Oscar Directors: Preminger, Otto–Profile

Andrew Sarris, the noted auteurist critic, observed:

Laura, the 1944 noir classic, is Otto Preminger’s Citizen Kane, at least in the sense that his detractors, like Orson Welles,’ have never permitted him to live it down. One of the most accomplished melodramas of the 1940s, the essence of sleek studio filmmaking, Laura is set in a cafe society New York.

It’s populated by a group of vipers gathering sinuously around a young beautiful woman (Gene Tierney, at her most glorious), all of them holding forth in a nastily confrontational style.

A tremendous commercial and critical success, Laura is regarded by many critics as Preminger’s masterpiece. The film earned Preminger his first Academy (Oscar) Award nomination as Best Director; he would be nominated again two decades later for The Cardinal.

However, in addition to Laura, Preminger made other superlative films, such as Anatomy of a Murder, which still doesn’t have the reputation it deserves. To say that I like Anatomy of a Murder more than Laura is to express a certain preference in style and manner–reality over artifice; plain outdoor settings over studio-created glamour; gravel over silk; real issues over witty dialogue. Anatomy of a Murder was nominated for the 1959 Best Picture Oscar (though Preminger failed to be nominated) and features Jimmy Stewart in one of his most remarkable and uncharacteristic performances.

Laura and Anatomy of a Murder are just two of Preminger’s film jewels. Arguably, he made at least three other masterpieces of ambiguity and objectivity: Bonjour Tristesse (1958), Advise and Consent (1962), and Bunny Lake Is Missing (1965).

A film noir like Angel Face, starring the young Jean Simmons as a wide-eyed murderess, is one of Preminger’s most refined but underestimated studies of obsession. His melodramas at Fox, particularly Fallen Angel, Whirlpool, and Where the Sidewalk Ends are moodily fluid studies in perverse psychology rather than crackling suspense movies. A case can be made that every Preminger film, even his most ill-fated endeavor, bears the signs of an overall conception, vast ambition, and personal vision.

Preminger died in 1986, at the age of 81, leaving behind him a rich legacy of close to 40 movies. At least half of his films are worth revisiting today, and at least a dozen of them represent more than efficient Hollwyood entertainment. Not many Hollywood directors can make such claims.

Preminger’s life was a richly complex tapestry, replete with numerous adventures, scandals and achievements. Preminger’s various crusades (against censorship, McCarthy’s blacklisting, American hypocrisy, and so on) were waged as publicity stunts, but they also called for a much-needed change in Hollywood.  To paraphrase Sarris, Preminger was a director with the personality of a producer, at a time when producers produced and directors directed.

Social Background

Born in Vienna, on December 5, 1905, Preminger was the son of a successful lawyer who was once the attorney general of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Under parental pressure, Preminger studied law, though he was always strongly attracted to the theater. By the time he received his doctor of law degree from the University of Vienna, in l926, he had two years of experience as an actor and assistant to Max Reinhardt, the distinguished theater director.

Extremely ambitious, Preminger began producing and directing for the theater. Before long, he was put in charge of Reinhardt’s famous Viennese “Theatre der Josefstadt.” He made one German-language film, Die Grosse Liebe (1931), before emigrating to the U.S. in 1935. In New York, he staged Libel, a courtroom drama he had presented successfully in Vienna. He then went from Broadway to Hollywood to work for 20th Century-Fox. He spent some 8 months on the sets and in the cutting rooms, studying the work of various directors before being assigned to direct a couple of B-pictures.

Hollywood Beginnings

Strong-willed and too stubborn for the system to handle, Preminger was fired after an argument with studio head Darryl F. Zanuck, just a week or so after beginning his third project, the big-budget Kidnapped, a film he had reluctantly agreed to direct. As Preminger predicted, the film, completed and credited to Alfred Werker, ended up a considerable flop.

Virtually blacklisted in Hollywood, Preminger returned to Broadway, where he scored a hit with Clare Boothe Luce’s play, Margin of Error, in which he had courageously cast himself as a Nazi villain. Although he was Jewish, the shaven-headed Preminger looked so convincingly as German that he was immediately rushed to Hollywood to play a Nazi in Fox’s war drama, The Pied Piper. His ultimate performance as a cruel Nazi general was in Billy Wilder’s Stalag 17.

Preminger was then offered the Nazi role in the screen version of Margin for Error, but refused to do the part unless he could also direct. With studio head Zanuck away on war service, he got his wish. When the film was completed, Preminger was assigned to several other projects.

Preminger refused to accept responsibility for the half a dozen films he directed before Laura: Under Your Spell (1936), Danger-Love at Work (1937), Margin for Error (1943), and In the Meantime, Darling (l944). He’s hardly unique, however, in his disdain for his early Hollywood experience; many other directors have similarly unimpressive beginnings.

Back from War service, Zanuck was reportedly outraged at Preminger’s advance in the studio, but he permitted his disliked director to complete his last project, Laura–as producer only. Rouben Mamoulian was assigned to direct, but when his rushes proved disappointing, Zanuck reluctantly agreed to let Preminger direct. The rest is film history.

Having become a U.S. citizen in 1943, Preminger remained with Fox, for which he piloted, with varying success, a couple of Lubitsch-inspired comedies, a number of murky, sometimes offbeat melodramas, and an expensive flop, Forever Amber. Despite heated arguments, Zanuck later became one of his greatest fans and defenders. In fact, Preminger remained at Fox for the next six years, until he branched out into independent production, and a new career as a censor basher.

Life of Controversies

In the early 1950s, Preminger became one of the first directors to turn an independent producer. His first independent production, The Moon Is Blue (1953), caused a storm of controversy as the first Hollywood film to employ such unmentionable words as “virgin” and “pregnant” in its dialogue. The movie was refused approval by the industry’s Production Code Administration and was condemned by the Roman Catholic Legion of Decency. Preminger then took the case to the Supreme Court–and won. Eventually, The Moon Is Blue was released without the Production Code Seal of Approval and became a landmark in the history of Hollywood censorship.

Preminger again stirred up controversy with The Man With the Golden Arm, Hollywood’s first excursion into the world of drug addiction, then a taboo issue. The movie earned Frank Sinatra his first and only Best Actor Oscar nomination (in 1953, Sinatra had won Supporting Oscar for From Here to Eternity).

Preminger scored a qualified hit with the all-black version of Carmen Jones (l954), a powerful melodrama, adapted from Bizet’s opera by Oscar Hammerstein II. Shot in CinemaScope, the movie featured exciting music and an equally exciting Dorothy Dandridge as the ultimate femme fatale Dandridge went on to become the first black actress to ever be nominated for a Best Actress Oscar, a record she would hold for over a decade.

Unfortunately, this professional high was followed by a critical and commercial disaster of the screen version of Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan. Nonetheless, the picture made a star of Jean Seberg, whom Preminger took to the Cannes Film Festival in one of his biggest publicity campaigns.

Then came Anatomy of Murder, which is considered by many to be Preminger’s biggest commercial and critical hits. In this movie, Preminger cast Joseph N. Welch, the lawyer who helped shoot down Senator Joseph McCarthy, as the judge. Later, he tried but failed to get Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to play a Southern Senator in Advise and Consent. Preminger also helped break the Communist blacklist by hiring outcast screenwriter Dalton Trumbo to adapt Exodus.

In addition to his bouts with Zanuck and blue noses, Preminger had his share of famous clashes. He fired Lana Turner from Anatomy after a dispute over her wardrobe. In one of the most publicized scandals in his life, Preminger was brained with a goblet at the 21 Club by agent Irving “Swifty” Lazar during an argument over the rights to Truman Capote’s novel, In Cold Blood, which he wanted to direct. Preminger’s head took 51 stitches, and Lazar was booked doe “felonious assault with a drinking glass;” the charge was later dropped.

In Hollywood circles, Preminger became famous for his tempestuous personality. Among actors, who were often victimized by his ego-temper tantrums on the set, he was known as “Otto the Terrible.” He treated actors like children, though, under his helm, children didn’t fare better.

The story goes that on the set of Exodus, Preminger needed a group of Israeli kids to cry. “Cry, you little monsters,” the big, bald, scary director repeatedly screamed. When the kids wouldn’t, Preminger asked their mothers to leave the set quietly, upon which he told the kinds, “You see, your mothers have been taken away. You are never going to see them again! Never!” The kids instantly burst into hysterical tears.

Cost-conscious in the extreme, Preminger consistently lived within the limitations of his budgets and managed to stay afloat much longer than his more artistically ambitious but economically reckless colleagues in independent productions. Culture heroes like Sternberg, Stroheim, Ophuls, and Welles have acquired, rightly or wrongly, a legendary reputation for profligacy. Preminger’s legend is that of the cosmic cost accountant, a ruthless creature who will mangle the muse for the sake of his strict shooting schedule.

There’s a wonderful story about the day Preminger shot the Eva-Marie Saint–Paul Newman hilltop scene in Exodus. During the last take, the shadow of the boom fell across the couple. It was too late for a retake because the sun had gone. Preminger decided to let the shadow stand, rather than return to the location the next day for a retake that would disrupt his shooting schedule.

Some finicky aesthetes might write this decision off as sloppy craftsmanship, but for Preminger, it was a question of survival; he didn’t enjoy a major commercial success since Anatomy of a Murder in l959. Preminger’s frugality, and his frugality alone, kept him from drowning in the sea of red ink. Almost alone in the new tribe of producer-directors, Preminger accepted the responsibility of freedom as well as the lesson of a shrinking movie market.

Unlike many members of his generation, Preminger was adaptable to the changing conditions of production–and the changing trends in the public taste. In the l950s and l960s, he made a comfortable transition to CinemaScope. The wide-screen format seemed to agree with his preference for long takes and smooth camera movement over fast cutting and reaction shots.

Ultimately, it’s Preminger’s manner and mode, rather than his subject matter, that should concern critics. Otherwise, his extraordinary eclecticism in subject matter would make him a poor choice indeed for a career analysis. What is one to say of a taste in scripts oscillating between Oscar Wilde and Katleen Winsor, Bernard Shaw and F. Hugh Herbert, Nelson Algren and Allen Drury, Francoise Sagan and Leon Uris Thematic consistency is hardly an attribute of Preminger’s film oeuvre.

The secret of his style is elsewhere. One critic has called it fairness, another the ambiguity of objectivity and truth. The technical correlative is the objective camera viewpoint that keeps all his characters within the same frame, in deep focus. As Preminger himself explained, he came from the theater, where he was accustomed to looking at drama as a spatial whole. Consequently, his deepest instincts were always opposed to montage and cutting.

Sarris has aptly observed that Preminger “is a director who sees all problems and issues as a single-take-two-shot, the stylistic expression of the eternal conflict, not between right and wrong, but between the right-wrong on one side and the right-wrong on the other, a representation of the right-wrong in all of us as our share of the human condition.  In the middle of the conflict stands Otto Preminger, right-wrong, good-bad, and sincere-cynical.”

Most of Preminger’s film prjects, even the comedies and musicals, display a rather solemn and somber quality, reflecting his distinctly European sensibility. For example, though a comedy, The Moon Is Blue comes out being a little sad, and Bonjour Tristesse, far from being a merry Gallic romp, is transformed by Preminger’s color/black and white duality into a tragedy of time and illusion.

In his later work, Preminger demonstrated a tendency to transform trash into art. Indeed, some of his 1960s pictures were big, violent and vulgar. Exodus, The Cardinal, In Harm’s Way, and Hurry Sundown are all derived from bloated novels on “big subjects.” Unfortunately, Preminger does not entirely transcend his material on an occasion. Nor does he always reshape it sufficiently to his own taste.

But in almost every Preminger film, some individual scenes are magnificent, as for instance, the prison raid in Exodus; the shipboard sequences with the President in Advise and Consent; the violent ballroom scene in The Cardinal; the opening dance sequence in In Harm’s Way, which invokes effectively in one slowly moving shot the entire Glenn Millerish Zeitgeist of the l940s.

Although no single consistent theme is discernible in Preminger’s pictures, there are some basic ingredients that are common to most, such as objective camera viewpoint and  fascination with the duality and ambiguity of character. As a result, movies like Anatomy of a Murder, Advise and Consent, and The Cardinal are much more complex in form and tone than most Hollywood movies of the era.

Preminger provided intelligent entertainment in the best Hollywood tradition. Even in the l960s, during his presumably artistic decline, critics suggested that his movies are more than efficient filmmaking. Indeed, Preminger tackled unabashedly major social issues: racism and justice (Anatomy of a Murder), nationalism (Exodus), the democratic process (Advise and Consent), the essence of religion (The Cardinal).

Preminger made an honorable trilogy about American corporations: Advise and Consent dealt with the Senate; The Cardinal with the Roman Catholic Church, and In Harm’s Way with the Navy. One of Preminger’s best films, In Harm’s Way (1965), starring American icons John Wayne and Henry Fonda, depicts a skilled guild of pros operating within a hierarchy which is friendly where possible, but at the core is cold and impersonal.

An outspoken man, who seemed to enjoy his outrageous statements in his frequent appearances on TV talk shows, Preminger entertained few pretentious about his films. He seemed equally unimpressed with either the vitriol or praise of film critics.

Preminger experienced several dangerous liaisons in his fully lived life. In 1971, shortly after the death of Gypsy Rose Lee, the thrice-married Preminger revealed that he was the father of the stripper’s 26-year-old son, Erik Kirkland, who began his career as casting director. He explained: “Because of her television show, which had an audience made up largely of middle-aged housewives who might not approve, Gypsy asked me to keep Erik’s story secret.”

Preminger adopted Kirkland, who changed his name to Eric Lee Preminger and began employing him as associate producer and screenwriter. Preminger was married three times and had three kids. His brother, Hollywood agent Ingo Preminger, made his debut as a producer with M.A.S.H in 1970.

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