In my last diatribe, I offered The Stunt Man’s Eli Cross as the epitome of the Hollywood director.
He is, in his own mind at least, bigger than God.
Omniscient. Omnipresent. Omnipotent.
In control of everything and everyone around him.
Of course, in order to retain this control, he sometimes has to resort to trickery and manipulation.
He is a merry prankster who takes delight in toying with his actors.
His female star is Barbara Hershey at her loveliest and most charming, and he has some concern about her being able to handle an up-coming scene in which she has to feel shame and humiliation.
What does he do?
Well, her parents have come to visit the set, and while she’s off in hair and make-up, they join Noah for the dailies. One of them, which he arranged to include “by accident,” has her stark naked in bed with one of the other actors, casual, relaxed, joking with the crew.
Her parents are, of course, shocked and appalled. Always the gentleman, Noah apologizes profusely.
But he makes sure they’re on the set when he shoots the big scene, the one in which their daughter has to show shame and humiliation.
She isn’t getting it, but hey, no problem. Noah simply lets slip the fact that her parents accidentally viewed that shot of her in bed.
You want shame and humiliation?
Well, he gets it!
He’s like Lola.
Whatever Eli wants, Eli gets.
Directors are, or sometimes have to be, ruthless people.
Even my dear friend and mentor, Lamont Johnson, was guilty.
Perhaps his finest film was The Execution of Private Slovak. It’s the story of the only American soldier executed for desertion during World War II, and the big scene is, of course, the execution itself.
The firing squad—under orders to kill one of their own—lines up, aims and fires.
But he does not die.
And while he lies there mortally wounded, Lamont slowly pans the faces of the men on the firing squad who wait, knowing they’re going to have to shoot Slovak again.
It’s an unforgettable moment, and for many of the cast and crew, it was an unforgiveable moment as well.
Well, before shooting the scene, Lamont pulled Marty Sheen, who was playing Slovak, aside and told him that when the rifles went off, he wanted him to drop to the ground, roll around and shout, “I’m hit! I’m hit!”
Sheen followed Lamont’s instructions.
He went down.
Everyone on the set assumed that one of the rifles had contained a live round.
They went nuts when Lamont insisted on keeping the cameras rolling!
He had hold back Ned Beatty, who was playing the chaplain and was shouting, “You son of a bitch! You son of a bitch!” as he tried to get to Sheen to render aid.
It was while this was going on that Lamont panned the faces of the actors on the firing squad, actors who thought they had just killed Marty Sheen.
It’s one of the great moments in film history, but it came at considerable cost.
Directors do what must be done to get what they want.
I, who have never directed, am guilty as well.
Some of you may know singing sensation Jenny Stewart.
She started not as a singer but as an actress and was cast as a featured player in a telefilm I wrote.
It was called Talk To Me, and it was the story of a television producer, an idealistic young woman who thinks she can bring talk show back from the sleazy exercises they’ve become, back to what they were in the days of Phil Donohue.
She mounts a show in which her guest is a drug-addicted prostitute played by Jenny Lewis, and the producer’s biggest job is trying to keep the lost young woman clean for her appearance on the show.
Unfortunately, Jenny’s character backslides, starts using again, and manages to get herself arrested, so our producer has to go the local jail to see if she can somehow bail her out.
There is a confrontation between them in the jail interview room.
Jenny’s character, in agonizing withdrawal from a heroin high, begs the producer to get her out of jail.
It’s an emotionally shattering scene, and Jenny, a fine actress who is sometimes very slow to find her performance, just isn’t getting it.
I’m sitting next to the line producer as the director does take after take to no avail. I whisper to the producer that he’s got to do something. What? he asks. What can he possibly do?
I tell him the story of how Lamont got that amazing performance from the actors on the firing squad in Slovak. The director’s got to manipulate Jenny in the same heartless way, and if he won’t do it, the producer’s going to have to do it for him.
Jenny still isn’t there.
The producer hangs fire.
Increasingly desperate—after all, this is the big emotional moment of the film, I tell him about the scene in Stunt Man in which Peter O’Toole coldly humiliates Barbara Hershey to get the performance he needs.
You’ve got to shame her, I tell him. Make her angry.
She still isn’t there.
We still haven’t got what we need.
The director tells the crew, “All right, let’s move on.”
And the producer, to his everlasting credit, shouts out, “No, goddammit! We’re going to do it until she gets it right!”
Jenny, weeping with humiliation and rage, is electrifying, taking the scene beyond anything I had imagined.
It’s possibly the worst thing I’ve ever done to another human being, but the result is the highlight of a dazzling performance—one that should, in a just world, have earned this talented young woman an Emmy.
I did what needed to be done.
Postscript: Those of you interested in the full, behind-the-scenes story of Talk To Me might want to peruse Chapter 91-100 of Confessions of a Hollywood Nobody.