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Strong on success, weak in character

Sam Spiegel: The Incredible Life and Times of Hollywood's Most Iconoclastic Producer, Natasha Fraser-Cavassoni, Simon & Schuster: 480 pp., $30

May 18, 2003|Robert W. Cort | Robert W. Cort is a producer whose films include "Three Men and a Baby," "Mr. Holland's Opus," "Jumanji" and the forthcoming "Against the Ropes." His novel "Action!" will be published this summer.

On a blustery winter afternoon in 1958, an 11-year-old whose only experience of war involved giggling under his desk during air raid drills marched into the Palace Theater on Broadway for the reserved-seat engagement of "The Bridge on the River Kwai." Among the first images to cross the CinemaScope screen were giant yellow block letters announcing "A Sam Spiegel Production." During the next two hours and 42 minutes, the meaning of courage, honor, even madness became clear and changed me forever. Without knowing who he was or what he did, I became a fan of Sam Spiegel.

And I remained so until reading about him, with mounting disgust, in Natasha Fraser-Cavassoni's "Sam Spiegel: The Incredible Life and Times of Hollywood's Most Iconoclastic Producer." The author met her subject as an assistant on his final movie, "Betrayal," and writes in her introduction that she "always felt a little blessed, since I thought he was fantastic -- for all his faults." Hero worship is a dangerous quality in a biographer. Fraser-Cavassoni doesn't ignore Spiegel's faults; in fact, she reports them in admirably researched detail. Unfortunately, her chipper "boys will be boys" attitude keeps her from investigating how and why a man could behave so badly -- and succeed so spectacularly.

Spiegel's career deserves the attention of cinephiles. He won the Academy Award for "On the Waterfront," "The Bridge on the River Kwai" and "Lawrence of Arabia," making him the only man to capture three solo Oscars for best picture. And in an era when producers inspire "How many does it take to screw in a light bulb?" jokes, the power he wielded -- and the films he made -- must be respected. Spiegel was born in Jaroslav, in what is now Poland, on Nov. 11, 1901. Spiegel was a responsible, well-educated youth. Instead of coming directly to America, he took a seven-year detour to Palestine, arriving there as a dedicated leader of a Zionist group. By the time he left in 1927, however, Spiegel had deserted his wife and young child and was well on his way to earning a reputation as a crook that would last him the rest of his life. So what happened during this period to transform him? Unfortunately, Fraser-Cavassoni doesn't dig beneath the facts to answer the question.

During the next quarter-century, Spiegel produced eight films in Europe and Hollywood. The author's synopses of these movies offer less description and analysis than most video compendiums, but if you can find a well-stocked Blockbuster, check out such flawed but intriguing melodramas as "The Stranger" and "The Prowler." Even people familiar with Spiegel's triumphs probably haven't seen them in a long time, and after 40 years, "Lawrence of Arabia," now on DVD, is still a thrill.

Fraser-Cavassoni's descriptions of Spiegel suggest a lovable con man who managed to beat the system. He was known for committing several instances of forgery, immigration fraud, check kiting, congenital lying, bad debts, car theft and pimping. He served short jail sentences in San Francisco and England . Doing business with him was thankless, because he cheated everyone. Nor was he more compassionate with members of his family. As his older brother lay dying, Spiegel made excuses for not visiting; such unpleasant scenes depressed him. He cut his son out of his will for no apparent reason. He was shamelessly unfaithful to his wives and obsessively pursued women a fraction of his age, to the point of sleeping with a teenager when in his 70s.

His ultimate ascent to the status of tycoon raises a disturbing issue. Is amorality-immorality not just correlated with triumph in Hollywood but the cause of it? It's a question that has plagued the movie industry from its birth, when Thomas Alva Edison stomped out his competition. Was Spiegel's lack of conscience more important than his talent? Did his desire for the high life drive him more than his desire to be creative? More interested in maintaining her subject's mythic image, Fraser-Cavassoni never asks these questions.

In the 1940s, Spiegel was concerned about his immigration status, so pariotically, he changed his name to S.P. Eagle. Upon hearing of his surprise second marriage, Billy Wilder sent a telegram to the Hollywood Reporter saying: "The marriage of S.P. Eagle and Lynne Baggett has left the whole town S.P. Eechless." By this time, Spiegel, who was almost 50, could only claim that he annually hosted the trendiest New Year's Eve party in town.

But then came the second act that no one predicted. In 1948, Spiegel courted director John Huston, who agreed to Spiegel's suggestion that they form a company called Horizon Pictures. It shocked Hollywood. Despite the way Huston tortured his partner with practical jokes, Spiegel stayed the course until they made "The African Queen" in 1951. It was a commercial bonanza.

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