Of all the colorful working-class Jewish immigrants turned captains of industry who populate Neal Gabler's invaluable An Empire Of Their Own: How The Jews Invented Hollywood, none looms larger than MGM boss Louis B. Mayer. Like Walt Disney, Mayer became synonymous both with the studio he ran and with family, loyalty, and patriotism. Conveniently rewriting his hardscrabble history to suit his newfangled pretensions, Mayer furtively changed his birthday to the Fourth of July and actively cultivated an image as the kindly patriarch of a glittering dream factory.
Mayer was a shameless ham in his professional life, an alternately loyal and recriminatory man of outsized emotions, perpetually willing to make a scene or let loose with the waterworks if he felt it could help him. Such a figure invariably engenders strong feelings. Some hail Mayer as a brilliant executive who ruled benevolently over Hollywood's golden age; others deride him as a grasping, power-mad egomaniac who preached the gospel of God, family, and home in public, but presided over a sordid palace of sin. Scott Eyman's juicy, luridly readable new Mayer biography, Lion Of Hollywood, offers ample evidence for both sides.
Lion Of Hollywood turns Mayer's life into a racy, overstuffed backstage melodrama filled with powerful executives with lusty appetites, and ambitious starlets willing to do anything to get ahead. Since Mayer stood at the forefront of film during its formative years, his story echoes the evolution of the film industry itself. Mayer, MGM, and Mayer's right-hand man Irving Thalberg became identified with the genius and the limitations of the studio system. The emergence of television spelled that system's end, and after being deposed as the all-powerful monarch of MGM, Mayer was reduced to a comic-book Lear raging against a world he once ruled.
In its artless manner, Eyman's sometimes-breathless narrative contains a good deal of David Lynch, both in the Blue Velvet-like contrast between the sordid personal lives of the studio's pampered stars and the all-American image they projected to the public, and in its seductive, Mulholland Dr.-like nighttime Hollywood dreamscape. It's tempting to imagine what Mayer himself would make of his latest biography. The salacious aspects would undoubtedly horrify his Victorian morality, but the book's color and life would delight his populist instincts. Partner-turned-rival Thalberg scored F. Scott Fitzgerald's thinly fictionalized The Last Tycoon as an elegy, but Lion Of Hollywood turns Mayer's life into a crackling good piece of entertainment, something he prized over the more austere, intellectual virtues of highbrow artistry.