For more than 20 years, Sue Mengers’s clients were the talk of the town, and her dinner parties were the envy of Hollywood. Now, you’re invited into her glamorous Beverly Hills home for an evening of dish, dirty secrets and all the inside showbiz details only Sue can tell you. Her clients were the biggest names in show business: Barbra Streisand, Faye Dunaway, Burt Reynolds, Ali McGraw, Gene Hackman, Cher, Candice Bergen, Ryan O’Neal, Nick Nolte, Mike Nichols, Gore Vidal, Bob Fosse.
Appearing on Broadway for the first time in nearly 40 years, Tony and Grammy Award-winning superstar Bette Midler played the legendary Hollywood agent Sue Mengers (1932-2011) in this new, one-character play written by Tony Award winner and three-time Academy Award nominee John Logan and directed by two-time Tony Award winner Joe Mantello.
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Apr 26, 2013
The curtain rises on the delicious one-woman show I’ll Eat You Last: A Chat with Sue Mengers, and there she is. Both of her: First Bette Midler, the divine Miss M herself, greeted with a roar of anticipatory pleasure by an audience that rightly assumes they’re in for a party; and then, instantaneously, Sue Mengers herself, the sui generis Hollywood talent agent for whom ”divine” hardly describes her style. Mengers, who died in 2011 (somewhere between the ages of late 70s and early 80s — she’d never tell) was, like Midler, a helluva broad.
But Mengers’ style was, famously, her own, a combo of foul-mouthed love of gossip, naked ambition, pitbull devotion to and negotiation for her clients, and sybaritic physical inactivity. At her peak as Hollywood’s most powerful female agent, those clients included Gene Hackman, Michael Caine, Faye Dunaway, Steve McQueen, Ali McGraw, Mike Nichols, and — the star she spotted first — Barbra Streisand. Mengers’ plate-on-knees living room dinner parties were legendary. (Only the most glittering made the cut.) Those who knew her picture her lounging in a flowing caftan, with a joint or a cigarette in hand, sometimes both, and a telephone nearby.
That’s the Sue Mengers who holds forth in I’ll Eat You Last, a bonbon of a play by John Logan (author of Red, plus strong screenplays including Skyfall, Hugo, and Gladiator). Like costume designer Ann Roth’s silky, sequined, pool-blue caftan, the play flows gracefully, flitting from ribaldry to Hollywood wisdom, then over to fabulously naughty stories, then around back to a kind of tender, tickled admiration for the lady in the living room.
Midler only leaves the sumptuous peach Ultrasuede couch — the centerpiece of Scott Pask’s perfectly Mengersian set, lit with sophistication by Hugh Vanstone — when the dishy 90-minute show is over. (A perfectly placed bit of audience interaction spices up the goings-on.) Yet even before she speaks, Midler owns the place with one flip of her frosted coif. With dynamic direction from Joe Mantello, the star makes lounging and smoking look both lazy and athletic — the very opposite approach to monologue from Fiona Shaw’s showy exertions in The Testament of Mary. Which is fine because, kiddies, Mengers has much to say and all the time in the world to say it.
It’s 1981. Her power is dwindling, her clients are leaving her — even Barbra. And in a drowsy afternoon before one of those fabled dinner parties, while Mengers waits in the melancholy fantasy that La Streisand will phone to apologize, she tells some tales. Such tales! (How she got a relatively unknown Gene Hackman the role of Popeye Doyle in The French Connection is one pip of a true story.) Speaking in the exaggerated B-movie tones that Mengers explained she learned in order to lose her accent as an 8-year-old émigré from Germany, Midler manages a fabulous feat: She marshals all her own famously divine Bette-ness to bring to life a kindred spirit. There’s real heaven in this profanity. A
Apr 24, 2013
The first line in I’ll Eat You Last: A Chat With Sue Mengers ( three 1/2 out of four), the new John Logan play that opened Wednesday at Broadway’s Booth Theatre, is, “I’m not getting up.”
It’s uttered by the sole performer, who pretty much keeps her word, only rising from the plush sofa at the center of Scott Pask’s set in the final minutes. Until then, her most rigorous physical activity is to primp her hair and chain-smoke herbal cigarettes.
Sound like a pretty static evening? Hardly — given that the performer is Bette Midler, and her character is one of Hollywood’s most legendary, and legendarily outre, agents. During her career, which peaked in the ’70s, Mengers (who died in 2011) represented such luminaries as Barbra Streisand, Faye Dunaway, Michael Caine and Gene Hackman, and threw parties where only the famous and fabulous were welcome.
By 1981, when the play is set, Mengers’ own star is fading, along with those of some clients, a number of whom have already dismissed her. But as Logan presents her, hours before yet another celeb-laden soiree, she is not, on the surface, morose about the situation. Briskly witty, deeply dishy, delightfully profane and at times surprisingly poignant, I’ll Eat You Last captures a woman with no regrets — at least none that she’ll tell you about.
Under Joe Mantello’s pitch-perfect direction, Midler dives into the role with predictable relish — which is not to say that she chews the scenery. However brassy her persona, Mengers clearly valued taste and discretion, as Pask’s spacious, elegant scenic reminds us. Holding court over an audience whose members, as she repeatedly informs us, aren’t nearly distinguished enough to warrant an invitation to her house, the actress brings an element of wry detachment to even some more personal observations.
After escaping Hitler’s Germany with her family, Mengers learned to speak English by watching movies. “That’s why I still talk like a gum-cracking Warner Brothers second lead,” she quips — though that studio surely wouldn’t have accommodated the potty mouth that colors some of her funniest reminiscences, involving previously mentioned names and many others. (Steve McQueen and Mike Ovitz get particularly poor reviews.)
Midler breaks her character’s rule against little people twice, recruiting an audience member to bring her a (fake) joint and, later, refill her drink. “Don’t be a stranger,” she trilled to her appointed servant at a recent preview, after kicking him offstage.
But I’ll Eat You Last can also be reflective and touching, as Mengers recalls obstacles and losses, and laments a movie business that is becoming less and less entertaining. Midler reminds us what a strong dramatic actress she can be, whether evoking Mengers’ challenges or showing us the moxie that got her through them.
“In this life, kiddies, there’s always a window,” she says — a sensible philosophy, regardless of your level of ambition or stature.
Apr 24, 2013
The mother of all Hollywood superagents, Sue Mengers let it be known she was displeased at being crassly parodied by Shelley Winters in a giant muumuu in the 1981 Blake Edwards comedy S.O.B. But as famously abrasive as she could be, it’s impossible to believe the late Mengers wouldn’t have puckered up for John Logan’s big wet kiss, I’ll Eat You Last. It’s equally hard to imagine her not being tickled by the eternally fabulous Bette Midler’s portrayal of her – a fusion of one self-made, larger-than-life persona with another in which the dividing lines all but vanish.
Subtitled A Chat With Sue Mengers, the single-character piece is exactly what it advertises – 80 irresistible minutes of primo tinseltown dish from a certified master chef. A smorgasbord of quotable one-liners and delicious anecdotes, it even comes with an official warning sticker slapped on the show curtain: “This play contains profanity, smoking, alcohol consumption, drug use, and gossip.”
On the surface, it might seem a modest doodle from Logan. His two-hander about Mark Rothko, Red, swept the Tony Awards in 2010, and his screenplays have collected Oscar nominations (Gladiator, The Aviator, Hugo), not to mention reinvigorating the 007 franchise (Skyfall). But the art required in shaping a theatrical monologue can be just as challenging if not more so than many multi-character works. Not only do Logan, ace director Joe Mantello and the incomparable Midler inject tender notes of ruefulness into this breezily finessed gab-a-thon, the play also provides an elegiac commentary on the shift from artist-driven to corporatized Hollywood.
Outfitted in Mengers’ signature frosted flip, tinted specs and a sky blue caftan with silver trim whipped up by Ann Roth, Midler holds court from a plush salmon sofa at the center of designer Scott Pask’s sumptuous riff on Beverly Hills casual opulence. “I’m not getting up,” she says at the start of the play, and she doesn’t. “Think of me as that caterpillar from Alice in Wonderland; the one with the hash pipe.” Cocktail in one hand, cigarette or joint in the other, Sue directly addresses the audience, reminding us that we are privileged to gain access to a home where usually only above-the-line talent gets past the threshold. Her “twinklies,” she calls the star casts of her legendary dinner parties.
The year of this 1981 afternoon salon is as significant as the title of the Barbra Streisand track that plays us in and out of the scene: “Stoney End.” Having reigned over New Hollywood since the late-‘60s, Mengers’ domain was on the decline by then as a trail of major clients defected, many of them to ascending powerhouse CAA.
“For you civilians out there,” Sue explains with an eye-roll midway through the play, “CAA is Creative Artists Agency, the fastest rising of the so-called New Wave agencies; the shape of things to come we are all breathlessly promised. They’ve built the agency on a puritanical screed of monkish sublimation of the individual to the corporate entity, to quote their mentor, Stalin … Oh did I say Stalin? I meant Mike Ovitz.”
Logan, who met Mengers three years before her death in 2011, deftly co-opts her as a marker of the transition from the renegade ‘70s to studio filmmaking by committee. In her heyday, an impassioned agent with some creative vision and long-range career foresight could block William Friedkin’s driveway until he agreed at least to consider a pre-stardom Gene Hackman for The French Connection. Or engage in a bluffing contest with producer Robert Evans to get Faye Dunaway into Chinatown over Jane Fonda. (Two of many episodes hilariously recounted here.) But by 1981, those days were fading fast.
Recalling her first meeting with Ovitz, Sue confesses that her head was spinning from the foreign-language talk of “turnaround negative cost pickups” and “merchandizing synergy against backend residual options on a sliding scale of first dollar gross.” Finally, she interrupted him: “But, Mike, honey, do you actually like movies?”
That illuminating exchange is key to Logan’s portrait of what made Mengers such a galvanizing force, particularly during her years at Creative Management Associates, the precursor to ICM. Her client roster at various times included Candice Bergen, Peter Bogdanovich, Brian De Palma, Michael Caine, Bob Fosse, Mike Nichols, Ryan O’Neal, Burt Reynolds and Sidney Lumet to name a handful.
Couching – pardon the pun – her self-assessment in the twilight of her era might seem a cue to get maudlin. But both the character as written and the actress playing her are such dynamic forces of nature that the glimmers of poignancy float like feathers among the ricocheting barbs. The play takes its name from the favorite book Sue never wrote, subtitled “A Cannibal Love Story.” And she readily acknowledges that the predatory adapt-or-die rules are a fundamental part of her chosen jungle.
However, being dumped on this particular afternoon by her friend and longtime client Barbra, or rather, Barbra’s lawyers – “her microstate of serious Jews who joined arms and bottle-danced their way to the speaker-phone” – has clearly stung worse than other losses. “She of the nails and the voice and the perm, which we will not discuss” is the reason Sue keeps her clunky rotary telephone handy, waiting for a peacemaking call.
That waiting game makes her inclined to reflect on past and present, and Logan has done a magical job of transforming biographical data into sparkling liquid conversation.
Sue recaps her Jewish family’s flight from Nazi Germany, and her early years in Utica, New York, where she taught herself English at the local fleapit movie house. (“That’s why I still talk like a gum-cracking Warner Brothers second lead.”) Her account of finding the courage to cross the playground and introduce herself to the most popular, prettiest girl in school establishes a recurring motif of self-belief. Securing a job as a receptionist at the William Morris Agency, she used that foot in the door to schmooze her way to an agenting career. “You want to be a thing? Make yourself that thing.”
The play is punctuated by Sue’s Five Golden Rules of being a great agent, each point succinctly illustrated with a choice recollection or two. The mix of humor, bile and quiet heartbreak in her account of watching as Ali MacGraw discarded her cresting fame for domestic enslavement to Steve McQueen makes it not just a juicy episode. It’s a statement of Mengers’ personal investment in her work.
But this is not hagiography. Logan is not out to paint her as a martyr to a tainted art – especially one that was never pure to begin with. And the play doesn’t fail to acknowledge Mengers’ hubris, outlining her fatal career mistake of maneuvering Streisand and Hackman into doing All Night Long, a stinker directed by her Belgian husband, Jean-Claude Tramont. But affection and respect for the subject make this an unexpectedly rich tribute in which every name-dropping story spun has a precise narrative function.
The care and attention to nuance with which Logan and Mantello sculpt the non-stop flow of talk is mirrored in the afternoon-through-early evening evolution of Hugh Vanstone’s lighting. An especially lovely touch is the ripples reflected across the ceiling from the unused pool. Sue says she knows it’s out there but she’s not sure where.
Midler’s consummate ability to deliver brassy chutzpah, fierceness and silky comic seduction at the same time is harnessed to perfection, allowing just a judicious whisper of vulnerability. Infusing her performance with equal parts Sue and Bette, plus a dash of her old Sophie Tucker routines, she makes this role her bitch.