Interview with the vampire of Beverly Hills

David Geffen: A Biography of New Hollywood, by Tom King (Hutchinson, £18.99)
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The Independent Culture

16 March 2000

There's more than a touch of Sunset Boulevard in the image of the media mogul David Geffen living alone in the vast Jack Warner mansion in Los Angeles. He bought the legendary house in 1990, a crowning moment that coincided with his arrival at billionaire status. The truth is, though, that he has no one to share his extraordinary wealth with. No long-term relationship - with either man or woman - has lasted the course, and he is estranged from his family.

Alone with his money in his expensively restored palace, he was vain enough to allow an interloper into his life and is reported to be mad as hell about it. The interloper was Tom King, a reporter from The Wall Street Journal, whose badly written but vast tome is expected to shift lottery numbers among business-class travellers browsing in airports. At the time, it was news. Geffen had agreed to co-operate with a biographer for the first time. "I'm ready for my close-up, Mr De Mille," he seemed to be saying, as King zoomed in on every flaw of his thin Beverly Hills skin.

The average business-class traveller will buy this book to find out how Geffen ticks, and how he managed to hustle his way to that $2.9bn fortune. There are several answers. The first is sheer luck. The second is coming back twice as hard after knock-out punches from rivals. The third is an amorality over money that manifested itself in early childhood. And the fourth is a curious personal issue.

Geffen found it almost impossible to come to terms with his homosexuality, which he didn't profess publicly until the Nineties. Much of his shouting, angry business style seemed to come from his repression of this "shameful" secret.

The tales of wheeler-dealing, hustling and big trades in the US media market are not going to be of much interest to the general reader. Frankly, I found it all a bit burdensome to read. Geffen's special talent was not to predict future trends, as often claimed (his celebrated signings of the Eagles, Guns n' Roses and Nirvana were on the recommendation of others). Rather, he poached existing talent. He was always brilliant at getting friendships going with the likes of Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan and Neil Young, for just as long as it took to make money out of them. When he turns on the charm it must be bewitching. I don't think King's book gives him much credit for that.

The other thing about Geffen is that he is really a failed film mogul. Music was always a stop-off on his way to the silver screen, but the truth is that - apart from producing Beetlejuice and Interview with the Vampire - he has never been very good at it. After his initial foray into Hollywood he retired with his fingers burnt.

So it's intriguing to find him setting up shop with Jeffrey Katzenberg and Steven Spielberg to create the first new Hollywood studio in half a century, Dreamworks - but revealing that he does not go into the office much. King fails to mention the environmental objections to the Dreamworks "Playa Vista" project - plans to build a studio plot on conservation land that brought protests from all quarters - and pulls back from giving a true picture of the corporate culture.

Far from being a new film-making toy for nice Mr Spielberg, Dreamworks rapidly established itself as one of the most paranoid outfits in Hollywood. When I dared to poke fun at Katzenberg in print, I received very unpleasant phone calls from his PRs, on my home number, several nights running. I was on the receiving end, in very diluted form, of the sociopathic world that David Geffen inhabits.

So the poor, working-class Jewish boy whose mother owned a bra shop (his relationship with her is especially interesting) has made his stash. Most of it is not directly from royalties and ticket receipts - the last billion he made was a result of playing the stock market. There's nothing miraculous about Geffen. He loves money. He wants more. More is never enough. His involvement in a glamorous industry seems entirely incidental.

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