Friday, November 13, 2009

Book Review: OTTO PREMINGER, THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING by Foster Hirsch (Knopf, 2007)

Much like Stanley Kramer, Otto Preminger got scant credit for being a fervently public Hollywood liberal. He's probably more deserving of said credit, however, despite his fearsome reputation as "Otto the Terrible," the bullying, Teutonic-accented autocrat. Preminger stood up against the forces of artistic censorship, made strenuous efforts to promote black talent, and took on challenging subjects and themes almost as a matter of course, especially after he became an independent filmmaker in the late 1940s. In this excellent biography, Hirsch sets to brushing off Preminger's slightly soiled reputation and makes a convincing case that his subject, while wildly inconsistent and prone to frequent missteps, did indeed make several movies that transcend their time periods and whatever evanescent controversies they excited at the moment of release.

Paradoxically, Preminger, so prone to towering tantrums on the set, essayed a "cool" style on film. Anatomy of a Murder (1959) and Advise and Consent (1962) tackle such hot-button topics as rape, murder, and homosexuality with a detached approach that refuses to pass judgment and gives the audience credit for being able to make up its own mind. Laura (1944), a memorable film noir, is generally regarded as Otto's finest work and is indeed splendid, but the previously mentioned films are, IMHO, every bit as good. Hirsch carefully details the stories of these films and Preminger's other works, making sure to give credit where credit is due, even when the task seems hopeless, as when he takes up Hurry Sundown (1967) and Skidoo (1968), Otto's two most notorious flops. Hurry Sundown, a heavy-handed and lumberingly self-righteous sermon on greed and racism in the 1940s Deep South, is, I believe, one instance in which Preminger wore his liberalism too transparently on his sleeve. Strong opinions on free speech and civil rights Preminger may have had, but he (unlike numerous Hollywood mavens of today) recognized the folly of writing off a large portion of one's audience in the name of ideological purity and, first and foremost, sought to put on a good show, albeit one with a point to make. Sundown and its bizarre follow-up Skidoo, Preminger's ham-fisted attempt to ride the wave of the hippie movement, were clear signs that he was losing his touch, pandering to rather than challenging his viewers. Hirsch does manage to mine nuggets of worth out of these piles of dross, but even he seems to lose heart when tackling Preminger's films of the 1970s, though he does give Otto's financially troubled last film, The Human Factor (1979), decent marks. Overall, I think that Hirsch is fair in his assessment of Preminger's oeuvre.

When discussing Preminger himself, Hirsch doesn't skimp on the gory details of Otto's legendary browbeatings, but he lets us see the director's softer side as well. Preminger comes across to me as a man who prized control above all else; it's only natural that he became one of the first truly successful independent producer/directors. Had his control of his temper matched his ability to ride herd on his productions, he would probably be a legendary figure today. (At least he had a healthy sense of humor about his reputation, never better seen than in this memorable acting turn.) It's not precisely a rehabilitation, but Hirsch's bio does a fine job of setting Preminger's career and accomplishments in their proper perspective.

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