While writing Powerhouse: The Untold Story of Hollywood’s Creative Artists Agency, James Andrew Miller conducted more than 500 interviews with CAA’s best-known agents and myriad actors and industry executives.
At 703 pages, Powerhouse is exhaustive and exhausting. But as was true of Miller’s earlier oral histories about ESPN and Saturday Night Live (both written with Tom Shales), Powerhouse often fails to resolve conflicting recollections, and too many anecdotes lack interest or importance.
The book is at its best chronicling the way CAA launched after its founders left the William Morris Agency in 1975 and built a juggernaut over the next two decades. The two most well-known founders, Michael Ovitz and Ron Meyer, speak with candor and emotion about showbiz, each other, and themselves. Meyer is uniformly loved and respected—by Sylvester Stallone, Donald Sutherland, Whoopi Goldberg, Cher—while Ovitz, the more driven and more important force in the firm’s success, gets contradictory reviews. David Letterman, Bill Murray, and Magic Johnson all speak of his genius and his effectiveness. Dustin Hoffman is more ambivalent, and studio executive Jeffrey Katzenberg is quoted, without elaboration, saying, “There is no question that Michael Ovitz is someone who consistently dealt in ways that were destructive, deceitful, and in bad faith.” (While I have known Ovitz and, for that matter, Katzenberg and many others quoted at length for decades, I have never witnessed Ovitz behaving the way Katzenberg says he did.)
When Ovitz and Meyer both leave CAA, after competing for the same job running a studio and fighting over a pricey Malibu property, a new generation of young agents is left to rebuild CAA. They do so successfully, even after selling control of it to TPG, a large private-equity firm. Miller dutifully chronicles that success, but absent an author’s voice and critical eye, Powerhouse limps to a desultory finish line. B-