The Sweet Smell of Ernest Lehman

October 16, 2022

Biographies of screenwriters are not very common – not unless they become famous directors – so it is wonderful to welcome Ernest Lehman: The Sweet Smell of Success, a look at the life and career of the legendary screenwriter (and one-time director), whose credits include North by Northwest, The Sweet Smell of Success and The Sound of Music.

Stephen Vagg spoke with the book’s author, Jon Krampner, about the project and the enormous talent that was Ernest Lehman.

Tell us about yourself.

“After graduating from journalism school in 1977, I spent the next few years getting fired from small-town newspapers across the American West. I then spent six years as a staff writer in the public information department at the University of Southern California, but, as was my custom, didn’t get along with my boss. I quit and taught English as a Second Language in the adult division of the Los Angeles Unified School District for 27 years. That provided the economic basis for me to write my critically acclaimed but non-bestselling books.”

Why Ernest Lehman?

“Two of my first three books were entertainment biographies: 1950s live television drama producer Fred Coe and Broadway actress Kim Stanley. For my next project, I wanted to do a literary biography and, living one postal code away from Hollywood, decided that meant a screenwriter. I looked into Jules Furthman, who wrote the screenplays for To Have And Have Not (1944) and The Big Sleep (1946) but couldn’t find enough information about him. While I was looking into him, I ordered a book of capsule biographies of American screenwriters. I browsed through it and ran across Lehman, who wrote a lot of important films when I was a kid and I thought ‘Why not him?’”

 What was your first “Ernest Lehman” experience?

“I don’t know if I should admit this, but when I started working on the book, I hadn’t seen any of his films. Not a one! (Unless you count the sequence including the song “I Like To Be in America” from West Side Story (1961), which I used to teach in my English as a Second Language classes.) But a lot of his films loomed large in the zeitgeist when I was growing up, and that was good enough for me.

“So, here’s my first Ernest Lehman experience: in December of 2000, the Arts & Leisure section of the Sunday New York Times ran a long article about the artistry of the film One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), but didn’t mention the name of screenwriter Bo Goldman. As a writer (though not a screenwriter), this irritated me, so I wrote a letter to the Times, which published it. A week or two later, out of the blue, I received a letter from Ernest Lehman saying he was proud of me for writing my letter and that I was fighting a battle he had fought for his entire career, sometimes as an official of the Writers’ Guild of America West.

“After reading his letter, I walked into the hallway of my small Los Angeles apartment and looked at my framed poster of the 1966 re-release of North By Northwest (1959). Yup, same guy. I went back to my desk and looked at the letter. He had put his phone number on it, so I called him and asked if he would sign my poster. No problem! So, I drove out to his house in Brentwood, he signed it, we talked a bit, I used the bathroom, and left. When the book of capsule biographies of screenwriters fell open to Ernest Lehman, I said ‘Hey! I know that guy!’”

What was the process of writing the book like?

“Anxiety-provoking, as writing books often is. I worked on it for seven years, and for the first three, I wasn’t even sure I had a book – there were too many blank areas. But in 2018 and 2019, I found two clusters of sources which filled in a lot of the blanks and convinced me that the thing would work.

“One problem on this book that I’ve had on no previous book, is the number of people who refused to be quoted on the record, as if they were afraid that they’d never eat lunch in this town again. I really didn’t understand it – most of them were retired, so there was no career damage they could suffer, but some people just wouldn’t budge. When I was convinced what they were saying was true and in context, I reluctantly granted them the anonymity they sought.”

How did your relationship with Lehman change over the course of writing the book?

“It deteriorated. The one time I met him, it was pleasant and positive, so I began the project with a reservoir of good will toward him. But that was chipped away as I learned more about him. He was a terrible father – not hateful, but largely indifferent, which in some ways is worse. My impression is that his wife, whom he both loved and was dependent on, wanted children very much, and that he said, in effect, ‘Okay, you can have them, but it’s your responsibility to deal with them.’

“He could also be petty and whiny. On the other hand, he could also be articulate and charming with a self-deprecating sense of humour that people found appealing. But I have father issues of my own (although Lehman made me appreciate my own father more), and I didn’t forgive him lightly for his shortcomings in this regard.”

Why didn’t Lehman enjoy much success as a director?

“Because he had no talent for it. A director, even if he’s not larger than life, should be a commanding presence on the set and have a clear artistic vision of what he and the film are about. Portnoy’s Complaint (1972), the only film Lehman directed, was the most ghastly misfire of his career. There are a lot of reasons for that, but his inability to command respect among the cast and crew was key.

“Film editor Sam O’Steen tells the story of when they were getting ready to shoot the final scene of Portnoy, in which Richard Benjamin as Portnoy and Karen Black as “the Monkey,” his ex-lover, walk by each other on Madison Avenue in Manhattan without even recognising each other. But when it came time to film, no one could find Lehman. O’Steen ran around the neighborhood and found Lehman getting fitted for a suit at a nearby tailor’s shop. As O’Steen tells it: “I said ‘Ernie, what are you doing?’ He said ‘Well, I gotta have a suit.’ Then he started whining ‘I don’t want to go out there.’ I said ‘Don’t worry. Just go out there and say ‘Action.’ That’s all you have to do and then if it’s no good, they can do it again.’”

“Imagine an entire film production composed of moments like this and you can see why Lehman wasn’t cut out for directing regardless of how well he was dressed.”

What is your favourite Lehman project?

Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956). Of all his films, Lehman always regarded this as his favourite, and it’s easy to see why. The biopic of boxer Rocky Graziano that made Paul Newman a star is perfectly constructed, with a lot of human interest and great Lehman dialogue. Although Graziano’s memoir, co-written with the journalist Rowland Barber, is a solid piece of work, Lehman reworks it substantially to make it a successful and very satisfying Hollywood film.”

Least favourite?

Hello, Dolly (1969). While Barbra Streisand’s performance (especially her “Hello, Dolly” duet with Louis Armstrong) means the film isn’t entirely devoid of merit, it’s an expensive, gussied-up piece of fluff which Lehman took on for a $500,000 payday (about $3 million US in today’s money) and because he wanted to help his friends David Brown and Richard Zanuck redeem Twentieth Century Fox’s big investment in the Broadway musical. Lehman was equal parts artist and businessman, and I think his decision to do this undistinguished film shows his business side coming to the fore.”

Are there any Lehman “hidden gems” you could recommend our readers seek out?

Sabrina (1954) is probably too well known to be considered a hidden gem, so I’ll recommend his first film, Executive Suite (1954). It’s an all-star business drama starring William Holden, Barbara Stanwyck, Fredric March, Shelley Winters, June Allyson, Walter Pidgeon, Paul Douglas, Louis Calhern, Dean Jagger and Nina Foch. Directed by Robert Wise, it’s adapted from the novel of the same title by Cameron Hawley. A crackling boardroom drama, it’s well-plotted, with vivid characters and great dialogue.”

Is there a great “one that got away” project for Lehman?

“I don’t know if it would have been a great film or not, but a great missed opportunity for Lehman was Everyone Seems to be Having Fun, But… It’s an idea of his for an original screenplay about an American tourist who innocently stumbles onto a plot by Mexican revolutionaries to blow up Acapulco. Lehman had a great gift for humour, but he lacked confidence in his ability to write marketable originals. Instead of doing this, he chose to adapt Hello, Dolly! It may have been a smart move financially, but Lehman whiffed on the chance to do his first original screenplay since North By Northwest.”

Beyond the fact that Rod Taylor auditioned for the lead in Somebody Up There Likes Me and that Nicholas Hammond from The Sound of Music emigrated here, did Lehman have any connections with Australia?

“Lehman hated to fly, so it’s unsurprising that he never visited Australia, especially in the era of propeller planes. The closest he came was a visit to Tahiti to recuperate after bailing out of the film version of Sweet Smell of Success (1957), a stressful experience for him. He spent his last night in Tahiti at the Hotel Les Tropiques, watching a Tahitian dance show and talking with a group that included Sarah Winchester, the widow of James Hall of Nordhoff and Hall (Mutiny on the Bounty) fame.”

Ernest Lehman: The Sweet Smell of Success is available for purchase. Learn more about it here.