Friday, July 18, 2008

Otto Preminger (1906-1986)

Having just finished a massive bio of the director and sometime actor, Otto Preminger: The Man Who Would Be King (Knopf) by Foster Hirsch, I have Otto on the brain.

I've always loved Anatomy of a Murder, and Exodus, and have discovered the Fox films that Preminger directed in the '40s in recent years. Laura, Fallen Angel, Where the Sidewalk Ends, Daisy Kenyon, Whirlpool, and The Thirteenth Letter really made me an Ottomaniac. Now comes a flurry of Otto books, as his career achievements are reassessed.

When I was growing up, I didn't realize that I was living through the period when Preminger was fast becoming passé, in no small part due to changing critical tastes and Otto's terrible efforts to remain hip--leading him to make ghastly movies toward the end of his working life, such as Skidoo, Such Good Friends and Rosebud.

Thank goodness my parents used to go out of their way to have us see such interesting films as were then broadcast, the aforementioned Anatomy, Exodus and Advise and Consent, as well as Porgy and Bess (which was shown on WPIX in NYC in the '70s).

Right: The sublime Anatomy of a Murder (1959), with wonderful performances from a fine ensemble of actors, led by Jimmy Stewart at his best. Perhaps because Otto was so steeped in and entranced
by the legal process shown in this film, it was probably his happiest production for all parties.
Those films were memorable because they caught in deep focus the unfolding of events and took a cool look at the institutions and conventions that shaped American lives (and Israeli-Arab lives in Exodus). What interested me in Hirsch's book was the Austrian background of Preminger's family, Otto's legal education (no wonder Anatomy of a Murder may have been his best movie) his extensive theatrical training in Vienna, his somewhat hardscrabble, con artist experiences trying to get a foothold in the American theater, (he directed John Barrymore in his last Broadway appearance in the notoriously chaotic My Dear Children) and his efforts to break into films once he left Austria with his family following the Anschluss in '38.
His early success as a director in the Max Reinhardt style at the state theater in Vienna and his indulgent, loving family life at the pinnacle of Viennese society gave him a taste for the good life as well as the belief that "he must be obeyed" by lowly actors.
Left: Otto's baptism of fire directing John Barrymore at the end (seen spanking his then wife, Elaine).

Most interesting was the way that Otto applied his legal mind to remaining at a distance from his best cinematic creations, his curious blend of heartfelt American patriotism and gift for publicity that led him to challenge the Production Code, the McCarthy era Blacklist, and most self-destructively, perhaps, many of the actors and crews he worked with during his career--though he gave many young actors a great chance (i.e. George C. Scott, Dorothy Dandridge, Jean Seberg, and many more who gave some fine performances in his movies).

This last feature is among the most puzzling. The tales of his terrible fits of temper with everyone from Gene Tierney to tough yet contrary Dyan Cannon are horrendous. He seemed to know exactly how he wanted a scene or a character to appear in the movie he imagined, but if an actor had difficulty or wished to bring their own thoughts to a role, he might dress them down to the point of bringing on a nervous breakdown, literally. The list of actors and especially actresses who had mental and emotional breakdowns and even committed suicide after working with him is pretty awful. Gene Tierney, Jean Seberg, Maggie McNamara, Dorothy Dandridge, Romy Schneider, Tom Tyron, and Keir Dullea are among the most prominent of those who were marked in part by working with Otto. While actors may be more vulnerable and prone to mental upsets than the general population, it does give one pause. It also gets awfully repetitious as reading matter at times. Though Hirsch doesn't dwell on psychoanalyzing his subject, he does drop the information near the end of the book that Preminger is reported to have taken Drexedine, a powerful stimulant, popular from the 50s-'60s especially, that sometimes causes powerful mood swings. I also suspect that it was because he seems to have been overindulged as a boy by his loving parents, who maybe, should have said "no" a few times to the boy.

Right: Dana Andrews, an actor Preminger loved, with Gene Tierney, an actress who could not stand up to him. They were two actors he cherished, used, cared for and employed long after Laura.

Btw, in several cases, after people had gone through some personal difficulty, he was often exceptionally kind and generous to them, (i.e. Gene Tierney on Advise and Consent, former sometime date and actress Patricia Neal, for whom he tried to set up a fund after her stroke, and Dana Andrews on In Harm's Way).

Overall, a great, compelling read, and though I'm sure that he would have intimidated me, I liked Preminger by the end of the book.

Others, among them Dana Andrews, David Niven, Gary Cooper, John Wayne and James Stewart--all of whom had a tendency to underplay--got along beautifully with Preminger. Most trying for the somewhat inarticulate, autocratic director were those actors who were steeped in The Method. Boy, internal searches for meaning and motivations were not up Otto's alley at all. He had run-ins with Paul Newman, Faye Dunaway, and Marilyn Monroe that were pretty funny, awful and understandable simultaneously.

Left
: An unhappy looking Paul Newman, with the director of Exodus.


At the end of the day, it seems that, while Preminger had a gift as a story editor, and for painting on a large cinematic canvas in an intelligent way--he just could not communicate all that well with actors. Quite a challenge for a director, wouldn't you say?

The descriptions of the creative and logistical process behind his movies was truly interesting. He tended to use writers like kleenex, but he had many loyal and fraught with familial tension relationships with much of his crew. The most interesting descriptions of his movies were the detailed battle plan that went into creating Exodus and the off and on the set drama surrounding the overlong Hurry Sundown. For Hurry, Sundown the Louisiana setting, the life of the cast and crew and the interactions of the production with the very tense segregationist southern area during the making of the film were far more intriguing and dramatic than anything Preminger got on film.

Hirsch does a good job of making a comprehensive 500 page+ portrait of a complex man, though he at times seems to take on the unnecessary role of a cheerleader for Otto over his contemporary Billy Wilder, (who is characterized as vulgar and "having poor table manners"). I do think that people are becoming more aware of the quality of the majority of his movies today, but it isn't really necessary to compare two such different directors, just because both are products of the Austro-Hungarian empire and one is a critic's darling and the other ruined his reputation pretty badly toward the end of his career with many very big, very bad movies. Also, there are a few goofs in the book that should have been edited out, such as the statement that William Wyler was born in Berlin, (he was born in Alsace-Lorraine).

Overall, by the finish of the book, I think I would have liked knowing Otto, as long as I stood up to him or laughed at his outrageousness, (always a sure fire way to win him over).I like Otto because: He wanted to make good movies, he liked to try new things, (sometimes successful, sometimes pretty awful), he was very good to his family, he loathed the Nazis, even when it was inconvenient, (and even though he could be such a fascist on the set) and most of all, because he loved being a showman more than any of the money that went with being a director, (though he certainly wasn't allergic to it either).

We could use another Otto Preminger, though, because he was a product of his time and place, we will never see his like again.

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