Slater's 'Oritz' -- only in America

THE BALTIMORE SUN

"Ovitz," by Robert Slater. McGraw Hill. 360 pages. $22.95

"Ovitz" begins like one of the action thrillers that roll off Hollywood's assembly lines for the summer. You know: the set piece before the movie titles: little girl wanders off from picnic and provides lunch for prehistoric creatures ("The Lost World"); or the earthquakes, or the volcano rumbles. In this case, the erupting disaster is Michael Ovitz the man, billed as "Hollywood's most controversial power broker." When the first scene is over, we know all we need to know about him, Hollywood, and power.

That opening scene of "Ovitz" takes place in January 1996. Ovitz has been president of the Walt Disney Company for four months, and is already struggling in the job. Casual followers of business news can recall that he was out at Disney by the end of 1996, $90 million richer thanks to his severance package. In the nearest approximation to reality that "Ovitz" achieves, author Slater notes an "incredible irony when many people heard the name Michael Ovitz mentioned, their next thought automatically would be, 'Oh he's the guy that Disney paid all that money to get rid of.' " Why is this ironic, let alone "incredibly ironic"? Well, because Ovitz was "the most influential figure in the Hollywood of his day." That's it?

But that opening's a grabber. Slater, biographer of businessmen (George Soros, Jack Welsh), informs a Disney public relations executive that Ovitz is the subject of his next book. An Ovitz secretary calls ... to tell Slater to expect a call from Ovitz in 45 minutes. Over the phone, Ovitz arranges a meeting; after much thought, Ovitz agrees to the project, adding that he'll give Slater the names of 25 people who should be interviewed. Two days later, Slater gets 70 names (with phone numbers), all former clients of Ovitz' when he ran the talent agency, Creative Artists Agency.

Slater begins calling. Two hours later, his phone rings. David Letterman? Sean Connery? No, Ovitz, who erupts angrily; the stars are checking in with him, and he's panicked that "the media" will find out about the project, and think "he's trying to promote himself." Slater must hold all calls. Eventually, Ovitz agrees to co-operate. Now Ovitz works the phones, in trademark CAA agent style. Magic Johnson later tells Slater that Ovitz called five times to make sure the former Lakers player chatted up the writer.

Then, unfortunately, the actual "Ovitz" begins. Nothing can live up to the hook, for Ovitz the man is not really about power or business or even movies themselves. In a stunning revelation that Slater never takes the time to discuss, Ovitz tells the author that he has no favorite performers or, for that matter, any favorite films. Actors and actresses, Ovitz says dismissively, only want to talk about their movies.

In the end, Ovitz the man is about image, and how Ovitz perceives himself. Incredulity, shock, disgust may have greeted the Disney handshake: $90 million, what an obscenity. But Ovitz wants you to know the actual sum was $128 million. As he says: "I just made a smart deal for myself. ...This is America. this isn't the Soviet Union."

Note to script writer: Dialogue needs work.

Edwin Diamond teaches journalism at NYU. The paperback edition of his book, "White House to Your House: Media and Politics in Virtual America," was published this month by MIT Press. Pub Date: 6/01/97

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