Monday 18 September 2017

On Screen Acting - Bruce Hodsdon on The Star Actor in classical Hollywood and after (2): The disturbing case of Otto Preminger and his three femme stars

Linda Darnell, Dorothy Dandridge and Jean Seberg all met untimely deaths. All three did their best work with Otto Preminger.

Linda Darnell
Linda Darnell made four films with him (Centennial Summer, Forever Amber, Fallen Angel and The Thirteenth Letter) and if her sister is to be believed hated every minute of it. Fallen Angel was one of six films noir Preminger directed at Fox between 1944-53 commencing with the classic Laura to which Fallen Angel has been favourably compared, Preminger's direction is a masterpiece of mise en scène. Dana Andrews who worked well with Preminger in lead roles on four Fox films including Laura, reluctantly agreed to play the lead in Fallen Angel, at the director's urging - Andrews didn't like the script. One of the two female leads in the film as written was a stand-out but she is murdered so it was a role Zanuck determined “no star will play.” It fell to Darnell to play the role of Stella. Darnell was a strikingly beautiful up and coming 21 year old actress on contract with Fox who had played opposite Tyrone Power.

Darnell's co-star, Alice Faye, a leading star of Fox musicals seeking change to a dramatic role in Fallen Angel, said Preminger was “very tough to work with ...a good director but a mean SOB. He got a lot out of me.” Faye recalled that Darnell and Preminger “did not work well together, and made no bones about saying so.”  At Zanuck's behest they were obliged to continue in combat on three more films.

Dana Andrews, Linda Darnell, Fallen Angel
Darnell appeared in lead and supporting roles in a number of major films through the forties but her film career gradually faded in a dozen or so mainly B pictures after The Thirteenth Letter (1951) with Preminger. She died in a house fire in 1965, a tragedy marked by a double irony. She had been watching one of her early films, Star Dust (1940), on tv earlier in the evening. She also had a phobia about the fear of death by fire which she spoke about after appearing in a burning at the stake scene in Anna and the King of Siam (1946) (1).

It is true to say I think that Preminger always had serious plans to become his own boss, achieving independence in the industry setting up his own production company although still subject to Zanuck's script and editing approvals in a distribution deal with Fox. Preminger did have the means to break new ground in challenging the censorship code with The Moon is Blue (1953) and racial discrimination built into Hollywood norms with an all-black cast for the film of the Broadway adaptation of Bizet, Carmen Jones (1954). He also took on the Breen office in their concern over an “overemphasis on lustfulness” in the submitted script. Preminger decided to make “a dramatic film with music rather than a musical. He determined from the beginning that the black actors would be dubbed with white opera singers.

Dorothy Dandridge
After a successful screen test for which Preminger gave her every support he had no doubts about Dandridge for the role of Carmen to Harry Belafonte's soldier on leave, Joe, with Pearl Bailey as Frankie.  She had been in show business since childhood, her life being described as “wasted away” in black nightclubs and bit parts in movies through the forties and into the fifties plus one lead in a little seen film Bright Road (1953). Preminger's support did not entirely dispel her doubts that others in the company distrusted her and suspected her relationship with Preminger; they had begun an affair which lasted well after the film was finished.

On the set Preminger was described as “bullying everyone.” Dandridge took a stand after he screamed at her and “gave him hell.” One of the cast members said that the director made Dandridge angry deliberately, that she was “doing more than she knew that she could do. And he brought it out of her.” At other times he seemed needlessly disparaging, intent on humiliating members of the cast.

Dorothy Dandridge, Carmen Jones
Chris Fujiwara in his critical biography of  Preminger (2008) writes that “the actors were under no illusions that the opportunity of Carmen was meant (to be) a breakthrough.” The unspoken assumption was that the cast were outsiders in Hollywood and were in town for a short while for the token 'black film' of every few years. Carmen Jones nevertheless “became a central and contested the representation of African Americans in popular culture.” Fujiwara also notes that the film “is the most straightforward example of Preminger's rejection of the cliché of the femme fatale” already contested in Fallen Angel and Angel Face. In the context of the early fifties, challenged in Carmen Jones were the norms that governed women's sexual conduct determined by narrowly defined sexual experience which, when exceeded, placed them outside the bounds of patriarchal protection. This was carried forward in characterisations in subsequent Preminger films such as Anatomy of a Murder, The Cardinal and Bunny Lake is Missing.

At the same time Fujiwara notes that James Baldwin commented that the absence of white people from the world of the film “seals the action off , as it were, in a vacuum in which the spectacle of color is divested of its opera that has nothing to do with the present day, nothing really to do with negroes.” The camera fluency and skills of Preminger's mise en scène in long takes (Fujiwara notes that it does approach Preminger's ideal of a film without cuts) aiding the opening up of the opera to grounding in some suggestion of contemporary reality. Preminger acknowledged both Carmen Jones and Porgy and Bess as fantasies “that nevertheless convey something of the needs and aspirations of colored people.” In this they had a role along with Sirk's Imitation of Life (1959), in foreshadowing the arrival of something approximating a black cinema in seventies Hollywood and independent American cinema. 

Dandridge was the first African American woman to be nominated for the Oscar for Best Actress. This was for her a plateau from which she descended, or rather 'fell'. Her affair with Preminger continued for some time but surrounded by career pressures and social prejudices the two of them were, she realised, writes her biographer Donald Bogle, playing “a game – I get him, he to lose me.” Although Preminger did seek to strengthen her financial security she understood, as Fujiwara quotes her biographer, that “Otto was another confrontation with a white man who would not follow through.”

Dorothy Dandridge, Porgy and Bess
It was difficult to find good roles. She was not even allowed to kiss John Justin in Island in the Sun (1957). Preminger cast her opposite Sidney Poitier in his film of Porgy and Bess (1959) - this time she was not spared his angry outbursts on the set - followed by a couple of good performances, the last role in 1960. David Thomson concludes: “she lost her money in a swindle and went back to minor nightclub work. (In 1965) it is likely she took her own life.” (2)

Preminger had a long standing fascination with Bernard Shaw's Saint Joan. In 1956 he acquired the film rights from the Shaw estate, hired Grahame Greene to write the script and began an extensive international search for the actress to play Saint Joan. He surmised that the publicity from such a quest would help pre-sell the picture. Multiple auditions were held all over America and in Europe, the final being in New York in October 1956 culminating in the whittling down to  screen testing of three finalists. Preminger directed his infamous bullying tactics particularly at Jean Seberg to which she stood up successfully until finally breaking down in tears, Preminger then comforted her assuring her that she had done well. The other two finalists were more polished but what won through for Seberg was her sincerity.

Jean Seberg
Filming began at Shepparton Studios in January 1957, the inexperienced Seberg facing the daunting task of playing the lead role with something like a cross section of the English acting fraternity playing supporting roles together with Richard Widmark who later said that Saint Joan “was the worst experience of my career. The way he treated Jean Seberg was was sadism.” Preminger's aim seemed to be to keep her on a constant emotional pitch, playing the tyrant: nothing she did in her determination to do a good job was right. Off the set there was fatherly affection. As intimated by Fujiwara, her biographer David Richards believes that, although it was rumoured during the time of their association together and has been suggested or imagined since, Seberg found such rumours of an affair and even of plans for marriage with her director puzzling.

Jean Seberg, Saint Joan
When Saint Joan was finally released it drew from the critics a kind of tribal response as if they were beset by an overpowering shared mindset particularly from the American critics led by the NY Times, Newsweek and Time magazine much of it directed at Seberg's performance no doubt provoked by what the critics saw as the overblown search for the actress to play Joan. This seemed designed to put Preminger's presumptions in their place. Neither the film nor Seberg warrants this. I agree with Fujiwara that Saint Joan is one of Preminger's most interesting and personal films and that “Seberg's performance, though deficient in nuance, is by no means the naked disaster it has been taken for. She and Preminger emphasize Joan's vulnerability and sadness, an uncomprehending sense of having been betrayed by the people and institutions she has fought for.” Preminger, outwardly undaunted, said he loved the film and would “do it all again.”

If Seberg and Preminger's filmmaking talents needing any vindication it has come with Bonjour Tristesse which was again subject to a negative press at the time of its release in America. On the set Preminger had reverted to form in giving Seberg a hard time. She showed her toughness by just concentrating on following instructions, even at one stage managing to send Otto up to his face. Over the years the critical reputation of Bonjour Tristesse has continued to grow. Seberg's reputation was further enhanced  by her performances in Breathless (1960) and Lilith (1965). When Preminger sold his contract with her to Columbia in August 1958 she lamented “he used me like a Kleenex and then threw me away.”

Jean Seberg, Bonjour Tristesse
Informed in London of Seberg's suicide in Paris in September 1979, Preminger went white with shock. He admitted never being close to her while acknowledging that “she was such a symbol of living, she wanted to do so many things  that it is hard to accept that she committed suicide.”

David Thomson has suggested of his life, that there is a Preminger movie in there. At core there are the unresolved contradictions between the experience of the finished film and what we know about the manner of their realisation, between the mise en scène and the fluctuating extremes in his direction of actors (3). Preminger's liberal instincts are evident in his direction, a concern with balance, in placing character in context and the avoidance of the passing of easy judgements. What fascinates in Preminger's genre films at Fox, for example, is the dialectic between the material and his treatment of melodrama “with an extraordinary lack of hysteria” to quote Thomson, who further adds that Preminger is alone among Hollywood directors in triumphing in that genre “by deflecting it” to the point of “easing in the direction of documentary.” This was in sharp contrast to his frequent resort to bullying tactics on the set, sometimes in a controlled way, at others he would seem to lose control out of frustration or simply the overweening desire to impose his will, probably a combination of both.

1.  Short biography of Darnell in Fandango,online. Suffering severe burns to from 80 to 90 per cent of her body including her face, she lived for thirty three hours after being rescued from the hottest part of the fire.
2.  See the Wikipedia entry on Dandridge for an outline of the mysterious circumstances surrounding her death.

3.  As documented by Chris Fujiwara in The World and Its Double; The Life and Work of Otto Preminger (2008). Also recommended is David Thomson's entry on Preminger in The New Biographical  Dictionary of Film, 6th Ed. 2014.

Otto Preminger

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