Musts, Maybes, and Nevers: Book Review
An amiable memoir by an executive who helped usher in United Artists' golden era.
David Picker is a good argument on behalf of nepotism. A member of the third generation of a movie family—his Russian-born grandfather opened a nickelodeon in the Bronx in 1912, while his father Eugene was chief buyer and booker for Loews Theaters—Picker grew up in the heart of the business in New York, graduated from Dartmouth, was invited into United Artists, where his uncle Arnold was a partner and ran the foreign operation, and, at 31, became vice president of production and marketing for the most discerning and enterprising of American film companies.
Young David's first deal? Securing Tom Jones for UA. The following year, he was onstage collecting the best picture Oscar for absent producer-director Tony Richardson. His next move? Convincing his bosses Arthur Krim, Bob Benjamin and his uncle to give Albert Broccoli and Harry Saltzman the $1.1 million they needed to make a little picture called Dr. No. Among the UA honchos, only David had read Ian Fleming's James Bond books.
In this business, you could ride on glory like that for a long time. Rivals might have been tempted to deride it as beginner's luck. But Picker, working for the first 18 years of his career at a New York-based company where the top executives in the early '60s earned a flat $52,000 per year (they also owned stock), has kept demonstrating his taste and proving his worth for more than fifty years at this point, now in his lively and effortlessly readable memoir, Musts, Maybes, and Nevers: A Book About the Movies.
The titles comes from a Billy Wilder remark about there being just three kinds of film projects. Although the book is haphazardly structured, ideal for dipping in and out of at leisure, Picker self-deprecatingly wins the reader over early on by quickly following his list of early triumphs, which also included A Hard Day's Night and Midnight Cowboy, with a compendium of “the ones that got away,” the films it still pains him to think about since UA had the chance to back them but didn't: The Graduate, Bonnie and Clyde, Planet of the Apes, American Graffiti and, by extension, Star Wars (whenever George Lucas runs into Picker, he always needles him with, “You could have had Star Wars.”).
From this experience came Picker's most famous truism: “If I had made all the projects I turned down, and turned down all the projects I had made, I probably would have had the same number of hits and flops.”
What most distinguishes Picker's book from innumerable other insiders' accounts of Hollywood doings is its first-hand look at the moment of inception of so many famous films. Many memoirs and biographies offer colorful descriptions of the making of certain pictures, the artistic struggles, the misbehavior, the happy accidents and production mishaps that made films turn out the way they did. What Picker provides time and again are vivid vignettes of the high-level meetings where a project's fate was decided. Picker recounts the lunch where his brilliant boss Arthur Krim was told by Lew Wasserman that, since he and Alfred Hitchcock had been turned down by Ian Fleming, no Bond films would ever be made. He then reports how Mike Frankovich at Columbia was willing to invest no more than $400,000 in the first Bond, less than half than was needed, followed by a vividly described summit meeting in New York at which the deal was forged for UA to finance Albert Broccoli and Harry Saltzman to launch a series that's still making people rich more than a half-century later.
The other side of the coin is always the films that were turned down, and not just the successes. After their unlikely triumph with Midnight Cowboy, Picker's aversion to the project director John Schlesinger most wanted to tackle next, The Day of the Locust, led instead to the pair undertaking Sunday, Bloody Sunday, a film of which they were both immensely proud.
Although the book is not nostalgic in a sentimental way, an especially warm glow unavoidably surrounds the discussion of United Artists during its great period in the '60s and the few years after its 1967 acquisition by Transamerica. Picker clearly defines what made UA different from all the other major American distributors at that time and, frankly, the reason it enjoyed such a disproportionately high rate of quality over its competitors: It was a finance and distribution company only that left the making of the films entirely up to the filmmakers themselves. Once the script, budget and artistic personnel were agreed upon, it was left to the producers and directors to get the films made. UA executives (of which there were very few) never came on the set, watched dailies or were even contractually permitted to see anything until the finished film was delivered. Then, once UA recouped its costs for production, prints, marketing and distribution, revenues would typically be split 50/50. The approach was enlightened, straightforward and mutually beneficial.
This arrangement was especially attractive to independent-minded creative filmmakers. Most of UA's big commercial Hollywood titles were generated by the Mirisch Company—Some Like It Hot, The Apartment, West Side Story, The Great Escape, the Pink Panther series, In the Heat of the Night, Fiddler on the Roof, et al. At the same time, UA's hands-off policy was enormously attractive to European auteurs; Fellini, Truffaut, Leone, Malle, Pasolini, Lelouch and Pontecorvo were among the many who aligned themselves with the company. Picker's stealth trip to Stockholm to sign up Ingmar Bergman (an affiliation that began with Persona, no less) is a highlight here, as is the account of what was arguably the greatest artistic/commercial payoff for UA's here's-the-money-now-go-make-your moviepolicy, Last Tango in Paris.
Always very New York-centric—he laments the passing of his closest circle of old pals there, Bob Fosse, Sam Cohn, Paddy Chayevsky and Herb Gardner—Picker stresses the honor of the gentleman's handshake deal that prevailed back at the old UA, where loyalty was everything. This perhaps goes some way toward explaining the sniping and score-settling that seeps into his assessment of his Hollywood career. Acknowledging that “there's no correlation between talent and decency,” Picker flat-out states that, “Robert Altman was a prick,” Otto Preminger was “the most unpleasant, arrogant personality I ever deal with in this business,” Stanley Kramer was humorless, ungrateful and resentful and, more than 30 years after the fact, rags on Mike Medavoy for not inviting him to a Hollywood Oscar party in honor of Krim and Benjamin and then lying about it.
To top it off, he reprints in full a long letter he wrote in May of 1979 to Charles Bluhdorn, Barry Diller and Michael Eisner shortly after the latter had replaced Picker at Paramount. While there, Picker had initiated such projects as Grease, Saturday Night Fever, Ordinary People, Up in Smoke, Days of Heaven and Heaven Can Wait, which helped put the studio back on top. Now Eisner, who was still a TV executive at ABC when these pictures were initiated, was getting—and perhaps taking—public credit for them. Picker demands that Diller set the record straight. All he got from Diller, eight months later, was a handwritten note offering a half-hearted apology and congratulating his old colleague for the success of his first production at Universal, The Jerk, Steve Martin's first film. Such slights stay with him.
Bad or non-existent editing is now endemic in the book world and there are silly errors in Musts, Maybes, and Nevers that one morning's work could have avoided. He states that Guy Hamilton directed From Russia With Love, when it was actually Terence Young (whose first name is frequently misspelled here with two r's); Peter Sellers is described as having replaced Warren Beatty in What's New, Pussycat?, whereas the latter's role was instead played by Peter O'Toole; Norman Jewison is said to have directed Fiddler on the Roof before The Russians Are Coming, In the Heat of the Night, The Thomas Crown Affair and Gaily, Gaily, rather than—correctly—after; Pauline Kael supposedly reviewed Judgment at Nuremberg in The New Yorker even though the critic didn't join the magazine until seven years after that film was released; Gian Maria Volonte is mistakenly named as the star of The Conformist, and Picker states that David Lean was one of the many British directors who made films for UA in the '60s (he never mentions it, but he must be referring to the scenes Lean directed without credit as a favor to George Stevens on the far-behind-schedule The Greatest Story Ever Told, one of UA's biggest financial fiascoes).
All told, one can only feel that Picker has led a charmed life, at least professionally (the personal is scarcely mentioned). At the outset, he mentions that a prime motive for writing the book was to get down on paper the stories he's dined out on for years. They're mostly good ones, and one senses there are yet many more where these came from.