A 750-page doorstop of a book about the entertainment industry is not typically where one goes looking for insights about municipal politics. But so it was with Powerhouse: The Untold Story of Hollywood’s Creative Artists Agency. A sidelong reading of the book offers a sort of back door into understanding Rahm Emanuel’s problematic public image during his time as Chicago mayor—through the figure of his hotshot talent agent brother, Ari.
Published in August, James Andrew Miller’s oral history charts the first 40 years of CAA, a company that, in its 90s prime, was the industry’s most dominant, respected, and, some would say, feared talent firm. The book serves up reams of chewy anecdotes from dozens of agents—principally two of CAA’s founders, Mike Ovitz and Ron Meyer—as well as former and current clients. The dramatis personae presented up front reads like the guest list for the Vanity Fair Oscar party: Woody Allen, Beyoncé and Jay Z, Robert De Niro, George Clooney, Tom Cruise, Magic Johnson, David Letterman, Madonna, Jack Nicholson, Lorne Michaels, Bill Murray, Oprah, and so on. The inventory of A-listers foregrounds Powerhouse as not just a chronicle of CAA’s own creation but also the agency’s role as a creator, an architect of entertainment that shaped popular culture through innovative business deals and launched countless careers—those of both its big-name clients and its agents.
For Chicagoans, CAA’s most relevant player is the mayor’s younger brother, Ari, who started his career at the firm. Even among the scores of shrewd, power-hungry upstarts who have risen through CAA’s ranks, none is better known than Ari, the swaggering current co-CEO of William Morris Endeavor, whose name is forever tethered to that suitably puffed-up appellation, “Hollywood superagent.”
In Powerhouse, Ari’s CAA contemporaries chip in their recollections of the ambitious ladder climber. (Partner David O’Connor describes Ari affectionately, in terms appropriate for an industry not known for its virtuousness: “He’s a twisted fuck, but I get a kick out of him.”) There are also some 15 passages from Ari himself, who, unsurprisingly, is highly quotable. At turns he spits second-rate Gordon Gekko drivel like “You’ve got to want that fucking piece of bread more than the other guy. Simple as that.” Elsewhere he speaks animatedly about relatively trivial details that perfectly sum up the culture of a particular period in the talent agent business:
When we had moved into the new building, you know, the feng shui whatever-the-fuck-it-was building, I looked at that place and thought, I’m not going to be one of those Hollywood guys who has their license plate read “CAA this” or “CAA that.” I mean, those guys were sucking down the fucking Kool-Aid. I wasn’t that guy.
Ari’s most revealing moment in the book, however, comes when he recalls breaking the news to his bosses that he would be leaving CAA to go to work for rival agency InterTalent:
I wanted to tell Ovitz to his face, so I went into his office and said, “I’m trying to see Mike Ovitz.” I was told, “He’s not going to see you.” But I walked into his office anyway. Now, at the time, Mike Ovitz was God, and I was just a fucking street urchin. And he says, “I’m not seeing you.” I said, “I’ll be back in ten minutes and you’re going to deal with me then.” When I walk back in, there’s [CAA agent] Lee Gabler and [head of business affairs] Ray Kurtzman standing there with him. Ray liked me a lot, so I was calm and said, “Listen, it’s been great, but I’ve got to leave.” And then Mike gives me, “We’re going to kill you guys and your careers are going to be over.” I turned to him, got out of my Chinese chair, Japanese chair, whatever, and said, “Are you threatening me?” And I grabbed the chair with my hands and picked it up and said, “Because if you are, I’ll fucking throw this chair right out of here right now. Don’t threaten me.” I was an idiot. I was a complete moron. You don’t do that stuff, but I’ve been a fighter all my life.
What emerges in Ari’s portions of Powerhouse is a portrait of the Emanuel personality unleashed. This particular character type is often danced around in profiles of Rahm, Ari, and their eldest brother Ezekiel. It’s reflexively described as “forceful,” a term that’s little more than polite cover for the implied adjective: “dickish.” That Rahm and Ari share many of the same high-octane traits—aggressiveness, vulgarity, volatility—is an open secret. But what makes the brothers such an interesting comparative study is context: hotheads who bring to bear their distinct pugnaciousness in very different settings. And with remarkably different outcomes.
Let loose among the swinging dicks of the Hollywood studio system, the unchecked Emanuel ego has only served to burnish Ari’s industry legend. The fact that Ari Gold in the HBO series Entourage is famously based on the real-life Ari is something Emanuel has worn generally as a badge of honor, despite Jeremy Piven’s portrayal of Gold as a mercenary, tantrum-throwing, profanity-spewing jerk. But that might be exactly the kind of asshole Donald Trump (whom Ari once represented) wants at the bargaining table barking for more money.
By contrast, that Emanuel forcefulness hasn’t served Rahm as well in his job as mayor.
He’s clearly conscious of the political necessity to separate himself from the unfettered Rahm—the Rahm who once had a dead fish delivered to a pollster who disappointed him. But his awkward efforts to check himself have been painfully obvious. He often looks ill at ease—and not just at low points such as the teachers’ strike or during the ongoing police misconduct crisis. And despite his attempts to behave, his legendary temper still rears its head here and there: Meeting in private with Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis over a new contract in 2012, Emanuel infamously spat back, “Fuck you, Lewis!” The previous year, he pointed a finger in the face of NBC 5 journalist Mary Ann Ahern after she inquired about which Chicago school his kids would be enrolled in. And last year the mayor boiled over during a breakfast seminar when Politico’s Mike Allen revealed Rahm’s plans to vacation in Cuba with his family over the holidays.
His veneer of composure cracked again earlier this month. While at a bar during a trip through Washington, D.C., Rahm flipped off a consultant who asked if he would be running for president in 2020. When the gesture garnered attention in the room, someone informed Rahm that Megan R. Wilson, a reporter for the Hill, had witnessed the incident. To which he replied: “I don’t give a fuck who she is.” The incident made only a small ripple, probably because Rahm’s outsize ego has always seemed more at home back in the capital, where his outbursts—whether he was confronting an obstructive U.S. representative in the showers of the congressional gym or reportedly telling a male White House staffer, “Take your fucking tampon out and tell me what you have to say!”—were seen as extensions of his apparent passion for the legislative process. (Speaking of Rahm’s shower confrontation, Powerhouse features a scene in which former CAA agent David Greenblatt recalls Ari buttonholing him in the company’s lone bathroom.)
Rahm’s comfort in Washington gave weight to speculation earlier this month that the mayor might be eyeing the chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee. (Chicago magazine’s Carol Felsenthal proposed the move in a column; through a spokesman, Rahm subsequently denied that he’s interested in the job.) As Hollywood is Ari’s ideal field of battle, D.C. is Rahm’s. It seems to be the place where Rahm can operate at full tilt, where his more caustic approach is celebrated (or at least tolerated), where he doesn’t have to artlessly attempt to soften his truer self by slipping into a V-neck sweater—as he did in a much-discussed 2015 reelection video in which he said, “I can rub people the wrong way. Or talk when I should listen. I own that.”
What was presented as a confession was merely confirmation of what Chicago already knew: Rahm Emanuel can be a real prick.
While he narrowly averted a second teachers’ strike in September, Rahm now looks to the New Year for solutions to a city torn apart by what seem like intractable issues: more than 750 homicides in 2016—the highest total since 1997—a police department plagued by systemic racism, and the public’s deepening mistrust of law enforcement, particularly among communities of color. Rahm’s approval rating sank to 18 percent a year ago post-Laquan McDonald. He’s clawed back up above 40 percent, but the calls for his resignation haven’t ceased. If Chicago held a mayoral election today, he’d conceivably fall to a formidable opponent, whether it be Toni Preckwinkle or Karen Lewis.
With these problems on his shoulders, you have to wonder: Does Rahm, in his darkest hours, ever think of Ari, a phone glued to his ear, bullshitting with Leonardo DiCaprio or Rihanna as they sit courtside at a Lakers game? It seems only a matter of time before he rips off the sweater and says, as only Rahm can, “Fuck this!” v