The Deceptive Director

During the filming of Forever Amber (1947), Otto Preminger yelled at Linda Darnell almost daily for two months, until the actress collapsed on the set and was ordered by a doctor to take ten days off to convalesce. In rehearsals for his production of Herman Wouk’s A Modern Primitive—a play that never made it to Broadway—Preminger screamed so violently at an actor who struggled to remember his lines that the man suffered a nervous breakdown and was taken away to spend the next four months in a sanitarium. “I had never seen such terrifying rage in anyone,” said one witness, who described the director with “veins standing out on his forehead” and “literally foaming at the mouth.” On the set of the comedy The Moon Is Blue (1953), Maggie McNamara, “a jittery newcomer with a fragile ego,” was the victim of Preminger’s tantrums. “McNamara was to commit suicide in 1978,” Preminger’s biographer Foster Hirsch ominously remarks. The list of jittery actresses with fragile egos reduced by Preminger to tears also includes Marilyn Monroe, Jean Seberg, and Dorothy Dandridge—all suicides as well, it is perhaps unfair to note.

The image of Preminger as an apoplectic Prussian bully persists to this day. He had himself to blame: it was the result not only of his treatment of actors but of his having performed with great aplomb as a Nazi in a string of films, most memorably as Colonel von Scherbach in Billy Wilder’s Stalag 17. But unlike other directors with larger-than-life personas—Alfred Hitchcock or Orson Welles, for instance—Preminger’s public image often seemed to forestall serious consideration of his films.

His abilities as a director were also overshadowed by his accomplishments as an independent producer and self-promoter. He crippled the Hays Production Code when his uncertified film, the now quaintly risqué The Moon Is Blue, became a major box office hit; he broke Hollywood’s blacklist by crediting Dalton Trumbo for the screenplay of Exodus (1960); and the success he enjoyed after abandoning the Hollywood studio system brought about dramatic changes in the way American films were financed and made. Yet for all these successes, critics rarely approved of his work. Pauline Kael wrote that “his films are consistently superficial and facile,” and Stanley Kauffmann accused him of “shrewd exploitation of mass tastes.” “The line on Otto Preminger was that he was the greatest producer and the worst director in Hollywood history,” said Roger Ebert. “Both statements contained a measure of truth.” Even Preminger’s obituary in The New York Times could do no better than call him “one of the most competent independent producer-directors of his time.”

Yet seemingly out of nowhere, twenty-two years after his death, Preminger is having his moment. He is the subject of two new major biographies, both of them expertly researched and earnest in their enthusiasm for Preminger’s films: Foster Hirsch’s Otto Preminger: The Man Who Would Be King and Chris Fujiwara’s The World …

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