‘Now, I know we’re not supposed to speak ill of the dead …”
Cue the Octomom-sized pregnant pause. “Ready?” she asked, with a smile as wicked as they come.
And then super-super-agent Sue Mengers — being summoned on Broadway of late by Bette Midler — was off. Just another fork in the road in the midst of a windy, wonderful 90-minute talk-to. Her aim, at this precise juncture, as I precipitously looked on the other day from the front row at the Booth Theatre? (So close I could see her bare-feet toes move to her line-readings. So close that I swear I saw Midler’s tonsils. So close that when I sneezed at one point, Midler twitched.)
Steve McQueen. That’s who “Sue” was on about now. She, the caftan-wearing ball-breaker who, in a time long ago — way before Entourage’s Ari Gold — was the sun/moon in Tinseltown, a German-born receptionist-turned-agent whose family fled the Nazis, and who herself would go on to count quite the constellation as clients — from
Barbra Streisand and Cher to Michael Caine, Faye Dunaway, Ryan O’Neal, and Burt Reynolds. McQueen was another, for whom now no love is lost.
Forget everything you’ve ever heard about the Bullit icon, our storyteller demanded, before going to describe him as “loutish,” “pretentious,” “mean” and “short.” And those are just some of the nice things. Basically, she never forgave
McQueen for stealing the heart of her prized Ali MacGraw who famously threw everything away — her fame, her Oscar, her marriage to storied Hollywood producer Robert Evans — for what Mengers describes as domestic enslavement to the star.
Less a rant than a boiling aria: That’s how it all comes across. And with one diva doing another — Bette has become Sue — you gotta wonder how all the lights in Times Square don’t falter.
“We chat. We dish. Who’s on top. Who’s on bottom. Who’s on the top who wants to be on bottom.” That’s how the, show, titled I’ll Eat You Last, commences. Nicole Kidman was in the audience at my particular performance, eager, like me, to catch one of the last shows in the run (this was the final week) and just one of the many in a parade of stars who’ve been by to catch it. Including, Jennifer Aniston. (A starlet who, according to legend — and OK, Mengers’ pal, Maureen Dowd, the New York Times columnist — was given some very specific advice by Mengers when Brad Pitt left her for Angelina Jolie: get his sperm, she was told.)
Mengers died just two years ago, but her career, in essence, died even more eons ago. And that’s where the play commences — one day, back in 1981, the piece of work and broad among broads sitting by her phone to hear from Ms. Streisand. See: The Beginning of the End. (Babs, through a tortuous roll of events, would fire her, setting up a domino effect of professional doom for her in Hollywood.) And by sitting, I do mean sitting — Midler plays the entire show sitting down, Mengers having been famously sedentary.
Along the way, Sue does what Sue did. She boozes. She schmoozes. She bullies. She bleeds. She dreams. Transported to this N.Y.C. stage is her place on Lexington Road, in Beverly Hills, where the most famous gathered for dinner, an ongoing salon where you’d see Elizabeth Taylor crossing paths with Princess Margaret or find Julie Christie seated across from Mikhail Baryshnikov. Thought out of “the biz,” as it were, for decades, those soirees went on until the very end — Mengers bringing together the likes of Tina Fey and Gore Vidal for pot-pie dinners, and her home serving, as The New Yorker once described, “as a sort of bridge connecting three generations of actors, agents, directors, writers and producers — a conduit for the oral history of show business.”
Hard sells, flame-outs and the art of the lie: That’s part of the ground Bette-as-Sue covers. (Midler’s return to Broadway after 33 years, did I mention?) It’s also the kind of show where, in the first five or so minutes, she drops the words “brio,” “travails” and “zaftig” — i.e. my kind of show. “Why would anyone talk about anything but
showbiz?” the one-track agent rhethroically asks, revealing her anthamea to global affairs or, yuck, politics.
As far as Hollywood kabuki goes, the play delivers, giving us a glimpse into the world of a woman who was everything — provocateur, yenta, accidental feminist, and 60 Minutes profile-subject. But how would it play in 2013, when so much here is ancient history? I did wonder. But then, sitting there in Row One, the girlish flock beside me gave me the answer. These twentysomethings on my left had come not for Mengers, but for Midler. “I fell in love with her when I saw Beaches,” one of them told me. “I was five.” She’d actually come to the show the evening before too, standing by the stage-door to get an autograph from the Divine Miss M. Were there other “divas” she had a thing for growing up — or now? I had to inquire. “No,” she smiled, “just Bette.”
“But now,” she added, “I like Sue, too.”