Academic journal article CineAction

Collaborating Agent: Charles Feldman and Clients

Academic journal article CineAction

Collaborating Agent: Charles Feldman and Clients

Article excerpt

Charles Feldman fashioned a distinctive character for the role of the classical Hollywood agent. Dapper, gregarious, and All-Pro, Feldman sported an expansive demeanor, both in his business dealings and his social engagements in the world of Hollywood; his manner served him well. For if agents serve in the commercial fabrication of individuality, honing their clients into distinctive commodities, then agents also fashion their own sense of personality or character as a way of selling themselves.

Agents represent a modern phenomenon not only in the sense that they spring from our era's complex integration of culture and industry--and this tension circulates throughout the agent's discipline, balancing the artistic needs of clients with those of business--but also in the sense that agents exemplify the modern practice of marketing personality, of selling one's self. In this regard, Feldman showed a profound interest in developing identities for his clients, tending to and even tailoring their unique talents and their own self-fashioning, whether by molding new roles for them, doting on their individual performances, stitching screenplays to embroider their particular skills, tactically weaving them into packages with other clients, or by generating proper recognition and attention for their roles in title sequences and advertising. To accomplish these goals, Feldman constructed his own distinguished persona within the industry: gentlemanly, charming, and learned. Friends called him "Gable" for his rakish resemblance to the star. In all of his endeavors, Feldman played the courtly diplomat. Even at his most aggressive, a stance he did not shy from, Feldman took a dialectical approach to negotiations, hearing out the opposing side, while developing persuasive compromises or pinpointing holes in their positions that worked to the advantage of his clients (1).

Over one hundred talent agencies operated in Hollywood at this time, so Feldman certainly had rivals, even with his stellar client list, which included Claudette Colbert, Michael Curtiz, Irene Dunne, and Warner Baxter, and other major box office attractions. Myron Selznick led the pack, along with his partner Leland Hayward. They managed the careers of Carole Lombard, Henry Fonda, William Powell, Leo McCarey, and many others. Feldman's career stands out for the strong creative advice he gave his clients and the dual role he played when he set up his own production company in the early 1940s. Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, Feldman carved out new deal strategies and paradigms that set competitive milestones for other agents. From the start, Feldman promoted a limited notion of freelancing through juggling nonexclusive contracts, signing clients to short contracts--two-film deals or two to three year studio terms--that allowed them to work at other studios simultaneously. No doubt harnessing his legal training, Feldman proved a probing reader of contracts and a nuanced writer of inventive provisions. This agent understood that contracts represented a process and a dialogue, not a final step, providing a platform for all parties to parse out terms and conditions favorable to both sides. In Feldman's hands, contracts became both more flexible and more rigorous, depending on his goals and the interests of his clients. In a business dependent on a complex network of contracts--between talent and studios, exhibitors and distributors--Feldman's career presents an alternative perspective on the so-called golden age of Hollywood, illustrating the numerous exceptions to this era's alleged adherence to the ironclad option contract. To illustrate this point, I want to take a few of Feldman's clients--John Wayne, Marlene Dietrich, Howard Hawks, and Lauren Bacall--and demonstrate the strong collaborative role he played in their careers and creative activities. Feldman's activity--consulting and advising clients, managing their selection of projects, and even collaborating with them on productions--illustrates some of the flexibility of the studio system. …

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