If you’ve ever watched a television series that focuses on Hollywood, like HBO’s Entourage or the BBC’s Episodes, (or any of the many movies and TV shows that centre on the film industry) you’ll have come to have an understanding of what a typical Hollywood agent is all about. The fast talking, chain-smoking, ingratiating potty-mouths who’ll sell their own mothers down the river in order to get what they want for their clients – and themselves – are the clichés we’ve all come to know, and perhaps love on screen.
But the real life mother of all those characters is the original Hollywood super agent of the 1970’s and 80’s, Sue Mengers. Such was her reputation for a brash nature, aggressive negotiation style and vulgar tongue, that more than one actress has been known to base their character on Sue – most famously, Dyan Cannon in The Last of Sheila – and no doubt many more will without knowing it.
With I’ll Eat You Last, author John Logan (playwright of Mark Rothko bio-play Red), has invited us into Sue’s Beverly Hills home in 1981, to hear from the woman herself just what it meant to be represented by her. At the height of her career Mengers handled almost every A-list star there was (or ‘twinklies’ as she called them): Gene Hackman, Faye Dunaway, Candice Bergen, Ali MacGraw, Cybill Shepherd, Michael Caine, both Ryan and Tatum O’Neal, just to name a few, and most significantly to Logan’s story, Barbra Streisand.
Holding court from the comfort of her sofa for the entirety of the 90 minute production, Sue regales us with the tricks of her trade and many an anecdote regarding her famous clients, all while waiting for a phone call from perhaps her biggest star at the time, and her former bridesmaid, Babs Streisand herself. The pair have recently had an argument and Sue is determined to make sure Barbra is the one that comes crawling back.
Originally played on Broadway by Bette Midler, Sue is brought to the MTC stage with as much brio as Sue herself, by theatrical (and now national) treasure, Miriam Margolyes. Cheeky, playful and full of gusto, Margolyes slurps, puffs and chews her way through the monologue and Sue’s endless chain of cigarettes, joints, chocolates and tumblers of dark liquor. If facing the intimate Fairfax studio audience is as confronting as she expressed following her encore, then it is certainly hard to tell through the swags of confidence with which she attracts attention on stage.
Delighting us with tales of how she negotiated Dunaway’s role in Chinatown out of the hands of Jane Fonda, Hackman’s role in The French Connection away from Jackie Gleason, and put a halt to Ali MacGraw’s career by introducing her to Steve McQueen, Mengers’ brutally honest way with words makes her a fascinating conversational bedfellow. And while she has more than a couple of decades on Mengers’ age at the time, Margolyes’ lolling style seems to suit the agent’s devil-may-care demeanour.
Charmingly, Margolyes was at pains to point out at the end of the show that her performance was delivered with no small thanks to director Dean Bryant and her dialect coach Leith McPherson. Certainly, her New York Jewish accent is spot on the money, and a million miles away from Margolyes’ own plummy Oxford enunciation, so McPherson should rightfully take the credit. While working with Margolyes is doubtless a gift for any director, one suspects the lessons learnt between actor and director here were probably travelling on a two way street. Bryant has unquestionably ensured that his star has received all the support and guidance that Sue Mengers’ favourite clients were also graced with.
If there’s a down-side to this delightful little comedy it’s that if you’re much under the age of 40, then you’re possibly going to get a fair bit less out of Logan’s script than those who can remember what it was like to see The Main Event, Love Story or The Last Picture Show when they first hit the silver screen. There’s much to enjoy from learning about how this holocaust refugee became “the highest paid female agent in the business”, but without a bit of knowledge about the celebrities of the 70s and 80s, some of these anecdotes will be a bit hard to relate to. Although most everyone should find it funny to discover that Mengers calmed down a frightened Streisand after hearing of the Manson family murders with a brutal “Don't worry, honey, stars aren't being murdered. Only featured players.”
On opening night, one lucky audient became a featured player himself as Sue asked for the assistance of one of her ‘house guests’ to refresh her glass. Whether this is a technique for covering a ‘dry’ or just a sweet way to break up the static presentation, it doesn’t matter, you’ll doubtless wish you too could pop by for a cheeky spliff and a drop of rye with this acid tongued queen of both Hollywood and the stage.