A Helluva Life, Making Movies

A Helluva Life, Making Movies

I can’t think of many producers or studio executives who
have penned memoirs. I also can’t imagine one being more entertaining or
enlightening than David V. Picker’s Musts,
Maybes and Nevers
(CreateSpace), which earns my heartiest recommendation.
(The title derives from a quote, about deciding which films to make, by the
great Billy Wilder.) Here is an insider’s account of United Artists, the most
unusual film organization in modern history, and his working relationship with everyone
from Woody Allen to The Beatles, from Bob Fosse to Ingmar Bergman. The book is
packed with illuminating, often juicy anecdotes about colorful people and the
business end of the movie world. And if you want to learn how James Bond first
came to the screen from a man who was present when the deal was made, consider
the book a must-read.

Picker earns credibility points by not making himself the
hero of every story. He admits his mistakes and cites some of the blockbusters
he missed out on, among them Star Wars
and Bonnie and Clyde. He is also unapologetic
about his dislikes and grudges, and is especially incensed at self-aggrandizing
directors who showed no gratitude for the freedom that United Artists afforded

UA financed and distributed movies based on one-line
pitches, long-standing relationships, and handshakes, with its four partners (including
David’s uncle Arnold) working in profitable alignment for decades. Picker went
on to stints at Paramount and Columbia, among other companies, which made him
appreciate the uniqueness of United Artists all the more.

Here’s just one example, taken from a time just before David
joined the company. As he writes, “I once read in an industry publication that
in 1953, Otto Preminger released his film The
Moon is Blue
without the seal of approval from the Industry’s Production
Code Administration. It’s the kind of misinformation that is found over and
over in books and articles about the movie business… Simply put, Otto Preminger
never ‘released’ a movie in his life… it was United Artists.” You may recall
that the flap was over the word “virgin.”

Picker continues, “By contract the company could have
insisted that Preminger make the changes that would have gotten the seal of
approval, but it didn’t. Instead, UA resigned from the organization and
released the film without the seal. It was appropriate, and the smart thing to
do both creatively and financially. Although there were some theaters that
refused to play a film without the seal, there were enough that would do it so
the controversy around this slight little comedy generated far more positive
results than if the code hadn’t objected in the first place.” It wasn’t the
first or the last time that the UA partners backed one of their filmmakers on a
sensitive issue. (He later adds, “I can candidly say that in over fifty years
of working with talent from all over the world, he was unequivocally the most
unpleasant, arrogant personality I ever dealt with in this business—and that’s
saying a lot.”)

Musts, Maybes, and
is a great read that offers many life lessons about show-business
survival and a look back at a bygone era when, at least at one company, there
was a gentlemanly approach to the game.



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Preston Neal Jones

Thank heaven for your reviews, Leonard. If Mr. Picker’s book was reviewed in any other venue, I certainly didn’t see it, so I’m very glad to have discovered it here in your review.
By the way, not every film maker was happy to have entrusted his picture to UA. You may remember from my book about THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER that producer Paul Gregory became so disenchanted with the company’s budgetary and shooting schedule restrictions that he told them, "You’re not United Artists, you’re united against the artists!"
On the the other hand, one statement you’ve quoted from the author certainly rings true for me. Back in the early 70’s I embarked on a series of interviews with movie crew people, ranging from camera operators to costume designers, set decorators to script supervisors, etc., etc. There were two stock questions I asked each of these men and women. The first — "Are there any directors you haven’t worked with that you wish you could work with some day?" — elicited a variety of names by way of an answer. But when I asked them, "Is there one director you hope never to work with again?" they all gave me the same answer: "Otto Preminger."


More"lost" history…library could use another book…

Michel Pouliot

Hello Mr Maltin
Thanks for the tip. I will read this book with great pleasure. This reminds me about a great 1985 book: "Final Cut" by Steven Bach : "Dreams and Disaster in the Making of Heaven's Gate". As you remember, Michael Cimino's high-profile western went high over budget, which ultimately caused the demise of United Artists — as it existed at the time… Mr Bach was also an insider: he actually was the executive who signed the infamous deal, as he explains with disarming frankness (and style) in this heartbreaking chronicle. He also tells along the way the fabulous story of United Artists. One of my favorite books about Hollywood. Go for it, kids.

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