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Otto Preminger: The Man Who Would Be King

Foster Hirsch

(Knopf)

When you’re referred to as “Otto the Terrible” for much of your life, it’s hard to posthumously become “Otto the Great.”


Attempting to help in that regard is Foster Hirsch, author of this illuminating biography of filmmaker Otto Preminger. Hirsch wants to prove that Preminger (1905-86), best known for his temper, was a gifted movie director.


“It has been part of my job to rescue Preminger from his persona,” Hirsch writes in his introduction.


Hirsch quotes many who knew Preminger, including his widow, Hope; his late brother, Ingo; and Erik, his son by Gyspy Rose Lee.


He follows Preminger from his youth in Austria through his long show-business career, first in the theater and then in movies. Laura, in 1944, was his first hit, and for more than two decades after that, he was a prominent filmmaker and celebrity.


In the early 1960s, he was even offered a chance to be president of Twentieth Century Fox. That was because he was an exceptional administrator, capable of bringing in difficult and far-flung projects on time and without breaking the bank. Preminger leveraged his contempt for censorship and blacklisting into useful publicity for his films, and made money without backing away from challenging themes.


The book is filled with back-stage anecdotes, many offering smutty, unflattering portraits of Hollywood notables. Few come off worse, however, than the subject himself. To be sure, Preminger is portrayed as having a generous streak, some real principles (including abiding beliefs in racial justice and his adopted country), and considerable charm.


Offsetting that, however, were his well-deserved reputations for womanizing, lying, endlessly seeking publicity, and, most of all, yelling.


“Otto was bigger than life, and I am life-sized,” says producer Stanley Rubin, an apt characterization of a man who frequently scared and scarred those working for him with cruel tantrums.


Hirsch acknowledges Preminger’s shortcomings, but is more concerned with bolstering his status as an auteur. His current reputation is relatively poor, particularly in comparison to Billy Wilder (another acerbic Austrian Jew), and titans such as Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock and John Ford. Hirsch is fond of praising Preminger at the expense of Wilder.


Preminger liked to buy successful, unwieldy novels such as Advise and Consent and rebuild them as character studies—intelligent films built around the shell of melodrama. He made, Hirsch says, “thoughtful, challenging films on a broad range of subjects that continue to matter.”


Still, he gave his detractors plenty of ammunition. Many of his “issue” movies danced around their topics without saying much about them, and when Preminger was working with strong source material, such as George Bernard Shaw’s or Oscar Wilde’s, he rarely did it justice. He turned Nelson Algren’s doom-laden The Man With the Golden Arm into a popcorn flick flavored with sensationalism.


Hirsch commends Preminger for his visuals, particularly the way he conveyed so much information without a lot of cutting or close-ups. But as Hirsch’s own anecdotes repeatedly indicate, Preminger frequently came up short with his actors.


When blessed with a superb actor like James Stewart in Anatomy of a Murder, he got a letter-perfect performance. From a capable pro like Dana Andrews, he drew solid performances. But when dealing with insecure or inexperienced actors—or stubborn ones—Preminger often just scolded them to a stilted submission. Major films were undermined by the weakness of Tom Tryon or Jean Seberg.


Hirsch concludes by listing 10 Preminger films worthy of admiration, and there are clearly films of merit on the list. All in all, he offers a strong case for taking a closer look at Preminger’s work.

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