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Lunch with Otto

Otto Preminger (right) with William Holden in Billy Wilder's 1953 "Stalag 17": "I stopped acting when I was 19. The only time I acted again was during the war, when there were no other Nazis available."

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Skidoo: On the set with Otto Preminger (1968)

Preminger: The Ottobiography (1977)

The press luncheon is fast collapsing as a form of social intercourse, and it may not last out the year. Too bad. It has been replaced by the New Journalism, a form of reportage in which you tape-record the star's obscene running commentary as he picks his teeth, washes out his socks, argues over long distance with mistress, libels his employers and fires his press agent.

The result is what is known as an in-depth interview. It's got to be in-depth, because you only get one chance. After the star sobers up and reads your piece, he will never speak to you again and may even instruct his chastened and reformed press agent to announce that a lawsuit is being considered.

This is great fun, but press luncheons used to be great fun, too.

The idea at a press luncheon was for everybody to get smashed, not just the star. This made up for missing out on the sock-washing. And it was an advantage with stars like Robert Mitchum and Lee Marvin, who could outdrink anybody on earth except possibly each other.

You figured that by the end of the luncheon there ought to be at least one, maybe two, reporters still capable of framing a grammatical question. Maybe it wouldn't be a brilliant question - like the time somebody asked Sidney Poitier what his name was - but it would keep the silence away.

Anyway, all that has changed, alas, and Otto Preminger is the only major personality in the movie business who keeps the old flame aglow. He presides over press luncheons like nobody else, and the wise interviewer will shun a private seance with Otto in order to attend the public event.

No less than two people at Otto's latest Chicago press luncheon confided to me, in fact, that they came simply because there was nothing on earth like an Otto Preminger press luncheon. One of these two people was undoubtedly telling the truth, since his appearance marked the first time anybody had seen him before noon since the last Preminger luncheon.

Preminger is a man who likes people (except for those unfortunate enough to be employed by him), and when he sits down to luncheon he enjoys a long guest list. Every possible local media is represented, including the inevitable Movement journalist in his Levis, who cuts into the gauze-wrapped lemon slice under the impression that a single, small, white boiled potato has been placed on his plate.

The menu is always exactly the same: Lobster and avocado cocktail, hearts-of-artichoke salad, sirloin steak with Béarnaise sauce, sides of asparagus, fried potatoes and grilled tomatoes, and a white wine with the first two courses and a red with the entree. I am not quite sure why the menu never varies; perhaps Preminger gets a discount for volume, or maybe he simply doesn't like to be surprised.

The questions are generally the same, too, which is part of the fun. Just as we enjoy a good Western because we're familiar with the conventions of the genre, so we enjoy a Preminger press luncheon because we can spot the questions coming a mile away. There are always at least two deeply committed, sincere, slightly mad disciples of the auteur theory of film criticism at the luncheon, for example, They have spent the morning re-reading Andrew Sarris' comments on Preminger's films, and they are first off the mark with questions:

Q. Why did you use over-the-shoulder reaction shots in "Such Good Friends"? You have always used two-shots before.

Otto: How high are we? Shall I jump?

Q. When you had two people at the table in “The Court Martial of Billy Mitchell,” you simply pulled back the camera.

Otto: I don't remember. You do.

This answer is usually timed to come just as the headwaiter pours the white wine for Otto's approval. He inhales it, sips it, considers it and nods beatifically. The silence is important, because at this precise moment, tradition requires Auteur Critic Two to observe quietly to Auteur Critic One: "The only other time Otto used over-the-shoulder was in one scene of 'Exodus'."

Preminger, who has heard this, now makes his standard disclaimer: "I live in the present. When I finish a film, it is behind me. My reward is in my work, not in a lot of old memories."

Now, Auteur Critic Two slips him a double-reverse critical whammy: "With 'Skidoo,' 'Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon' and 'Such Good Friends,' you are moving the camera less. Why?"

Otto extends his hands, palms up, as if begging forgiveness, or perhaps deliverance: "He is a dangerous man, this fellow! Maybe I move the camera less because I am old and tired."

Laughter, followed by artichokes. The serious, probing questions are out of the way, and after the first sip of white wine we can expect a more personal question.

Q. Why do you shave your head, Mr. Preminger?

Otto: I shaved it for a movie role and then I just left it that way . . . I am really bald, you know.

Q. Really bald?

Otto: On the top. There is some hair around the sides of course.

Q. How do you shave it?

Otto: With an electric razor. Every morning, while I am shaving my face, I just run it over my head.

He illustrates the technique with a flourish. Sitting there, watching Otto Preminger demonstrate how he shaves his head, you have the sense of being present at a historical moment, like in "Strangers When We Meet," when Kim Novak looked at Kirk Douglas' cleft chin and asked, "How do you shave in there?"

Seriousness and humor having both been dispatched with, it is time now for the conversation to take a slightly scandalous turn. There have been reports that Dyan Cannon is furious with Otto because of a nude photograph in "Such Good Friends." The photograph is of Dyan from the neck up and of an anonymous model from the neck down.

"Furious?" Otto says. "But she saw the photo on the set! What has she to be furious about? Doesn't she approve of the model we employed? The model was a very good model, a wonderful girl. I should know. My son Eric is living with the lower half of Dyan Cannon's body in the photo."

That seems to take care of that, and so someone asks if Elaine May really wrote the screenplay for "Such Good Friends." And if she did, why didn't she take a screen credit?

"After the experience with her previous film, 'A New Leaf,' with Paramount, she said she would never again put her name on something that she didn't have complete control over. But the screenplay is hers. Every line of dialog in the movie is by Elaine May."

He explains that the screen credit was given to a pseudonym, Esther Dale. The real Esther Dale (1886-1961) was a veteran character actress who played grandmothers and kindly souls, and whose last performance was in "Ma and Pa Kettle at the Fair." You learn all sorts of things at a Preminger press luncheon.

Somebody asks about Otto's acting career, and he smiles. "I stopped acting when I was 19. The only time I acted again was during the war, when there were no other Nazis available."

The subject of Nazis somehow inspires the subject of Otto's relationships with his actors, and he is asked if he'll use Dyan Cannon again.

"Not likely," he says, "because she has said she will never work with me again. I think she is a good actress, though, and will become a star if she is careful and lucky. She's shrewd. Not intelligent, but shrewd."

The telephone rings, and Preminger's longtime assistant, Nat Rudich, answers it. The call is from Otto's New York office, with the information that Dyan Cannon has been nominated as best actress of the year by the Golden Globes Award Committee of the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn.

"Well." Preminger says, "that's better than nothing."

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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