Sue Mengers: Hollywood agent with a glittering roster of stars
Monday 07 November 2011
Sue Mengers represented many of Hollywood's major players, introduced new stars and broke through male-dominated Hollywood, allowing other women to follow both in front of and behind the camera.
She drove incredible deals, forged deep friendships and left a catalogue of outrageous stories.
She developed an outrageous character and used any trick in the book to make the deal. She could be Machiavellian in playing people off against each other and knew exactly when a bluff would get what she wanted. She had enormous chutzpah, pulling up at a stop light next to Burt Lancaster and persuading him to sign to her. When Barbra Streisand appeared on Charles Manson's hitlist, Mengers reassured her: "Honey, they aren't killing stars, just bit players."
In 1938 Mengers' family fled Hamburg for New York, where her father became a travelling salesman. He committed suicide a few years later. Mengers learned English in Bronx cinemas and hoped to become an actress. But after a spell as a talent agency secretary she joined former colleague Tom Korman as an agent, then to the small agency CMA which, through a series of mergers, became part of the behemoth ICM.
Mengers was in her element in 1970s Hollywood. She put together packages using stars to leverage roles for upcoming clients. Her massive client list included Candice Bergen, Cher, Joan Collins, Faye Dunaway, Tatum O'Neal, Cybill Shepherd, Tuesday Weld, Michael Caine, Elliott Gould, Steve McQueen, Nick Nolte, Anthony Perkins, Robert Redford and Gore Vidal as well as directors including Brian De Palma, Bob Fosse, Sidney Lumet, Mike Nichols and Arthur Penn. She was a canny talent-spotter, picking up Ali McGraw at the start of her career and Peter Bogdanovich while The Last Picture Show was still in rough cut. In 1972 Mengers hooked him up with her clients Streisand and Ryan O'Neal to make the hit screwball comedy What's Up Doc? She inspired enormous affection and in 1973 was gently parodied by her client Dyan Cannon in the ship-bound murder-mystery The Last of Sheila.
That year Streisand was Mengers' maid of honour for her wedding to the Belgian director Jean-Claude Tramont, but this indirectly caused one of her rare missteps. Tramont's All Night Long (1981) was a low-budget comedy with Mengers' client Gene Hackman and Lisa Eichorn. Mengers wanted Streisand but she was prepping Yentl and refused. Yet Eichorn was sacked and Streisand was onboard with a $4m fee. It nearly doubled the budget and the film lost money. Streisand's reviews ranged from good to terrible. Shortly after, Mengers was sacked. Streisand was more than a client: their shared poor Jewish upbringing made her a soulmate and Mengers was crushed, arguing that she had simply offered the deal: Streisand and the film company had agreed it.
Mengers retired in 1986 but two years later joined the William Morris Agency. But financing had become hugely complex, with residuals and merchandising offsetting upfront payments: Mengers' old-style deals no longer worked, while her toughness became abrasive and insulting. WMA quietly let her go. After a period of reclusiveness, she returned to hosting the most important parties in town, blowsily holding court with her ever-present joint, laughing throatily and dropping her acidic bon mots.
Sue Mengers, Hollywood agent: born Hamburg 2 September c. 1932; married 1973 Jean-Claude Tramont (died 1996); died Beverley Hills 15 October 2011.
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