February 27, 2005

Don't Look For Alan Smithee at the Oscars Tonight (but he'll probably be there somewhere)

You've likely seen an Alan Smithee film at some point, since he's credited with directing dozens of feature films, television episodes, and even a music video or two. A few of the films are even pretty good since an odd technicality prohibits Alan Smithee from getting director's credit on a merely bad movie. Did that make sense? Read on.

Alan Smithee, originally named Allen Smithee, and sometimes referred to as Alan Smithee, Jr., can only direct a movie after the fact, when the The Director's Guild of America agrees that the piece in question was sufficienly meddled with or otherwise hijacked from the director's control. If the director of a film feels that the final cut does not accurately reflect his or her creative vision, The Director's Guild of America guides a process which allows the director to disavow his or her work on the film. They can take a Smithee!

Alan Smithee is a ghost. A puff of smoke. A director's back door. (Smithee's saved a few screenwriters too.)

More than simply a "Get Out of Jail FREE" card, Alan Smithee is a coded message to the industry at large too. Even if the real director of the film is well-known, and most of the time he/she is, the "Alan Smithee" director's credit is a very specific use of pseudonym that indicates that the director was truly stripped of the productive creative freedom on the film. Stamped and attested by the DGA.

"Over the decades, accomplished professionals have used him. After Stuart Rosenberg, the director of Cool Hand Luke, saw the final cut of Let's Get Harry, he decided to let Smithee take the credit. John Frankenheimer followed the same course with his TV film, Riviera. David Lynch didn't like the way a TV network re-edited Dune, so he put Smithee's name on it. Smithee was involved with a highly enjoyable film called Backtrack, in which Dennis Hopper directed himself as a Mafia hit man out to kill Jodie Foster, an artist whose work looks just like Jenny Holzer's. Hopper withdrew his director's credit and replaced it with Smithee's, but later, for the altered video version, took the credit back." - Robert Fulford

In 1968 Robert Totten was directing Death Of A Gunfighter starring Richard Widmark. Widmark had such a creative tiff with Totten he had him replaced with director Don Siegel, who finished the film but refused to allow his name to be used since much of the finished work was Totten's. Later the film would receive high praise from reviewers, but in the meantime nobody felt it was rightfully their own work. The issue was brought to the Director's Guild, and thus the creation of Director "Allen Smithee".

That solution, using the spelling "Alan" more often than not, has been applied ever since to both film and television productions. National Lampoon's Senior Trip director Kelly Makin (who has since directed most episodes of The Kid's In The Hall, and now Queer As Folk), took a Smithee. Hellraiser IV was credited to Alan Smithee. 1997's Sub Down with Stephen Baldwin and Tom Conti, is an Alan Smithee film. Kiefer Sutherland apparently deferred to Alan Smithee in 2000 for the film Woman Wanted. Sutherland also starred in the film, with Holly Hunter.

Whitney Houston's 1992 music video for "I Will Always Love You" was credited to Alan Smithee.

Tony Kaye directed American History X but was so befuddled with the difficulties of putting his artistic stamp on the film he petitioned to the Director's Guild to use the pseudonym, but was actually turned down. He sued. And lost. Sorry, Smithee.

Directors Jud Taylor and Rod Holcomb both Smitheed twice.

Eventually the inside joke, or the secret, or the defiant signature, whatever you want to make of it, reached terminal velocity. In 1998, Arthur Hiller directed a movie ABOUT Alan Smithee. Whether it was absurd parody, or intentional incompetence, or mad genius, the movie itself distorted the acting abilites of a bucketful of Hollywood Stars and turned into an unsalvagable mess. Predictably, Hiller applied for, and got, A Smithee. "An Alan Smithee Film Burn Hollywood Burn", directed by Alan Smithee. Great.

Roger Ebert himself said:
"Sophomores in a film class could make a better film than this. Hell, I have a movie here by Les Brown, a kid who looks about 12 and filmed a thriller in his mother's basement, faking a fight scene by wrestling with a dummy. If I locked you in a room with both movies, you'd end up looking at the kid's."

The film is 86 minutes. Adds Ebert, "The only way to save this film would be to trim 86 minutes."
February 27, 1998

More recently, Alan Smithee has been shelved. The DGA decided from that point on to apply a separate pseudonym to each new instance. The first was a credit to "Thomas Lee" for Walter Hill's movie Supernova in 2000 with James Spader.

So tonight, watching the Oscars, in the bodies of Kiefer Sutherland, Dennis Hopper, Richard C. Sarafian, and others, you may see a twinkle of an Alan Smithee. Or a Thomas Lee. Who knows. You won't see either of them on stage though.

Roger Ebert at the Sun Times
Robert Fulford
Internet Movie Database


At 9:03 PM, Blogger Omni said...

Truth really IS stranger than fiction!! :-O


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