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A Helluva Life, Making Movies

Reviews
by Leonard Maltin
October 8, 2013 12:00 AM
2 Comments
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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 them.

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 Nevers 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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2 Comments

  • Norm | October 9, 2013 1:36 PMReply

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

  • Michel Pouliot | October 8, 2013 10:56 PMReply

    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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