Is it really too late for a comeback for Mike Ovitz? James B. Stewart's article in this week's New Yorker, packed with piquant new details, and Dominick Dunne's flavorsome diary of the Disney trial in the soon-to-be-out February Vanity Fair actually managed to make me feel some sympathy for Ovitz.
You would think the ousted president of Disney, who has been in free fall for the past eight years, has eaten enough crow by now. Except for Al Goldstein, the former publisher of Screw, who wound up in a homeless shelter, all manner of Hollywood flameouts, Wall Street charlatans, convicted felons, porn-star socialites and sports-hero sex offenders seem to get a second act in our society. So why not a Mr. Clean like Ovitz?
True, the end of his poisoned relationship with Disney CEO Michael Eisner hardly places him among the Hundred Neediest Cases. Even in the unlikely chance that the shareholders win their case against Disney for Ovitz's $140 million payoff, it'll most likely be the Disney board, not Ovitz, who will have to cough up the cash. Vegging out on $140 million for the rest of one's life might look pretty good to some of us. If youth is wasted on the young, wealth is wasted on the rich.
At the Delaware trial Ovitz insisted that it was his long-standing "friendship'' with Eisner that informed his career blunder at Disney, but it still remains a mystery why the savvy operator who'd spent a lifetime at his Creative Artists Agency psyching out the suits on behalf of his clients blew it so spectacularly. Stewart parcels out a nice moment of screwed-up corporate kabuki when Ovitz, forgetting that his friend Eisner and not he, Ovitz, is Mouse No. 1, calls the principal Disney shareholder, Sid Bass, to wish him a happy New Year, then delegates his secretary to tell his boss he has done so.
Compare this to Ovitz's MO in his prime. Bill Carter's book "The Late Shift" has one of the best examples of the Ovitz mystique in motion -- the elaborate ballet he choreographed when he plotted to extract David Letterman from NBC and walk him to a lucrative new contract at CBS after Letterman sussed out that his rival Jay Leno had the inside track to win Johnny Carson's crown. In the opening meeting between Letterman and Ovitz (who was wonderfully played by Treat Williams in the HBO movie of Carter's book), Ovitz lays out his wares before Letterman like Aladdin's genie, declaring with that small tight smile, "CAA WILL deliver everything that you want. Yes, there WILL be an 11:30 show for you, Dave, and there WILL be offers from each network.''
You can't help but root for Ovitz here, especially since he delivered. The suits he was up against were just as duplicitous as he was.
Underneath the Zen calm of his act, Ovitz was Hollywood's Lord of Misrule, the thunderbolt-flinging Zeus Hollywood Olympians called to overturn the boring natural order of things. Obligations, commitments, corporate loyalty -- he was better than Houdini at finding a way to get you out of those shackles. He was the Pied Piper of hubris. His sell was always to figure out which buried vanities made the client burn for overreach. To the top corporate executive: You should own your own business! To the top actress: Why has nobody seen your huge potential for comedy? To the top actor: Your career needs a whole new "architecture"!
If it didn't work to play on hopes, he played on fears. "I can't reveal this for another 60 days," went the typical spiel, "but there is a reason why you should" (or shouldn't, it didn't matter which) "make this deal."
The beauty of Ovitz's position then was that he was never the guy who had to take the fall if the dreams he produced for his clients didn't work out. For an agent, a job that doesn't work out is just another job for the agent.
The ultimate irony is that the worst career move he orchestrated was the one he made for himself. Ovitz would never have allowed a client to leave his self-created power base on the basis of a trusting "friendship" and join a global behemoth of a company (which includes Miramax, where I was once employed) in an amorphous position with no real authority in a shark tank of warring reputations. Taking his own power for granted, Ovitz focused only on the money. Whereas Eisner was perfectly prepared to pay the money and was wholly focused on the power.
In Hollywood the received wisdom is that Ovitz can never come back because he left behind too many enemies. But that seems unlikely. The big entertainment players regularly stiff one another over lunch. The reason their contracts are so long is that lawyers have to cover every outlandish contingency, every possible creative piece of sliminess that might leave a loophole for the other side to renege on the terms everyone has just warmly shaken hands on.
No, Ovitz can't come back because the world itself has changed. The transcripts from the Delaware trial are both strangely excruciating and nostalgically awful to read. The '90s strut feels so long ago. In the post-9/11, post-Enron reality, hubris is out of style. Power doesn't look so hot anymore -- or certainly not the Wizard of Oz kind of power that comes from smoke and mirrors and grand bluffs and turns out to have no real-world control of anything concrete.
An early sign that Ovitz's crown had begun to slip was in 1995 when he got the job of Oscar host for David Letterman and the edgy comic bombed. Being the most powerful man in Hollywood, director Mike Nichols once observed, means about as much in the end as being the best-dressed woman in radio.
Which is perhaps why in the end Ovitz was smart just to focus on the money.
©2005, Tina Brown