By George Hodgman
March 17, 2000 at 05:00 AM EST

The Operator: David Geffen Builds, Buys, and Sells the New Hollywood

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David Geffen isn’t just living the American Dream; he’s living the American Dreams: He’s a self-made man, a second-generation immigrant Jew who has bested the WASPs, a once-closeted gay man who now openly travels in the highest social and political circles. His journey from outsider to the ultimate insider has transformed him into a star in his own right. For many, a smart, sexy Geffen biography could be the pop journalistic equivalent of War and Peace, a cultural epic about a conquering Hollywood Hero.

Unfortunately, Tom King’s book, The Operator: David Geffen Builds, Buys, and Sells the New Hollywood, isn’t exactly War and Peace. The Sorrow and the Pity would be more like it. Although it certainly isn’t a disaster, the only one losing sweat over it is likely to be the Random House accountant. What King does best is humanize Geffen and break down the Sammy Glick stereotype. The good moments in the book reveal the complexity of his relationships with the formidable women in his life: his mother, Batya, the agent Sue Mengers, and girlfriends Cher and Marlo Thomas. Though many have perceived his romantic entanglements with Cher and Thomas as mere posturing for the cameras, King makes us understand Geffen’s deep longing for some powerful emotional connection, and he also shows how these women — especially Cher — provided it. ”I was the first person to share his bed and to share his life,” Cher has said. ”People don’t believe that, or they don’t want to believe it, or they don’t understand how it could be. But we were really crazy about each other.”

Geffen, who originally cooperated with King and authorized some friends to speak (most of them seem fearful of saying too much), has now distanced himself from the book. However, he has nothing to fear. Nowhere does King, a Wall Street Journal columnist who has never written a book before, demonstrate the kind of in-the-trenches industry perspective necessary for the very tough assignment he’s taken on. The most unflattering professional moments depicted here — the yelling, the rages, the wheeling and dealing — are nothing that would shock any remotely realistic observer of the music business; no one expects wings on anyone who started as an agent, created his own record company, and became a billionaire.

It’s not that King has to indict Geffen to be considered a success; it’s just that he doesn’t convey the gritty reality of the business. He fails to capture the blow-by-blow of Geffen’s big deals or the nuances of the relationships and bitter feuds that determined their outcomes. There’s no bile or bite in his portrayal of the internecine warfare between Geffen and Mike Ovitz, even though Geffen had no reservations about disseminating unflattering information about Ovitz during his tenure at Disney. Equally disappointing is King’s failure to provide much of a picture of DreamWorks SKG, the very high-profile creation of Geffen, Steven Spielberg, and Jeffrey Katzenberg. In these instances and many others, a run through the newspaper clips would reveal more than King’s book.

King’s juicy bits are pretty much the stuff of trivia — Geffen’s collagen injections, colorless statements from old boyfriends, and not much else. Geffen’s Studio 54 days with Calvin Klein, Ian Schrager, and Halston offer an opportunity for some sexy stuff, but King never ventures far into Steve Rubell’s private room. Likewise, Geffen’s purchase and epic rehabilitation of the Jack Warner mansion, supervised by decorator Rose Tarlow, might have provided some fun anecdotes — but it’s whittled down to a paragraph or two.

The biggest problem with The Operator, however, comes not from the boardroom or the bedroom. King’s overall portrait of Geffen is unfocused, even unfinished; he’s never able to take all he’s learned about his admittedly difficult subject and create a cohesive picture. At times he even seems unsure of the points he wants to make. Worse, despite Geffen’s legendarily intense energy, the narrative is listless. King’s strongest contribution to our sense of Geffen — a peek at his sensitive side — is probably not what most readers hope to find. King need not fear being relegated to the Julia Phillips Canteen — his seat at the Hollywood lunch table is secure. C

The Operator: David Geffen Builds, Buys, and Sells the New Hollywood

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