by: Sandi Durell
Want some gossip? The inside scoop? The way to get anything and everything from just about anyone? Then go listen to what Bette Midler has to say as Sue Mengers – Hollywood’s one-of-a-kind influential press agent of the 60s. Mengers was larger than life – a caricature of herself bedecked in a turquoise blue caftan (or muumuu, if you’d rather) with some silver glitter, large glasses, long blonde tresses, cigarettes and joints flying in her long-nailed fingers.
The warning is out there, big and bold for all to see on the curtain as you take your seat in the Booth Theatre: “This play contains profanity, smoking, alcohol consumption, drug use, and gossip.” Yes, time to dish the dirt. And it’s all true!
Mengers thrived on her ability to maneuver her clients’ careers or steal new ones she coveted, deal with the producers and the studios with whatever it took – lying especially. “It’s all a game” says Midler as Mengers.
When this little gal wound up in New York City after she and her parents left Germany to escape Hitler, she wanted to be . . . a movie star! But they were all too pretty in acting school so she couldn’t compete and instead took a job as a receptionist at the William Morris Agency. “Every person who works in theatre is gay” – a revelation!
She pressed the flesh wherever she was – “Hello, my name is Sue Mengers with the William Morris Agency.” Great calling card. One night she was at a gay bar – The Lion in Greenwich Village – listening to a very young impressive singer – Barbra Streisand, the connection that became Mengers’ door to success. Streisand would schlep her from party to party introducing her to everyone. From there Sue made her way up, up, up signing clients Candice Bergen, Michael Caine, Faye Dunaway, Gene Hackman, Burt Reynolds, Bob Fosse and many more. Chutzpah!
With great one-liners and stories of her deceitful ways and dealings, she regales us with tales about Gene Hackman who she finagled into The French Connection, Faye Dunaway who wound up in Chinatown instead of Jane Fonda, and Barbra, Barbra, Barbra stories that are endless. Mengers was persuasive, ferocious and made things up as she moved along to get what she wanted. But she sincerely believed you “never blow a deal because of money.” She also had a mouth like a toilet.
The actual scene is set on a particular afternoon after Barbra’s lawyers had ended their relationship as Sue eagerly awaits an apology call from Streisand while getting ready to host one of her famous dinner parties – “all my guests have to be famous” and “it’s all business, all the time. . . why would anyone talk about anything other than show business? “ as she references the “good socialist, Vanessa Redgrave.”
She shares stories of Ali McGraw, a talent whom she heartbreakingly saw piddle away her career when she fell for Steve McQueen (whom she describes as mean, manic-depressive) and left the biz.
John Logan, who wrote this play, couldn’t have pulled it off without the Divine Ms. M who possesses many of Menger’s attributes because she, too, is larger than life. Mengers became the star she always wanted to be when Mike Wallace did a profile on her. She was a Super Agent!
The play is about self important people who only circle with other self important people. Can you relate? It’s 85 minutes long, no intermission. However, after about an hour of the quick-witted repartee, it begins to get tiresome.
But it’s worth the time and ticket price just to see and hear the Divine Ms. Midler since there couldn’t possibly be anyone else imaginable to play this role.
The Hollywood home setting by Scott Pask is “just a modest little Hacienda in the Hills of Beverly . . . previously owned by Zsa Zsa Gabor” with haunting lighting by Hugh Vanstone, the caftan by Ann Roth and the play craftily directed by Joe Mantello.
“I’ll Eat You Last” runs thru June 30 at the Booth Theatre, 222 W. 45th St. Information: