Book Review: Drabinsky's Life
Closer to the Sun By Garth Drabinsky, with Marq de Villiers (McClelland & Stewart, $35)
Oh sure, it has pages - a whopping 496 of them - and a glossy dust jacket showing the mercurial stage mogul Garth Drabinsky staring out as placid and personable as a lamb. Some unsuspecting book buyer might even mistake Closer to the Sun, his sweeping memoir, for your run-of-the-mill celebrity autobiography. But this, as they say in showbiz, is a vehicle. The product of six years, two handsomely rewarded ghostwriters, at least five manuscript versions and endless fiddling by the subject and his public relations chief, it is also the example of a new publishing phenomenon - an update on the notion of the vanity press. Having already spent tens of thousands of his own money on the project, Drabinsky is following the lead of another wealthy tycoon with similar aspirations to literary immortality, Conrad Black.
But the book is not merely a promotional showcase for the man whose first name, in giant type on the cover, dwarfs the title. It is also a literary lesson in chutzpah. For those astonished at his presumption in likening himself to the mythic figure whose wings melted when he tried to fly too high, Drabinsky has a humbling rejoinder: in his view, Icarus was a wimp. "I think the bastard just gave up too soon," he writes. "He should have gotten himself another set of wings and taken off again!"
But oddly, for all the expense and cast of collaborators involved, Drabinsky has been better served by others in chronicling his life. Left in his own hands, what is, in fact, a moving story of personal courage - overcoming childhood polio and a painful limp, rebuilding his career as a theatrical impresario after losing his Cineplex movie-house empire - becomes lost in the need to right wrongs and punish slights. No axe remains unground. Even a long-ago bit player named George Destounis, a former president of Famous Players who helped hasten the end of Drabinsky's movie magazine Impact in the early 1970s, is slammed as someone who keeps "turning up, like bad pennies, like bad apples, fat and wheezing ghosts, lumbering onto the path of progress and blocking it!"
Amazingly, the impresario known for his exquisite taste in movie-house marble and his impeccable staging frequently goes over the top with his own tale. As he says near the end: "It never stops, I just never, ever stop." Not once but twice, Drabinsky recounts a hospital visit to Jimmy Raymond, one of the nominees from the Montreal Bronfman empire on his Cineplex board, who came down with cancer during the company's brutal battle with its powerful Hollywood shareholder, MCA Inc. Clearly meant to illustrate the depth of his own desperation, instead it shows more of Drabinsky than a reader might care to know. "In the end, he said, 'I'm sick, Garth. I can't help you,' Drabinsky writes. 'You're sick, Jimmy,' I muttered, 'but I'm near death.' "
Still, he seems better at evoking his tragedies than his triumphs, which are often reduced to opening-night guest lists and catalogues of emotions. His reincarnation as a wildly successful theatrical producer who brought not only The Phantom of the Opera to Toronto, but Kiss of the Spider Woman and Show Boat to Broadway, gets surprisingly short shrift in the last 100 pages - some of the least compelling in the entire opus. His vindication in winning a 1993 Tony Award is tempered by finding that Canadian newspapers did not report the event on page 1.
The one part of the book that Drabinsky kept under wraps during his own public readings over recent months - the inside story of that power struggle, which eventually cost him his theatre circuit - turns out to offer a wealth of delicious detail, but no real news. In a chapter entitled "Supping with the Devil," he relates his seduction by Lew Wasserman, the man known as Hollywood's godfather, only to sum him up as "an unexciting individual." Drabinsky admits to "one major, devastating and ultimately self-destructive mistake ... I never understood MCA's imperial mind-set."
Despite the lengthy recapitulations of board and bankers' meetings, there is no sense of his emotional bond with MCA president Sid Sheinberg, which briefly won the brash Torontonian his insider status in Hollywood's corridors of power. Nor is there a convincing explanation for MCA's original courtship of the man who became the owner of the continent's second-largest movie-house chain. Still, Drabinsky seems to offer a hint when he notes, somewhat offhandedly, that at a time when the studios were still officially barred from investing in the exhibition business, he had already approached Columbia Pictures with a proposal to invest in his Cineplex circuit "to test the climate."
For the moment, it seems that film-business junkies will have to wait for looser lips to learn the real, untold story behind the corporate coup that ultimately ousted Drabinsky - the backroom deal forged between MCA and the Bronfmans' point man, Senator Leo Kolber. But then, those lips might some day belong to Drabinsky himself. After all, as he makes clear in his telling scold of Icarus, the high-flying impresario is unlikely to be daunted by thoughts of a sequel.
Maclean's April 17, 1995