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David Geffen reinvented himself as a somebody

Tags: Arts
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The young David Geffen and one of his clients, the Canadian singer Joni Mitchell

Hollywood mogul David Geffen has left an indelible impression in three fields: music, film and theatre. Not bad for a Jewish boy from Brooklyn whose dream was to earn $1,000 a week and drive a Cadillac.

Geffen, who reached billionaire status in 1995, is the subject of Susan Lacy’s methodical and entertaining biopic, American Masters: Inventing David Geffen, which premièred at the Toronto International Film Festival in September and is scheduled to be broadcast on the PBS network on Tuesday, Nov. 20 at 8 p.m.

Lacy leaves no stones unturned as she examines every phase of his highly productive life and career.

Starting out as a sorter in the mailroom of the William Morris Agency in New York City, Geffen became an agent/manager for such singers as Joni Mitchell. Launching Asylum Records, he managed the careers of, among others, Linda Ronstadt, John Lennon and the Eagles.

Always restless, he formed Geffen Pictures, producing films ranging from Risky Business (starring the virtually unknown Tom Cruise) to Little Shop of Horrors. All the while, he brought the celebrated musicals Dreamgirls and Cats to Broadway.

And in one of his most daring moves, he teamed up with Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg to create the first Hollywood movie studio in more than five decades, DreamWorks SKG.

As if these accomplishments may not be enough for a saturated viewer, Lacy documents Geffen’s struggles with his homosexuality, his association with two major American politicians, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, his heterosexual romance with Cher and his philanthropic ventures.

The title of Lacy’s documentary is apt. Geffen, born in 1943, is a self-made man who invented himself.

Geffen’s parents, Abraham and Batya, were east European Jews who met in Palestine and immigrated to the United States. He was a garment worker. She owned a corset shop.

Geffen loved movies and dreamed of living in Hollywood and, true to his word, headed west after graduating from high school. Desperate to succeed, he yearned to be a “somebody” and strike it rich.

Landing in Los Angeles, he slept on a couch in his brother’s apartment and finagled a role as an extra in a B movie. He nudged his foot into the door at William Morris by lying about his academic record. And he got hired and fired from a succession of jobs before becoming an agent, a position that required him to know nothing, he claims.

“I could bullshit on the phone,” he says of his reputation as a legendary dealmaker.

Acting on advice, Geffen segued into the music business, while ducking the draft during the Vietnam War. His clients included Neil Young and a band, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.

In 1971, when he was still not yet 30, he launched Asylum Records, a boutique label that coddled and nurtured up-and-coming talent.

Three years later, having sold the business, he joined Warner Brothers Pictures as a vice-president, but his tenure there was dismal, his first big reversal in Lotus Land. Geffen, never known for his diplomatic skills, rubbed important people the wrong way.

Bouncing back from the slough of despond, he established Geffen Records, building a stellar roster of artists from Elton John and Donna Summers to Guns N’ Roses and Aerosmith.

MCA bought Geffen Records for a cool $550 million, and Geffen stayed on as chief executive officer.

Returning to the film industry after a stint on Broadway, Geffen reinvented himself as a producer, churning out movies like Lost in America, Interview with the Vampire and Beetle Juice. “These were great movies,” opines Spielberg, one of his partners in his next and biggest project, DreamWorks SKG.

In tracing the arc of his achievements, Lacy interviews friends, colleagues, clients and journalists, including David Crosby, Barry Diller, Tom Hanks, Steve Martin, Mike Nichols, Frank Rich and Jann Wenner.

They and others draw a portrait of a brash, caring, smart risk taker who had difficulty coming to terms with his sexuality, who described his 18-month relationship with Cher as “the greatest high” he had ever experienced, who broke with Bill Clinton after he bitterly disappointed him, and who donated millions of dollars to fund a medical school at the University of California.

Geffen, who was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2010, is also portrayed as a vindictive person. If you cross him, you may as well commit suicide, says a source. “Don’t get into a fight with David,” another interviewee observes. “He always wins.”

Geffen, on screen at least, remains modest to a tee. “I have no talent, except to enjoy it and recognize it in others,” he claims.

This self-effacing comment, so atypical of Hollywood types, should be taken with a huge grain of salt. Geffen moved mountains in his hugely successful quest to be a “somebody” in America.

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