Volume 20, Number 34 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | Jan. 11 - 17, 2008
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All hail King Otto!
Author Foster Hirsch talks about Film Forum’s Preminger retrospective
“Otto Preminger Festival”
Continuing through Thurs. Jan. 17
209 West Houston Street
By WILL McKINLEY
They don’t make them like Otto Preminger anymore.
By the time of his death in 1986, the Austrian-born impresario had become one of the most influential producer/directors in Hollywood history. From the pitch-perfect film noir “Laura” (1944) to the controversial Zionist epic “Exodus” (1960) to the surreal 1968 farce “Skidoo” (featuring an elderly, joint-toking Groucho Marx), Preminger made movies the way he wanted to make them. And, in the process, he loosened the creative stranglehold of the Motion Picture Production Code, the Taliban-esque censorship system enforced by Hollywood beginning in 1934. A film didn’t get released in this country without the Code seal of approval until Preminger.
But today he is better known for his temper tantrums and public persona than for his craft, or the seismic paradigm shifts he set into motion.
Film historian Foster Hirsch would like to change that. The author of the definitive new biography “Otto Preminger: The Man Who Would be King” believes that it is time to re-evaluate the work of this “critically undervalued” genius. And, thanks to Film Forum’s 16-day, 23-film Preminger retrospective, Downtown audiences are getting a rare opportunity to do just that.
WILL McKINLEY: How would you describe Preminger’s work?
FOSTER HIRSCH: He was a director who was hard to characterize. He made film noir, Westerns, war pictures, epics, musicals and romantic comedies. I think that’s part of why the critical debate is still lingering over him.
When he died the L.A. Times wrote, “He had become as famous for his curmudgeonry as for his art.”
He was a curmudgeon. He was a tyrant. He was a bully. Sometimes I think he treated actors sadistically. But he was also an extremely kindly man, generous, good-hearted, loyal and a wonderful husband and father. He was a very flawed human being. The work is flawed too. He made some real clinkers but the best of the work is among the top in our film history.
He was also something of a larger-than-life personality, wasn’t he?
Yes. People in my generation remember Preminger vividly as a public personality. In his heyday he was every bit as famous as Alfred Hitchcock. I can’t think of any director today who is that famous.
But his life also had a bit of a tabloid quality.
Absolutely. He did have an affair with Dorothy Dandridge (star of 1954’s “Carmen Jones”). He did father a child out of wedlock with Gypsy Rose Lee. He was a legendary womanizer, but in his third marriage in 1960 he was an absolutely dedicated family man and father. He changed completely. No scandal.
Preminger said “Directing Marilyn Monroe was like directing Lassie.” I take it they didn’t get along when they worked together on “River of No Return” in 1954?
To put it bluntly, he despised Marilyn Monroe. And the feelings were returned in kind. He thought that she was incredibly unprofessional. She was late. She couldn’t remember her lines. She was extremely difficult. She was uncaring about her co-workers. He also thought that she was extremely untalented. And in fact she gives a pretty bad performance in “River of No Return.” She said it was her worst film.
Why didn’t he just fire her?
He was forced to work with her. It was his last film under contract for Fox and he didn’t really want to make it.
You call Preminger “a pioneer independent filmmaker who set a business model that continues to be followed.” How so?
He saw that the studio era was ending, so he got out of his contract and he set up business in New York, on his own, completely independent. He had distribution deals with major studios, but he was the captain of his own ship. He chose the material, cast it, directed it and was responsible for advertising, promotion and exhibition. He did everything.
Did he set out to destroy the Production Code that had been enforced in Hollywood since the early ’30s?
Yes he did. He really believed in freedom of speech and against censorship. And he knew that releasing a film without the Production Code seal of approval would be good business. It was. At first it was very hard, but he persevered.
Was breaking the Code his greatest accomplishment?
That was historic, but he also he broke the blacklist when he credited Dalton Trumbo as the screenwriter of “Exodus.” He was fearless about showing homosexuality (in 1962’s “Advise & Consent”). He hired more black talent in the 1950s than any other mainstream director. He portrayed drug addiction in “The Man With the Golden Arm.” But I think his main contribution is that he made some of the greatest films ever produced in this country. He’s one of the masters of American cinema.
Foster Hirsch will be introducing the 2 PM screening of “Exodus” on Sun Jan 13, the 7:30 PM screening of “The Fan” on Tues Jan 15 and the 7:45 PM screening of “The Cardinal” on Wed. Jan. 16.