Liz Smith: She’ll “Eat You Last”

main544581_489863457729153_2102416034_n“Hon-kneeeeee!” said the Hollywood agent Michael Blackkissing me Sue Mengers style after the opening night of Bette Midler‘s one-woman play, “I’ll Eat You Last,” where she brings Sue back to life on Broadway.

Michael and I had made a pact to see the show separately and then meet the day after at Docks on 3rd and 40th, to dish about it.

This guy is one of the world’s authorities on the late super agent who taught him, he sez, all he knows about representing talent. (Oh, I don’t know. Michael was never fan-impressed as Sue was and he wasn’t ruthless and is now a bigbiz advisor) But he does do a mean imitation of Sue at her funniest and he was one of the many sources that the one and only Bette Midler went to for research. Bette loved Michael’s remembrances of Sue so much that she spent six hours with him beforehand, having him read the entire John Logan play aloud to her in Sue’s own voice!

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BUT THEN Michael and I had a few Margaritas in Sue’s and Bette’s honor and he told me, seriously, what I had perceived myself. Playwright Logan’s take on Sue Mengers is more succinct, more serious while still being funny, more poignant and pertinent than any “imitation” can be.

420721_495477140501118_1100444248_nAnd the great Bette doesn’t do any campy impersonation. She delves into the character and behavior and profane outbursts and tears and overkill and sentimentality and love for “STARS” that bedeviled Sue in her upward claw to the top.

If you go to the Booth Theater and buy a ticket, you will end up not caring whether you knew about superagent Mengers or not. You will see a Bette Midler recreation of a little girl, born in Hitler’s Germany, who escaped to America and dared to cross the playground to introduce herself to the pretty girl who was the school star! (She knew talent when she saw it!) And this little Jewish immigrant taught herself to “speak American” by studying Warner Bros. heroines like Bette Davis and Barbara Stanwyck. Sue Mengers was a self-realized woman with lessons for all women.

Pursue your dream. Improve yourself. Be loyal and persevere at protecting your star. Lie to them; don’t ever lie to them. “That’s not true!” was Sue’s most repeated phrase as she instructed the rest of us to be as devoted, fanatical and hard-boiled as she became, dominating La La Land not-so-behind-the-scenes through the ’70s — or until she more or less retired. (The play’s setting, with Bette on a couch looking blonde and glamourous like Sue, is set in 1981.) This was after Sue encountered CAA and Michael Ovitz introduced a new kind of tech-business to agenting.

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THIS PLAY is much more than just funny. Some of it is heart-breaking. Playwright Logan is some kind of genius, ranging over the psychologies of a modern artist like Rothko in his recent “Red” and going on to write for the new 007 Bond movies. You can’t be more trendy and intelligent and imaginative than that!

The opening night audience was dazzling and many of them were name-dropped onstage as Bette (as Sue) waits for a blow-off call from her own Frankenstein monster — Barbra Streisand. Let’s just say I noted, sitting around me — Anna Wintour, Graydon Carter, Louise Grunwald, Susan Sarandon, Glenn Close, Christine Baranski, Carol Bayer Sager, David Geffen, Terry Allen Kramer, Barry Diller, Diane von Furstenberg, Mica Ertegun, Boaty Boatwright, Bob Balaban, Margo Nederlander and like that! None other than Ali MacGraw was also there and found herself onstage in the dialogue that details how much Sue loved her and detested the man she credited with ruining Ali’s career — Steve McQueen. Bette gives Sue the best of it here; showing her real love and idealism and devotion to her stars! And the ability to abuse them by profane nicknames!

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I was particularly touched by a story about Sue’s beloved early client, the great actress Eva Marie Saint … and there was a lot of funny name-dropping — Bob Evans, Billy Friedkin, Faye Dunaway, Michael Caine, Gore Vidal, and Sue’s own husband, a Belgian screenwriter-director whose career collided with Sue’s real dreams. It’s all sad but true; sad but hilarious — and cheers to the young man who comes onstage to run Sue’s errands, taking off his shoes, tip-toeing around and being sent back to his seat. “Don’t be a stranger …” warns Sue/Bette.

I do congratulate playwright Logan for doing a one-person show with a telephone omnipresent and the plot seldom revolving around telephone conversation. There is one exception with a call from Oscar-winner Sissy Spacek, but it is too funny for words.

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17340422I WON’T apologize here for not giving the star of this escapade her full due! I guess I think too much of Bette Midler to try to analyze her.

She is a highly-intelligent and gifted pop culture star from the past and through the years. But, the very Hollywood that Sue Mengers so adored, ill-used Bette Midler. She did not win the Oscar when she starred in “The Rose” and she should have won! After that, there was a bit of downhill when it came to acting roles for Bette. However, she re-invented herself for Disney in a series of wildly popular comedies. But now she proves again that she is much more than a brash comedienne or a bouncy, wise-cracking singer in a mermaid’s tail. Bette Midler is a fabulous, serious, actor!

That she is also a great philanthropist for picking up garbage and making her Restoration Project parks and memorials beautiful, well, that goes without saying. She is a perfect citizen, a wife, mother, producer, singer, joke teller, secret intellect, and terrific to know. I love Bette as much as Sue loved her stars; so I won’t go on.

You’ll really be missing something if you miss the variety of philosophy, chutzpah, and art onstage in “I’ll Eat You Last.” Sue Mengers would have loved her stage obit performed by a real star who is a sister act to the star Sue loved and cherished most!

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This column originally appeared on NYSocialDiary.com on 4/29/13

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