The Talent Oligopoly
The Talent Oligopoly
The industry's evolution during the 1980s concealed a paradox. Complicating their drive to keep all revenue streams in-house, the majors failed to control a vitally important resource—the talent required for making films. During the 1930s and 1940s, the major studio-distributors maintained repositories of in-house talent that they kept under long-term contract. Such an arrangement assured relatively stable relations with the personnel needed for production, and the old-line studio moguls treated most of their directors, screenwriters, and actors like what they were—studio employees. As producer Bernie Brillstein noted, "When Spencer Tracy [under contract to MGM's Louis B. Mayer] wanted to make a movie for Columbia, he had to beg Mayer to let him."1
By contrast, in the 1980s the majors labored under the constraints that had prevailed since the 1947 divestiture ruling and the industry changes that it helped to instigate. Chief among these were the dissolution of in-house talent repositories and the major studios' abilities to function as centers of film production, rather than, as in the eighties, centers of financing and distribution with downscaled production operations. As a result, the majors had to bid for the services of actors, directors, and screenwriters. Talent agents represented performers, writers, directors, and other personnel for hire, while entertainment lawyers would take the point when negotiating for a producer aiming to get a project going or when negotiations turned on fine legal distinctions. As deal making became essential to film production and the number of people with whom deals had to be struck increased, the industry grew more decentralized. This development was antithetical to the major's efforts to consolidate power in the 1980s, and the tension it created no doubt fueled the industry's drive to control those segments of the maket that it could. Writer-director Frank Pierson noted the dispersion of deal-making authority in the eighties' industry: "The major difficulty today is that the studio system has become so fragmented that virtually every single idea is developed as a separate enterprise of its own."2 Industry agent Rick Ray stressed that the dispersion of authority created an impediment to film production:
One of the major changes in the business is that while there used to be a small coterie of studios to which you would go [to make a picture], today we have an operative list … [of] hundreds of people, any one of whom can be instrumental in getting something sold or getting something off the ground. [Consequently] it's fifteen times as difficult today as it used to be. You have a widely separated industry sprawled all over the place.3
Analyzing the industry's financing practices, Institutional Investor emphasized the importance of deal making in the culture of Hollywood: "Hollywood is about making deals—and movies on the side. And to watch the money move, you need go no farther than the right restaurants. At Le Dome, Mortons, the Palm Court, within marbled and mirrored walls, behind palms, amid the ringing of cellular phones, billions of dollars are spent brokering talent, distribution rights, film libraries, whole companies."4
The emergence of agents and lawyers as industry power brokers, packaging and facilitating deals, was not a phenomenon originating in the eighties, but in that decade the results of their clout assumed stark clarity. The results were threefold: they fueled the inflation that gripped the industry, cartelized talent, and delimited the powers of studio executives. The first of these, inflation, has been covered in detail in other chapters. The agents' contribution to this lay in the 10 percent commission that they routinely levied on the salaries they negotiated for their clients. This created an incentive to negotiate for ever higher salaries. The higher the salary, the bigger the commission, and as the pay of star actors, directors, and screenwriters escalated throughout the period, agents got richer. Jack Nicholson commanded a $50 million fee for playing the Joker in Batman (1989). Joe Eszterhas became the hightest-paid screenwriter in the business, earning $1.25 million per script for Flashdance (1983) and Jagged Edge (1985). The escalating of fees commanded by the industry's top talent fueled the industry's inflationary spiral, adding greatly to negative costs. The situation was exacerbated by the majors' need to compete with each other for the services of leading actors, writers, and directors. With these talents in short supply and great demand, the majors bid exorbitantly to secure them.
The majors had no choice in the matter. The industry's three leading talent agencies—William Morris, Creative Artists Agency (CAA), and International Creative Management (ICM)—were, effectively, a cartel. To get talent, the majors had to do business with them, and in doing so studio executives found that their powers were considerably more limited than in earlier decades, when majors would simply acquire literary or other creative properties for their in-house filmmakers to go to work on. With talent now outside the majors, executives found themselves relying on agents for information about properties in development, the availability of stars or directors and their interest in specific projects, and the availability of packaged talent, that is, a script, star, and director all signed to a project and usually represented by the agent who had assembled the package. In this way, agents insinuated themselves into the industry's networks of power and became indispensible for the operation of the business. Moreover, the balance of power began to shift from the majors to the agents because the latter controlled the talent. ICM's best-known agent was Sue Mengers, in the 1970s one of the industry's most powerful figures and in the 1980s coming out of retirement to head (briefly) the William Morris agency. Mengers pointed to the power shift that had occurred: "Right now agents have more power than the studios. Studios need the agents because the agents are the major suppliers of talent and material." Mengers contrasted this with the marginal and despised role played by agents in earlier periods when the industry might still shut them out of the production process. "What used to drive us crazy is that we would work very hard to help put a picture together and then the picture would be finished, there would be a preview, and we would be told that no agents were allowed." She noted with satisfaction that the majors had been forced to deal with agents as powerful and respected intermediaries. "Only recently has that [marginalization of agents by the majors] stopped because some of us said, 'The hell with you. How dare you? We made as much of a contribution to this film as this studio did.' Slowly now the image of the agent is returning to one of much more importance, much more respect."5
The career corridor that connected agents with top executive posts in the majors was the clearest sign of this importance and respect. ICM agent Mike Medavoy left ICM to become production chief at Orion. Guy McElwaine left ICM to become chairman of Columbia Pictures. After managing his own agency, Creative Management Associates (CMA), Freddie Fields went on to become president of MGM/UA. Easily the most spectacular agency head in the eighties, Michael Ovitz segued from building CAA into the most powerful of the industry's power brokers to stage-managing the Matsushita buy of MCA/Universal, and still he aimed for a bigger power base. An Ovitz colleague pointed out, "CAA is just a bridge he is building so that he can take over Columbia Pictures, MGM/UA or MCA. Michael would like to end up as the Lew Wasserman of his day."6 (Wasserman was the long time head of MCA.) In the 1990s, Ovitz got his wish when he became the head of Disney.
The career trajectory tying agents to top industry posts was a function of the close ties between agents and their clients. The majors, and their corporate owners, valued those individuals who knew talent and had the savvy to assemble and market it. These skills were integral to the business of filmmaking, and the move by agents into the executive suites of the majors was a tacit recognition that agents controlled an information base essential for the industry. As agent Robert Littman pointed out, "One of the reasons agents are constantly hired as heads of studios is because the establishment, the banks and lawyers, think that agents are the people with the closest relationship with their clients."7 Thus, the paradox of eighties Hollywood was that, to a significant degree, the agents got films made, and the majors attempted to recoup this ability by hiring agents to helm top executive posts. But from the standpoint of talent, the majors were on the outside and were forced to compete for the services they needed in order to get product to fund their distribution arms. And the secret of any cartel's success is to wield power by virtue of its horizontal control of the market. By controlling talent, agents came close to controlling the business. And the top stars, directors, and writers found that their greatest profit potential came from NOT aligning themselves with the majors. As the Economist noted, "Well-organised talent … will always make more money from feeding the new conglomerates' distribution machines than from joining them," and concluded, "The entertainment industry has found itself on the wrong side of the most painful form of cartel—one that controls its raw material."8
The cartelizing of top industry talent was a function of the competition between William Morris, CAA, and ICM as they vied for industry dominance. This competition produced dramatic changes in the fortunes of these firms, and the most spectacular of these was the decline of Morris and the ascendancy of CAA. In the mid-1980s, Morris was a behemoth, the largest talent agency in the world, with 550 agents and two thousand clients. Unlike CAA, which was a Hollywood-specific agency when it began in 1975, Morris represented clients in advertising, music, television, and many nonmedia fields as well as film. Its television revenues were especially important. In 1988, when the company was on a slide in Hollywood, losing many big-name movie clients, the firm earned record revenues of $60 million.9 Much of this was due to the success of "The Cosby Show," which it helped package, as well as other popular prime-time shows ("Matlock," "A Different World," "Murphy Brown"). (Unlike the practice with film clients of extracting a 10 percent commission from their individual salaries, an agency that packages a network show, as Morris did with "Cosby," may claim 6-10 percent of the show's production budget.)10
Unlike CAA and ICM, Morris was also the oldest of the top Hollywood agencies, founded in 1887 by William Morris, a German immigrant. The agency helped guide the careers of such figures as Charles Chaplin, Elvis Presley, and Marilyn Monroe. When Morris died in 1932, control of the agency passed to Abe Lastfogel, who ran the firm until his death in 1984. With Lastfogel's long tenure at the helm, the Morris agency was distinguished by an extraordinarily stable bureaucracy. Top executives stayed in their posts for many years, and as they aged, the Morris image assumed graying tones. On the one hand, this was a positive feature in the Hollywood milieu, where turnover in executive positions was extremely fast. In this climate, the Morris agency seemed mature and orderly, a bedrock in a volatile community. On the other hand, though, this feature made the agency appear stodgy, slow to respond and out of touch with rapidly changing developments in a fast-moving town. This perception helped feed the crisis that bled Morris of its film agents and clients in the latter half of the eighties. In 1989 Forbes posed this Hollywood joke: "How do you commit the perfect murder? Kill your wife and go to work for the Morris Agency. They'll never find you."11 In 1991, Forbes asked, "Is the William Morris Agency finally ready to admit that Marilyn Monroe is dead?"12
As the eighties began, Morris boasted a healthy share of the Hollywood market and reaped benefits from the historical prestige accruing to its name. Its film agents included Lenny Hirshan (representing Clint Eastwood, Jack Lemmon, and Walter Matthau), Ed Bondy (representing Ann-Margret, Michael Douglas, Diane Keaton, Henry Winkler, and John Travolta), Ed Limato (representing Richard Gere and Mel Gibson), and Rick Nicita (representing Sissy Spacek, Christopher Walken, and Eric Roberts).13 These agents, though, were lesser figures compared with Stan Kamen, the most powerful Hollywood agent in the first half of the decade. Kamen's name was legendary around town, and his roster of clients and studio contacts was unrivaled. Kamen's power derived in large part from his close relationships with studio executives and others in the Hollywod power elite, and it no doubt helped to reify the tradition of these partnerships. Kamen was particularly close to producer Ray Stark (Seems Like Old Times , Annie , The Slugger's Wife , Brighton Beach Memoirs , Biloxi Blues , Steel Magnolias ), a powerful figure who had the clout to get his projects made with backing and distribution by the majors. Stark's California Suite (1978) (directed by Herbert Ross for Columbia Pictures) featured a plethora of Morris clients: Alan Alda, Jill Clayburgh, Bill Cosby, Jane Fonda, Walter Matthau.14 Kamen's friendship with Barry Diller at Paramount and with Alan Ladd, Jr., at Fox helped him place his client Alan Pakula with Paramount as the director of Starting Over (1979) and client Robert Redford with Fox as the star of Brubaker (1980).
One of the ultimate Hollywood insiders, Kamen used his connections with the majors to make things happen for his clients. Barbra Streisand, for example, was keenly interested in Yentl, a property about a Jewish woman passing as a young man, but she had been unable to attract studio interest in it until she brought it to Kamen. Streisand and her agent, Sue Mengers, had had a falling out after Mengers pressed Streisand to make All Night Long (1981), an unusual comedy about a drugstore manager (Gene Hackman) who romances a housewife (Streisand). As directed by Jean-Claude Tramont (Mengers's husband), the film was sweet and charming in a low-key way, but Streisand disliked her role and felt that Hackman was the real star of the picture. By the time of the pictures release, considerable tension had developed between Streisand and Mengers, and this was augmented by Mengers's opposition to the Yentl project. (Despite this opposition, Mengers managed to make a deal for it with Orion, but in 1980 Orion withdrew its backing.) Committed to Yentl, Streisand contacted an entertainment lawyer who put her in touch with Kamen, and he began shopping the project around town with the objective of attracting a studio backer. With Streisand's help, he secured the backing of United Artists, and in this regard, his relationship with UA demonstrates how powerful an agent of Kamen's stature was in the deal-making process. At the time Kamen was pitching a deal for Yentl, UA was staggering through the failure of Heaven's Gate (1980), a project that Kamen had helped negotiate for his client, Michael Cimino. Cimino's spendthrift ways had bankrupted UA, yet even as the company went down, it continued doing business with Kamen. The agent emerged unscathed from the fiasco, and this remarkable development provides an important insight into the place agents occupied in the industry. They were valued for their ability to make things happen, to bring people together and get productions going. What occurred after that point was moot. A film's success or failure was the responsibility of the talent and the studio. If the agent could make the deal, he or she had power, and from that power came the longevity to survive in a business littered with productions that had flamed and crashed at the box office. The agent made the deal, prospered, and moved on to the next one.
On the other hand, however, an agent's power rested on such intangibles as the belief of clients that he or she was giving them better representation than a rival agency might provide. An agent created business opportunities by courting and signing clients, and with over two hundred talent agencies in Hollywood, the danger always existed that rivals would poach clients. The defection of one or two big-name clients would damage an agent's symbolic cachet, and Kamen saw ominous signs of this occurring by the mid-1980s. In rapid succession, he lost Burt Reynolds, Robert Redford, Sylvester Stallone, and Jane Fonda, all but Reynolds to CAA. The desertions left an indelible impression that Kamen's industry power was slipping, and this decline unfortunately occurred as the end of Kamen's life rapidly approached. On 25 October 1984, the industry hosted a benefit recognizing Kamen's contributions to motion pictures. The industry's power base turned out to honor him. Attending were MCA head Lew Wasserman, MGM/UA's Frank Yablans, Fox chair Barry Diller, Warner Bros. chair Robert Daly, agent Sue Mengers, NBC chair Grant Tinker, actor Warren Beatty (a power broker in his own right, much more so than an actor), and assorted producers, directors, and stars. It was a brief but public moment of glory, after which Kamen fell ill with AIDS, and as his health declined, he witnessed the defection of his clients and other Morris agents. On 20 February 1986, Kamen died, and his passing emblemized an official transition of power, the death of one king and the enshrinement of another.
Michael Ovitz had been making serious inroads on the Morris clientele for years prior to Kamen's death, and he had built CAA by mid-decade into the industry's emerging star. The effloresence of CAA came at the expense of Morris and was so striking because of CAA's stunning success at raiding Morris of its top clients and agents. For the Morris agency, CAA's success was especially irksome because Ovitz and his four founding copartners had been Morris agents. The five abruptly left Morris following the 1974 year-end firing of Phil Weltman, who had been a mentor for the younger group. Five years after its founding, CAA remained a small player in Hollywood, with just nineteen agents and two hundred clients.15 While it represented some fairly prominent Hollywood figures—directors Richard Donner and Ivan Reitman, for example—CAA lacked a roster of major clients that could propel it to the forefront of the industry. Noted for his shrewdness, persistence, and determination (sharklike, said his detractors), Ovitz set out to win major names. So impressive was his success in signing them that he became a bigger player in the eyes of the industry than any of those he brought to CAA. He carefully cultivated relationships with prominent entertainment lawyers, and these steered him to many of their big-name clients. Sean Connery had established his reputation as the first (and for many still the only) James Bond, but after leaving the Bond franchise with Diamonds Are Forever (1971), Connery's career had been in a stall, and he was eager for new representation. Orion Pictures' Mike Medavoy put him in touch with tax lawyer Gary Hendler (whose clients included Sydney Pollack, Robert Redford, and Paul Newman, all of whom Ovitz would sign for CAA), and Hendler steered him to Ovitz. Connery was impressed with Ovitz's directness and vision for CAA, in particular his emphasis on packaging the right people and properties and his reluctance to make easy and empty promises:
He wasn't making any great, monumental claims. He said that he wanted an office that would have the best writers and directors, with the best actors and actresses. He foresaw the idea of packaging. Putting together creative and talented people was very much in his game plan. Nobody talked quite that way to me. They all talked about how good they had done in the past.16
Connery signed with Ovitz in February 1979 and was the agency's first big-name client. The following year, Paul Newman signed with CAA. Like Connery, he was looking to rejuvenate his career after a series of films with poor box office, and he too was impressed with Ovitz's market savvy and complex character:
He's a cross between a barracuda and Mother Teresa. He's a tough and crafty businessman, and I mean that in the best sense of the word. He's sly like a fox, but that's the only way you can survive in that agency business. But he also has a generosity of spirit that people are not accustomed to seeing…. I expect that he'll own most of southern California in the next seven or eight years…. Ovitz is like a driver who knows how to lead a race and how to win. He's a great mediator.17
If Newman was fascinated with Ovitz and his multifarious personality, he was not alone. Michael Ovitz would become the most discussed and debated agent in Hollywood history, the center of tremendous industry and media attention. Yet in the early and mid-1980s, he was a largely private and secretive figure who avoided personal publicity and preferred that little information about CAA be made public. During these years he became widely known inside the industry, if not in the media, for his stunning coups in winning clients for CAA.
After Newman, Ovitz next bagged Dustin Hoffman, another signing that transpired through the interstices of an entertainment lawyer, Bert Fields, who had Hoffman as one of his clients. Hoffman signed with Ovitz in 1980, and in 1981 Ovitz won another Hendler client, director Sydney Pollack. Pollack introduced Ovitz to his friend and frequent collaborator Robert Redford, and sixteen days after he had signed Pollack, Ovitz won Redford to CAA. Redford signed in March, and in July Ovitz made a direct pitch to Sylvester Stallone and signed him to CAA.
By signing these major players, Ovitz made CAA into an industry presence, and he demonstrated vision (or luck) in his dealings with clients who had not yet established viable careers. Producer Stanley Jaffe asked Ovitz to look at his just completed film, Taps (1981), and a young actor named Tom Cruise, who had a small, supporting role alongside topliners George C. Scott and Timothy Hutton. Ovitz told author Robert Slater about the tremendous impression Cruise made upon him during their initial meeting: "He sat down on the couch across from us, and we were knocked out. He had this quiet energy. His eyes sort of danced. He had this infectious smile. He was the single politest man I'd ever met. No arrogance or cockiness. I just fell in love with the guy. He was terribly centered." Convinced that Cruise could have a tremendous career, Ovitz signed him with CAA, and Cruise, in turn, was impressed with the respect accorded him by CAA, in particular the way Ovitz and the agency treated him as a major star (which, as yet, he was not). Regarding Ovitz, Cruise said, "He didn't treat me any differently. I wasn't making him that much money compared to Paul Newman, Dustin Hoffman, or Sydney Pollack…. He made me feel like I had a home at CAA, and with him."18
In the next few years, Ovitz signed Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, and Jane Fonda. The process accelerated after Stan Kamen's death. Illustrating the symbiotic relationship prevailing between talent agencies and the majors, Warner Bros. chair and co-CEO Terry Semel spoke with a number of regular Warners performers to persuade them to go with CAA now that Kamen was gone. These included Barbra Streisand, Goldie Hawn, Chevy Chase, and Meryl Streep, all of whom signed with CAA. Ovitz's firm had impressed Semel with the aggressive way it promoted its clients' careers. Semel said, "We saw Stan's death as a good opportunity for some of our clients to go to CAA. CAA was a good place, with aggressive people who were probably going to lead the 1980s and 1990s in their field. We are the largest producer of movies in the last twenty years, and CAA was building the largest list of stars."19 A few months after Kamen's death, most of his clients had gone over to CAA.
His extraordinary roster of talent gave Ovitz production capabilities and industry connections that surpassed those of his competitors. Legendary Hollywood agent Irving ("Swifty") Lazar commented, "There hasn't been a phenomenon such as CAA since 1947, when Lew Wasserman and MCA dominated Hollywood. Comparing CAA to its strongest competition is like comparing Tiffany's to the A&P."20 At its most striking level, Ovitz's success gave him tremendous leverage over film production. In supplying material for production, CAA maintained a close working relationship with the majors as well as with smaller production companies, such as Castle Rock Entertainment. Castle Rock had been formed by CAA client Rob Reiner, whose career shift from acting (most notably on televisions "All in the Family") to directing (Stand by Me , The Princess Bride , When Harry Met Sally ) Ovitz had coached. CAA's relationship with Castle Rock was special. In exchange for finding material and properties for the production company, CAA received $50,000 on every Castle Rock production and $200,000 for those directed by Reiner.22
In developing material for production, CAA used an aggressive and shrewd appoach. Despite CAA's nominal status as an agency outside the majors, this approach enabled Ovitz to effectively green-light productions. Though CAA was not a production company or a distributor, it nevertheless got films made, through the packaging of talent, almost as if it were a firm that functioned in these capacities. "Packaging" was not new to the business, but Ovitz made it the hallmark of the CAA approach, and it is the business practice that is perhaps most closely associated with his tenure. By floating to the majors a package of readily assembled talent (screenwriter, director, stars), Ovitz could leverage production deals in a highly persuasive way. Accepting the package made the studio executive's job much easier. It eliminated the need to expend resources securing a property and the requisite talent and negotiating with all of the agents that would be involved in striking separate, individual deals for the project. Instead of diffusing energy and resources in this fashion, it was more tempting to sign off on the package. Indeed, it was often imperative because a competing major would get it if declined. Thus, with packages, Ovitz encroached upon actual filmmaking territory, and some industry figures resented this as an intrusion on their prerogatives. Producer Don Simpson, for example, bristled at the production authority that was inherent in the package deal on the part of its assembler. He recalled fighting with CAA over the right to make decisions about who would participate in a given production. "We would get into big fights. I would say I'm not interested in so-and-so. I'm interested in the idea and the writer. We will make the choices as to who will produce it, and who will direct it."22
Ovitz's first major package resulted in Tootsie (1982), which featured the participation of CAA clients Dustin Hoffman, Bill Murray, and Sydney Pollack (working in a dual capacity as a performer in the film and the film's director).23 Ovitz determined to bring Pollack into the project when its original director, Hal Ashby, left. Pollack was reluctant to participate because, at the time, he enjoyed making dramas and doubted the material and his facility with comedy. But Ovitz pursued him relentlessly, with a barrage of phone calls, and eventually offered to secure him his full director's salary for a week of work on the screenplay with its writers and Dustin Hoffman. Ovitz apparently hoped that this week of close work would hook Pollack on the material, and it evidently did. Pollack signed on, and Ovitz notified Columbia that the package was complete. Tootsie was the second highest grossing picture of its year, and it was an early public acknowledgment of Ovitz's emerging status in the industry. In the film, Pollack plays a powerbrokering talent agent, and on the wall of his office hangs the CAA logo.
Other films packaged by CAA included Rhinestone (1984), Gorillas in the Mist (1988), and Rain Man (1988). While the latter two films are fine and distinguished pictures, the former exemplifies the waste and irrationality that often typify Hollywood production. The momentum created by an enticing package could overrule sound creative decision making, particularly assessments about whether the right talent was participating in a given project. In short, packaging could drive production decisions and result in films that were deformed in various ways, worse than they might have been, or in pictures that shouldn't have existed. According to one studio executive, "CAA packages are a prefab, take-it-or-leave-it way of making movies. Some pictures get made that maybe shouldn't be made."24
Rhinestone began with a strong script by Phil Alden Robinson and a decision by Fox executive Joe Wizan that the picture should be made with major stars. Dolly Parton, a CAA client, signed on for the female lead, and as Fox considered prospects for the male lead, CAA suggested they take Sylvester Stallone. Stallone had just finished Rocky III (1982) and had directed John Travolta in Staying Alive (1983), which had been trashed by the critics but had done reasonable business. After Staying Alive, Rhinestone would be Stallone's second musical. He signed on and began to rewrite Robinsons script, altering the characters, removing the texture, enlarging his role, and making his character tougher. Stallone also selected the picture's director, choosing Don Zimmerman, his editor on Rocky III. Zimmerman had never directed before, and he soon found that Stallone was the film's de facto director. With his authority on the set undermined, Zimmerman lasted three weeks before he was fired. The director chosen to replace him, Bob Clark (Porky's ), was another CAA client. Although Clark inherited a script, now substantially different from Robinson's original, over which he had had no influence and a willful star who seemed to prefer to direct himself, he completed the film without further incident. When Fox released the picture, however, viewers stayed away, and the picture recouped only a portion of its $28 million budget. It became one of many poorly performing Fox films, a record that influenced owner Marvin Davis's decision to unload the studio. Robinson publicly criticized the poor handling of his script and said, "I think the lesson for the town is that you can't let a good script be thrown away." Zimmerman felt that the power dynamics in the business were out of balance and that many individuals were invested with creative authority not properly their own. "The lesson to learn is the danger of the Hollywood syndrome. Basically the power has left the producing element and has just run out of control."25
Screenwriter Joe Eszterhas believed he had come up against that power and wrath in what became a highly visible and public clash with Ovitz. Before signing with CAA, Eszterhas had been represented by ICM's Guy McElwaine, but McElwaine had left the agency business to run Columbia Pictures. When McElwaine decided to return to ICM in 1989, Eszterhas felt that he should go with him. He claims that when he informed Ovitz of his wish, the CAA head threatened to sue him, to tie him up in court and ruin his career should he leave CAA. In what became the incident's most notorious tag line, Ovitz said, according to Eszterhas, "My foot soldiers who go up and down Wilshire Boulevard each day will blow your brains out."26 The flap was widely reported in the media, and it tarnished Ovitz's image with its suggestions of a none-too-benign exercise of power.
While the packaging of Rhinestone had worked to the detriment of the picture, in the case of Rain Man CAA'S influence produced a decidedly happier result. The critically acclaimed film examined the relationship between two brothers, one of whom is autistic. For a long time at the outset the picture was mired in seemingly insoluable problems as one director after another withdrew. The package had been set up for United Artists with Martin Brest directing and Dustin Hoffman starring. Hoffman, playing the autistic Raymond, wanted Mickey Rourke to play the role of Raymond's younger brother, but Tom Cruise's agent at CAA felt the role was right for him. With Ovitz backing Cruise for the part, he won the role. "Mike fought for me, and they cast me in it," Cruise recalled.27 Brest, though, failed to find the script sufficiently interesting and abandoned the project. Operating a bit like a studio mogul of old, Ovitz went to CAA's in-house talent reservoir and recruited the people he needed. He contacted two directors, both CAA clients. Sydney Pollack declined, believing that the film's last act, when the brothers travel by car to Las Vegas, presented an insoluble structural weakness. Barry Levinson (Diner ; Good Morning, Vietnam ), though, felt he could make it work by stressing the deepening relationship between the brothers, and he agreed to direct. When the picture was released, it generated huge box office as the year's top-earning film and garnered superb reviews from the nation's critics. But for more than two years it had been a project in limbo, a script with stars attached but no director and with management at UA who doubted that a director could be found. During this period, Ovitz held the project together by convincing Hoffman and Cruise that the picture would get made and that it would be an important film. Hoffman, Levinson and the chairman of United Artists all agreed that Ovitz's commitment to the project and his determination to make it happen were the critical factors in keeping it alive, and each acknowledged his pivotal role in the genesis of the film.
Ovitz was clearly functioning as more than a talent agent. To promote the careers of CAA clients, he used his considerable industry power and close connections to the majors to package productions, and then, when the project was under way, he worked like a film producer, ensuring that the projects stayed on track. His ambitions carried him beyond the parameters of talent promotion as it had been traditionally defined (i.e., finding work for clients) and toward a more expansive kind of power brokering where he might facilitate not just an individual's career or a film's production but corporate transactions at their highest level and even the daily operations of a film major. Toward the end of the decade, Ovitz put these ambitions into play by participating in the efforts of Sony and Matsushita to buy a Hollywood major.28 In 1988, Sony hired Ovitz as a consultant, and he fed the Japanese corporation information on several prospective buys. But these—MCA and MGM/UA—the electronics giant turned down. Sony was interested in Columbia Pictures Entertainment, and Ovitz analyzed the value of CPE for Sony. After the purchase, Sony asked Ovitz to head the studio and offered to buy and then resell CAA in a deal that would have made Ovitz $100 million. But he asked, in addition, to run Sony's record division, an arrangement that would have doubled the value of Sony's offer, and Sony declined. Ovitz was out, and Jon Peters and Peter Guber were in (see ch. 2).
Concurrent with the Sony transactions, Ovitz sought a buyer for MCA and looked at other Japanese multinational corporations. Matsushita expressed interest, and Ovitz lined up a CAA team to facilitate the international dealings. Ovitz made several trips to Hawaii and Japan, and although negotiations stalled during the next year over the price of MCA stock, the deal eventually went through. In both the Sony and Matsushita deals, the Japanese placed a high value on Ovitz's services and relied on him as an intermediary rather than going directly to Columbia or MCA. The commodity that Ovitz offered the Japanese was information, gleaned from the core business elements of the industry. In this regard, Ovitz performed a function in the negotiations that usurped the more traditional role played by the community of investment bankers. As one banker said, "All of us knew Sony and Matsushita had interests in the movie companies. But they didn't need us. The only thing that was important to them was to have high-level contacts, insiders who could advise them on who was the best management." Joe Cohen, a Hollywood financial consultant, pointed out that the Japanese wanted information from people who really knew the business. "The Japanese understand one thing—Wall Street doesn't understand Hollywood at all. And the guys who know this town can be counted on one hand."29 The Japanese valued Ovitz's prominence in the industry and the unique stock of confidential information that he had accrued. His role as consultant in these two megadeals boosted his already impressive industry cachet. Fittingly, his power, long known inside Hollywood, was now publicly acknowledged. In May 1990, Premiere magazine published its first list of the Hollywood power elite. Topping the list of one hundred names was Michael Ovitz.
The third major Hollywood agency, International Creative Management, was neither as old as Morris nor as focused in its corporate structure as CAA. ICM founder Marvin Josephson cobbled together a series of smaller talent agencies—the Ashley Famous Agency purchased in the 1960s, and Creative Management Associates, purchased in 1975—and housed them under a conglomerate umbrella company, Josephson International. In the early 1980s, Josephson International diversified with purchases of office supply companies, radio stations, and a stock brokerage firm and saw dismal results. With its new acquisitions losing money, Josephson unloaded them and took ICM private. While this resulted in a $62 million bank debt, Josephson installed new officers at the head of ICM and launched an aggressive bid to expand the company's share of the talent agency market. In the early 1990s, ICM returned to profitability and had 150 agents representing more than two thousand clients.30 ICM's bid for expanded power in Hollywood coincided with the weakening of the Morris agency, which enabled ICM to mount some spectacular raids of the Morris constituency. In 1988, ICM snagged top Morris agent Ed Limato, who brought his clients Michelle Pfeiffer, Mel Gibson, and Richard Gere with him. Then in 1991 ICM bled Morris badly by taking five of its agents and their clients, including Julia Roberts, Tim Robbins, Andie MacDowell, Anne Bancroft, Jason Robards, Anjelica Huston, James Spader, and directors Alan Pakula and Norman Jewison. With this shift in the balance of power, ICM emerged into the number two agency spot, behind CAA.
While the majors established intimate relationships with the talent agencies, they took steps to circumvent their power. The multipicture contract was one such step. The majors sought to sign prominent directors, actors, producers, and screenwriters to multiple picture deals. While the terms of these deals were very favorable for talent, the studios also gained by minimizing the need to strike deals on each project with a talent agency intermediary. Paramount, for example, signed producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer to a multipicture deal. More famously, Paramount signed Eddie Murphy, then at the crest of his eighties career, to an exclusive five-picture contract that was promptly revised and renewed after completion of the first picture, Beverly Hills Cop II (1987). Under the terms of the revised contract, Murphy's per picture salary was just under $16 million, in a comparable range with Sylvester Stallone's salary as one of the top-paid actors in the business. Furthermore, Murphy would be entitled to develop and produce additional features and television shows for his companies, Eddie Murphy Productions and Eddie Murphy TV Enterprises. During a press conference held to announce the new contract, Murphy said that he felt justified in pressing Paramount for new terms because of the success of Beverly Hills Cop II, which was the highest-grossing film of the year. The renegotiation of existing contracts is a normative affair in Hollywood, Murphy said, and it was natural to aim for as much money as he could get. "When you make a deal to … do like five pictures, and the first did so well, we went back and said, 'Hey, let's renegotiate.' This is a business where you renegotiate deals. Do I believe in living up to contracts? Yes. Do I believe in being underpaid for something I do? No."31
While Paramount believed it made good business sense to strike a multipicture deal with Murphy, its strategem was defeated, to some extent, by Murphy's popular success, which compelled Paramount negotiate anew with his lawyers and agency. Furthermore, Murphy's association with Paramount brought the studio one of the messiest Hollywood lawsuits of the decade, a suit that clarified some fundamentals about the relationship between the majors and the agencies. After the release of Murphy's Coming to America (1988), syndicated columnist Art Buchwald and film producer Alan Bernheim sued Paramount, claiming the picture was based on a treatment (a several-page prose summary of a proposed film) that Buchwald sold Bernheim in 1983. As Bernheim was a Morris client, the trial pitted Paramount against the Morris agency, whose business depended on safeguarding the privacy of its clients' business affairs. On 8 January 1990, the trial judge upheld Buchwald's claim that the film was based substantially on his treatment and found Paramount to be in breach of contract for failing to honor Buchwald's claim to a share of the film's profits. In a development that generated a great deal of media coverage and speculation about the vagaries of Hollywood profit taking, Paramount claimed that the film's net profits had been zero, despite a gross of more than $300 million. Buchwald's attorneys were especially outraged by some of the expenses Paramount cited to explain where the money had gone. These included such star perks as $115,000 for Murphy's twenty-four-hour limousine and driver.32
During the damage phase of the trial, with Morris's West Coast business affairs chief slotted to testify for Buchwald, Paramount went after the Morris agency. It subpoenaed every Morris film contract and deal memo involving writers and producers from 1975 to 1987.33 This was confidential information, and the prospect of its revelation terrified Morris. It would have gutted the agency's reputation for discretely managing its clients affairs and would have precipitated another hemorrhage of talent from the firm. Had the subpoenas not been quashed, Paramount would have gleaned information on how its competitors' motion picture deals had been structured and what its competitors had paid for talent. In this regard, the Buchwald case demonstrated the inherently adversarial relationship that prevailed between the majors and the talent agencies. The agencies facilitated the majors' abilities to conduct business, but the agencies served their clients, not the majors, and derived income by making the majors pay a high price for the talent they wanted. Ordinarily, the normative and accepted rituals of deal making in Hollywood concealed the adversarial nature of this relationship, but the Buchwald case exposed the alignments of power for all to see.
With CAA, Morris, and ICM holding the reins of talent and promoting their clients' careers, how did the careers of the performers themselves fare during the decade? Eddie Murphy, Dustin Hoffman, Paul Newman, and Sylvester Stallone were among the decade's highest-paid actors. All, of course, are men, and star salaries skewed sharply according to gender, with male stars receiving disproportionately higher pay than women. Exemplifying peak earnings was the $16 million Stallone reportedly earned per picture in 1987. No female star worked in this remunerative stratosphere, and the performers who commanded the largest box office in the domestic and international markets were, without exception, male. This gender skew, however, went beyond issues of pay. A 1990 study by the Screen Actor's Guild found a diminishing proportion of feature film roles going to women in the 1980s. According to SAG, 71 percent of film roles went to male performers. Furthermore, women over forty, who had aged beyond what the industry typically found desirable or glamorous, worked in only 9 percent of all film roles.34
The Screen Actors Guild Women's Committee sponsored a 1990 conference to address the shortage of women's roles. At the conference, Meryl Streep complained that contemporary film failed to measure up to the standards Hollywood established in earlier decades, when a gallery of strong female roles and performers existed on screen. She questioned whether contemporary film was addressing itself to the dreams and imaginations of its young female viewers:
I'm in the prime of my life and I want to play the lead…. I grew up with the legacy of those great female stars, Bette Davis, Katherine Hepburn, Barbara Stanwyck. They inspired me. They made me happy to be a girl. I thought, if she's so important, if she matters, then I matter. If we no longer have these images of women to admire, then we stifle the dreams of our daughters. When we see women on screen getting slapped, kicked and asking for help, this is not an indication that actresses are confused about the roles they accept. It's an indication of what gets a green light, of what sells.
Streep criticized the economic factors that had skewed film production toward the action blockbuster. The overseas market had made action films extremely popular, and such stars as Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger commanded huge international followings, which, in turn, permitted them to negotiate for stratospheric salaries. Streep suggested that these action films sold well overseas because "People don't need to understand English to know something is exploding and to enjoy that spectacle. They don't call it the bottom line for nothing. Where have the classic films gone? Look under the wheels of the blockbusters."35
Despite the strong gender skewing of film roles and salaries in the 1980s, a gallery of front-rank female stars existed, and many commanded great popularity throughout the decade. Furthermore, these stars represented an impressive range of personas and genres, from light comedy, slapstick, and sultry glamour to old-fashioned Bette Davis toughness. But as SAG's figures indicated, they didn't receive the compensation of their male peers, nor were they as frequently the lead performer around whom a film was constructed. Though she worked in films infrequently, Barbra Streisand was probably the most powerful female filmmaker-star of the period. Other than All Night Long, which was a product not of her design, she only made two films during the eighties, but these—Yentl (I983) and Nuts (1987)—were projects on which she exerted chief creative authority as star and producer and (on Yentl) director. Streisand designed these vehicles for herself, and she controlled the screen and gave herself the camera to a degree that her fans loved but others found discomforting. When she was criticized, the films were labeled as vanity productions, but it is difficult to believe that male stars would receive an equivalent criticism. In any event, no other female star replicated Streisand's commanding authority over production matters.
Meryl Streep (The French Lieutenant's Woman , Still of the Night , Sophie's Choice , Silkwood , Falling in Love , Plenty , Out of Africa , Heartburn , Ironweed , A Cry in the Dark , She-Devil ) established a career in the eighties primarily in dramas that allowed her to display a dazzling gift for voice and the physical extension of character. At decade's end, she switched to comedy (She-Devil), performed it with flair and distinction, and continued to work in a lighter vein (while continuing her dramatic roles) into the next decade. One of the finest screen performers of all time, Streep's extraordinary gifts were often minimized by critics charging that she mainly did accents, but her range was unmatched by any other performer. Sophie's Choice and Out of Africa contained her finest performances of the eighties, as, respectively, a mother forced to decide which of her children would die in the Nazi death camps and writer Isak Dinesen during the years she spent on an African coffee farm. Both were melancholy films, and while critics complained that Streep seemed to specialize in lugubrious roles, her presence in both films was luminous. As an actor, Streep simply had no limits, and her gallery of characters was unmatched in its depth or range by the work of any of her peers.
Jessica Lange (The Postman Always Rings Twice , Tootsie , Frances , Country , Sweet Dreams , Crimes of the Heart , Everybody's All American , Far North , The Music Box ) and Sissy Spacek (Coal Miner's Daughter , Raggedy Man , Missing , The River , Marie , Violets are Blue , Crimes of the Heart , The Long Walk Home ) specialized in straight drama and created a gallery of commanding characters. Lange succeeded Lana Turner as the seductive Cora in Bob Rafelson's remake of Postman, and the following year she balanced a fine comic performance in Tootsie with a stark portrait of the tormented Hollywood actress Frances Farmer. Lange's screen presence was more intense and aggressive than Spacek's, but Spacek showed how commanding quietude and gentility could be, especially in Missing, where she furnished the voice of conscience amid the chaos of post-Allende Chile.
With a flinty personality, Debra Winger brought a Bette Davis toughness to her roles (Urban Cowboy , An Officer and a Gentleman , Terms of Endearment , Legal Eagles , Betrayed ), a grit that no Hollywood actress had shown in a generation. Winger worked relatively infrequently (five films in ten years), and her industry reputation for being "difficult" seemed to have impeded the development of her career. But she could play tough (An Officer and a Gentleman) as well as sweet (Terms of Endearment). In the latter film, she was heartbreaking as a woman trying to repair her relationship with her mother and dying young of that strange Hollywood malady that puts beautiful actresses gently to sleep. It was a hokey narrative device, no more credible here than in Love Story (1971), but it touched audiences with its essential truth about the unfairness of life. Succumbing to fatal illness, in Terms of Endearment Winger enjoyed her greatest rapport with a popular audience.
With her extraordinary, husky voice, Kathleen Turner achieved an overnight stardom in Body Heat (1981), in which she and writer-director Lawrence Kasdan revived the classical femme fatale. As the seductive and duplicitous Matty, Turner led venal Florida lawyer (William Hurt) to a much deserved ruination. As the alluring siren, Matty was wonderfully written but a hard role to play because of her mythic qualities. Turner, though, making her initial appearance in the film as an impossibly beautiful vision in white, fashioned Matty into one of the decade's most memorable screen characters. Here and in her subsequent films, Turner represented a mature Hollywood glamour that was quite beyond the adolescent appeals of the younger generation of "brat pack" stars. As the epitome of this classical glamour, Turner supplied the voice of cartoon siren Jessica Rabbit in Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988). Mainly drawn to literate projects with strong scripts, Turner proved adept at both drama and light comedy (The Man with Two Brains , Romancing the Stone , Prizzi's Honor , The Jewel of the Nile , Peggy Sue Got Married , Switching Channels , The Accidental Tourist , War of the Roses ).
While Lange, Turner, Streep, and Winger played strong women, the decade's warrior-woman prize went to Sigourney Weaver for her popular Ripley character in the Alien series (1979, 1986, 1992, 1998). Weaver's Ripley was a battle-hardened soldier capable of doing combat with the slimy, reptilian creatures that populated this series. The climax of the cycle, for Weaver as Ripley, came in the second feature, Aliens (1986), wherein she wages a fierce, maternal war (both antagonists are protecting their young) on the huge alien queen of the nest. In these films, Weaver feminized the action roles typically slotted for men and helped open a space for women as strong, active, and physical characters in the action genre. Though her amazon-warrior roles have been the most memorable of her career, Weaver alternated these with comedies and nonaction dramas (The Year of Living Dangerously , Deal of the Century , Ghostbusters , One Woman or Two , Half Moon Street , Gorillas in the Mist , Working Girl , Ghostbusters II ).
While these other actresses portrayed sympathetic and often heroic characters, Glenn Close portrayed the decade's vivid female villains in Fatal Attraction (1987) and Dangerous Liaisons (1988), after starting the eighties in earth-mother roles (The World According to Garp , The Big Chill , Stone Boy , The Natural ). Close brought an extraordinary zest and relish to her villains that suggested she enjoyed playing these characters far more than the blander roles in her other pictures. Her vengeful harpy in Fatal Attraction, menacing stockbroker Michael Douglas and his family, was the kind of villain audiences love to hate, and it was a bravura performance that electrified the film.
Light comedy and comedy-drama afforded three stars the opportunity to build or maintain major careers. In the seventies, Sally Field had been burdened by her association with TV's "The Flying Nun" and Burt Reynolds's moonshine comedies, but in the eighties she broke free of these and established her own career in Absence of Malice (1981), Kiss Me Goodbye (1982), Places in the Heart (1984), Murphy's Romance (1985), Surrender (1987), Punchline (1988), and Steel Magnolias (1989). She was especially appealing with subdued charm alongside James Garner in Murphy's Romance, a May-September love story directed by Martin Ritt. Cher successfully segued from her retro status as musician to a front-rank film career: Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmie Dean, Jimmie Dean (1982); Silkwood (1983); Mask (1985); Moonstruck (1987); Suspect (1987); The Witches of Eastwick (1987). Cher proved to be an especially fine performer in drama and comedy-dramas, and her performance in Moonstruck, as a lonely woman verging on middle age, is a masterpiece of comic poignancy. Goldie Hawn had transitioned from TV's "Laugh-In" to a prolific seventies film career whose momentum carried her through the eighties, even as the popularity of her pictures slipped somewhat in the latter half of the decade: Private Benjamin (1980), Seems Like Old Times (1980), Best Friends (1982), Protocol (1984), Wildcats (1986), and Overboard (1987). Hawn also starred in and produced Swing Shift (1984), a comedy-drama about housewives working in factories during World War II. This picture devolved into one of the decade's notoriously ruined films, the casualty of an apparent battle between Hawn and director Jonathan Demme over the concept and shape of the picture. The battle resulted in a re-edit of the film against Demme's wishes and the release of a picture that lacked coherency and structure. The original version of Swing Shift was never publicly exhibited.
In addition to the work of these actresses, the decade also saw the appearance of five performers who began to establish careers that would ripen into stardom in the nineties: Julia Roberts (Firehouse , Mystic Pizza , Blood Red , and Steel Magnolias ); Holly Hunter (The Burning , Swing Shift , Raising Arizona , Broadcast News , Miss Firecracker , Always ); Laura Dern (Foxes , Teachers , Mask , Smooth Talk , Blue Velvet , Fat Man and Little Boy ); Sandra Bullock (A Fool and His Money , Who Shot Patakango ); and Meg Ryan (Rich and Famous , Amityville 3-D , Top Gun , Innerspace , D.O.A. , The Presidio ), whose breakthrough picture came at decade's end, When Harry Met Sally (1989).
The finest male actors of the decade included Paul Newman, Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Gene Hackman, Jack Nicholson, and Dustin Hoffman. After signing with CAA, Newman's career revived, and he turned in a series of prestigious performances in well-received films (Absence of Malice , The Verdict , The Color of Money ) and colorful supporting roles as General Leslie Groves and Huey Long in, respectively, Fat Man and Little Boy (1989) and Blaze (1989). Robert De Niro created an impressively varied gallery of characters (including a boxer, a priest, an eccentric media star wannabe, several gangsters including Al Capone, a Spanish conquistador, and the Devil) in Raging Bull (1980), True Confessions (1981), The King of Comedy (1983), Falling in Love (1984), Once upon a Time in America (1984), Brazil (1985), The Mission (1986), Angel Heart (1987), The Untouchables (1987), Midnight Run (1988), and We're No Angels (1989). In Raging Bull and The King of Comedy, De Niro continued his ongoing collaboration with director Martin Scorsese, and his overweight characters in Raging Bull and The Untouchables were extreme manifestations of his famous ability to physically transform himself in order to inhabit a role.
Dustin Hoffman and Al Pacino worked relatively infrequently during the decade. Hoffman appeared in only four features (Tootsie , Ishtar , Rain Man , and Family Business ), but two of these (Tootsie Rain Man) solidified his status as one of the industry's most gifted actors, as did a memorable performance as Willy Loman in the Volker Schlondorff-directed television production Death of a Salesman (1985). Pacino's career slumped in the eighties, with the loath-some Cruising (1980), an unsuccessful comedy (Author, Author ) and a giant box-office dud (Revolution ). Scarface (1983) provided Pacino with memorably flamboyant material that he used to etch a classic gangster character, and Sea of Love (1989), a classy film noir directed by Harold Becker, signaled revival in Pacino's career that lasted throughout the next decade. Another major star who rarely appeared in eighties cinema was Robert Redford (Brubaker , The Natural , Out of Africa , Legal Eagles ). Instead of performing with some regularity, Redford turned his attention to the causes of Western environmental conservation and the creation and promotion of his Sundance Film Institute.
In contrast with the infrequently appearing Hoffman and Pacino, Jack Nicholson and Gene Hackman were among the decade's most prolific performers. Nicholson alternated between quiet, thoughtful performances that showed the exquisite subtleties of which he is capable (The Postman Always Rings Twice , Reds , The Border , Prizzi's Honor , Heartburn , Ironweed ) and over-the-top, scene-chewing displays that unbalanced the films in which they appeared (The Shining , Terms of Endearment , The Witches of Eastwick , Batman ). Gene Hackman appeared in a remarkable range of material, from light comedy to physical action, but always managed to deliver performances of restraint and nuance that showed what a careful and disciplined performer he is (Superman II , All Night Long , Reds , Eureka , Under Fire , Uncommon Valor , Misunderstood , Twice in a Lifetime , Target , Power , Hoosiers , No Way Out , Superman IV , Another Woman , Bat 21 , Full Moon in Blue Water , Split Decisions , Mississippi Burning , The Package ). Hackman had an old-Hollywood naturalness to his style that made everything he did look easy, as if no work or effort were involved. In this regard, he epitomized the virtues of the classical Hollywood screen acting tradition.
Harrison Ford was another star who showed something of this tradition in his performances, which were straightforward and unpretentious in their skill of execution. Throughout the eighties, he was closely identified with the films of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg (The Empire Strikes Back , Raiders of the Lost Ark , Return of the Jedi , Indiana Jones and the Temple of DOOM , Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade ), but he also gave quiet and sincere performances in Blade Runner (1982), Witness (1985), The Mosquito Coast (1986), Frantic (1988), and Working Girl (1988).
Measured in terms of pay and box-office popularity, Tom Cruise, Eddie Murphy, Sylvester Stallone, and Arnold Schwarzenegger established tremendously powerful careers. After his debut in Taps (1981), Cruise appeared in several small pictures (All the Right Moves , Losin' It , The Outsiders ) before his breakthrough role as a brash young entrepreneur in Risky Business (1983). In most of his subsequent films, his patented image was of a cocky, self-assured, and charismatic young achiever. Except for a few misfires (Legend , Cocktail ), Cruise proved to be a shrewd judge of projects, and he worked with the decade's major talents on a series of high-profile films: director Martin Scorsese and Paul Newman (The Color of Money ), producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer (Top Gun ), Dustin Hoffman (Rain Man ), and director Oliver Stone (Born on the Fourth of July ). In the latter film, Cruise gave an astonishing performance as a crippled Vietnam veteran and proved that he had a wider range than commonly supposed and which he rarely tested.
Eddie Murphy successfully parlayed his "Saturday Night Live" popularity into a highpowered film career that peaked at mid-decade with a string of hits for Paramount: 48 Hrs. (1982), Trading Places (1983), Beverly Hills Cop (1984), The Golden Child (1986) Beverly Hills Cop II (1987). A nasty strain in his humor surfaced in Eddie Murphy Raw (1987), a reaction to problems brought on by his sudden, meteoric success and his behavior in relation to that success. Murphy battled a paternity suit, and his humor was laced with animosity toward women. "I did Raw at a really bitter stage of my life. I look at it now and cringe. It's not so much that I think Raw wasn't funny, but I can't believe what I was feeling then."36 His subsequent films (Coming to America , Harlem Nights ) failed to achieve the success of the earlier ones, and his decision to do a third Beverly Hills Cop film (1990) was taken as the signal of a floundering career. This was especially unfortunate in light of the racial restrictiveness of eighties cinema. After Richard Pryor, whose career went into eclipse at mid-decade, Murphy was the only major black star in Hollywood cinema and the only one around whom the industry would construct an expensive film. Pryor's pictures had included Stir Crazy (1980) and Bustin' Loose (1981), which teamed him with Gene Wilder as a memorable comic duo; Some Kind of Hero (1982); the concert film Richard Pryor Live on the Sunset Strip (1982); Superman III (1983), and Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling (1986), an autobiographic film that Pryor also directed.
Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger represented the advent in Hollywood of the international action blockbuster. They were arguably among the most popular film performers in the world, and their films were often the most cartoonish of the decade. Stallone achieved success when he played two characters, Rocky (1976, 1979, 1982, 1985, 1990) and Rambo (1982, 1985, 1988), and could not otherwise find much of a domestic audience (Nighthawks , Victory , Rhinestone , Cobra , Over the Top , Tango and Cash , Lock Up ). His films were loud, simplistically-plotted, and redolent with violence and mayhem. The same was true for Arnold Schwarzenegger's work, although he successfully embarked upon a more substantial revision of his image and career. Beginning with very low prestige actioners (Conan the Barbarian , Conan Destroyer ), in which the critics lambasted his acting, he then displayed an ironic, good-naturedly selfmocking quality in The Terminator (1984) that carried over into subsequent films (Commando , Raw Deal , Predator , The Running Man , Red Heat ), where his performances winked at the audience to say that he knew what everyone else knew, namely, that the films were live-action cartoons. In contrast to Stallone's stolid seriousness, Schwarzenegger clearly had fun with his characters. This may explain why he was much more successful than Stallone at getting an audience to accept him in a range of roles (e.g., Twins , Kindergarten Cop ). Despite the relative joviality of Schwarzenegger's persona, however, he and Stallone established a popular cinema based on spectacles of mass slaughter, with the mayhem punctuated by cynical one-liners (e.g., Schwarzenegger in Total Recall  shoots his wife in the head and quips, "Consider that a divorce"). In their work, and the work they inspired, action films became synonymous with explosions and high body counts, narrative went out the window, and popular culture became inured to ever higher doses of screen violence. This was hardly a progressive or life-affirming feature of eighties cinema.
A handful of actors established careers that would flourish into major stardom in the next decade or had already begun to do so in the later eighties: Nicolas Cage (Fast Times at Rldgemont High , Rumble Fish , Racing with the Moon , The Cotton Club , Birdy , Peggy Sue Got Married , Raising Arizona , Moonstruck , and Vampire's Kiss , in which Cage earned a note in acting history for eating a live cockroach on screen); Tom Hanks (He Knows You're Alone , Bachelor Party , Splash , The Man with One Red Shoe , Every Time We Say Goodbye , The Money Pit , Nothing in Common , Dragnet , Big , Punchline , The 'burbs , Turner and Hooch ); Kevin Costner (Night Shift , Silverado , The Untouchables , No Way Out , Bull Durham , Field of Dreams ); Morgan Freeman (Lean on Me , Driving Miss Daisy , Glory ); and Denzel Washington (Carbon Copy , A Soldier's Story , Power , Glory ).
As it had been throughout its history, Hollywood in the eighties remained a business critically dependent on its stars. They ensured a public following for the pictures in which they appeared and a hedge against the inherent uncertainties of making and marketing movies. The agencies had assembled under their auspices the pool of industry talent, and they became, for the majors, a force to reckon with. This oligopoly did not compete with the majors but furnished the industry's raw materials. Doing so, it exerted a continuing upward pressure on the costs of doing business. Despite the wasteful aspects of this arrangement, the uneasy partnership between the agencies and the majors defined the nature of contemporary production and gave the top industry talent a considerable authority over the production process.