Open Mic

November 2011

What Happened When the Dean of American TV Writers Collaborated With the Famous, Flamboyant English Director Who Had Been Described as the King of Pornobiography?

Chuck Ross Posted November 30, 2011 at 8:04 AM

Sidney Aaron “Paddy” Chayefsky was riding high. Considered by many to be the dean of American TV writers for the classic stories he wrote for the small screen during the 1950s -- most particularly “Marty” -- Chayefsky was now writing for the bigger silver screen. It was 1977, and he had won Oscars for his last two original screenplays: “The Hospital” in 1971 and “Network” in 1976.

Chayefsky had loved working on “Network.” Not only had the subject matter taken him back to his TV roots, he was able to work with another veteran of TV’s Golden Age, Sidney Lumet, as the director of the film. They shared many memories from those halcyon days, and Lumet, who did not know a lot about comedy, was very willing to listen to how Chayefsky wanted many of the satirical scenes in that movie played.

And that was a good thing, since Chayefsky had achieved a very rare thing in Hollywood: Not one word of his scripts could be changed without his permission. It was in his contract, and it was much more akin to a clause a playwright gets than a Hollywood screenwriter.

After “Network,” Chayefsky delved deep into his next project. It would deal with the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in all of us, focusing on mind-bending drugs and isolation tanks. According to author Joseph Lanza, “Daniel Melznick, an executive at Columbia Pictures, thought Chayefsky should novelize the screenplay first,” to use that as a tool to convince other Columbia executives to make the film. [In the end, Warner Bros. released the movie.]

So novelize is what Chayefsky did during 1977, a time in which he suffered a heart attack, from which he soon recovered. At the same time he was novelizing his script, Ken Russell, the enfant terrible of English directors, was putting the finishing touches on “Valentino,” writes Lanza in his book “Phallic Frenzy: Ken Russell and His Films.”

“Valentino” would be a box-office flop for the director movie critic Pauline Kael had dubbed “the inventor of a new genre, pornobiography.”

Like his screenplay, Chayefsky named his novel “Altered States.” As the project proceeded, it was announced that yet another major talent who had gotten his start during TV’s Golden Age in the 1950s -- Arthur Penn -- would take the helm and direct “Altered States.”

Penn tells what happened next. “I was supposed to [direct] ‘Altered States’ … which [Paddy and I] spent months working on together,” Penn says in “Arthur Penn: Interviews” by Penn, Michael Chaiken and Paul Cronin. “Paddy and I have been good friends ever since we were drafted into the army together. I told him I wasn’t interested in special effects and wanted to concentrate on the human dimensions of the story. We had some disagreements about this and I pulled out 2 and ½ weeks before shooting was to start.”

Ken Russell picks up the story from there: “This film just came out of the blue,” he told Jay Scott of The Globe and Mail newspaper in Toronto. “I didn’t choose it from my storehouse of ideas. Chayefsky had already written the script and they had already lost a director, Arthur Penn. I was in an airport in Chicago when I heard ‘Ken Russell, ring your agent.’ I had been unable to get work in Hollywood -- the cliché that you’re only as good as your last picture is unfortunately true, and my last picture was ‘Valentino’ -- so I called my agent and he told me I had a job.”

A few days later Russell told Tom Buckley in an interview with The New York Times, “I also saw a challenge. For better or for worse, my films are not known for their dialogue scenes. In fact, I’ve been accused of not knowing how to direct dialogue, although, ironically, Paddy said that one reason I was hired after Arthur Penn left the picture was because of the way I had handled the dialogue scenes in ‘Savage Messiah.' "

Russell says the fights between himself and Chayefsky started almost immediately after Russell was hired. The Globe and Mail recounts: “ ‘It started with the paint,’ Russell sneers. '[Chayefsky] didn’t like the color of the paint on the isolation tank. Then it went on to other things. He didn’t like the lighting, then he didn’t like the machinery, then he thought I was making the actors appear drunk in a scene where they were written to be slightly tipsy in a bar. Chayefsky drinks only Sanka. To a man who drinks only Sanka, someone who has had a few must appear totally drunk.' ”

In his book about Russell, author Lanza spoke to longtime Chayefsky friend and producer Howard Gottfried, who painted Russell as a “duplicitious, manipulative ogre. ‘He would make really lousy remarks. Just anything to get Paddy upset.’ “

Lanza recounts this sarcastic exchange:

Russell: You can’t improve on perfection, Paddy. Why don’t we rehearse the scene where [one character] fucks [another character] on the kitchen floor. I’d appreciate your input on the grunts.

Chayefsky: I’m only concerned with matters of dialogue right now, Kenny. In matters of barking dogs, grunting ape-men, and moaning lovers, you have carte blanche.

By the time the movie started filming, Chayefsky and Russell weren’t talking -- though, separately, they would talk to the actors, putting them in the middle of the two men. This led to even more arguing between Russell and Chayefsky.

Saddled with a contract that forced Russell to film all of Chayefsky’s dialogue, The Globe and Mail writes, “Russell claims that with the exception of one scene (which Russell said had to do with some ‘trifling changes’ in the scenes where the main character goes to Mexico to try some mushrooms), he shot every word Chayefsky wrote. If so, he has nonetheless exacted revenge: The actors charge through their words as if being caressed by cattle prods, they mumble, they scream and they chatter with their mouths full of food. ‘Chayefsky,’ Russell smiles, ‘won’t speak to me.’ “

The interviews Russell did with The Globe and Mail and The New York Times were done about two weeks after “Altered States” was released in the U.S. on Christmas Day 1980. The film was generally well-received by the critics and performed well at the box office (For Warner Bros., only 5 other pictures made more money than 'Altered States" did that year.)

Russell was 53 when he made the picture. Chayefsky was 57. Chayefsky declined to talk publicly about his fighting with Russell. All he would tell The New York Times was, “I haven’t seen the picture and I intend to go on not seeing the picture so that when people ask me what I think about it I can tell them I haven’t seen it.”

Despite the fact that virtually every word in”Altered States” was written by Chayefsky, here’s how he insisted his credit read on movie: “Written for the screen by Sidney Aaron from the novel ‘Altered States’ by Paddy Chayefsky.”

Sidney Aaron was Chayefsky’s real first and middle names.

Seven months after the release of “Altered States” Chayefsky was dead from cancer.

Russell died this past Sunday, Nov. 27, 2011, at age 84. Of all the movies Russell made, only his version of The Who's rock musical, "Tommy,' which Russell made five years before "Altered States," made more money at the box office than "Alterted States" did.

I watched “Altered States” again the other night. I hadn’t seen it since it first came out. It’s still a terrific ride that rode the coat-tails of a generation of drug-takers and ends with a very old-fashioned Hollywood message. And it seems to me that Russell handled the sometimes tedious dialogue just right. William Hurt commands the screen in his movie debut as the lead character, and Blair Brown is smart and luminous as his co-star. Support, especially by Charles Haid, is spot-on.

How ironic that Chayefsky parted ways early on with his pal Arthur Penn, who, no doubt, would have delivered a film closer to what Chayefsky probably would have wanted. But I have a hard time believing it actually would have been a better movie.#

The Investigation Into Natalie Wood's Death Gets Curiouser. 'ET' Touts 'The details you've never heard from the witness who's never spoken before.' Huh? She Was Just on TV Two Days Earlier. And What She Witnessed Was Published At Least 11 Years Ago

Chuck Ross Posted November 22, 2011 at 8:50 AM

The witness in question is Marilyn Wayne. I first came across her name when I read the article “Natalie Wood’s Fatal Voyage,” which is in the current special edition of Vanity Fair (VF) that’s subtitled “Hollywood Scandal, Sex and Obsession.” The article about Wood’s death is actually a reprint of an article -- by VF contributing editor Sam Kashner -- that first appeared in the VF issue of March 2000. Unfortunately, the article is not available online at the VF website. So TVWeek purchased a copy of the current special edition of VF to read the article, as I have previously reported.

In that article, here’s what Kashner wrote about Wayne (The Splendour is the name of the yacht Wood had been on the night she drowned): “A few days after the tragedy, John Payne and his girlfriend, Marilyn Wayne, a Los Angeles commodities broker, contacted police to say that they had been sleeping aboard a boat, Capricorn, who was moored near Splendour that night. Around midnight Payne heard a woman yelling ‘Help me, someone please help me!’ The voice was coming from near the stern of Splendour and, Payne believed, from someone in a dinghy. He awakened Wayne, who heard the cries, too. The couple claimed they hadn’t responded because a loud, drunken party was raging on another nearby yacht, and they had thought someone was just ‘playing around.’ Indeed, they had heard a man’s very drunken voice respond mockingly, ‘O.K., honey, we’ll get you.’ They believed the voice belonged to someone at the party, which evidently reinforced their notion that the whole thing was a joke.”

I don’t know if Kashner got the account from a police report or from actually speaking to Payne or Wayne. He doesn’t say in his article, which, again, was first published in VF in March 2000.

This past Saturday, Nov. 19, 2011, Wayne appeared briefly on the portion of the Vanity Fair/"48 Hours Mystery” show about Hollywood scandals that dealt with Wood's death. Here’s what she said:

“I heard a woman calling for help. ‘Help me. Somebody please help me, I’m drowning.’ We called Harbor Patrol several times. No one answered. At 11:25 p.m., calls for help ceased.”

Wayne’s recent memory differs in some key ways from the account in VF 11 years ago. Now, the plea for help included the words “I’m drowning.” And somehow the party on the other yacht and how that confused matters for Payne and Wayne are no longer part of her recollection. Furthermore, in the new version, she and Payne called the Harbor Patrol -- a key element that’s missing from the version VF wrote about 11 years ago.

On "ET," in what that show’s Samantha Harris called her “exclusive interview” with Wayne, Wayne told basically the same story she had recounted on TV two nights earlier.

Wayne added some other flourishes in her “ET” interview as well. After Wood’s death, said Harris, “[Wayne] told me about working on the same floor as the offices of [Wood’s husband Robert] Wagner’s stockbrokers and seeing him there several times. … She claims Wagner and his associate know exactly who she was,” but never approached her.

Then, Harris asked Wayne why she was now telling her story. To which Wayne replied, “Originally I remained silent because of my feelings for the family.”

What? It seems to me that this woman was basically a total stranger to Wagner and Wood, who just happened to be on a boat moored nearby.

Wayne also told ET that she had received an anonymous note saying, “If you want to stay healthy, keep your mouth shut.”

In her petition to the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s office asking them to reopen the investigation of Wood’s death, Wayne has yet another version of what the note said: “ ‘If you value your life, keep quiet about what you know.’ I immediately suspected it was related to Natalie Wood's death.”

As I first wrote about last week when we first heard that the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department was going to reopen the investigation into Wood’s death, it seems that most of what the cops are looking at are elements of the case that have been primarily written about years ago, as opposed to some newly found evidence that’s been brought to their attention.

And indeed, my theory was verified by Marti Rulli in interviews she gave last week. Rulli is the co-author, with Dennis Davern, of “Goodbye Natalie, Goodbye Splendour.” Davern was the captain of the yacht -- the Splendour--which was owned by Robert Wagner and Natalie Wood.

Here’s an interview Rulli did with Erin Burnett, who hosts CNN’s “Out Front.”

Erin Burnett (to Rulli): "You turned over information to the Sheriff just a couple of months ago. Was it new or was it information from the book, which I understand was published two years ago?"

Rulli: "It was information from the book and information that I have learned along the course of writing the book. There was nothing really new with the information, but what I think made the difference was because I had sent the [sheriff’s] department after the book was published. But I condensed it. I compressed it. I put it into bullet form with the crucial and critical information standing out. And I think reading the information in that format made a difference because they saw everything in outline form. And these were a lot of things that need attention that this case did not receive in 1981.”

Alex Ben Block, a former TVWeek editor and a first-rate reporter, who is now with The Hollywood Reporter, has dug up the petitions Rulli and Davern and Wayne sent the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, and you can read them if you click here.

I thought that the press conference held by Lt. John Corina of the Sheriff’s Department on Friday, Nov. 18, 2011, was unnecessarily vague. For example Corina wouldn’t even say from whom the department had received information that compelled them to reopen the case.

However, the day before the press conference the sheriff himself, Lee Baca, was very explicit, telling the Los Angeles Times that it was comments made by Capt. Davern that convinced him the case should be reopened.

Furthermore, as I speculated earlier, it seems just too much of a coincidence that the case was reopened practically on the anniversary of Wood’s death 30 years ago, and also coincided with a TV show about the case and a magazine reprinting its original article from 11 years ago about the holes in the case.

Indeed some reporters have speculated about the timing. Here’s “Inside Edition’s" chief correspondent, Jim Moret, talking about this issue on CNN’s “Anderson Cooper 360” on the day of the press conference last Friday: “One thing I thought was interesting is the timing. If you Google L.A. County Sheriff’s Office today, all you will see is this investigation. But, coincidentally, today is also the day a seven-person commission is investigating alleged Sheriff Department abuse of inmates at the L.A. County Jail. The Sheriff’s Department could have announced [the reopening of the Wood case] on the anniversary [of Wood’s drowning] or after the TV special if new information did indeed come out that they deemed credible. So the whole aura of the event seemed odd to me.”

Bingo! So now we’ve answered "why now." "Why now," after all this time, when the revelations being made are years old, has the case been reopened.

This answer to “why now?” also helps explain another factor. One reason to re-open the case is to see that justice is done. In this case, even if the new investigation reaches the conclusion that Wagner or someone else should be charged with manslaughter, no one can be charged, since the statute of limitations expired long ago for that offense. Yes, first degree murder charges can be brought against anyone at any time, but it’s doubtful that anyone is guilty of murder one in this case.

Look, I think there’s no doubt that there are more questions than answers in Wood’s death, and that the Sheriff’s Department should have done a much better investigation originally.

VF's Kashner tackled that issue in his original article in VF 11 years ago: “In his 1983 book 'Coroner,' [the former chief medical examiner in the Los Angeles County Coroner’s Office, Dr. Thomas Noguchi, wrote] about his most celebrated cases, [including] the mysterious death of Natalie Wood -- indeed he began the book with it. After acknowledging the crucial questions -- ‘Wasn’t it strange that the two men on the yacht didn’t even know that she had left the boat? Hadn’t she spoke to them? Why had she slipped out to the stern of the yacht in the middle of the night, climbed down a ladder, and untied the dinghy? What was she doing? And where was she going? And why?’ and also ‘When she first fell off the swimming step into the water, why didn’t she simply swim a few strokes and reboard the yacht by way of the step? It must have been only a few feet away from her. Even with the heavy jacket, she could have accomplished this effort easily’ -- he proceeded not to answer any of them. Instead he spun a dramatic yarn about Wood’s clinging to the dinghy as she attempted to propel it to the beach by kicking her feet.”

If one studies all the facts and theories and speculation related to this case that’s been written about over the past 30 years, one can craft his or her own theory of what happened. What I don’t think we’ll get at this point is proof beyond a reasonable doubt.

Nor will we be able to likely hold anyone accountable in Wood’s death if it wasn’t an accident.

And that’s the real tragedy of what’s quickly become just the latest media circus here in Hollywood.#


CBS Boss Les Moonves on TV: 'We're the Best Game in Town'

Hillary Atkin Posted November 18, 2011 at 5:48 AM

As the news broke Thursday that "Two and a Half Men" star Ashton Kutcher's marriage to Demi Moore was in fact over, CBS Corp. President and CEO Les Moonves was engaged in a conversation before an audience of hundreds of people in the media business at the HRTS newsmaker luncheon at the Beverly Hilton.

Although the impending divorce was not a topic of conversation, Moonves had plenty to say about the show, and the television business in general, as he was interviewed by Brian Lowry.

"Things happen. Shit happens -- things you don't want to happen," Moonves said about replacing Charlie Sheen with Kutcher on the popular comedy. "The ratings are up and we're happy Charlie is doing well, we're happy how Ashton has done and we’re glad the chapter is closed. There's no good that can come out of things when there's rancor and lawyers involved in a television show."

Lowry started off the presentation by noting that the last time Moonves appeared before the Hollywood Radio and Television Society was in 2006 when the big news was Katie Couric taking over the CBS News anchor desk, and that Viacom’s Tom Freston had been let go because he missed out on the opportunity of MySpace. Cue laugh track.

"Technology has been a friend to the content business, and Netflix and Amazon are paying more for content," Moonves noted about the changes in the past five years, as he continually pounded the point that it's all about content.

"We're the best game in town," he said several times about the television business, which will experience a banner year in 2012, with the influx of huge amounts of political advertising revenue. "The key is to get all the eyeballs watching online to count. It's the same challenges as the newspaper industry faced, but we’re doing a lot better than they did."

CBS is known as the broadcast network with the oldest audience, but Moonves said he hates when he sees that the 18- to 49-year-old demographic is the only one that matters, noting that the average age of the "60 Minutes" viewer is 63.

"There's no such thing as an upscale 18-year-old, unless they're my kids," he said. "A big hit is watched by everyone. The idea of programming for niche is silly."

Moonves said he and colleagues like CBS Entertainment President Nina Tassler, who have worked together for 15 to 20 years now, look at shows holistically from their original broadcast runs to syndication to international sales to what Netflix will pay them for shows.

"But it is better to have 100% of the bucket,” he said, referring to the fact that hit shows like “Men” and "The Big Bang Theory” are produced by Warner Bros., which gets a piece of the pie.

The CBS honcho reflected on the initial rockiness of the merger of CBS and Paramount, the future of Showtime, which he sees as strong, as well as the poor track record of CBS Films. It has released five movies in the past two years, only three of which have broken even and none of which, he said, would be winning any Academy Awards.

"The TV business is much better than the film business," he said. "I'm at my core a TV guy. The TV guys don't get enough credit. They don't get to use the private plane." Unless their name is Les Moonves, of course.

He reflected back on the long run of "Everybody Loves Raymond," in which his brother represented Ray Romano in negotiations with the network and thus, he recused himself, noting that Romano was paid a lot more money than he would've coughed up as the show ran well past its prime.

"I told my mother, ‘Your son is an asshole,’” Moonves said about the situation.

When asked about CBS’s paucity of cable networks, especially compared with NBC’s, Moonves said he wished the company had more, while again stressing that the broadcast model is not broken.

Lowry commented on what he called the class of 1989: Moonves, Bob Iger, Peter Chernin, Jeff Bewkes and Howard Stringer, who, with the exception of Chernin, have all run studios, he said, while wondering whether there was something in the water at the time that made them all such industry leaders with longevity.

But Moonves jokingly shooed aside any possibility that he would be appearing before the same group in 2016. We'll see about that.

On the Scandal at Penn State: Hey CBS News--When You Don't Have It, Don't Hype It. Lessons From Watergate

Chuck Ross Posted November 16, 2011 at 7:59 AM

There’s an exemplary scene in the movie version of “All the President’s Men” that goes basically like this: Washington Post reporters Woodward and Bernstein have been working their asses off on one of their stories about the Watergate scandal. They are pushing to have the story put on the front page of the paper. Ben Bradlee, the Post’s editor, reads the story and asks them a few questions. He then crosses out some words and adds some others and orders the story to be run, but to be buried inside the paper.

Bernstein goes ballistic, arguing that it’s a front page story. Bradlee, says no, they had overhyped what they had, they had NOT really nailed it, and it wasn’t a front page story. The argument goes on until Woodward finally says to Bernstein (and I’m paraphrasing here), “Stop it. He’s right.”

It’s an important lesson for journalists. And sometimes it’s tough to resist the temptation not to hype material that is not worthy, especially when you’re in a very competitive situation on a breaking news story.

That’s the place CBS News found itself yesterday, Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2011, in its reporting on the scandal at Penn State. And unfortunately, CBS News made the wrong call.

NBC had already aired its spellbinding interview of accused child molester Jerry Sandusky -- wherein he admitted to Bob Costas that he had played with young boys but said he did not molest them.

The Associated Press had reported that Penn State coach Mike McQueary had told a friend by email that he stopped an assault by Sandusky on a child in 2002 and then he spoke to police, which was a different account of what McQueary did than the grand jury released.

And CNN was reporting that Penn State was not cooperating in releasing any documents it had about Sandusky. Startlingly, CNN also reported that the public university was exempt from a state law that makes such records public, and, shockingly, that the university may have lobbied the Pennsylvania legislature to be made exempt once it knew it had a problem with Sandusky.

So what did CBS have? Its chief investigative correspondent, Armen Keteyian, had spoken to McQueary, who heretofore had not spoken publicly. Whew! It could be competitive.
But wait a minute. What exactly had McQueary said to Keteyian. With the camera running, here’s that conversation:

Keteyian: Do you think you have any idea when you think you might be ready to talk?

McQueary: This process has to play out. I just don’t have any thing else to say. That’s all.

Keteyian: Yeah. Well, OK. And then just one last thing. Just describe your emotion right now.

McQueary: Ah, all over the place. Just kinda, uh, shaken.

Keteyian: Crazy?

McQueary: Crazy.

Keteyian: You said, what, like a --

McQueary: Snow globe.

Keteyian: Like a snow globe.

McQueary: Yes sir.

Huh? That’s it? Stop the presses! If Ben Bradlee had been CBS managing editor my bet is that he would have started laughing and then thrown Keteyian out of his office, telling him to come back when he actually had some news.

Instead, CBS hyped the hell out of it, as if McQueary had made some bombshell revelation. They sent out a press release marked “high importance,” and Scott Pelley began his “CBS Evening News” with the story.

He introduced Keteyian with these words: “Armen Keteyian is in State College tonight with another development.”

So now feeling “like a snow globe” qualifies as “another development” in this scandal.

But there was more.

After the interview was shown, Pelley then addressed Keteyian: “Armen, in that brief conversation you had with McQueary on his porch, part of that was off-camera. I wonder what he told you.

Keteyian: “Well, Scott, he’s very rattled by this whole experience. Off camera he was telling me how concerned he was about his personal life, his personal safety, and the future in coaching. Because obviously he’s caught in a very difficult situation here. I think the word shattered or shaken really operates here, because Mike is just in a state where he really doesn’t know, it appears, which way to turn.”

Well, at least that’s somewhat more enlightening than “snow globe.”

What we do know is that McQueary has lawyered up. And in the email the AP was given, McQueary had written to his friend, "Do with this what you want ... but I am getting hammered for handling this the right way ... or what I thought at the time was right ... I had to make tough impacting quick decisions."

Let’s hope CBS handles the story the right way moving forward.#

With Black Friday Coming Up Next Week, Here's Your First Must-Buy Holiday Gift (For a Small Fee, In America)

Chuck Ross Posted November 15, 2011 at 6:36 AM

Last week, to celebrate its 50th anniversary, the dazzling musical “West Side Story” was shown in selected movie theaters around the country for one night only.

I’m going to assume that, like me, most of you missed this screening. If so, here’s the good news: The movie is now out, for the first time, on Blu-ray, and you need to make it a must-buy this holiday season.

Our family watched the new Blu-ray version of “West Side Story” the other night on our 52-inch high-definition TV, and this version of the movie, remastered in 1080p HD, had a brilliant look and sound. The movie was originally shot in Super Panavision, on film that was 65mm wide. For showing in movie theaters the film was then printed on film that was 70 mm wide -- the extra 5mm to accommodate the soundtrack.

I own a lot of movies in both the Blu-ray and HD-DVD formats, and I would say this Blu-ray release needs to be a fundamental part of any home entertainment library.

It is rare that the visual style of a film literally demands that it be seen in high-definition on Blu-ray, but “West Side Story” is such a film.

What makes this movie such a stunning achievement still, 50 years after its initial release, is above all, its choreography. The choreography in the movie version of “West Side Story” does more than bedazzle -- it astounds, it captivates, it soars and it enchants. It mesmerized me and my friends when we originally saw the movie in theaters just as we were entering our teenage years five decades ago, and it continues to enthrall today.

I can’t tell you the number of hours my friends and I would pretend we were members of either the Jet or Shark gangs, snapping our fingers and clumsily acting out the choreography of the rumble or other scenes. (Oh, the snapping of the fingers in this movie -- the pent-up tension of those snaps, signaling, all at once, that something wicked this way comes, and it’s something that’s sensual and sexual and nasty and violent.)

I’ve always found the movie version of “West Side Story” far more exhilarating than the stage version. Much of that comes from the bravura staging of not only the initial introduction of the Sharks and Jets, but a number of the other numbers as well, particularly the rooftop performance of “America” and “Cool” in the garage.

We have the genius of Jerome Robbins to thank for the breathtaking dancing in “West Side Story,” and he paid a price for his hard work. Robbins, a truly innovative and brilliant choreographer, had initially conceived the idea of “West Side Story.” He recruited a dazzling team of collaborators: Leonard Bernstein, who wrote the music, Arthur Laurents, who wrote the story, and a young Stephen Sondheim to pen the lyrics. For the movie version, Ernest Lehman was added to the team to write the screenplay.

Here, in an excerpt from the book “Conversations with the Great Moviemakers of Hollywood’s Golden Age at the American Film Institute,” edited by George Stevens Jr., is director Robert Wise explaining how it came to pass that both he and Robbins share the directing credit on “West Side Story”:

Harold Mirisch [who, along with his brothers Walter and Marvin, owned the film rights to the stage musical] asked me if I wanted to produce and direct it, and I reacted with great excitement and said, ‘I’d love to.’ Robbins, who by contract in the sale of the stage play had the right to do the film choreography, chose not to. He said the he had directed and choreographed the stage show, had done the same for the national company and the English company, and he didn’t want to come out to the West Coast just to do the choreography. He wanted to be more deeply involved in the whole production. I said, ’Why don’t you give it to him, let him direct.’ But [studio and film distributor] United Artists thought there was no way they could do that. It was going to be a big, expensive, complex picture, and they were not going to let a man inexperienced in film direct it.

I thought about it for a while, then put on my producer’s hat and said to myself, ‘What’s the very best thing for this picture in terms of the audience?’ The answer had to come back, ‘If you can somehow get Jerry Robbins on this picture, that’s the way to go because Jerry is so creative and so inventive.’ I just knew he would be able to contribute so much more than any of his dance assistants who might come on the film to do the choreography. Jerry would find ways of improving, changing, adapting it for the screen. A period of six months went on with meeting between the two of us, trying to sort out just how we could deal with this.

We finally come to a setup where he would work as co-director and would be involved in all aspects of the film -- the script, the production design, the casting, the costumes, the music, the whole thing. When it came to shooting, he would have the deciding voice on the music and dance numbers, and I would have the say on all the ‘book’ aspects of the script. When we had an impasse, I had the final say as the producer of the film.

Jerry didn’t stay on all the way through -- he was on over 50% of the shooting. [Wise later said it was closer to 60%.] We had some rough moments, not too many, but we managed to work them out -- though there were a few times when we rather got at each other. But, finally, we were getting very far behind schedule, and United Artists was very worried. They decided that the tandem arrangement was slowing us down and insisted that I take over the whole show, which I did.

However, fortunately for me, Jerry had rehearsed all the dance numbers that remained to be filmed and his assistants [except for one] stayed with me to compete the film. ... When I finished [the film] I asked Jerry to look at the first rough cut and he liked much of it, made good suggestions about the editing on a number of things and wanted to do a little more editing on some of his numbers. So I think we patched things up fairly successfully.

Wise says he was also responsible for making Robbins came to the Oscars ceremony, where “West Side Story" won 10 Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director for Wise and Robbins.

The film was an immediate critical success and a smash at the box office. The movie cost $6 million to make and made close to $44 million. Adjusted for inflation, it’s the 66th-highest-grossing film of all time, according to Box Office Mojo.

While most critics liked the film -- the opening of Bosley Crowther’s review in The New York Times read, “What they have done with 'West Side Story' in knocking it down and moving it from stage to screen is to reconstruct its fine material into nothing short of a cinema masterpiece.” -- one critic, later to become very well known, panned it: Pauline Kael. Kael later said that her boyfriend at the time broke up with her because she didn’t like the movie. Good for him.

It looks to me that a number of the extras that come with the Blu-ray version have been released before, but I enjoyed all of them, especially the commentaries on the dance numbers. In one of the extras there is a short discussion about Saul Bass, who illustrated the prologue to the movie and then did the fun and fitting end credits.

What I didn’t see anywhere was credit to Bass for the just-right graphics on the cover of this Blu-ray release, which is a variation of the famous movie poster Bass created for “West Side Story.”

In her critique of the movie, Pauline Kael wrote, “[The] dance movements are so sudden and huge, so portentously ‘alive’ they’re always near the explosion point. ... There is the choreographer Jerome Robbins (who conceived the stage musical) to convert the street rumbles into modern ballet -- though he turns out to be too painstaking for big-powered moviemaking and the co-director Robert Wise takes over.”

What actually happened, by all accounts that I’ve seen, is that Robbins was such a perfectionist that he was causing the production to go way over budget. So, yes, he had to go. Fortunately, Wise was smart enough to complete Robbins’ vision, and was able to do so because of all the rehearsal time Robbins had with his cast.

As for Robbins’ choreography, Kael seems to miss the point. It is in its very largess, in its kinetic energy, that the choreography propels “West Side Story,” almost unique among movie musicals. The dancing IS the conflict that makes for the great drama of the movie.#


Twenty Years Ago, A Brutal Murder Shook The New York TV and Advertising Communities to Their Core. How These Communities Have Worked So Hard To Make Sure Some Good Has Come of This Tragedy. A Mother's Tribute

Chuck Ross Posted November 7, 2011 at 10:46 PM

July 30th, 1990. The fashionable West Village in Manhattan. It had hit 84 degrees in New York that day, but Larry Schatz remembers that Monday night as clear as a starkly cold, crystal clear darkness in the deadest of winter.

It was around 11 p.m., and Schatz had been on the phone for about 45 minutes with his close buddy, John Reisenbach. Reisenbach, 33, was an advertising executive at All-American Television, and the two were talking about starting their own business, Schatz says.

The phone in Reisenbach’s apartment that he shared with his wife, Vicki, wasn’t working, so Reisenbach had gone to a pay phone on the corner of Jane and Greenwich to talk to Schatz.

Suddenly, Schatz heard some shouting: “Give me the money! Give me the money!”

And then he heard nothing.

Three shots had been fired, and Reisenbach was dead.

The death shocked many in New York’s media world.

New York had the dubious distinction of being the murder capital of the nation that year, with 2,245 killings, according to an article in The Villager, which did an in-depth piece about the still-unsolved Reisenbach murder a few years ago.

That statistic of New York's high murder rate, along with Reisenbach’s senseless death, resonated in the minds of a number of Reisenbach’s friends and colleagues in the media and advertising worlds.

Jim Rosenfield, the onetime CEO of TV rep firm Blair Televison and TV distributor Blair Entertainment, remembers one of his first thoughts upon hearing of Reisenbach’s killing: “At that time in New York City I wouldn’t even consider walking my dog at 10:30 at night. It was just too dangerous.”

The mean streets of New York became a major topic of conversation among a small group of Reisenbach’s friends, including Rosenfield and Schatz.

They said to one another, “Let’s honor John’s memory by trying to improve the quality of life in New York City,” says Rosenfield, who now runs JHR & Associates.

Echos Schatz, who is now with the Randolph Media Group: “We quickly found out back then that there were few organizations dedicated to this kind of thing.”

Another friend of Reisenbach’s, Bob Lilley, who was then a top executive with Western Media International and is now with Media Ventures, says, “We chose a mission that we knew John would have liked, and that his family approved of: 'to help make New York City a better and safer place to live and work.' "

Thus one year after Reisenbach’s death, the John A. Reisenbach Foundation was established by 18 of John’s friends and colleagues.

To raise money to fund the Foundation’s mission of helping make New York a safer place, a gala was held. Phil Donahue was the host, and Jim Brady, who was wounded in the attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan, was the special guest.

According to the Foundation’s website, “With these origins, our sense of where to focus efforts immediately went toward safety related programs, and our very first allocation was to the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, with the creation of Reisenbach Masters Scholarships for students who pledged to focus their careers in New York City after graduation. We worked with John Jay on a variety of safety and anti-crime related initiatives, including sponsorship of a multi-part TV series on crime, policing and criminal justice.”

In a few weeks, on Monday, Nov. 28, 2011, the Foundation will celebrate its 20th gala. This year’s honorees, Carolyn Everson, Facebook’s Vice President of Global Marketing Solutions, and Rino Scanzoni, Chief Investment Officer of Group M, join a distinguished who’s who of the media and advertising world who have been honored at past Reisenbach galas.

In the past 20 years, the Reisenbach Foundation has made a major contribution in making New York a much safer city. You can see some of its countless contributions on its website.

Ed Erhardt, who is president, ESPN Customer Marketing and Sales, and a former gala honoree, is this year’s gala Tribute Chair. “When John was killed I lived two blocks from him," Erhardt recalls. "It really shook up the neighborhood. What’s so great about the Foundation is that for those of us who truly believe that there is no place like New York, it’s a wonderful opportunity for us to give back to this great city, and at the same time honor John’s memory.”

Ed continues, “We work in an extraordinary industry. As the world has evolved our industry has evolved and now here in New York we’re not only the center of media, but the center of the digital media business as well. And we can take the power of what we do and translate that into making New York better.”

Erhardt also makes the point that in the last 20 years the Reisenbach Foundation has worked hard to broaden its membership in the media community and involve younger people as well. For example, the Foundation now also gives out a Young Distinguished Citizen Award.

John Reisenbach’s dad is Sandy Reisenbach, the former president of worldwide marketing for Warner Bros. Several years ago he told longtime media consultant and writer Jack Myers, “When I think of what has been given to the Foundation established in John's name, I feel like I may have lost a son but something very good was created. It will never replace John but those who keep giving to the Foundation keep his memory alive and give to others in ways that would make John very happy and proud."

If you care about New York City, get involved in the Reisenbach Foundation. You’ll be surrounded by a delightful group of like-minded men and women.

And it’s a fitting way to remember a great guy who loved working in the business like you do.

Here’s a tribute to John that his mom, Barbara, lovingly penned:

He walked with grace, this son of mine.

A candle glows; the flame will shine.

So soft his steps and long his stride, I see him now;

I look with pride.

A gentle child, a time so sweet, the scent pervades;

the taste complete.

It is with warmth and lasting joy,

I see him now, the little boy.

His laughter rings; the man is heard.

A grinning face, a caring word.

I feel his love; it does not end.

I see him now,

enduring friend.

He walked with grace, this son of mine.

A candle glows, the flame will shine.

With gratitude I bow because I see him now;

I know he was.

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