Critic's Notebook: Peter Biskind on Irwin Winkler's New Memoir, 'A Life in Movies'

Courtesy of Photofest
From left: producer Robert Chartoff, producer Irwin Winkler and director-star Sylvester Stallone at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas for a 'Rocky II' highlight reel screening at ShoWest in 1979.

You don't have to be an industry insider to savor the delicious and insightful anecdotes in this chronicle by the producer of 'Rocky,' 'Goodfellas' and the upcoming 'The Irishman.'

Irwin Winkler has produced approximately 60 movies since 1966, when he got into the business. Among them are Point Blank; They Shoot Horses, Don't They?; the Rocky franchise; The Right Stuff and the Creed movies. Along the way, he became Martin Scorsese's go-to producer, with New York, New York; Raging Bull; The Last Temptation of Christ; Goodfellas; The Wolf of Wall Street; Silence and The Irishman to his credit. He also directed seven films. All in all, his films have been nominated for 52 Oscars, winning 12.

Making movies is hard. Obstacle number one, as he wittily writes in his fascinating memoir, A Life in Movies: Stories From 50 Years in Hollywood (published May 7 by Harry N. Abrams), is casting the lead, the actor who gets the movie greenlit: "Actors you want are unavailable, too expensive, don't like the script, don't like the director, don't like the location, don't like their co-star, don't like the studio, don't like the wardrobe, or they do like their wife and kids and have … promised … they'd stay home for a while."

You'd never know how hard moviemaking is, however, from Winkler's account of his career. Barring a nightmare here and there, he makes it sound easy — sort of. He had the good fortune to begin his career just as the pre-World War II generation was put out to pasture by the New Hollywood of the 1970s, which was stepping on its heels. Winkler tells a story that nails the transition from old to new, the best one I've ever heard. As a newbie, he found himself at MGM, producing an Elvis Presley potboiler, Double Trouble. He asked to see the director, Norman Taurog, who was best known for Boys Town, released in 1938. As Taurog tottered from his car and up the steps of the Thalberg Building on the MGM lot to meet him, he explained why he was using a chauffeur. Winkler recalls, "He told me he loved to drive, but, unfortunately, he was blind in one eye, and his other eye was going fast."

A Life in Movies is full of delicious stories like that. After passing on Francis Coppola because he didn't think he could direct a Mafia movie — namely, The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight (1971) — Winkler hired Waldo Salt to write it. Salt hated notes from the studio brass. To avoid them, he routinely removed pages from his scripts. When the execs spotted the plot holes, he reinserted the missing pages and resubmitted the scripts. They were pleased he was responding to their notes, and he was pleased that he didn't have to respond to their notes.

Winkler recalls that had it been up to Warners co-head Terry Semel, Tom Cruise, rather than Ray Liotta, would have played Henry Hill in Goodfellas, most likely turning one of Scorsese's masterpieces into a dud. As it was, during a preview screening, two-thirds of the audience walked out.

Winkler met Scorsese when he hired him to direct New York, New York. He already knew the lead, Robert De Niro, having cast him in The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight. It was the beginning of a long and fruitful collaboration. Marcia Lucas was the editor. She asked if her husband, George, could use their sound mixing studio at night, because he had exhausted the budget on the film he was directing. Winkler said yes and got an early look at Star Wars. He told George Lucas how much he liked it, and the filmmaker, who had no idea what was about to happen in terms of his career and popular culture, seemed "surprised." Winkler, meanwhile, went out and bought stock in 20th Century Fox, the studio behind the movie.

With an unknown Sylvester Stallone attached to Rocky, Arthur Krim, head of United Artists, where Winkler had a deal, was dead set against the project. Then Krim watched The Lords of Flatbush, one of Stallone's few credits at that point, mistook another actor for him, and greenlit it. When he realized his mistake, Krim was not amused, and tried to send the film straight to TV. He finally relented, and the rest, as they say, is history. Rocky was so successful that Winkler was able to use the prospect of Rocky II to batter UA into backing Raging Bull, which UA likewise rejected. It was only because the company was so distracted by Heaven's Gate that Scorsese, De Niro and Paul Schrader got to make the great movie they did.

Winkler's memoir proceeds movie by movie, failures as well as successes, so that it can serve both as a primer for would-be producers and an account of Hollywood's greatest generation that will engross the general reader as well. But what is most impressive is that his head never seems to have been turned by money. He worked just as hard putting together impossible films with political themes as he did on those with "hit" written all over them. The man who produced six Rocky features also made Betrayed, about violent neo-Nazis in the Midwest; Music Box, based on the deportation of death camp guard John Demjanjuk, aka, “Ivan the Terrible”; and Home of the Brave; about disillusioned GIs returning from George W. Bush's Iraq war. He made his directorial debut with Guilty by Suspicion, a Hollywood blacklist drama that he also wrote, made possible when De Niro agreed to star in it. In this connection, Winkler relates the story of producer Milton Sperling, married to Jack Warner's daughter. Warner called him on the carpet for his Communist affiliations. Sperling told his father-in-law that, on the contrary, he was a member of the Young Anti-Communist League. Warner bellowed, “I don't care what kind of Communist you are — just get out!"

At the end of Winkler's tale, we get a peek at Scorsese's eagerly awaited The Irishman, with a cast that includes De Niro, Al Pacino, Harvey Keitel, Joe Pesce, Bobby Cannavale, and Anna Paquin. It's a character study of the hit man who killed Jimmy Hoffa. Winkler answers the burning question "Why Netflix instead of theaters?" The answer, of course, is money. The marketing cost alone of Avengers: Endgame was reportedly $200 million. The Irishman "would have a hard time competing in that comic book world," writes Winkler. "So along comes Netflix with their financial support subscriber audience … over one hundred million movie fans … and very little, if any, marketing cost." It's a no-brainer!

Peter Biskind, a film historian and author of books including Easy Riders, Raging Bulls and Down and Dirty Pictures, is a contributing editor to Vanity Fair. His most recent book is The Sky Is Falling: How Vampires, Zombies, Androids, and Superheroes Made America Great for Extremism.