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Otto Preminger: The Man Who Would Be King

Otto Preminger: The Man Who Would Be King

by Foster Hirsch

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The first full-scale life of the controversial, greatly admired yet often underrated director/producer who was known as “Otto the Terrible.”

Nothing about Otto Preminger was small, trivial, or self-denying, from his privileged upbringing in Vienna as the son of an improbably successful Jewish lawyer to his work in film and theater in Europe and,


The first full-scale life of the controversial, greatly admired yet often underrated director/producer who was known as “Otto the Terrible.”

Nothing about Otto Preminger was small, trivial, or self-denying, from his privileged upbringing in Vienna as the son of an improbably successful Jewish lawyer to his work in film and theater in Europe and, later, in America.

His range as a director was remarkable: romantic comedies (The Moon Is Blue); musicals (Carmen Jones; Porgy and Bess); courtroom dramas (The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell; Anatomy of a Murder); adaptations of classic plays (Shaw's Saint Joan, screenplay by Graham Greene); political melodrama (Advise and Consent); war films (In Harm's Way); film noir (Laura; Angel Face; Bunny Lake Is Missing). He directed sweeping sagas (from The Cardinal and Exodus to Hurry Sundown) and small-scale pictures, adapting Françoise Sagan's Bonjour Tristesse with Arthur Laurents and Nelson Algren's The Man with the Golden Arm.

Foster Hirsch shows us Preminger battling studio head Darryl F. Zanuck; defying and undermining the Production Code of the Motion Picture Association of America and the Catholic Legion of Decency, first in 1953 by refusing to remove the words "virgin" and "pregnant" from the dialogue of The Moon Is Blue (he released the film without a Production Code Seal of Approval) and then, two yeras later, when he dared to make The Man with the Golden Arm, about the then-taboo subject of drug addiction. When he made Anatomy of a Murder in 1959, the censors objected to the use of the words "rape," "sperm," "sexual climax," and "penetration." Preminger made one concession (substituting "violation" for "penetration"); the picture was released with the seal, and marked the beginning of the end of the Code.

Hirsch writes about how Preminger was a master of the "invisible" studio-bred approach to filmmaking, the so-called classical Hollywood style (lengthy takes; deep focus; long shots of groups of characters rather than close-ups and reaction shots).

He shows us Preminger, in the 1950s, becoming the industry's leading employer of black performers—his all-black Carmen Jones and Porgy and Bess remain landmarks in the history of racial representation on the American screen—and breaking another barrier by shooting a scene in a gay bar for Advise and Consent, a first in American film.

Hirsch tells how Preminger broke the Hollywood blacklist when, in 1960, he credited the screenplay of Exodus to Dalton Trumbo, the most renowed of the Hollywood Ten, and hired more blacklisted talent than anyone else.

We see Preminger's balanced style and steadfast belief in his actors' underacting set against his own hot-tempered personality, and finally we see this European-born director making his magnificent films about the American criminal justice system, Anatomy of a Murder, and about the American political system, Advise and Consent.

Foster Hirsch shows us the man—enraging and endearing—and his brilliant work.

From the Hardcover edition.

Editorial Reviews

Gerald Bartell
In this, the first major biography of the director, Foster Hirsch tackles the ogre whom actors, film crews and the public loved to hate. It's a solidly sourced work filled with telling anecdotes and keen critical insights, and the author sees shadings, contradictions and even kindness behind Preminger's Prussian facade, an image Hirsch thinks overshadows the director's impressive slate of films.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly

Meticulously researched with nearly 100 new interviews with family members and co-workers, this epic biography offers a multifaceted portrait of the Viennese-born filmmaker and reappraisal of his films. Preminger's "creativity was fueled by abrasion," says Hirsch, so nearly every film boasts testimony from actors who were verbally abused. His explosive rows extended to censors, crew members and studio heads. But Hirsch also reveals the gentler side of "Otto the Terrible," protecting fragile stars and doting on his family. "With family, Otto was like a marshmallow, and capable of great love in a primal way," says Erik, his son with Gypsy Rose Lee. Film buffs will enjoy the candid looks behind his volatile productions (including Laura, Anatomy of a Murder, Hurry Sundown). Historians will appreciate Preminger's belated recognition for breaking the blacklist (he credited Dalton Trumbo for writing Exodusnine months before Kirk Douglas did the same with Spartacus) and dismantling the oppressive censorship board (he released The Moon Is Blue and Man with the Golden Armwithout the Production Code's seal of approval). This is a long-overdue critical biography of the temperamental titan with a genius for self-promotion. Photos. (Oct. 21)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Kirkus Reviews
Richly embroidered biography of the legendary stage and film director with an incendiary temper and uneven legacy. Preminger (1905-1983) could not have asked for a more assiduous or generous biographer than Hirsch (Film/Brooklyn College; Kurt Weill on Stage: From Berlin to Broadway, 2002, etc.), who has visited the archives, studied the films, interviewed the principals, walked the ground and read all relevant documents. The result will endure as the definitive life of one of film's most intriguing and volcanic personalities. Born in Poland to a German-speaking Jewish family, Preminger spent his childhood in Austria, where he soon became obsessed with the theater. Gifted with an extraordinary memory, a ferocious work ethic and a vaulting ambition, the young man quickly established himself as an actor. When premature baldness ended his career as a leading man, he moved into character parts, often playing Nazis, then into the director's chair. He arrived in New York in 1935 to direct a production on Broadway and by 1936 was making films for Darryl Zanuck at Twentieth Century Fox. Later he became an independent producer and director. Hirsch devotes sufficient space to Preminger's personal life, but his principal interest is in his subject's evolution-and eventual disintegration-as a filmmaker. The author describes the mounting of each production, with wrenching accounts of Preminger's fiery clashes with performers ranging from Marilyn Monroe to Paula Prentiss, Faye Dunaway and Dyan Cannon. He also unblinkingly records Preminger's bullying of Tom Tryon and Jean Seberg, among others. But Hirsch credits the director for such fine films as Laura, Anatomy of a Murder and the underrated Advise &Consent. He praises Preminger, too, for dealing with difficult subjects and for breaking the blacklist by giving Dalton Trumbo, who refused to testify before the 1947 HUAC, a screen credit. Executed with the conviction and meticulousness of a Preminger production.

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Read an Excerpt

PROLOGUE: An Encounter

I was in the presence of Otto Preminger only once. Because he was listed as the director, in November 1980 I went to see a play at an acting studio where Preminger was then teaching called The Corner Loft, located at Twelfth Street and University Place in New York City. The play, a routine psychological thriller called The Killer Thing, turned out to be beside the point, because during the intermission, with the audience members squashed together in the minuscule lobby, a drama far more enticing than the one onstage erupted suddenly. As if in response to some deep atavistic instinct, patrons parted to make room for the tall, commanding figure—unmistakably Otto Preminger in person who entered the lobby and began, with purposeful stride, to make his way across the room that seemed almost too small to contain him. With his large, bald, ovoid head, piercing blue eyes, lips that formed a faint half-smile that seemed poised between charm and contempt, and his imperial bearing, Preminger radiated a lifetime of privilege, wealth, fame, and power. There was no disregarding this man’s deeply engrained sense of self, his unassailable amour propre. The milling crowd, evidently as pleased as I was to catch a glimpse of a director who at the time was as recognizable as Alfred Hitchcock, looked at him with the respect, and the wariness, that his reputation as a terrible-tempered tyrant seemed to warrant. Such a large man in such a small space seemed pregnant with possibilities for a collision of Grand Guignol magnitude.

And indeed, within a few seconds of his appearance, Preminger’s booming voice–“You always louse things up, don’t you? ”–reduced the room to a hushed silence, quickly shattered by another insult delivered in Preminger’s thick Austrian accent. “Lousing things up and getting in the way is your particular specialty, isn’t it?” Evidently trying to wish himself into invisibility, the minion who was the object of the director’s blasts crumpled into an almost fetal position as he walked (hobbled?) to a nearby door, fumbled briefly with the doorknob, then disappeared from view. (And from history. No one I talked to who had worked at the Loft in the Preminger era, including its director, Elaine Gold, or John Martello, who starred in the play, was able to identify the unlucky subaltern.)

Frozen, we all waited for Preminger’s next move. His half-smile in place and behaving as if the scene we had witnessed had not happened, the director calmly helped himself to coffee and cookies at the refreshment table. In what seemed at the time excruciating slow motion, the room began to fill once again with the murmur of conversation as the audience feebly pretended to do what Preminger had accomplished with such remarkable aplomb–dismiss the scene he had just played.

Was the tantrum for real, or had the maestro favored us with a command performance of “Otto Preminger,” the world-renowned filmmaker who was as noted for his outbursts as for his work? Were we privileged witnesses of a reprise of the Hollywood Nazi roles Preminger had played with such conviction that some of his enemies regarded these performances as the real thing? Or had we just observed an aging director losing his grip? The explosion was awesome, but also ambiguous: that secret-sharer smile, the post-tirade ease and obliviousness with which he helped himself at the coffee table. “Real people don’t behave this way,” I remember thinking at the time. What had the unfortunate young man done, or failed to do, to warrant such withering public abuse? Couldn’t the dressing-down have waited until Preminger and the miscreant were discreetly out of sight? Or was a public forum precisely the arena in which Preminger wanted to stage his anger? That night, Preminger certainly stole the show. Over twenty years later I recall nothing of the play, while the memory of those few moments remains vivid.

Little did I suspect that two decades later I would be eager to write the story of Preminger’s life and that the high drama of my one encounter with him would be echoed many times over in the recollections of the colleagues and family members I interviewed. Nearly everyone I spoke with had a story about a Preminger outburst, while to the informed moviegoer “Otto Preminger” still connotes an image of a Teutonic tyrant capable in a flash of eliciting fear and trembling among the groundlings.

It has been part of my job to rescue Preminger from his persona, and to present him as the complex, variegated, often endearing, sometimes infuriating person who lurked behind the role of the temperamental titan he played with incomparable vigor. Rages, to be sure, defined one component of Preminger’s personality, but conviviality, courtliness, great generosity, loyalty, compassion, and accessibility were other, equally tangible traits, attested to many times over by family, friends, co-workers, and even, sometimes, enemies. With his legendary temper on the one hand, and his dazzling Viennese charm on the other, he was like a character in an epic Russian novel: a man of many parts.

To borrow E. M. Forster’s terms for describing fictional characters, Preminger was decidedly “round” rather than “flat.” Flat characters can be defined by a few broad strokes, and remain unchanged and unchanging on each appearance; round characters, in contrast, are richly mercurial, perplexing, dense with conflicts, and always capable of surprises. A round character to the ultimate degree, Preminger provoked wildly divided reactions–indeed, the ability to inspire controversy seemed as much a part of his birthright as his rock-solid self-confidence. He was a fine man, a true humanitarian, I was told; no, others claimed, when he played Nazis no acting was necessary. He was a Continental sophisticate, according to some; no, a compulsive philanderer, according to others.

As “himself,” abetted by his genius for self-promotion, he had size and flair, and “Otto Preminger” may have been his most successful production. Big-boned, and with a stentorian voice that retained the staccato rhythm and spitting consonants of his native German, Preminger was not only physically but also psychologically and existentially titanic, a force of nature. As the elder son of a prominent Austrian lawyer, Preminger was born into a world of wealth and status which, in living his own life on a grand scale, he never once abandoned. Hotel suites sparkling with Old World opulence, a baronial mansion in Bel-Air, a Manhattan town house of severe modern design, sleek modern offices with large marble desks, and a white marble villa on the French Riviera were among the infernally elegant settings in which he lived and worked. At fashionable restaurants in the great cities of the world, “Mr. Preminger” was an always honored guest. Before he settled down with Hope Bryce, his third wife, and became a devoted husband and father, he was famed as a man-about-town, first as a bachelor in Vienna and then, in New York and Hollywood, as a straying spouse in two long-distance marriages. He gained (unwanted) fame for two of his affairs. The first was a brief liaison with the stripper Gypsy Rose Lee (with whom he fathered a son); the second was a stormy relationship with the beautiful and doomed Dorothy Dandridge, who became the first black female star in Hollywood history when Preminger cast her in Carmen Jones.

Preminger’s imperial temperament–he was born to give rather than to follow orders–had a significant impact on the business of filmmaking in America. Chafing under the restrictions of his first job in Hollywood, as a studio employee at Twentieth Century-Fox, Preminger broke away when he could in order to set up in business for himself. Relocating his base from Los Angeles to New York, he became an industry pioneer, the first fully independent producer-director in American films, and in the process created a model for the way motion pictures are produced that endures to the present.

Defenders and detractors agree on only one point: Preminger was a superb producer who completed his films on or even ahead of schedule and who never went over budget. Of his dependability, efficiency, financial common sense, managerial skill, and salesmanship, there was never any question. His artistic legacy, however, has proven to be as polarizing as his personality, and for the most part the jury is still out. When I called to request an interview, Otto’s younger brother Ingo asked why I wanted to write the book. “I can see eight, nine, ten books about Bergman or Fellini, but a book about Otto? He was a very good producer and he fought important battles against censorship, but there was no great film!”[1] I answered that I wanted to write the book because I admired many of his films and felt that they had been seriously underrated.

Part of my attraction to Preminger was in the apparent contradiction between his temperament and the cool tone of his most commanding films. The inner demons that pressed him into conducting his ceremonies of public abuse and humiliation are nowhere to be found in the majestic containment of his most representative work. At a casual glance his corpus might seem to lack a distinctive touch, but on closer inspection the films reveal exactly the kinds of insignia by which directors are anointed auteurs. Beneath the formal veneer of his films and the wide variety of genres in which he worked are the traces of an unexpectedly personal filmmaker, a decidedly stealthy auteur.

Preminger’s long career has three distinct periods: early, when he was a contract director at Fox, from 1935 to 1936 and from 1943 to 1953; middle, from 1953 to 1967, when he hit his stride as an independent; and late, from 1968 to 1979, when he seemed to lose focus. Preminger bashers often concede only one really good film in the canon, Laura, an elegant 1944 film noir glistening with sexual and psychological perversity. But no, the list of the director’s victories must be expanded to include at least nine or ten other films. And waiting for critical resuscitation is an almost equal number of “wounded” and often unjustly vilified projects.

Whenever I mentioned that I was writing a biography of Otto Preminger, I elicited an unvarying response: a gasp, a rolling of eyes, an expression of mock pity or mock terror, as if my subject might rise from his grave to berate or scold me. “Wasn’t he a terrible man?” I was often asked. “No,” I would respond, “he was only difficult.” It was the sheer size and scale of that challenging personality, along with my conviction that his often elegant work has been largely misjudged, which drew me to him as a subject. Inevitably in the course of research and writing, a biographer fuses with his subject; and in completing a book the writer in a sense “wins” the struggle and of course claims the final word. Perhaps foolishly, as I reconstructed his life, I began to feel that, had I known him, I would have been able to “handle” Otto, a man who so evidently required special handling. I know I would have been an appreciative audience for his brand of Germanic wit, and I like to think I could have coaxed some laughter from him for some of my own zingers. A Preminger dressing-down would have been incinerating, of course, but I felt in time that I might have been able to see through, and perhaps even to justify, some of his tantrums. No one I spoke with, either friend or foe, accused him of being dull, and, deceased, Otto Preminger, as he had been in life, was good company.

[1] Ingo Preminger, interview by author, June 12 and August 21, 2001.

From the Hardcover edition.

Meet the Author

Foster Hirsch is a professor of film at Brooklyn College and the author of sixteen books on film and theater, including The Dark Side of the Screen: Film Noir, A Method to Their Madness: The History of the Actors Studio, and Kurt Weill on Stage: From Berlin to Broadway. He lives in New York City.

From the Hardcover edition.

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