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Never Just the Writer

Ernest Lehman, the first screenwriter to get a lifetime Oscar, reflects on a career spanning Hitchcock and Hammerstein.

March 25, 2001|GARY ROSS | Gary Ross received Academy Award nominations for his original screenplays of "Big" (1988), which he co-wrote, and "Dave" (1993). He wrote and directed "Pleasantville" (1998)

When Ernest Lehman agreed to adapt and produce "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?," he posed an ultimatum to Jack Warner. Lehman demanded "complete control over the selection of cast, director and crew."

Warner agreed, and shortly after, he installed Lehman in the bungalow George Cukor had occupied during the production of "My Fair Lady." When Lehman arrived, however, he was only given the back half of the bungalow, even though the front half was unoccupied.

He was told it was because he was "just the writer." Later, when he became the producer, he would be given the rest of the bungalow.

Tonight, Ernest Lehman will receive a lifetime achievement award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. He will be the first screenwriter ever to receive one.

Coming from a culture in which he was "just the writer," Lehman has left an indelible mark on the industry--one that will survive for generations.

For three decades, Lehman excelled at virtually every genre the movies had to offer. He was the king of the big budget musical ("The Sound of Music," "The King and I," "West Side Story," "Hello, Dolly!"). He showed a deft hand with the sophisticated banter of romantic comedy ("Sabrina"). He flawlessly adapted naturalistic American drama ("Virginia Woolf"). He wrote confessionally from his own experience ("Sweet Smell of Success").

Perhaps, most notably, he crafted the most stylish and arguably most original of all of Hitchcock's films, "North by Northwest." He has many other film credits that are too numerous to mention.

Recently, The Times asked me to sit down with Ernest Lehman to chat about his career, this award, his body of work and writing in general.

When I arrived at his house, a photographer was searching for a new background to shoot him against, and Lehman showed him "the Wall." It was covered with six Oscar nominations, six Writers Guild awards, nine Writers Guild nominations and various other plaquage. You couldn't see the paint.

And yet, when I asked Lehman, 85, about his latest award from the academy, he said it was "nervous-making." He was thrilled about it, but writing is a solitary craft and the size of the audience at the Oscars was daunting to him. Perhaps it would be less daunting if he calculated the size of the audience he has entertained since the mid-1950s: the millions of kids who have known "The Sound of Music" as their first film, the new generations who discover "Sabrina" as some sort of private gem, the countless number of patrons who pull "North by Northwest" off the video shelf every week.

We talked for a couple of hours in his living room while the sun was going down.

Ross: Congratulations.

Lehman: Thank you.

Ross: You know, it's the first time that a screenwriter's been given the lifetime achievement award.

Lehman: I know. That's what makes it so thrilling.

Ross: Why do you think it's taken so long?

Lehman: I don't know. It seems to be a predilection in the direction of directors.

Ross: But you always had really great relationships with the directors you worked with. I'm thinking of Hitchcock in particular--

Lehman: And Robert Wise. I did four with him. Lovely guy. Great director.

Ross: What do you think the key is in that relationship?

Lehman: Well, I have to try to get my ideas across without being threatening [to] the director. The fact that I have no authority makes it easier for me to get my ideas heard because they're not threatening. When I became a producer of "Virginia Woolf," I noticed that people were a little frightened.

Ross: Because of the authority?

Lehman: Yeah. Suppose I had an idea they didn't like? I was the producer.

Ross: And when you were the screenwriter, they could, what? Listen openly because they could just sort of receive it?

Lehman: Yes. Well-put.

Ross: I loved how you and Hitchcock came up with "North by Northwest": that it came out of your relationship. You liked each other so much, you were like two guys in search of a movie.

Lehman: That's exactly it. I arrived at his house one day and told him I was quitting [another project], and he said, "Don't be silly. We get along so well. We'll just do something else." So we just kicked ideas around.

Ross: First he said he always wanted to do a movie that had a chase on Mt. Rushmore. That was the genesis, right?

Lehman: Yeah, that really excited me. And he also had given me an idea about something that took place in the General Assembly of the United Nations, and of course it wasn't what I used, but it gave me a locale.

Ross: So you knew that it started at the U.N. and you knew it ended at Mt. Rushmore. You had a geographical straight line.

Lehman: Right, but who it was and why was a big mystery, and it took a lot of talk and lots of agony, because Hitch was away from the studio soon after that. He was shooting "Vertigo," and I was at MGM all by myself, and I was pretty lonesome.

Ross: I've heard you say that that was a great relief when he read those first 65 pages.

Lehman: Yeah. It was, because he liked it so much.

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