The Calamitous Final Days of MGM

By Peter Bart

Morrow. 304 pp. $19.95

In 1986, as the result of a deal only corporate raiders could love, Ted Turner owned a piece of legendary Hollywood real estate for 74 days. Kirk Kerkorian had sold Turner his two Hollywood holdings, MGM and United Artists, in a labyrinthine arrangement that included Kerkorian's buyback of United Artists and the MGM logo. Kerkorian made $150 million in profit, and Turner left the table with 3,500 screen classics including "Gone With the Wind."

Turner immediately sold the studio's facilities and back lots to a company that unceremoniously filled the trash cans on the lot with 60 years of company files, including the correspondence of chieftain Louis B. Mayer with such stars as Greta Garbo and Clark Gable. A reporter chided Turner for presiding over the dismemberment of a Hollywood institution that the Atlanta cable mogul had professed to admire. "MGM died long before I came along," Turner replied.

Indeed, MGM and UA had been comatose since their acquisition by Kerkorian, the secretive Las Vegas financier who had once worked as a day laborer at MGM. Kerkorian's two-decade dabble in Hollywood is the subject of this engrossing book by movie executive and journalist Peter Bart, who is now the editor of the trade paper Variety.

Frank Yablans recruited Bart to MGM and UA in 1983 as a production vice president. Yablans, crudely ambitious, joined a roster of failures shuffled in and out by Kerkorian since his hostile takeover of a floundering MGM in 1969. (The raid had been financed by an innovative young banker named Michael Milken, who Bart says scored his first big success with junk bonds in the deal.)

Before Yablans had come such notables as James Aubrey, the Smiling Cobra whose private appetites and public viciousness were both Hollywood legend, and David Begelman, the check-forging executive whose scandalous fall at Columbia inspired the current wave of corporate muckraking. David McClintick's 1982 book about Begelman, "Indecent Exposure," created a whole new scandal and, as Bart's "Fade Out" confirms, played a part in his firing by Kerkorian.

"Indecent Exposure" is still the standard by which all such books are judged. Bart lacks the finer points of McClintick's authoritative style and he repeats McClintick's error of not documenting his fly-on-the-wall observations, some of which will raise eyebrows in the plush living rooms of Bel-Air and Beverly Hills.

Bart's biggest mistake, however, in this book dealing with two decades of corporate infighting, is an unwieldy construction that alternates a chapter on his own era with one on the past. Rather than giving the history some dynamic rhythm, as seems to have been intended, such a method is likely to confuse anyone who doesn't know the players without a scorecard. But even with this flaw, "Fade Out" is a page-turner. Any reader who is even remotely curious about the chaos and chicanery of high-stakes filmmaking in the new Hollywood will be up all night with it, relishing just how little the overcompensated decision makers know about their business.

Among the floundering millionaires (and Yablans's successors) are George Bush's friend Jerry Weintraub, who liked to call himself Kerkorian's partner, much to the boss's annoyance, and Alan Ladd Jr., who comes off as the only gentleman in the bunch, a man genuinely interested in movies, graced by honesty and a natural sense of class as well.

Most memorable is Bart's penetrating portrait of the shadowy Kerkorian, whose only topics of conversation are reportedly flying and money. Kerkorian was once described by a colleague as "the nicest nonperson I've ever not known."

Kerkorian's erratic financing and ruinous informal management style reduced MGM to a mere shell. Not content with one failing studio, Kerkorian gobbled up United Artists in 1981 and would have bought Columbia in a hostile takeover, had not the fatal 1980 fire at his lavish Las Vegas hotel, the MGM Grand, scorched his delicate negotiations. The hapless wheeler-dealers he hired spent his millions on such flops as John Milius's "Red Dawn," an expensive tale of Soviet troops invading Colorado that went $200,000 over budget on ammunition alone.

Time and again in a crisis Kerkorian would return to his raider roots and strip off a few more of the company's assets. The most infamous episode was the 1970 auction of undervalued props and priceless memorabilia. Eventually Kerkorian's lieutenants inadvertently sold to Disney the one thing he wanted to keep: the MGM name. And eventually they came up with a genuine blockbuster, "Rain Man." Bart succinctly chronicles the perilous journey of such a property to the screen. By the time of "Rain Man's" success, however, Kerkorian was again embarked on a quest to unload his movie properties.

The end of the MGM story is not to be found in "Fade Out," but in the business pages. Kerkorian is selling the studio to someone as mysterious as himself, the Italian financier Giancarlo Parretti. All Hollywood wonders what Parretti will do with MGM and UA -- or rather what's left of it. The reviewer is film critic for the Washingtonian magazine and WETA-FM.