Memory, like Peter O’Toole’s Eli Cross, is a jokester.
It enjoys playing tricks on us.
For thirty years now, I’ve been telling friends about an amazing passage from Scott Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon.
It turns out that my recollection of that passage is rather different from what Fitzgerald actually wrote, but no matter: my version makes my point much better than Fitzgerald’s does, so I’m going to continue to tell it my way.
Monroe Stahr, who heads up a Hollywood studio and is the tycoon of the title, is on a commercial flight from the east coast to the west.
Fascinated by flying, he pays a visit to the cockpit, and one of the pilots asks him how you go about running a studio.
Stahr looks down at the mountain range they’re crossing and says something like this: “Suppose you’re an engineer, and you’re given the job of building a tunnel through those mountains. There are three or four possible routes, each with its own advantages and disadvantages, but no one of them clearly superior to the others. What would you do?”
The pilot has no answer.
But Stahr does.
“You arbitrarily choose one of them and announce, ‘We’ll go that way. That’s the best way.’”
And that, my friends, is not just the way you run a studio.
It’s the way you direct a picture.
A good director is decisive, even when there may be no particularly sound basis for his decision.
Confronted with hundreds of questions every day of prep, production and post, he has to provide immediate answers to every one of them.
He is, in reality, a confidence man.
He must project such confidence in himself and his judgments that he inspires confidence in everyone around him—his actors, his crew, even the studio executives charged with supervising him and his film.
In the best directors, this confidence is real—they quite simply know everything there is to know about their project: what it’s about, the look it should have, the motivations of each and every character, the style of editing, and on and on and on.
They make decisions on matters large and small, and they stand by them.
I think of my friend Robert Ellis Miller.
Early in the preparation of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, he decided that there was one actor, and only one, who could play the part of his deaf-mute protagonist, Singer.
That was Alan Arkin.
Jack Warner, convinced that the film needed a star, wasn’t buying: Arkin, though well-established on Broadway, had never made a film.
No, Warner wanted a big name from Europe—someone like Marcello Mastroianni. He argued that it wouldn’t matter that he had an accent since Singer couldn’t speak.
Robert held out for Arkin, and the film spent a year or two in limbo.
Arkin broke through big time with The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming.
Once it was apparent that the film was a huge hit, Arkin contacted Robert, asking him to tell Jack Warner that he’d gone to a lot of trouble to become a star so Warner would cast him in Heart.
Arkin gave what, I’m told, he still considers the best performance of his career, and the film is now recognized as a masterwork.
There are, of course, other kinds of directors—those whose confidence is just a sham. They may not make great movies, but they will get the job done.
There is, unfortunately, a third category.
These are the ones who have much in common with Olivier’s Hamlet.
Do you remember the opening of this famous film?
It’s a voice-over that concludes, “This is the tragedy of a man who could not make up his mind.”
An indecisive director is hardly a tragic figure, but he often spells trouble and frustration for everyone working with him.
One of my screenplays was assigned to such a director. He was so uncertain about the direction the story should take that he couldn’t make up his mind how it should end.
It should have been an easy choice.
One of the endings he was considering made the picture a vendetta in the manner of Death Wish, reducing the protagonist to the level of the villain.
The other (mine) made it a moral drama about a good man gone wrong but redeeming himself at the end.
The director should have known which film he was making from the moment he signed on, but this individual wavered throughout production until he was, at last, brought to his senses by one of his talented but badly miscast stars, who argued strongly in favor of my ending.
A member of the film’s editorial team tells me that he demonstrated the same sort of indecision in the editing room.
No surprise, then, when a few years later, he did a big-budget tent-pole picture and one of its critics declared its direction was by “autopilot.”
A Postscript: I’ve called this piece “CONFIDENCE MEN,” and I have no doubt some among you are asking why I didn’t add “AND WOMEN.”
To be honest, the real reason was that the title I chose was a familiar phrase with lots of associations. The alternative seemed clumsy. But my decision to stick with it raised a question I can’t really answer.
Why are there so few female directors?
The flippant response would be to remind you of my description of directors as ruthlessly manipulative, obsessed, monomaniacal control freaks.
In other words, most women are just too damned nice to succeed as directors.
Unfortunately, my own experiences in Hollywood would suggest otherwise.
My immediate boss at Paramount was Dawn Steel, and I can assure you, she had all the requisite qualities…and more. It was no accident that she became the first woman to head up a major studio.
That was thirty years ago.
Since then, women have made major strides in Hollywood.
While their numbers may not yet reflect their share of the general population, they hold prominent positions throughout the industry: studio heads, producers, writers, editors, and so on.
In only one field do they lag shockingly behind, and that, of course, is direction.
Oh, there are some extraordinarily talented women directors—Katherine Bigelow comes immediately to mind, but the percentage of female members of the Directors Guild has actually gone down in recent years.
Some may say that Hollywood is still an old boys’ network, but I have to question that argument.
As early as 2002, women ran half the studios in town.
Many of the most successful producers today—producers who, like studio heads, are in the position to hire and fire—are female.
Why are they not hiring more of their own?