Hollywood agents, that most despised of human specimens, of which I was one, are as indispensable as the rabies vaccine, which kills as easily as it cures. Although in one form or another agents, as the middlemen brokers of human talent, have existed since the dawn of 19th century mass entertainment, they are a nearly perfect metaphor for a late-blooming capitalist economy. They don’t make anything except spit and hot air. Or, as author Tom Kemper writes, giving it an academic polish, “agents serve in the commercial fabrication of individuality,” selling “personality [as] a commodity” including, especially, their own commission-hungry personalities.
However loftily the business of agents is described -- and Kemper is fond of euphemisms like “embedded field of routine transactional and social relationships” (I think he means schmoozing) -- we in the movie business cannot function without a go-between as our link to the money. Indeed, as Kemper reminds us in his scholarly history of early Hollywood agentry from the 1920s into the early 1950s, one pioneer agent used to publish a “Sears catalog of stars” that listed his clients in a magazine bluntly titled “Link.”
Kemper tells us that there was an “agent problem” right from the start. The Motion Picture Academy, itself no paragon of business ethics, accused agents of “racketeering, double-dealing, arrogance, failure to live up to obligations [and] semi-legal trickery” -- and that was long before CAA, UTA, Endeavor, ICM and West Coast MCA had been invented.
Studios and their talent suppliers, the agents, had yet to figure out a true business model of how to live with each other on the backs of the people who actually made the movies: “The skirmishes between studios and agents . . . essentially erupted over stars . . . [that were] a studio’s most visible assets.” Agents connived in the most lucrative deals for their clients and themselves, and studio executives, under relentless pressure to maintain a 50-picture-a-year slate for theatrical release, connived right back. Cat and mouse, predator and prey, but which was which?
Even a loyal agent -- as I guiltily know from experience -- weighs “negotiations in terms of the relationship with his client and the long-term relationship with studio executives.” You walk “a fine line between representing a client’s grievances and alienating the producer.” Kemper points out that “these steady relationships formed an almost conspiratorial syndicate between the agency and production executives.” I like that “almost.”
As studios matured, accommodation (and a form of industrial efficiency) came in the form of two temperamentally opposed uber-agents who ushered in the modern era. Kemper builds his book around the files and archives of neurotic, “taciturn and brutish” Myron Selznick, who pushed client Vivien Leigh into the Scarlett role in his older brother David’s “Gone With the Wind"; and the “finely tailored,” dapper, graceful-in-his-skin “career engineer” Charles Feldman. The angry, insecure Myron Selznick and the socially adept Feldman pretty much monopolized Hollywood’s high-priced talent, including almost all the stars seen today on Turner Classic Movies.
Keep the money in mind. In one year alone, 1949, when a school teacher’s annual salary was $1,400, Feldman, with a few phone calls, earned a $250,000 commission on a single deal.
Like many agents at the time, including me, Myron was an alcoholic; unlike most agents, “Charlie” Feldman was legally trained and could read a contract the way Einstein read an algebraic equation (which a lot of studio agreements resembled, then as now).
What both men shared, Kemper underscores, was a crucial Southern California family background in the movie business. The Hollywood agency racket was a deeply tribal phenomenon. (My boss, Sam Jaffe, head of his own agency, was the brother-in-law of Paramount mogul B.P. Schulberg, and Jaffe hired relations galore who hired their sons.) For years, New York-centered agencies like the band-booking MCA and stage-and-radio power William Morris failed to gain a foothold in Hollywood because they had no blood connections here. Then, choosing their moment, they rudely bought their way into Hollywood by corporate takeovers that squashed the char- ismatic, personality-driven, “one-stop powerhouse[s]” like Feldman, Selznick (for whom contracts were “a form of trickery”) and Leland Hayward.
Reading Kemper’s original and deeply researched study, I couldn’t help thinking of Hollywood’s golden oldie days. Then agents tended to be a colorfully mixed (mainly Jewish) bag. My colleagues were war veterans who included a furniture-removal man, a tennis bum, a secret-ops military officer, a former labor agitator, a trust fund baby -- rich men, poor men, beggar men and thieves with some considerable wild, woolly life experience. Today’s agents go to film, business or law school and come up through the mailroom, guzzle sparkling water instead of gin and work out at the gym. They are healthier, cooler, more handsome, less emotional and less angry and much, much more innocent about life.
A glaring omission in Kemper’s book is the absence of any mention of Hollywood’s then-current labor racketeer troubles, violent strikes, criminal conspiracies and the blacklist in which the agents played a key, and unheroic, role. Kemper’s de-politicalization of what was, in fact, a lasting trauma for the entire industry one hopes he will remedy in a forthcoming history of talent agencies in a later period.
Sigal is a screenwriter, novelist and a former Hollywood agent whose firm represented, among others, Humphrey Bogart, Barbara Stanwyck, Jack Palance, Joseph Cotten and Peter Lorre.