Screenwriter Ernest Lehman, a six-time Oscar nominee, died the other day at the age of 89. Among his more famous credits are “North by Northwest” and “The Sweet Smell of Success.” He was also involved in the screen versions of “West Side Story,” “Hello Dolly!” and “Portnoy’s Complaint” – obviously a man of a catholic tastes.
I knew Ernie slightly from having traveled with him on a screenwriter’s “culture exchange” to the Soviet Union in 1991 arranged between our Writers Guild and their Cinematographers Union (which subsumed most film workers). He, Mel Shavelson and the extraordinary Julius Epstein formed the small geezer caucus in our larger contingent that included Willam Goldman and Paul Schrader. (I was added at the last moment when someone dropped out and had by far the least impressive credits.) Of all these people, the only one whose work the Soviets recognized was Julius. His film “Casablanca,” which he co-authored with his brother, was the one American movie to have made it through the Iron Curtain in any sufficient degree. So the Russians loved Julius who was a lovable cherubic character anyway, resembling an aging ET.
Turning back to Ernie, he was finally awarded an Oscar for lifetime achievement in 1991 and made the following statement:
“I accept this rarest of honors on behalf of screenwriters everywhere, but especially those in the Writers Guild of America. We have suffered anonymity far too often. I appeal to all movie critics and feature writers to please always bear in mind that a film production begins and ends with a screenplay.”
I not sure those writers are quite as anonymous as they (and Ernie) think they are, but Lehman is certainly right that a film “begins and ends with a screenplay.” The auteur theory is pretty much another piece of French bunkum. As they used to say in Hollywood during Ernie Lehman’s time, “If ain’t on the page, it ain’t on the stage.” And we all know they made better movies then. Ernie, et al, have the credits to prove it.