In Slate, Kim Masters pens the umpteenth mocking obit for Michael Eisner's career as CEO of The Walt Disney Company:
I first met Eisner in 1986. In those days, he had a wonderful, avuncular P.R. man—the late Erwin Okun—who made sure Eisner knew enough about a journalist to flatter him or her into a state of near senselessness. Before that first meeting, Okun learned that I liked Jane Austen. Almost as soon as I sat down in the chair, Eisner told me he was re-reading Pride and Prejudice in my honor. "Quick," I wanted to say. "What's Darcy's first name?" (Answer: Fitzwilliam.)
Soon after the interview, an envelope arrived at my office (then at the Daily News in the San Fernando Valley). Inside was a pamphlet, "The Jane Austen Map of England," and a red-ink note written in Eisner's boyish scrawl.
Dear 'Janeite' Kim,
I thought you would enjoy the Jane Austen Map of England as I start my abandonment of Romanticism (goodbye Hawthorne, Melville, Dumas and even good old Emily Bronte) toward realism and order and discipline. And I've already read 100 pages of Pride and Prejudice.
Yes, I was cynical of this gesture. What harried assistant had really tracked down the Jane Austen Map of England? Did he or she also supply an executive summary of the major themes of English literature? Yet, the fact that I kept the note shows how effective it was. And looking back, I realize that it underscores a point in which Eisner took considerable pride. "I was an English major!" the note screams. "Unlike those schmucks David Geffen, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and even Barry Diller—one of the few people who actually intimidates me on God's earth—I have a college diploma!"
Not to put too fine a point on it, but who gives a shit? I have no stake in sticking up for Eisner, about whom I know nothing special except that he once cut off and nearly hit a friend of mine while trying to beat her out of the Disney parking lot. But given the much bigger fish he had to fry, doesn't it speak well of him that he took such care in gladhanding an entertainment reporter for a third-rate paper—who seemingly has nothing better to do than wonder whether he's actually read Pride and fucking Prejudice?
Do any of the people now kicking Eisner and noting his "mixed legacy" remember just how bad Disney was before he took over? Leave aside for a moment the difference Eisner made in the greater empire of parks, ABC, Miramax, etc. Consider just the production history. Titles from the years immediately preceding Eisner's tenure include Trenchcoat, The Devil and Max Devlin, Beyond Witch Mountain, and Gone Are the Dayes.
But since Disney's live-action movies have generally been pretty terrible throughout history, let's look instead at the company's core competency of animation. There we find B-grade titles like Mickey's Christmas Carol, and The Fox and the Hound. It's easy now, when Disney is a vast empire with revenues still streaming in from the Lion King and Little Mermaid franchises, to see Eisner as just some CEO who had a good decade and then a bad one. But at the beginning of that first decade, the company was in the kind of slump that can easily become terminal if left untreated.
Masters has an interesting read on the early Eisner magic:
Eventually, the façade of imperial command cracked. Eisner's shortcomings became exposed as the team that had helped him transform Disney dropped away. The executive group was like the Beatles: Eisner and his patrician No. 2 man, Frank Wells, were John and Paul. The annoying but effective Katzenberg and the unsung Okun were Ringo and George. That version of the Beatles broke up in 1994, Disney's annus horribilis. Wells died in a helicopter crash, Okun was carried off suddenly by illness, and Eisner tossed out Katzenberg on his round, black ear.
I don't know enough to say whether this reading is reliable or not, but since I loathe Shrek, a corrupt film that is more concerned with working out Jeffrey Katzenberg's anti-Disney animus than entertaining kids, I'm going to say the Beatle simile is misplaced: Just as Ringo was revealed to be the real genius in the post-Beatle era, Eisner, who continued to achieve artistic and financial successes even in his bad years, is the not-so-secret genius of this foursome. You can test out this theory: Hop in your time machine, go back to 1984, and make two predictions: that the Soviet Union will live for another 200 years and that Disney will be out of business by 1990. See if anybody laughs.