WASHINGTON — Woody Allen called them "cheesy artificial symbols of one society's greed." Director Sydney Pollack termed them "morally unacceptable" while Ginger Rogers dismissed them as "embarrassing and insulting."
Their collective scorn was aimed at a new breed of movie: vintage black-and-white films that have been colored by computer. Film colorization has become one of Hollywood's most highly-charged topics, pitting directors and actors against media entrepreneur Ted Turner and other film library owners who want the updated color versions for a new generation of television and video reviewers. Allen, whose 15 films have included four in black and white, made a rare personal appearance on Capitol Hill Tuesday to testify at a Senate subcommittee hearing and express his view that "one cannot have a society where artists' work can be changed at will.
"If a movie director wishes his film to be colorized, then I say by all means, let him color it," Allen told the Senate Judiciary Committee's subcommittee on technology and the law. "If he prefers it to remain in black-and-white, then it is sinful to force him to change it.
"If the director is not alive and his work has been historically established in black and white it should remain true to its origin," he continued. "The presumption that the colorizers are doing him a favor and bettering his movie is a transparent attempt to justify the mutilation of art for a few extra dollars."
Allen appeared on an opening panel that included directors Milos Forman, Sydney Pollack and Elliot Silverstein, all representing the Directors Guild of America.
Following them with the other side of the issue, proponents of colorizing films argued that the new technology is not a substitute for black and white films, but an alternative. "Colorization itself infringes on no one's rights," said Buddy Young of Color Systems Technology.
Young, along with executives from Turner Entertainment Co. and Hal Roach Studios, maintained that the new color versions have increased the exposure of quality films, spurred home video sales and rentals, helped TV networks and individual stations to maximize their audiences and led to the restoration of many films that might otherwise have languished in storage.
Observed Young, of the directors' argument: "There is a great deal of elitism involved here, the intellectual intent of a few to impose their own views and tastes on millions and millions of Americans."
Lines began forming an hour before the Senate hearing convened, and the room was packed with reporters, photographers and onlookers.
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), subcommittee chairman and the only lawmaker present, said the purpose of the hearing was to examine the legal issues surrounding the colorization of black-and-white movies. In an opening statement, however, he said that "I have no legislative fix in mind."
Today Allen is scheduled to appear at a Capitol Hill press conference with Democratic presidential candidate Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.), who plans to introduce legislation that will give screenwriters and directors the rights to control what happens to their films.
At the Senate hearing, where the debates were punctuated with video clips of both black-and-white and newly colored film sequences, Pollack maintained the fundamental issue is not whether color is better than black and white, but the creative choice that a director should have with his or her movie.
"It is morally unacceptable to alter the product of a person's creative life without that person's permission," Pollack said.
"There is a difference between a film in black and white and a film in color. Black-and-white photography is not color photography with the color removed. It is not better or worse in general, but it is different. It is a choice.
"We are here to protect those choices."
Leahy questioned how adding color to a film is any different from a movie director's decision to make changes in a book to adapt it for a movie.
Pollack responded that such a movie would be a completely new work that clearly states the film is adapted from the book.
Ginger Rogers, appearing for the Screen Actors Guild, said colorization of her old films made her feel "painted up like a birthday cake on the television screen.
"It feels terrible. It hurts. It's embarrassing and insulting. It's a violation of all the care and trust that goes into a work of cinematic art.
"In the movies, your face is truly your fortune. The studios spent months, even years, grooming us and carefully developing an image that looked just right on black-and-white film," she said, adding that "our appearances and expressions are the tools we use to create a character on the screen. It is a subtle and sensitive art that is completely obliterated by computer coloring."
She read a letter from actor Jimmy Stewart that called colorization "morally and artistically wrong" and said "those profiteers should leave our film industry alone."