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Preminger: The Ottobiography

The front cover: Preminger by Preminger by Bass.

Lunch with Otto (1972)

Skidoo: On the set with Preminger (1968)

“You know you are really missing the best part of the book,” Otto Preminger said. I looked at my copy of "Preminger: An Auto­biography." It seemed to be all there. “The cover,” he explained. “It was designed by Saul Bass, who came to me and said, ‘Otto, do you mind if we run the back of your head on the front of the book, and the front of your head on the back? You know you really look much better from behind.’”

And besides, I said, your bald head has been your trademark since back when Telly Savalas was slicking down his ducktail with Bryl­cream.

“Not a trademark,” Preminger said. “It was just that, when I was a young actor in Vienna, already my hair was falling out at a rapid rate. I went to a doctor, who said hair was like grass, if you mow it, then it grows back stronger. So I went to Brittany, where nobody knew me, and I shaved my head. When it grew back -- only the fringes! Nothing at all in the middle now.”

He leaned forward to display the remains.

“Here, around the edges,” he said, “I could grow hair even today. But on top, never. When you get used to something, though, you keep it. I can no longer imagine having hair. If for instance now I had a hair transplant, like Sinatra, it would cost $30,000 to $50,000! Plus you get blue and black marks all over your face. I would feel like a stranger.”

It had been a while since I'd seen Preminger. He used to visit Chicago punctually, almost every year, to premiere a new movie or introduce a new book he was going to make into a movie. And he would preside over gigantic press luncheons and beam as he sat at the head of the table and bestowed Ottoisms upon his guests. The menu was always exactly the same for every luncheon, year after year, supplying a point of reference in an ever-­changing world. But now here we were in his hotel suite, with no luncheon, no round table, only the Ottoisms.

“It is not the same, promoting a book,” he explained. “With a movie, they have all seen the movie, they all benefit from the same questions and answers. With a book, it must be more personal. Also, do you think Double­day would pay for a press luncheon like Paramount would? The most I can hope for is a complimentary bottle of brandy from Cali­fornia. Still, California brandy… it's not bad.”

He said the press luncheon would have to wait until he returned to Chicago with his new film, which is now at the screenplay stage. It will be the biography of Israeli hero Moshe Dayan, starting when he was 26 and following his career through Israel's wars until 1973.

You starred Paul Newman in “Exodus,” I said. Will you use him again as, Dayan?

“No, for that very reason,” he said. “When I finish a film I want to forget it. I never like to repeat myself. Maybe, when I am dead, they will find certain consistencies in the style of my films, but I never want one film to look like another. Besides, Newman… “Exodus” was his first big film, now he's a big star. They had a tribute for him at Lincoln Center showing all of his films. Except one: They did not show a scene from “Exodus”.”

Preminger went to a cabinet and returned with, sure enough, a bottle of California brandy and two glasses.

“I will pour you one,” he said. He did. “I didn't care,” he said. "'Exodus' was my film, not his.”

Who will you star?

“I don't even think about that until the screenplay is finished,” he said. “Then I will send it around. You know a secret? Moshe Dayan's wife, she told me that Robert Redford should play her husband. Well, it's not so crazy, you know, if Redford would consent to be a little bald, wear an eye patch… It would be a new image…”

Preminger pondered the new image. I reminded him of an Israeli film he'd an­nounced several years ago, “Genesis 1948.” In his autobiography, Preminger writes that wealthy financier Nathan Cummings offered to finance the film: He would put up $250,000 personally, and get several friends to do the same. However, Cummings raised no money, put up none himself and was surprised when Otto snubbed him at a party. When Cummings followed him and put a hand on his arm, Otto writes, “I could not resist the temptation and slapped him twice across the face, right in front of his rich friends and their overdressed wives.”

Preminger beamed as I mentioned the story. “Is that in the book?” he asked. Well, of course, I said. “I wrote the book two years ago,” he said, “and it was much longer. Then I took out a lot of stuff, so I don't always remember what's left… but, I'm glad that's left! I understand a rich man like Howard Hughes, who is also in the book - how he would use his money for power and influence. But a rich man like Nathan Cummings, who only wants to keep it all for himself, that I don't understand. And even when I went to his house for dinner, the food was no good! Contemptible!”

The book has a lot of other feuds: Otto vs. Darryl Zanuck, Otto vs. Serge Rubenstein, Otto vs. the Motion Picture Production Code, Otto vs. the Chicago censors… That one took place when he was opening “Anatomy of a Murder” here. The police chief, he writes, asked him to take out one word, “contracep­tive,” on the grounds he would not want his 18-year-old daughter to hear it. Otto replied that if he had an 18-year-old daughter, he would not only want her to hear the word, but thoroughly understand it.

When Preminger is not writing about his feuds, his films and his stage productions, he is often writing about his career as a lover. He admits in the book that he had quite a reputation along those lines, claims modestly that it is not altogether deserved, and then tells of hostesses inviting him upstairs in the middle of parties, and actresses summoning him in the middle of the night, and of his affair with Gypsy Rose Lee that produced their son, Erik.

But the most memorable episode is saved almost for last. He writes of a young girl who came to his office and told Preminger that he had carried on an affair with her mother many years ago and she had listened at the bedroom door: “She vowed that when she grew up she would seduce me. And she did.”

Really? I asked.

“Well,” said Preminger, “she was 18 years old, very pretty… I didn't see any harm… Her mother had remarried… It might seem strange, but she made it very lighthearted, no big tragedy. I found it… amusing.”

Preminger also writes of the performers he's worked with, from Marilyn Monroe and Gene Tierney to Robert Mitchum and John Barrymore. The latter two, he said, shared the same problem: Boredom.

“Mitchum is bored by acting and bored by his success. He's almost too intelligent to be an actor. And Barrymore - he was fantastic! The best actor I ever worked with, when he wasn't drunk, but he was almost always drunk, you know. Once I directed him in My Dear Children; not a very good play, but the public wanted to see him in it, so we toured for a year before we brought it to Broadway.

“They were having troubles in St. Louis, and so I flew out to see the production. It was abominable. Barrymore was so drunk he couldn't walk, so he sat on a bench in the middle of the stage and the others all played to him - or tried to ignore him if he wasn't supposed to be in a certain scene, you know. He went on and on, making up his lines, and the play wasn't over until 1 o'clock in the morning.

“I told him how abominable he was. He told me to come the next night. The next night, he was letter perfect, brilliant. I asked him why he didn't do that every night. I will never forget his reply: ‘Bored, my dear boy, bored.’”

How is it, I asked Preminger, that you always seem to attract publicity, and notori­ety, and controversy? Like the time you were just innocently sitting there in the Los Angeles nightclub and Irving (Swifty) Lazar, the agent, broke a glass over your head…

“I withdrew the charges after he apolo­gized,” Preminger said. “I really think he just momentarily lost his head. I didn't have the greatest respect for him, you know… I might have said something that upset him… My poor wife, she turned white when she saw all the blood. It took 52 stitches on my head to close the wounds but, you know, it didn't hurt very much, they were all shallow cuts.

“As you can see,” he said, leaning over once again, “I have no scars.” He poured us both another glass of California brandy. “Can you imagine how I'd look with no hair and scars?”

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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