He was a bald-headed authoritarian with ice-blue eyes who did what he liked. And what better way to exercise that divine right than be a film director of controversial subjects? But Otto Preminger's groundbreaking films are his legacy. He died yesterday at 79, his third wife Hope beside him.
Preminger. The very name was synonymous with tyranny. "Otto the Monster" they called him, and his thick Viennese accent didn't hurt the image. But his tyranny was a necessary evil for his self-appointed mission of cinematic reform. He took on the complacency of Hollywood -- taboo subjects, studio heads, prima donna actresses and innocent bystanders be damned. He wanted to make explosive movies and swatted anyone in the way.
"Don't shout!" boomed Preminger at a first-time actress. "Shouting should not be done by women. Only by men like me."
"Why are you in the way?" he thundered at photographers on the set of "Advise and Consent."
Preminger, said Jean Seberg (the Iowa unknown Preminger introduced to the world with the film "Saint Joan"), "is the most charming dinner guest and the world's most sadistic film director."
It is Preminger's work in the 1950s that most distinguishes him and indicates his obsession with breaking new ground. His 1953 adaptation of the bedroom comedy "The Moon Is Blue" was condemned by the Catholic Church for such words as "virgin" and "pregnant."
The following year's "Carmen Jones" was one of Hollywood's first attempts to portray blacks as people other than Stepin Fetchit types. His "The Man With the Golden Arm" (1955) delved headlong into the world of drug addiction, an untouchable subject at the time. "Anatomy of a Murder" (1959), a critically and commercially successful courtroom drama, showed little restraint in its discussion of rape. Film audiences were presented with such then unutterable celluloid words as "intercourse" and "sexual climax."
There were other strong works, such as "Bonjour Tristesse" (also starring Seberg) and "Angel Face," but the film that commands the most respect today was the 1944 "Laura." Movie mogul Darryl F. Zanuck, back from war service, had ordered Preminger only to produce the film. But director Rouben Mamoulian was fired, so Preminger was brought in to direct as well. He turned out an almost surreal, and witty, murder mystery, starring detective Dana Andrews investigating the apparent murder of Gene Tierney. It also produced a memorable performance by Clifton Webb as a jaded newspaper columnist. The film was an unqualified hit with the critics and at the box office, and is the film of which Preminger was most proud.
Preminger found the secret to creative freedom early: He made himself producer as well as director. Of the 37 films he directed, he produced more than half. The control allowed him to be not so much enfant as ogre terrible. Actors, he often said, were "children." And Otto was, of course, Daddy Dearest.
"When the producer and the director of my pictures have an argument," he explained, "the winner is always me." It was another in a series of Otto Preminger jokes -- he laughed, you nodded.
His was a life marked with bravado, personal as well as professional. When Lana Turner walked off the set of "Anatomy of a Murder," he immediately enlisted an unknown (Lee Remick) to take over. In 1959, he dared to challenge the legacy of the dreaded McCarthy era in Hollywood by hiring blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo for "Exodus." In "Anatomy of a Murder" he went further, casting as the judge former Army special counsel Joseph Welch, the attorney who unmasked the Red-baiting Wisconsin senator in the Army-McCarthy hearings, asking, "Have you no sense of decency, sir?"
Preminger's first wife Marion Mills divorced him for his "violent temper." He was once voted the Most Hated Man in Hollywood, and once left Club 21 in New York with a bloody gash on his head from fighting with literary agent Irving (Swifty) Lazar over movie rights to "In Cold Blood."
There were, however, moments of apparent soft-heartedness. He fathered Erik Kirkland with stripper Gypsy Rose Lee, never revealing the secret to Kirkland. But after Lee died, Preminger adopted him.
Preminger "turned out to be adorable," said Remick, who approached the "Anatomy" set with trepidation.
He vehemently denied he was a sensationalist. He was not interested, he said, in making "dirty pictures . . . I want to make adult films and, if necessary, I will fight for the right to make them."
And fight he did. He went all the way to the Supreme Court to secure the Motion Picture Production Code seal of approval for "The Moon Is Blue" and also for "The Man With the Golden Arm."
He seemed to be Erich von Stroheim all over again -- the big expansive authoritarian director, short only of the riding jodhpurs and megaphone. And like von Stroheim at the end of the latter's career, he was frequently portrayed on screen as a Germanic stereotype, notably in his own "Stalag 17" (1953) as the Nazi commandant in a prisoner of war camp.
Preminger, an Austrian Jew who had arrived in the States in the 1930s after a tenure as assistant to noted theatrical director Max Reinhardt, was hired by 20th Century-Fox to work on B pictures under Darryl Zanuck. But Zanuck fired him after an argument over the movie "Kidnapped." Preminger then reluctantly cast himself as a Nazi villain in the Clare Boothe Luce Broadway hit "Margin for Error," which he also directed.
Hollywood welcomed him again with an offer to play another Nazi villain in the Fox film "Pied Piper," which he accepted. But when he was offered his old role in the film version of "Margin for Error," he insisted on directing the film as well.
Once the taboos he loved to challenge had been overthrown, Preminger appeared to have difficulty finding themes he found worthy. The second half of his professional life proved a disappointing string of work. After the popular success of "Exodus," "Advise and Consent" and "The Cardinal," he found little critical or commercial success, and after the 1963 "Cardinal" made only eight more films.
The charismatic duce never won an Oscar, but that may be irrelevant, as that award frequently is. What matters most, perhaps, is how hard he rode in the saddle. It was a bumpy ride for Otto, but you get the feeling he -- like the moviegoing public -- enjoyed every bump.