He was a trailblazer. He marched to his own beat and made the kind of movies he wanted to when everyone else told him it was career suicide. He challenged the Hays Code when his movies were deemed too risqué to be shown to the general public. His private life was as wild as his professional one, yet Otto Preminger remains one of the most revered film directors of the 20th century. Foster Hirsch takes us through Preminger’s life in his book, Otto Preminger: The Man Who Would Be King.
Preminger was born in Austria and raised in a world of wealth and privilege, a way of life he never abandoned. His father, a lawyer, wanted young Otto to follow in his footsteps, but Otto’s heart belonged to the theatre. He did obtain his law degree, but never used it. He worked with Max Reinhardt, a theatre impresario in Europe, first as an actor, then as an administrator and director. Catching the eye of Darryl F. Zanuck and Joseph Schenck, Preminger traveled to the United States to work not only in the movies, but also on Broadway. His rise to the top was as fast as his fall, and for a while, he was banned from Hollywood. It took eight years before Preminger could begin to climb back to the top.
His first successful movie was 1944’s Laura, and for the next twenty years, he was considered one of the best directors in Hollywood. He did not give directions to his actors; he expected them to know how to act and what to do. If things did not go the way he expected, he would berate and belittle the guilty party. Off the set, he was a charming and gracious host, making sure that his cast and crew had nothing but the best.
The Production Code was still in effect when Preminger directed The Moon is Blue in 1953. Two men (David Niven, William Holden) are attracted to the same girl (Maggie McNamara), who has vowed to remain a virgin until her wedding night. The men try to figure out a way to make her break her vow. By today’s standards, this would be considered a very tame movie. But in 1953, it was considered in poor taste to make jokes about sex and seduction. The committee objected to “the way the script seemed to trump virtue in favor of sin”. They refused to give a seal of approval to the film, and Preminger vowed to show the film WITHOUT the seal. He did, and the film earned $3.5 million dollars, and signaled the beginning of the end for the Production Code.
His private life was as volatile as his professional one. During his first two marriages, he had two affairs: the first one with an unlikely woman, Gypsy Rose Lee, which produced a son, Erik; the second one with the beautiful Dorothy Dandridge, “who became the first black female star in Hollywood.” It wasn’t until his third marriage to Hope Bryce that he settled down.
Preminger was a walking contradiction: a kind man one minute, in full rage mode the next minute for no apparent reason. Whatever personal demons he may have struggled with, the movies he directed were groundbreaking and breathtaking. When he firmly believed in something, he fought as hard as he could to make things right. Even though his last few movies received scathing reviews, he never lost sight of his vision, making his movies his way.
Hirsch conducted interviews with several family members, including Otto’s younger brother Ingo and Otto’s third wife, Hope Bryce; actors Patricia Neal, Don Murray, Ossie Davis, Carol Lynley, and countless others. He said that one reason he wanted to write a book about Preminger was “because I admired many of his films and felt they had been seriously underrated.” Hirsch, like many authors before him, “foolishly thought that he could have handled Preminger” and his temper, as he gathered more information about his subject. While the people who worked with Preminger agreed that he was a difficult man, it can be said, that through it all, he was a great director who deserves more recognition for his work.