Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Ernest Lehman

Screenwriter Ernest Lehman, who died last Saturday at age 89, had an exceptionally high batting average when it came to writing movies; of the dozen or so movies he wrote, the vast majority were successful, and several won Oscars -- though, strangely enough, he never won an Oscar himself. In the '60s, he became identified with big-studio adaptations of tricky properties; West Side Story and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? didn't seem like natural fits for the cinema, because of the stylized concept of the former and the claustrophobic feel of the latter. Lehman managed to make these properties screen-worthy while still sticking fairly close to the original stage scripts. And The Sound of Music is an exceptionally clever adaptation that does a good job of avoiding mawkishness and giving the story some bite (as the Time Out Film Guide noted, The Sound of Music does a much better job of portraying the threat of Naziism than the film version of Cabaret ever did). Ironically, his least successful effort of that decade was with the one property he took on that should have been easy to adapt to the screen: Hello, Dolly!

Still, Lehman's best work was almost certainly his original screenplay for North By Northwest (parts of which he recycled a few years later for The Prize), along with his hand in adapting Sweet Smell of Success from his own novella, though much of the best dialogue in the film is by Clifford Odets. Lehman also directed one film, the ill-conceived, ill-cast film version of Portnoy's Complaint; I wrote a bit about that one here. Though it's not a very good movie, there's something endearing about its Old Hollywood sensibilities, and it's too bad that Lehman's strengths as a screenwriter -- careful construction, well-crafted and funny dialogue, ability to balance respect for the source material with respect for the film medium -- weren't much in demand in the more informal world of '70s cinema.

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