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Thursday, July 22, 2010

Review: 'Men Who Would Be King'

THE MEN WHO WOULD BE KING
By Nicole LaPorte
Nonfiction
May 2010
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
ISBN: 978-0-547-13470-3

Once upon a time, three boy-men thought they were pretty good at what they did and pretty important. So did the rest of the world. Then they joined forces, formed DreamWorks SKG and it all fell apart.

Putting the story of Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen together in an easily understood format, despite a huge cast, special effects and multiple storylines, is former Variety reporter Nicole LaPorte. Her book is as detailed as the great entertainment biz reporting of the 80's and 90's by Connie Bruck, Bryan Burrough and Ken Auletta in Vanity Fair and The New Yorker.

All the background noise fades, though, in making clear that the broken promise of this would-be indepedent Hollywood live film, animation, TV, music and game behemoth came down to the personal stories of its founders.


LaPorte shows through carefully documented reporting that Spielberg and Katzenberg, creative and successful, were dependent on father figures in their careers and floundered without them. Katzenberg and Geffen were motivated by the desire for revenge. Katzenberg went to court for millions after Disney head Michael Eisner kicked him out even after he shepherded in the great animated film renaissance. Geffen was determined to destroy uber agent Michael Ovitz, who destroyed his own career when he went to Disney and ended up with the ultimate golden parachute of $140 million for trying to run the company into the ground. (And, yes, it's easy to see how rewarding this kind of behavior has led to all kinds of messes in business far beyond Hollywood.)

It's the cult of personal relationships, who is close to the big three -- especially Spielberg -- and the problems of putting ego and being right ahead of everything else that sunk DreamWorks. From the beginning, the enterprise was probably doomed when people were not named to specific jobs, but were supposed to drift toward the jobs that suited them best. As a single creative person that may work, but when works of art that are collaborative projects are at stake, confusion reigned.

That LaPorte can spell out how this happened without condemning the big three, or their principal employees, makes this book valuable as the first draft of the latest chapter of Hollywood history. This is old-fashioned journalism that chronicles what happened without the spin. The who, what and why of how individual films came to be made or not, and the fates of the other divisions of DreamWorks, build into a coherent whole. Putting together the technical and political stories of how the first Shrek film came to be made is a prime example of how well LaPorte weaves together complex maneuverings.

The story of what happened to DreamWorks doesn't chronicle only the hubris, talent and mistakes of Spielberg, Katzenberg and Geffen. It also shows what Hollywood was like during its last heyday before it was completely taken over by multinational corporations interested only in bigger and better profits. This is the story of Hollywood excess as the 20th century closed and a new age began. It's doubtful we'll see its like again.

© 2010 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reprinted with permission

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