Otto Preminger is in his jovial, grandpa mood. It is the moment for an important revelation. He confided to Nicol Williamson, "I vill tell you somezinc, Nicol. Tey used to call me Otto the monster."
"Did they?" marvels Williamson. "Do you mean the moment is past?"
No, the moment is not past. Preminger, 73, is making another picture, "The Human Factor." He's making it the way he's always made them -- the hard way. He is still totally in command, snapping and snarling to enforce his whims, singlemindedly forcing the movie into being.
Without major company backing for the first time, Preminger reportedly invested over $2 million of his own in the production. Although the film is scheduled for a February national release, Preminger showed it in Hollywood in late December to qualify for Academy Award consideration.
"The Human Factor" stars Williamson as a British Secret Service deskman who's drawn into a plot of double-dealing involving his black South African wife, played by model Iman Haywood in her first film. The script is by Tom Stoppard from the best-seller by Graham Greene.
Greene-land is the first location Preminger has chosen -- the leafy village of Berkhamsted, an hour from London, where Greene was born and educated and where he set his novel. Green would be here to observe the filming, Preminger says, but the novelist is recovering from an illness.
Williamson, himself one of the strongest personalitites in the business, laughs off Preminger's ogre-ish exterior. "I don't mind it. It doesn't affect me the way it affects others. It's necessary simply to sit on him once in a while. I admire his strength. He's so energized. Other directors will make a point intellectually. He makes his point through his stress mechanism -- and he's nearly always right."
Preminger's stress mechanism is in perfect order today in Berkhamsted. Williamson and Iman are being forced to do a complex scene that wasn't on the morning's call sheet. Doing a five-page dialogue scene opposite Nicol Williamson and directed by Otto Preminger in your first week as an actress is what's known as being thrown in at the deep end. Iman's East African speech patterns are raising the dial on Preminger's stress mechanism.
"Don't shout!" he shouts at her when she speaks a line too loudly. "Shouting should not be done by women. Only by men, like me." This is meant as a joke.
The scene is a crucial one. The Williamson character is confessing a terrible crime to his wife, and it may be the last time they see each other. It is being filmed in one shot, with no cuts and no closeups. "Let me tell you about filmmaking," says Preminger, and who could stop him? "Ven you cut, you jar the audience. It interrupts the story."
Preminger has other tips on filmmaking. "I do not like makeup. I do not allow it on my pictures." Okay Oracle, what's next, thought Williamson when given this pointer. "Another zing," Preminger went on. "I do not use studios. Not for 15 years haff I vorked on a studio stage."
Thus, he's filming this shot of Williamson and Iman in the cramped living room of a typical Berkhamsted house -- the sort any foreign office paper-pusher would own. It's a warm afternoon, every door and window is shut and there are a dozen hog lights in the room. Preminger's concentration is intense.
Between takes, a whisper from an idle crew member penetrates Preminger's hearing aid. "Shut up!" he shouts at the whisperer. "Haff zum conzideration for the actors!" Preminger turns back to Williamson and Iman, but then has another thought that he must impart to the whisperer: "You should also stop talking because you could never say anything interesting." Perhaps this is meant as a joke. (Preminger's idea of light banter is to greet a mild inquiry with, "Are you mad? You must be mad!")
When Williamson was signed for the picture, it was subject to meeting Otto Preminger. The director and the actor had a very pleasant lunch, Williamson recalls. "We never discussed one syllable of the film. Finally I asked him quietly if he thought I was right for the part. I thought I might hear something interesting about myself."
"Vot part? The lead?" Preminger asked. "Don't you know?"
"That you're perfect! Are you crazy?"
For Preminger, "perfection" is no mere rhetorical flourish. "What kills me," Iman says, "is that most of the time when he screams at me, he's right. One thing I can't get over is that he keeps on screaming -- 'think, think' -- as if thinking had anything to do with it.
"But I've learned not to take it personally. At first he destroyed me with his screams. In rehearsal before he started filming, he made me say one line 20 times and still he wanted me to say it again. I said no. I said I was leaving, and he let me go. He doesn't realize he's being hard on people. He just doesn't know any other way to be."
Preminger was born in Vienna in 1906 in the days when it was the capital of the Austro-Hungarian empire and one of the world's most important cultural centers. Young Otto trained as a lawyer but dabbled in the theater all through his teens.
At first he was an actor, but he moved backstage at 20 to become a producer-director. For a decade, he was a wunderkind of the Viennese theater. In 1936, just two years before Hitler took over Austria, he prudently sailed for New York. He made an immediate impression on Broadway, both as director and actor.
Oddly, most of Preminger's few appearances in America as an actor have been in Nazi parts. His most memorable Nazi was the prisoner-of-war camp commandant in "Stalag 17."
After "Laura" in 1944, Preminger became one of Hollywood's most independent individuals. He was one of the first directors to organize his projects outside a studio structure. He explains, "The reason that I both produce and direct my pictures is so I can escape the usual arguments between producer and director. Ven the producer and director of my pictures haff an argument, the vinner is always me."
Preminger challenged Hollywood's business structures and also its subject-matter barriers. He was one of the first to make a film that depicted black people with dignity ("Carmen Jones" in 1954) and dealt with the previously forbidden subjects of drug addiction ("The Man With the Golden Arm" in 1955) and rape ("Anatomy of a Murder" in 1959).
Preminger's films continued to be highly popular in the 1960s ("Exodus," "Advise and Consent," "The cardinal"). But he came a cropper with "Hurry Sundown" in 1966. None of the films he's made since have been major successes. "The Human Factor" is Preminger's first picture without major studio backing. Why did he choose to film "The Human Factor"?
"Ven you meet two beautiful girls, vy do you fall in luff with one rather than the other? You make mistakes. Zum of my films, I could have avoided mistakes, if I had analyzed."
Preminger's last film was "Rosebud," a 1974 thriller that starred Robert Mitchum -- or, rather, Peter O'Toole. Mitchum left the film in mid-production. The film was a box-office disaster, and it was five years before Preminger could get financing for another film.
Preminger explains the "Rosebud" conflict: "Mitchum came on the zet one day ven he was in no condition to vork. I told him to go back to his hotel room and zleep if off. Instead, he vent back and packed his bags and left. He zent back all the money he had been paid."
Is was the third time Mitchum and Preminger had worked together. The first time, in 1953, Preminger took a more relaxed attitude toward Mitchum's drinking. On the set of "River of No Return" (as reported in Mike Tomkies' biography of Mitchum), Preminger once spotted an actor walking across the set carrying a glass full of vodka.
He shouted, "There'll be no drinking on my set."
The actor explained, "I'm just taking this to Mitchum."
"Oh, that's different," said Preminger, and let him go.
Preminger says today, "The only time I am tough with an actor is ven he's late or does not know his lines. I did a picture with Sinatra and Novak ('The Man With the Golden Arm'). Novak had not been required to record sound before. She had always dubbed it later. She tried hard, but vee sometimes needed 30-35 takes. Sinatra and I were very patient.
"Actors come on my zet, and they zee I am not so bad as my reputation."
Jean Seberg disagreed. Preminger created many stars, and Seberg was perhaps more his creation than any of the others. She went from high-school drama classes in Iowa to star in his "Saint Joan" and "Bonjour Tristesse" in 1957. Her succinct comment many years later: "Preminger is the world's most charming dinner guest and the world's most sadistic film director."
One performer who agrees with Preminger's "I-am-not-so-bad" self-assessment is Lee Remick. "My experience with Otto is bizarre. Twenty years ago, he was casting 'Anatomy of a Murder.' He called me in to talk about the lead part, though I learned later he'd already cast Lana Turner. I was eight months pregnant with my first child and I didn't care. I even turned down a supporting part in the film.
"I then proceeded to give birth, the baby was 4 weeks old when my agent called to say Preminger had fired Turner and would I get on the next plane and do the part?
"I know that young actresses are to him like red meat to a lion. I knew I'd be a bundle of tears for the duration of the film. Not so at all: Otto turned out to be adorable to me and everyone in the cast.
"My theory is that my 5-week-old infact protected me from his wrath. Otto can be quite a sentimental man. Away from filmmaking, he's charming and funny -- it's just on a movie set when his martinet bit comes up."
Preminger can be tactful. Early in his film career, when he was just emerging from the patronage of Ernst Lubitsch as a director in his own right, he had to direct Tallulah Bankhead as Catherine the Great in "A Royal Scandal" (1945). As reported in Lee Israel's "Miss Tallulah Bankhead," Tallulah was extremely jealous of her co-star, Anne Baxter.
One day, Baxter's grandfather came on the set. Baxter's grandfather happened to be Frank Lloyd Wright. Tallulah decided this was an intrusion on her privacy and declared she would not act in front of Wright, no matter how famous he was. Preminger followed her to her trailer and diplomatically asked if she would "rehearse" in front of Wright. She agreed, and so Preminger had her rehearse the scene 20 times until Wright got bored and left. Filming then resumed.
Dealing with Preminger apparently requires a will as strong as his own. Charles Laughton, as reported in Charles Higham's biography, was able to stand up to Preminger when they worked together on "Advise and Consent" in 1961. Laughton was also able to shield Gene Tierney, who had a history of mental disturbances, from the worst of the director's bullying, Higham wrote.
Laughton fought Preminger throughout the film over the interpretation of Laughton's character. The battle reached its height when Laughton did his character's major speech, a long address on the Senate floor. Over Preminger's "hysterically voiced" objections, Laughton insisted on doing the speech unconventionally, beginning loudly and ending in a near-whisper. The result, one of the best moments in the film, has often been noted as an example of Preminger's ability to be subtle on occasion.
Liza Minnelli, who starred in Preminger's "Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon" in 1969, is quoted in a biography by James Robert Parish and Jack Ano:
"Otto's theory is that the actor is hired to act, and he must be ready at all times. He wants the work done immediately, and perfectly. You get the impression with Otto that you don't have time to ask questions, and you come in and don't ask -- and if you do it wrong, you get yelled at. It's like teachers. There are some who correct you by saying, 'It would be better this way,' and others who just say, 'That's wrong.' Otto is, um, the latter."
Apparently, Preminger has always been a Jekyll-and-Hyde character, and obviously he will never change. "I know I am getting on in years. Do you believe I am 73? I don't feel any different from 30 years ago. The only time I was ever depressed was on my 40th birthday. Why was I depressed? Because I thought I had not done enough with my life."
He's still not satisfied. He's planning to make a movie in the People's Republic of China next year. He's been talking for years about returning to Israel to make "Genesis," another film about the founding of Israel in 1948.
"Why should I retire? Perhaps one day, but as long as I feel like working, I will work. You can count on it."