Tag Archives: richard shepherd

Why They Couldn’t Make Breakfast at Tiffany’s Today

This week, as the film Breakfast at Tiffany’s celebrates its fiftieth anniversary, generations of fans old and new will amble up Fifth Avenue, press their noses to the shiny windows on 57th and remember their first times.

It will be a bittersweet day for me, however.

Sweet for all the right reasons, bitter because the age of the grown up Hollywood comedy is long behind us. Mind you, this isn’t nostalgia, it’s arithmetic: the people making the movies have changed and so have the people they’re making them for.

As a former seven to twelve year-old, I was a huge fan of sameness. That was the great thing about The Kids Menu. No matter where your parents took you, it was always the same. Pizza, pasta, grilled cheese, simple, familiar, benign. The perfect speed for a young person not ready for the Big Out There. That’s Hollywood today.

No offense to pizza, but this is tragic for those of us care to enjoy a piece of arugula from time to time.

Even more tragic for those of us who were eating off The Kids Menu when the likes of John Calley, the great and beloved studio chief who died three weeks ago, was in the kitchen.

A true master of the art of commercial art, Calley oversaw a successful series of highly diversified films, ranging honorably from healthy dreck to serious grown-up fare. For every meandering, money-grabbing Da Vinci Code on his tremendous resume, there was challenging, immortal A Clockwork Orange. For every dollar earned, in other words, there was a risk taken.

The very beautiful thing about this era of not-tool-long-ago is Calley wasn’t alone. There were others making money, making art. Fox’s Alan Ladd Jr. said yes to Star Wars and Harry and Tonto, a movie about an old guy and a cat; United-Artists’s David Picker agreed to Dr. No and Lenny, a movie about the price of making tough art; Paramount’s Richard Shepherd green-lit The Towering Inferno and Breakfast at Tiffany’s, a movie about free love before the term even existed.

Alas, Shepherd wouldn’t get far with Breakfast at Tiffany’s today, at least not if he were making the grown up version we know and love. Out would go the subtle innuendo, European couture, moral ambiguity, and brilliant counterpoint casting of its good-girl star in a bad-girl part, and in their place, rim-shot jokes, the latest fashion trend, explicit messages, and safe, dependable typecasting. In other words, today’s Tiffany’s would be a film suited to the mundane demands of Hollywood’s most admiring customers: kids. Theirs is mainstream film’s greatest love affair.

No business likes risk, and lucky for Hollywood, younger audiences, prone to the pressures of “cool” and partial to formula, are about as risk-free as a demographic gets. They know what they like and they like what they know. Thus are the young supplied with sequels, franchises, remakes, and movies named after board games (Battleship will be released in 2012). Anything to serialize what has already been serialized before.

To be fair, this isn’t an entirely new phenomenon. As far back as Hollywood’s first star, movies have tried to homogenize their product in a way that was mutually beneficial for both business and audiences.

If they like Cary Grant, the thinking went, give them Cary Grant movies. If they like Marilyn Monroe, maybe they’ll go for Kim Novak. Sometimes it even turned out well. But not anymore.

The very big, very small difference between then and now is back then, novelty had a commercial ring to it. Mixing proven types with risky, unproven material, like Audrey Hepburn (a franchise) plus Truman Capote’s (challenging, naughty) Breakfast at Tiffany’s, was in 1961 an attention-grabbing combination. A gamble yes, but a gamble bold enough to win big: revoking homogeny, Richard Shepherd’s film was bigger than any single demographic alone. That meant kids, grown-ups, Hepburn’s fans, and Capote-lovers all had something to look forward to.

And thank goodness: Without that lucrative roll of the dice, the film would be little more than a serialized rehash of Audrey’s persona and hardly worth remembering today. Even if the movie failed, it would be worth remembering because, thanks to Shepherd, Breakfast at Tiffany’s had prestige out of the gate. It pandered up.

The Sex Pistols’ late manager Malcolm McLaren observed ours was a karaoke world, an ersatz society. As long as his statement applies to Hollywood, and it does, we’ll never see the likes of an Audrey Hepburn in a Breakfast at Tiffany’s ever again.

A Conversation with Richard Shepherd

The Criterion Collection has just restored and released Sidney Lumet’s strange, ecstatic, uneven, and memorable film The Fugitive Kind, which gave me the chance to interview producer Richard Shepherd about the making of the movie, and I’m pleased to say, the people at Criterion have posted it on their website.

From left to right: Brando, Maureen Stapleton, Tennessee Williams, and our man Richard Shepherd.

It was Jules Stein, head and founder of MCA, who plucked Richard Shepherd out of Stanford and made him into a real New York agent of the fifties, a gentlemen agent, the kind we look back on today with nostalgic reverence. With his handkerchief and tie always in sync, you’d know without knowing that Shepherd, before he was in show business, was ivy-league all the way, a well-groomed journalism major, genteel in taste and manner, and according to his professors, the best art forger the faculty had ever seen. Shepherd could do Chagall like Jonathan Winters did Burt Lancaster—and it got him a little work—until someone told him he had to make a living.

Then it was Jules Stein and MCA. In time, Shepherd amassed a spectacular client roster that included Henry Fonda, Marilyn Monroe, Grace Kelly, and several dozen immaculate others. But the corner office wasn’t enough. Shepherd wanted to produce. He announced his intentions to Lew Wasserman (“Good luck” was his only reply), and moved out to Los Angeles, where he teamed with Martin Jurow, one of the industry’s top entertainment lawyers. Together they formed Jurow-Shepherd Productions and started looking for material. The Hanging Tree (1959), a western with Gary Cooper and Maria Schell, was their first picture. The Fugitive Kind (1959) was their second.

I met Shepherd at his home in Bel-Air on March 22nd, 2010. We had talked many times before, but never about The Fugitive Kind.

Sam Wasson: Marty Jurow, in his book, Marty Jurow Seein’ Stars, says the idea to film Tennessee Williams’s play Orpheus Descending originated with Anna Magnani. Before you and he started Jurow-Shepherd, Magnani was his client at William Morris, and after the success of The Rose Tattoo, she wanted to return to Williams. How do you remember the beginning of The Fugitive Kind?

Richard Shepherd: Marty and I knew the play because we were both from New York and had seen it onstage with Maureen [Stapleton] and Cliff Robertson, who had played the leads. Presumably, Marty’s recollection is correct, but Anna Magnani and I didn’t have a relationship, so I can’t speak to that. Before the film, I didn’t know her at all. What I can tell you is that I brought Joanne Woodward aboard—she was a client of mine—and Marlon and I were good friends. But you know, before Marty and I got started on the project, [producer] Sam Spiegel wanted to do Orpheus Descending.

SW: He wanted Ingrid Bergman.

RS: But Tennessee didn’t want her! That I could never understand. If you had a choice between Anna Magnani—a great actress, but you can’t understand a damn thing she’s saying—and Ingrid Bergman . . . I mean, come on! It’s night and day! But that’s how we got to make The Fugitive Kind, because we would do it with Magnani, and that’s who Tennessee wanted.

SW: The Fugitive Kind was sexually audacious and had a highbrow literary source. In other words, risky. Did Jurow-Shepherd have a reputation for trying difficult material?

RS: We both had backgrounds in New York and were very involved with artists that ended up working in the theater, and many of them, clients that Marty and I looked after, from Monty Clift to Carroll Baker to Marlon were all of that certain type. Kazan, Williams, Arthur Miller, these were the guys then. So no, we never thought of ourselves as going for difficult material, it was just the hand we were dealt, I guess. But we were cognizant of trying to make the stuff accessible.

SW: Is that why you changed the title from Orpheus Descending to The Fugitive Kind?

RS: I think so. I think we thought it was too intellectual. It wasn’t a big hit play anyway, so why not change it? The title Orpheus Descending had little recognition; it wasn’t doing us any favors. So we went with the The Fugitive Kind. That title, I think, came from Meade Roberts, who adapted the screenplay with Tennessee. We were throwing a lot of possibilities around. Some of the others we had were, “Stranger in a Snakeskin Jacket,” “Life’s Companion,” “Burn Down a Woman,” and “Burn a Woman Down.”

SW: Tennessee gets shared credit with Roberts, but how involved was he in the adaptation?

RS: Other than a couple times when Tennessee would come up to the location in Milton [New York], he didn’t seem to have a significant hand in the script. If we wanted changes, or if Sidney wanted changes, we talked to Meade and he did it.

SW: At first, Brando turned down the part of Val Xavier, which had been written specifically for him. What turned him off?

RS: He didn’t admire Magnani as an actress, and he also felt she was . . . Well, I should say, there’s a scene in the movie, the first scene when the two of them are together, when Marlon first goes into her shop. She’s talking to him at the bottom of the stairs, and at one point in the scene, she says to him, “Have you got any references?” and Marlon says, “Yeah, I got ’em right here” and reaches into his snakeskin jacket pocket and takes out this crumpled letter and kind of embarrassingly unfolds it, and just took a really long time in handing it to her. Finally, once he handed it to her, Magnani did the same thing with the letter, but tripled the amount of time it took. She turned it over, smoothed it out, examined it, you know, she was just trying to outdo him! That’s the way she was as an actress. I think that’s part of the reason Brando didn’t want to be with her.

SW: And apparently she was also trying to go to bed with him.

RS: Oh, yeah. Yeah. He wasn’t interested and she was angry. They’d sort of spar, you know? I’ll tell you something else about Magnani: she would take control of everything.

This interview only gets better. To read more – including the story of how Richard Shepherd orchestrated the first-ever million dollar deal for an actor (Brando, naturally) – please visit the Criterion Website.

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The Fugitive Kindness of Strangers

I had another look at The Fugitive Kind last night.

The film, which features Brando, Joanne Woodward, and Anna Magnani, and a script by Tennessee Williams and Meade Roberts, was a premeditated Method-movie made to order. Producers Martin Jurow and Richard Shepherd even went so far as to hire a large part of Elia Kazan’s crew from On the Waterfront, and to lead the charge into hyperrealism, the young director Sidney Lumet. He wasn’t Kazan, but he was New York and he was hot, and that was good enough United Artists.

“How interesting,” I thought. “I’m watching the Method transform from a movement into a franchise.” It may have been ten years after Streetcar, but as a good friend of mine once said, Hollywood is a slow whore.

But before I could get cynical, I thought, “Well, why not?” If one guy makes a product that works, the next guy is going to want to take a crack at it too. That’s America and – surprise, surprise – that’s the American picture business. Why should Tennessee Williams be exempt? Geniuses get hungry too.

It’s useful to watch The Fugitive Kind with this in mind. Knowing that the popularity of the Method played a fundamental part in the conception of the film helps to explain its excesses, which, if you go for them (as I did), you might consider a kind of High-Method. The yelling and sweating and expressionistic camera tricks read to me like a late-in-the-day revision, Method II: Strasberg’s Revenge. If you don’t go for it (as contemporary audiences didn’t), The Fugitive Kind just points you back to Kazan: in case you forgot, the picture says, don’t try this at home.

The only one in the picture who resists the emotional opulence is, shockingly, Brando himself. In fact, his style is so uncharacteristically subdued, it gives one the impression that it emerged in counterpoint to the work he was observing around him, almost as if he waited at a busy intersection, watching as his production ran off into traffic, before he decided to follow behind them, quite coolly, and at a measured pace. The result is Brando’s most low-key performance (until The Godfather), a salve to the hot lesions, and a reminder of how good he truly was, even when the knobs were turned down.

Franchises have been a part of Hollywood since its inception. But it’s harrowing to think yesterday’s cash cow sprung from a major advancement in the art of acting, a milestone. Today, Variety reports news from the production offices of 21 Jump Street.