We gave it a B-
Is it wise or even feasible to chart the definitive account of a king’s downfall while he’s still on the throne?
Probably not, but Hollywood business journalist Kim Masters (Premiere, Time, Vanity Fair) takes a game shot at it anyway in The Keys to the Kingdom: How Michael Eisner Lost His Grip, a lacerating, 450-page takedown of the man who’s been CEO of the Walt Disney Co. since 1984. If you could dump the text into a word-processing program and count up the leading adjectives that Masters and a host of Eisner associates use to describe the 58-year-old executive — who has set records as the highest-paid corporate officer in American history at several junctures — you’d certainly find ”arrogant,” ”aloof,” and ”ruthless” near the top of the list. It’s Masters’ thesis that Humpty-Dumpty is plummeting toward the pavement even as we speak, having leapfrogged over one too many lieutenants and mentors on his way to the top, and having pushed the once-moribund Mouse House to a level of growth that will now prove impossible to maintain.
Not surprisingly, Eisner refused to talk to Masters for this book. There’s speculation that he also exerted pressure on Random House, which published his 1998 autobiography, Work in Progress, to drop Masters’ manuscript, which got cut from Random House’s Broadway label and is now being published by Morrow. Eisner spokesfolks have adamantly denied any such meddling. Random House Inc.’s Stuart Applebaum says, ”That’s nonsense — not a syllable of suggestion was ever uttered by Mr. Eisner or any associate of his to attempt to dissuade [us] from doing this book.”
Masters instead makes extensive use of past interviews that Eisner had conducted with her and other journalists, as well as passages from Eisner’s autobiography. She has also cornered what she counts as ”hundreds” of folks who’ve crossed Eisner’s path, though most of her quotations come from a couple of dozen key figures. Two of the most voluble witnesses are Barry Diller, who hired Eisner at ABC in the late ’60s and took him along to Paramount Pictures for a staggering run of hits in the early ’70s and ’80s, and Jeffrey Katzenberg, who quit Disney when Eisner wouldn’t promote him to the No. 2 slot at the company back in 1994. Neither has much praise for the book’s uninterviewed subject.
And therein lies one of the book’s built-in deficiencies: It’s a massive tower constructed around an empty space. Over and over again, Masters establishes that Eisner, in his interviews as well as in his dealings with the movie industry and his colleagues, thinks nothing of fibbing, prevaricating, double-dealing, and engaging in what one of his producers, Don Simpson, called ”an optional memory.” He’d smile and okay a deal to the party involved, then renege in private and leave underlings to clean up the mess. So when Masters seizes on various remarks Eisner has dropped over the years and tries to make semi-Freudian hay out of them — for instance, leaping on Eisner’s fondness for the Edith Wharton novel Ethan Frome as a sign that he has Oedipal issues with his own mother — the analysis feels exceptionally strained.
What Masters does with exceptional skill is to dig up small, inside details of the day-to-day machinations of show business. Want to know exactly how much Disney overpaid to quietly install Joe Roth as Disney’s studio chairman just before Eisner publicly gave Katzenberg the boot? Masters charts Roth’s opening $55 million payoff with astonishing precision. Want the blow-by-blow of how and why former CAA chief Michael Ovitz floundered as Eisner’s second in command? Masters gets the scoop from Ovitz, as well as from less partisan sources. She also unspools tremendously entertaining dish about Francis Coppola’s disastrous first cut of Captain EO, the 1986 3-D Disneyland movie attraction starring Michael Jackson that was so incoherent, George Lucas’ workers at ILM had to save it in the cutting room. She takes us into the courtroom at the trial between Disney and Katzenberg over back pay as lawyer Bert Fields (who once represented Masters, as she discloses in an acknowledgments page) holds up a poster called ”The Circle of Animus,” detailing many of Eisner’s nasty remarks about his former loyal ”golden retriever.”
Masters also proves an equal-opportunity needler of many of the eyewitnesses whose testimony she most depends on to paint a dark picture of Eisner. She details Katzenberg’s days as a card-counting gambler, for instance, and pours on the speculation about how envious Barry Diller must feel to have been eclipsed so handily by his former employee.
The result is a book that can’t stop following juicy witnesses off on tangents. It’s actually less a book than a distended magazine article, much of which rehashes other magazine articles that anyone who’s interested has long since digested — and which will probably play like way too much inside baseball to anybody outside the New York-Los Angeles media axis. You want reams of facts about a group of monstrously nasty, incurably workaholic Hollywood folk? This is an E-ticket ride. But if you don’t meet that passenger requirement, it’s at best an affair that rates a B-.