian raisin farmer, Kerkorian made his first fortune buying beat-up World War II transport planes and flying gamblers to the new postwar desert resort of Las Vegas. But Kerkorian was never satisfied with planes, or hotels, or even casinos.
Bart perceptively notes that Kerkorian, for all his longevity in Hollywood, never achieved the financial stability of counterparts like MCA Chairman Lew Wasserman. A big reason, Bart says, “was that Kerkorian never saw himself as a ‘builder’ but rather as a ‘trader.’ The only acquisition that he would zealously cling to over the years would be the MGM trademark--not the studio, not its pictures, or traditions, but its treasured logo, which seemed to carry its own special value in his mind.”
Bart’s single failure in “Fade Out” is not giving any real insight into the enigmatic Kerkorian, who is as opaque by the book’s end as he is in Bart’s introduction. Bart quotes Kerkorian explaining to a studio executive who accompanied him to a casino: “The longer you stay, the more the odds work against you. . . . The key is to avoid getting sucked in. Three passes and I’m out.”
Why hasn’t Kerkorian followed his own advice in relation to MGM? It’s not a question that Bart pursues with any vigor. He never goes beyond the surface of Kerkorian’s “trader” mentality (an ethnic cliche if there ever was one) to probe why Kerkorian has been so smitten with Leo’s roaring visage.
The only person given less perspective than Kerkorian is Bart himself. Although he writes in the first person, his presence is almost invisible. Since this is reportage, not autobiography, the omission is excusable but makes the narrative lack a distinct personality. Only a visit to the troubled set of “Mrs. Soffel” and an encounter with director Gillian Armstrong brings a personal dimension to the story, one that could have made the painful struggles at MGM more vivid.
The final portion of “Fade Out,” which takes place after Bart’s departure from the studio in late 1984, is the most depressing. One management change after another, a revolving door of studio executives, and abortive takeover deals are recounted with a grim relentlessness.
There are occasional moments of levity in Bart’s recounting, even if they come close to gallows humor. One such incident occurred during a weekly story meeting, in which the various properties under development at the studio are reviewed. A project entitled “Grimm’s Fairy Tale” attracted the curiosity of Danton Rissner, for a brief period one of the production chiefs at MGM. “Are we turning the studio into a day-care center?” Rissner asked dryly. He was quickly reassured that a previously unknown Grimm’s fairy tale was discovered in a private collection, “and we have bought the movie rights!” the junior executive in charge of the project exclaimed triumphantly.
When Rissner, not surprisingly, inquired why MGM would want to own the movie rights to an unknown 200-year-old fairy tale, he was met with puzzlement. Didn’t he understand that this was a major literary discovery? “And have you read this . . . this fairy tale?” Rissner persisted, according to Bart. “Not yet,” admitted the executive, “but I’m getting a copy next week.”
How many more next weeks will there be for MGM? Even now, Kerkorian is in the middle of yet another deal, this time selling MGM/UA to Italian financier Giancarlo Paretti. If the deal goes through (no one seems sure that it will), don’t look for Kerkorian to fade from the scene. Unlike the MGM classic films, this “fade out” leads to no happy ending. Bart’s book is another indication that the dream factory has taken to producing nightmares.