UPDATE: Today, through her publicist, Barbra Streisand responded to my request for a comment about the passing of her former agent, the late Sue Mengers. Barbra said of Ms. Mengers: "She was one of a kind, acerbically funny, witty, brash, tough but cuddly, a powerful woman in a man's world."
Here is the rest of the story, as published here at the Examiner.com yesterday:
One of the most legendary and iconic Hollywood agents, Sue Mengers, died on Sunday, October 16, at the age if 78, and if you read even one of the obituaries online, you're aware that Mengers' most famous client was Barbra Streisand. Their names are inextricably linked because you cannot write about Mengers' life without mentioning that it was during the 1970's that Sue's rise to power and glory as Hollywood's top agent was based on her alliance with Barbra.
Streisand was the number one female film star of the decade, thanks to "Funny Girl," "What's Up, Doc?" and "The Way We Were." She was an Oscar-winner and the queen of the box office. In the annual polls of top box office, she was the only woman listed for years. For any producer wanted to work with Barbra, he had to go through Sue Mengers, and Sue used her influence as much to benefit Barbra as to burnish her own reputation.
And when they weren't doing business, Streisand and Mengers were friends. They had an affinity; they were both New York Jewish girls with strong personalities that often masked life-long insecurities. Sue wheedled to get Barbra as a client and then bent over backwards to be the best agent she could be for her friend.
But it was a double-edged sword, mixing business with friendship. On one hand, Barbra was the maid of honor at Sue's marriage to Belgian director Jean-Claude Tramont, and as such, gave her good friend the ultimat wedding gift. Barbra recorded an album of French and Jewish love songs for the couple and had pressed just one copy. The tapes were destroyed and nobody but the newlyweds had the original. To this day, that music has never been heard by the public. It is likely in Sue's estate.
But there was the other side of the Streisand-Mengers relationship -- business. In 1981, the business relationship was front and center over the film "All Night Long." Barbra at the time was consumed in pre-production for "Yentl," her first directorial effort and a labor of love that she'd been developing since 1969 when she first read the short story.
To many experts in the Streisand camp, "Yentl" was a doomed project and something Barbra needed to forget about. There was nothing commercial about "Yentl, The Yeshiva Boy," Isaac Singer's original short story. It was an ethnic film about a girl trying to get into a yeshiva, a Jewish school of higher learning, by pretending to be a boy. Even when Barbra agreed to make the film a musical, to make it more appealing to the masses, there were doubters in her inner circle. Chief among those doubters were Jon Peters, her partner/paramour at the time, and Mengers, her agent. Still, Barbra was committed to the project, refusing to give up on her dream.
At the same time, Sue Mengers' husband, Tramont, was directing a quirky little comedy called "All Night Long" starring Gene Hackman. The leading lady was Lisa Eichhorn, a young actress who turned out to have no chemistry with the considerably older Hackman. After a week of filming, production was shut down and Eichhorn was fired.
Mengers worked her behind the scenes magic and convinced Barbra, who'd read the script prior to the Eichhorn casting and liked it, to take over the role. Not only take over -- and take a break from "Yentl" -- but get paid a record-setting (for that time) $4 million for her trouble. It seemed like a win-win all around.
However, when "All Night Long" was released on March 6, 1981, it was a flop. It presented Barbra in character as a Valley Girl-suburban housewife with a penchant for cheating on her spouse. She was a goofy, lovable lady, but the complete antithesis of the Streisand screen persona. The reviews were generally so-so and after just three weeks in theaters, Universal pulled the picture from circulation. Barbra returned to her efforts on "Yentl," putting "All Night Long" in the rear-view mirror.
But there was a lingering issue. Sue expected her 10% from Barbra for getting her the $4 million payday. Barbra, reportedly, felt that she'd done the picture as a favor to Sue for her spouse and the fee should have been waived. The squabble never erupted into a feud, but Barbra and Sue severed their professional relationship. According to David Geffen in the New York Times' obit on Mengers, losing Barbra as a client "was a blow from which she (Mengers) never quite recovered professionally."
Mengers explained her side of the story in Vanity Fair in 1991: "I felt I had been an impeccable agent for her. And [Barbra] then said, ‘But we can still be friends!’ My reaction was anger: ‘Of course we can’t be friends. You’ve rejected what I do, you’ve announced to the world I’m not good enough.’ And her reaction was: ‘Oh my God, she only cares about me if I’m her client.’ She couldn’t understand, and it hurt her for a long time. I don’t think we talked for over three years.
"For me it was not just, ‘Oh, well, I’ve lost a client,’ which would upset me under any circumstances. But Barbra was and is very special to me. She was the jewel in the crown. Not only did I love her, I was proud to be representing her. While I was working with her it was the joy of my life, even though she never expresses gratitude or even acknowledgment of anything you may achieve. It’s such a thin line an agent walks between friendship and a work relationship. You can never forget, no matter how close you are to a client, you’re the employee.”
Ultimately, when "Yentl" was released and Hollywood recognized that Streisand had done a magnificent job as a director, with the film earning five Oscar nominations and one win, Mengers was a big enough woman to admit to the Los Angeles Times that she'd been wrong to doubt Barbra. (So did Jon Peters.)
Over time, Streisand and Mengers were able to rebuild the friendship. They never worked together again, and that might have been a loss because, as Mengers said in Vanity Fair, she pushed Barbra:
"My biggest contribution was nagging her. She has no need for constant employment like other stars. I used to be flattered when she would ask my advice about some artistic problem she was having, until I found her one day talking to the gardener about the same thing. When Barbra works she becomes obsessive and it's the only thing she is able to focus on. I think that's why she doesn't do it as much as the rest of us would like her to. It's just too exhausting. She has less 'star mentality' in regards to What's- the-next-hot-project?-Get-me-a-role-in-it than anybody I've ever dealt with."
That last statement says a lot about Barbra and why Sue was an integral ally during the 1970's when Streisand was, as mentioned above, the top female film star in the world. For that, and likely many other reasons, this is a sad day for Barbra Streisand…a loss.
As we publish this, Barbra has yet to comment. However, at the Elle Magazine L’Oréal Paris Legend Awards in Los Angeles tonight, she may say something. Watch for an update here.