Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Name "Sloat" is Fun To Say

I recently read the book "Soon to be a major motion picture: The anatomy of an all-star, big-budget, multimillion-dollar disaster" by the late Ted Gershuny, a maker of low-budget horror movies who interned on Otto Preminger's next-to-last movie, Rosebud. It turned out to be one of Preminger's worst films, and essentially ended his career (he made one more movie, The Human Factor, but he couldn't get studio financing for it and wound up having to spend a lot of his own money). I don't think the book did much business, given that it came out five years after the making of a film that nobody remembered or liked. But it seems to be frequently referred to in biographies of the director, since it's one of the most in-depth chronicles of one of his famously turbulent shoots.

As usual with Preminger, he bought the rights to a big potboiler novel with a topical edge: a French best-seller about the attempt to free five rich girls kidnapped by Palestinian terrorists, and the attempt by all sides to use the media and public opinion to their advantage. Also as usual with Preminger, he fell out with an actor during the making of it: Robert Mitchum was the original star, but he walked off the picture and was replaced by another fading star with a drinking problem, Peter O'Toole. And like most of Preminger's later movies, it flopped, and deserved to flop.

Preminger made lots of movies that don't work; two of them, the infamous Skidoo and the somewhat less infamous (but if anything more ridiculous) Hurry Sundown just came out on widescreen DVDs for the first time. Rosebud is less entertaining than usual for a bad Preminger movie, though. Even though it's a fairly expensive movie with lots of location shooting, I recall it looking cheap and small in a way that a lot of mid-'70s movies do when they don't work. (The James Bond movies of this period, Live and Let Die and The Man With the Golden Gun, also have that look: they're not cheap movies, but they look a little tawdry in a way that The Spy Who Loved Me or Star Wars or Superman -- big-budget movies of only a few years later -- do not.) But the picture was always doomed, because Preminger essentially began making it without a script.

Like Skidoo, Preminger's Rosebud disaster is tied to his desire to bond with Erik, his son by Gypsy Rose Lee. He finally met Erik in the late '60s and adopted him, and Skidoo is often seen as his effort to connect with his newfound son and his generation. With Rosebud, he decided that this would be Erik's big break as a screenwriter. Rosebud probably wouldn't have worked even with a better script (Preminger's previous movie, Such Good Friends, has an Elaine May script, and it still doesn't work), but Rosebud never had anything close to a workable screenplay, and it headed into production without even a decision on who the villain would turn out to be.

It seems like the film went into production largely because the Patty Hearst kidnapping suddenly made the subject topical. "We were hooked," Gershuny writes. "Rosebud was contemporary, vital -- now. All they had to do was finish the script." But they never really did. For most of the book's length the Premingers are trying to figure out who the bad guy should be: in the novel the kidnappings are organized by a self-hating Jew, in an early draft it was a German, then they came up with an English bad guy whom they named "Sloat," and finally decided that he should be a crazy Arabist, a Lawrence of Arabia gone wrong. No one was happy with this, though Preminger did get Richard Attenborough to play the part at the last minute as a personal favor.

The book is not brilliantly written and is not a full-scale account of every aspect of the production; it's mostly from Gershuny's point of view, and mentions the things he observes. Whether Mitchum quit or was fired isn't really revealed, and it's not really the point. We just see a drunk, bored Mitchum arrive, do his patented I-don't-give-a-damn routines, including this bizarre moment with Lalla Ward, one of the five ingénues:

Lalla informs him over lunch that he has been acting silly, which makes him lean across the table in the hotel and fix her with his menacing gaze.
"Heeeyyy..." he drawls.
"You -- want -- me -- to -- kill -- you?"
"Well, no, actually, I'd rather you didn't."

Another famous moment during the shoot was when Peter O'Toole got a fake bomb threat, which turned out to be a joke played by Kenneth Tynan. O'Toole went to Tynan, making sure to bring backup, and beat the critic up. In the book, we get this incident from the point of view of people who have to be on the set every day; it's something that happened offstage, and from the crew's vantage point it's not so much horrifying as interesting, a sign that the calm, reserved O'Toole has more rage in him than his performance has been showing.

That's one thing I found interesting about the book, that it's very much focused on the crew, and a particular kind of crew -- the people who worked on big international productions, going from project to project and country to country. In 1974, many countries essentially had no national cinema: the British film industry was collapsing, and most countries were not what they were during the '60s. (One exception: West Germany was doing better than it was in the '60s. Preminger's assistant on the film is Wolfgang Glattes, the likable epitome of the efficient West German.) Some movies benefited from the international approach: I'm not a big fan of Cabaret, but it was a success, and the production's mix of American, British and German was perfectly suited to the subject. Other movies from the same era, though, showed the strain we might have expected from the mishmash of styles and languages among the cast and crew.

A movie like Rosebud, financed by United Artists, doesn't have the financial problems that other, similar co-productions have -- in one chapter we meet Judd Bernard, one of those producers who mostly scrounges for money to make little movies that don't get much distribution. Preminger, for the last time in his career, can raise the money he needs from a studio, but he's still making a film with no national identity: since there's no "home base" where the interiors are shot, every location brings with it its own mix of actors, crew approaches and linguistic problems. A love scene early in the picture is bad enough because of the bad writing but even worse because of the actors' problems with English.

All this makes the book a look at a type of filmmaking that gets its money within the studio system but mostly spends it outside. In the '70s the studio system was starting to re-assert itself, but the way to make a big movie was often to get the money and talent wherever it was available, go where the tax breaks were (there's a lot of talk about the correct national identity for tax purposes) and the sheer logistical issues involved in making a movie in several countries at once. Preminger is equipped to handle that, at least, having done it before. But it's a type of moviemaking that seems devoid of glamour to anyone who participates in it -- it doesn't even have a costume coordinator (Preminger's wife Hope usually did this) because most of the actors are just told to wear what they usually wear.

That everybody knows it's going to be a bomb -- or almost everybody, since there are occasional moments when something goes right and people revert to a natural state of optimism -- makes the situation grimmer. But crew members in the book talk about good productions (like Lawrence of Arabia, the gold standard for what can be achieved when a studio says "here's your money, now go to another country and make it") with somewhat similar memories. Movies have almost become big television shows, where the key thing is just to find appropriate places to shoot and people who will shoot them there. The production described in Rosebud combines the pressures of indie and studio filmmaking in an almost depressing way. It sort of makes you understand why the glitzy soundstage film came back in such a big way later in the decade. Though of course the international co-production is still a huge part of the cinema and always will be.

I first heard about the book in a Preminger biography, where Preminger's widow objects to the way Gershuny portrays him. I'm not entirely sure why. Preminger actually comes off better in this book than he does in most, including that biography (Foster Hirsch's). We do hear about Preminger's famous red-faced temper tantrums, of course, but if anything, the book downplays this side of his personality and plays up his dogged professional side, his determination to get the movie finished on time and on budget. Preminger cuts and simplifies things ruthlessly; by the time they get to the final destination, Israel, he's throwing out any attempt to make this a coherent movie (it can't be) and is just trying to stick to his schedule. He does it, too, as he usually did.

In fact, the author clearly likes Preminger even though Preminger's anger and cutting sarcasm are sometimes trained on him. Andrew Sarris's The American Cinema was a recent book that Gershuny quotes, and American cinema fans were starting to realize that Preminger had a very distinctive style, and that his preference for long takes was about style, not so much about his famous cheapness. Plus Laura had become a key film of the nostalgia boom and the rediscovery of film noir. Preminger had been an independent filmmaker since the '50s, but as an all-powerful tyrant director who occasionally mentions old movie stars (he famously told Kim Cattrall "you remind me of Marilyn Monroe and Kim Novak, not in looks, but in the number of takes"), he's like the production's only link to old-fashioned moviemaking glamour, a larger-than-life figure in a drab production.

So as a young movie fan, and someone who is trying to learn about the complications involved with making a big movie, the author seems to be rooting for Preminger. It's Preminger's fault that the movie can't work, because he chose the writer and signed off on the bad script decisions. But once the film is under way, he's going to use every trick he knows to get it finished. We can see his frustration mount as the things he did successfully in other movies go wrong in this one: bringing in a political figure to act as a publicity gimmick (New York Mayor John Lindsay) brings only minor publicity and Lindsay can't act; Preminger favourite Peter Lawford can't remember his lines and does 13 takes of a scene, with Preminger urging him to just make something up and Lawford unable to do even that. But with all that, he's going to get it done. Throw out script pages, cut out scenes that can't be shot properly, but it's getting done.

That sets it apart from most other "disaster in the making" movie reports. Most such movies go way over budget, and that's what marks them as disasters. Despite having to replace a star in the middle of production, Rosebud kept costs low. The sense of mounting desperation comes not from the budget but from the fact that so few scenes seem to work while they're being shot. There is some hope that it will come together and be better than the script looks, but that hope is destroyed take by take, bad performance by bad performance. (Gershuny does point out in an afterward that Isabelle Huppert turned out to be much better after the film than anyone had anticipated. And the American girl, Kim Cattrall, did poorly in this movie but built a successful career anyway. So the trailer's statement that the girls are "stars of the future" isn't that crazy.) The feeling that you're running all over the place, putting together this huge international production team that will break up as soon as the picture's finished -- and all to have it come to nothing when the scenes are so bad -- is painful, but as much a part of moviemaking as the Heaven's Gate type of production. "On Rosebud," Gershuny realizes, "Preminger can make right choices, wrong choices, any choices. Things simply will not work." That's got to be more painful than just having a promising story that could go either way.


Griff said...

Excellent take on Gershuny's obscure and for years hard-to-find book, certainly one of the most interesting pieces of on-set reporting on the making of a movie. It isn't terribly well written, but it's an invaluable inside look at a major motion picture in disorganized crisis and the twilight days of power of a once near-invincible producer-director. You're right in asserting that Preminger actually comes off rather well in the book, after a fashion: the filmmaker's steely determination to at least finish the damn picture on budget and on time is practically heroic. The self-inflicted wounds involving the never completed (or resolved) script, casting gaffes and myriad production mistakes and problems seem unimportant as the unbowed Preminger forges ahead; the reader marvels.

Hope Bryce probably never wants to revisit the nightmare of ROSEBUD, and one can't blame her. But Gershuny's book is at least in part the story of a professional who, having dealt himself a bad hand, simply would not give up. Most books about Bryce's husband never show such a side of the director.

After ROSEBUD's disastrous premiere, it wasn't surprising that the aging Preminger would be unable to secure major financing for another big project. Yet the filmmaker continued to develop various properties, finally producing and directing a film version of Graham Greene's THE HUMAN FACTOR in 1979; he had to sell paintings and properties to finance the picture. The movie isn't terrific, but it has absorbing moments; it's far better than ROSEBUD (and plays more smoothly and coherently than some of the other late Premingers). At any rate, after reading Gershuny's book in the early '80s, I thought I understood why the then 74 year old director was willing to risk his personal capital to make another movie. I believe he felt he had to -- this is what he did, after all.

Anonymous said...

Otto Preminger ate only vegetables. He was full of protein, as opposed to what his critics suspected.