- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 10, 2002

By Mike Medavoy with Josh Young
Pocket Books, $27, 380 pages, illus.

Film is the dominant artistic medium of our time. Last year Americans spent about $8.5 billion on movie tickets (and almost the same amount on movie rentals). At the same time, film is also the most collaborative art form, requiring the talents of directors, actors, set designers and others. Which makes it the most expensive art. The average movie at the local multiplex costs several million dollars to make. The expensive ones can cost a couple hundred million. So it is not entirely silly to examine the men who run the business of movies, because, as Mike Medavoy notes in his new memoir, they determine what hundreds of millions of people around the globe see on the big screen.
Mr. Medavoy's book, "You're Only as Good as Your Next One: 100 Great Films, 100 Good Films, and 100 for Which I Should Be Shot" (with Josh Young), is a revealing glimpse into the mind of the studio executive. The writer's parents spent their lives fleeing from communism his father from Russia and his mother from China. Born in Shanghai in 1940, Mr. Medavoy grew up in Chile and went on to attend UCLA.
Mr. Medavoy's first Hollywood job was in the mailroom at Universal where he toiled with writer Marc Norman and future directors John Badham and Walter Hill (and, interestingly enough, Ken Handler, the fellow who was the model for Barbie's boyfriend, Ken). He quickly advanced and became a baby agent in the Universal casting department and then moved on to bigger game at Creative Management Artists, where his clients included the wild Terrence Malick and a pair of young filmmakers named Lucas and Spielberg.
In 1974 Mr. Medavoy left the agency world and took over as head of production for the ailing United Artists, where he would be responsible for financially committing the studio to "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," "Taxi Driver," "Rocky," and "The Sting," among other movies. After four years at UA, he moved on to co-found Orion Pictures; when Orion went belly-up, he took over at TriStar, and eventually wound up as a producer with Phoenix Pictures. Along the way, Mr. Medavoy had his hand in "greenlighting" some of the best movies of the last 30 years, including, "Silence of the Lambs," "Apocalypse Now," and "Raging Bull" as well as some stinkers.
In "You're Only as Good as Your Next One," Mr. Medavoy airs his grudges against folks like Sylvester Stallone and Peter Guber and occasionally pauses to give insightful how-the-sausage-gets-made stories. He tells how Henry Kissinger was hired by TriStar to negotiate with the Japanese Sumo Federation for the movie "Hell Camp." Describing the haggling over making "The Getaway," he recounts:
"Peter Bogdanovich, a very hot director at the time, agreed to come aboard, which made Paramount take an interest in backing the film. No sooner did we have Bogdanovich than we lost him to Warners… . According to Paramount production chief Robert Evans, Bogdanovich quit because Evans insisted that his wife, Ali MacGraw, play the lead. [Steve] McQueen then called Sam Peckinpah, who had directed his last film, "Junior Bonner." Stella Stevens was considered for the female lead, but she was unavailable. In the meantime, David Foster was sued by actor Jack Palance, who was upset that Peckinpah had dropped him after he thought he had the part. By the time Palance dropped his suit … Paramount put the film in turnaround despite the fact that Ali MacGraw was committed."
Mostly though, Mr. Medavoy stays wrapped up in himself. He opens by announcing, "I have a library full of books about history, politics, and culture, and I've read them." As he considers leaving UA, he visits the New York City corporate apartment owned by Transamerica, the studio's parent company, and wonders aloud, "Why hadn't I ever been invited to stay here?" A few pages later he bemoans the fact that in his first year at Orion, he made only $500,000 (in 1978 dollars, not counting bonuses), which "wasn't bad," but wasn't what other studio chiefs were making. He picks fights with Mark Canton, James Cameron, and others, and somehow it's always the other party who has misremembered events or acted in bad faith.
Yes Mr. Medavoy's book is self-serving, but in a sense, that's like complaining that water is wet. The real problems are his errors and disputes with history. He complains about the 1996 Sony expose "Hit and Run," saying that the authors got many small facts (such as Mr. Medavoy's birthday) wrong. Yet his own book contains numerous factual mistakes. For example, he claims that "Hannibal" made $200 million domestically. It made $165. He writes that "Total Recall" made $200 million domestically and was the number one movie in 1990. It made $119 million and was the sixth highest-grossing movie that year.
He dramatically overstates the importance of a film's opening weekend, saying, "If your film didn't have a big opening, it was basically dead." Wrong again. Six of the top 15 grossing movies of all time opened to $42 million or less, including "Forrest Gump" ($24 million in the first weekend), "The Sixth Sense" ($26 million), and "Home Alone" ($17 million).
In one aside, Mr. Medavoy attacks Peter Biskind's 1998 book "Easy Riders, Raging Bulls," saying that Mr. Biskind exaggerated the influence of drugs in Hollywood during the '70s. While refuting Mr. Biskind, Mr. Medavoy says triumphantly, "I was there … and drugs didn't dominate the movie scene." He adds, "The American directors might have been movie brats, but they weren't movie druggies."
In "Easy Riders, Raging Bulls," Martin Scorsese, one of Mr. Medavoy's American directors, tells Mr. Biskind, "I did a lot of drugs because I wanted to do a lot, I wanted to push all the way to the very very end, and see if I could die. That was the key thing, to see what it would be like getting close to death." Readers can draw their own conclusions.
Also, Mr. Medavoy misuses the words "restraint" and "apocryphal."
But there is a deeper truth to this memoir. While we get an unreliable picture of Mr. Medavoy, we get a piercingly clear image of how he sees himself. And it explains a lot about Hollywood.

Jonathan V. Last is online editor of The Weekly Standard.

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