Winter 2019

The Real Robert Aldrich

The protean director and DGA past president, whose work spanned genres and bridges the old and new Hollywoods, is far from the sad-sack hack depicted in the limited series Feud

By Robert Koehler

Director Robert Aldrich. (Photo: Photofest)

While the late director Robert Aldrich may be perceived as a maker of brawling, macho entertainments, a closer viewing confounds this stereotype: Yes, there are The Dirty Dozen (1967) and The Longest Yard (1974). But there's also the brilliant Joan Crawford melodrama Autumn Leaves (1956), which ranks with the best of Douglas Sirk; the legendary pairing of Crawford and Bette Davis in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962); and, following that film almost immediately, the sterling combination of Davis, Olivia de Havilland and Agnes Moorehead in Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964).

A director with a command of a vast spectrum of genres who ranks with the great classic Hollywood-era directors of the '30s and '40s, Aldrich straddled the key decades of the 1950s, '60s and '70s, from the end of the Hays Code to the beginning of a new freedom liberalizing the use of language and the depiction of sexuality and violence.

Apart from his admirable range as a filmmaker, Aldrich played an equally important role as an innovator for directors on the business front, and particularly, as a leader of the Guild. At a time in the mid-1950s when only a few stars like Burt Lancaster staked out positions in Hollywood as independent producers, Aldrich established the independent Associates and Aldrich production unit, foreshadowing and providing a model for the American indie movement of the 1980s. "Aldrich was the first non-actor in Hollywood to understand the importance of the power of independent financing to help ensure his artistic vision," says Aldrich biographer Alain Silver.

As a two-term Guild president, he was, director Walter Hill says, "one of our strongest and most important. The contracts he negotiated and won, especially in the 1978 contract with producers, fundamentally altered and improved our position in the industry."

Re-elected to a second term in 1977, Aldrich was determined to increase wages for every tier of professions in the Guild and back it with the threat of a strike. This leverage and his negotiation skills resulted in the 1978 Basic Agreement that included the largest increase in wages and compensation in Hollywood history, as well as a more robust "pay or play" provision when dealing with producers; allowance for an unfettered 10-week post-production supervisorial period; script consultation payments; and a mandate for two guaranteed previews prior to any alteration of the director's cut. The last item, viewed by some at the time as an unusual stipulation in the agreement, stemmed from Aldrich's victorious legal case in Italian courts over his cut of his made-in-Italy epic Sodom and Gomorrah (1962), which established precedent-setting artist's rights provisions in European courts.

"The reason why Aldrich drove such a tough contract with producers was that he came up from the ranks of ADs and UPMs," says Silver. "He cared about them and didn't forget them. He started as a production clerk and rose through the under-the-line ranks. Before the agreement, I was getting $606/week as a 2nd AD. The areement was passed when I was halfway through the job, and my wage rose to $1,089/week. This was thanks to Robert Aldrich."

Aldrich challenged the status quo in the mid-'70s and urged the DGA to modernize, especially as membership continued to grow rapidly on both coasts, to nearly 5,500 in 1977. He and other National Board members were concerned that the Guild needed to update its approach to meeting core functions, particularly residuals collection and contract enforcement. In 1978, Aldrich recruited executive Michael Franklin, whom the Board hired as national executive secretary to replace the retiring Joe Youngerman. Franklin, a lawyer who had worked in business affairs at CBS-TV and served as national executive secretary of the Writers Guild of America West, moved quickly with Aldrich to bolster the Guild's member services. With the advent of new businesses like home video and the development of studios from independent entities to large corporations, Aldrich knew the Guild had to respond to the challenges and with Franklin, supported the creation of several new departments, including legal, residuals, membership and signatories.

Unfortunately, any reassessment of Aldrich's career now happens in the shadow of the limited series Feud, depicting the making of Baby Jane and airing on FX in 2017. Though the show's center ring is occupied by the sparring star personalities of Davis and Crawford (played, respectively, by Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange), it also depicts Aldrich (played by Alfred Molina) as a sneaky, mendacious operator with no moral core—a bedraggled Hollywood veteran who would sell his soul for a project.

To the great consternation of Aldrich family members, colleagues, friends and Aldrich experts, this portrait of the director may be the one that indelibly sticks in in the minds of viewers—who may have otherwise only the foggiest notion of Aldrich's movies and the man behind them.

The reality of Aldrich's character as a man and artist is so far from the one in series' campy portrait that the latter can be fairly termed a fictitious character named "Robert Aldrich." The Aldrich in Feud, for example, secures the rights to the Baby Jane property via Crawford; the real Aldrich worked long and hard to secure the rights on his own.

"It's an outrage and so pathetically inaccurate," director Hill says of Feud. "It's utterly a travesty of his character and personality, even more so since Molina is such a fine actor and delivers such a terrific performance that it might make someone believe all the falsehoods.

"It doesn't even get the deal right," adds Hill, as the series depicts producer-director Aldrich contending with Jack Warner, when in fact, Warner Bros. wasn't involved with the project until it came time to secure a distributor.

From top: Robert Aldrich with Lee Marvin on the set of The Dirty Dozen (1967); directing Gaby Rogers and Ralph Meeker on the 1955 noir classic Kiss Me Deadly; showing how it's done on the WWII drama, Attack (1956). (Photos: (Top to Bottom) Photofest; Everett (2))

"One way to understand Aldrich," says Silver, "is to know that the version of him in Feud is pretty much the exact opposite of who he was. In the [series], he's shown as a crass and venal man, which he wasn't at all."

So, who was the real Robert Aldrich?

His toughness at the negotiating table, hulking physical presence and casual on-set dress (short-sleeved shirts, open collars, unknotted ties) belied his blue blood roots. Born in 1918 into the powerful Aldrich-Rockefeller family, Aldrich grew up in a clan replete with U.S. senators, congressmen, state governors, ambassadors and bankers. A sports injury led to a discharge from the U.S. Air Force at the start of World War II—a move that had a profound impact on Aldrich's Hollywood career, which began with a lowly production clerk job at RKO Studios where Orson Welles was making Citizen Kane (1941).

Aldrich never used his family ties for advantage, and his leftist politics led him to clash with his conservative Republican kin. Over the next 10 years, Aldrich climbed the production ladder rung by rung, learning the directing trade through a painstaking apprenticeship that involved assistant directing with an exceptional range of filmmakers, including Charlie Chaplin (Limelight), Lewis Milestone (the director Aldrich viewed as the most consummate professional who understood every aspect of the business), Jean Renoir (The Southerner), Abraham Polonsky (whose career was cut short from the Blacklist when he refused to testify), Joseph Losey (M), William Wellman, Richard Fleischer, Ted Tetzlaff, Irving Reis, Charles Lamont and Albert Lewin.

A key moment in Aldrich's apprenticeship was working on Body and Soul (1947), written by Polonsky and directed by Robert Rossen, at Enterprise Studios, the short-lived independent studio dedicated to producing progressive-themed, socially minded films. The movie's hero, played by John Garfield, is a corrupt boxer who redeems himself against gangsters, and as film historian Tony J. Williams examines in his book on Aldrich, Body and Soul: The Cinematic Vision of Robert Aldrich, Polonsky's drama became a template that Aldrich would use throughout his career.

Williams notes that "when Aldrich founded his own studio, the Aldrich Studio, in the 1960s, the movies he made there reflected those values that Body and Soul denoted. In the Cold War, Aldrich saw the collapse of the New Deal and that the old ideas of liberalism were no longer operating. How could you keep your integrity in a very dark environment that led to Joseph McCarthy's Communist witch hunt and not fall into hopelessness and despair?

"The Enterprise experience was extremely formative for him," Williams continues, "since it brought together left-leaning people like himself to make movies with social consciousness in the mode of Italian neo-realism and the progressive postwar West German cinema. A key nexus for understanding Aldrich's thinking is heard by the character of Hank Teagle in Aldrich's sixth feature, The Big Knife (1955), when he tells the tragic hero, actor Charlie Castle, 'Struggle Charlie, you may still win a blessing.'"

According to Hill, Aldrich "was a man of the left, of deep political convictions. The interesting thing about him is that if his politics changed at all over the years, it was toward a personal brand of anarchism."

Adell Aldrich, the director's daughter, recalls that her father was extremely well-read, and maintained a number of intellectual ties. He was arguably the only man in Hollywood who had friendships with many of Hollywood's blacklisted figures, including Polonsky and frequent writer-collaborator A.I. Bezzerides, as well as Elia Kazan, who named names to McCarthy's House Un-American Activities Committee.

When speaking with those who knew and worked with him, a picture of a complex man emerges. Adell recalls Saturday-night parties at their home where the diverse guest list included the likes of novelist Henry Miller and Dragnet's Jack Webb. When she started working for her father, Adell says "he was as hard on me as anyone else, but he gave praise if you did your job. You were always appreciated, [which is why] he maintained the same crew for years." Herb Adelman, a DGA trainee on The Frisco Kid, recalls Aldrich as being "down-to-earth and approachable, even though his big personality utterly commanded the set." Hill notes Aldrich's nuances for having "real feelings for social misfits. He's considered to be a rough, blunt director, but he really had a real sensitivity and a very fine mind."

The Aldrich children didn't see their busy father, awake and working daily at 4 a.m., during the week, but regularly shared Sunday dinners, where Aldrich expected his children to have read stories in the major newspapers and answer questions about current affairs.

"It sounds like such a challenge for a child," Adell Aldrich says, "but it made you well-read like father, and it was a gift for life. It set me up to let me think that I could be anything I wanted to be, which was extremely forward-thinking for that era."

(Top) Aldrich confers with Kirk Douglas on the 1961 Western, The Last Sunset; and demonstrates the proper punch on The Choir Boys (1977) and the proper kick to the ribs on the set of The Dirty Dozen (1967) (Middle). (Bottom) His work with Bette Davis and Joan Crawford (in the background) on What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) represented a mid-career high point. (Photos: (From top) Photofest; Everett (2); Photofest)

Aldrich's egalitarian principles point to an interesting paradox about the director, whose movies from the start, from 1953-55—the baseball-themed Big Leaguer (1953), World for Ransom (1954), Apache (1954), Vera Cruz (1954), Kiss Me Deadly (1955) and The Big Knife—were utterly dominated by men and men's stories. The macho brand was quickly established, and though "he couldn't be called sexist," Silver says, "he also couldn't be called a feminist, even though he made several fascinating movies about women. The important thing is that he hired a lot of women in many capacities and treated them with the kind of respect that was rare in Hollywood."

The director's extraordinary 1950s period was first noticed not in the U.S. but in France, where the young Cahiers du Cinéma critics, including Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, Jacques Rivette and François Truffaut discovered Aldrich to be a profound representation of a new kind of American cinema. Perhaps the only American critic to catch on at the time was Manny Farber, who wrote in 1957 that of the new American directors, Aldrich "is certainly the most exciting—a lurid, psychiatric stormer who gets an overflow of vitality and sheer love for moviemaking…This enthusiasm is the rarest item in a dried, decayed-lemon type of movie period. Aldrich makes viciously anti-Something movies—Attack stomps on Southern rascalism and the officer sect in war, The Big Knife impales the Zanuck-Goldwyn big shot in Hollywood. The Aldrich films are filled with exciting characterizations…of highly psyched-up, marred and bothered men."

Unlike other film noir directors, Silver observes, "Aldrich made Kiss Me Deadly knowing he was making a film noir, which is partly why it marks a kind of climax of the genre. But he was also like the generation of John Ford and Howard Hawks—never tell them that they were artists. But like I did with David Lean, if you pointed out to them something in a shot, they would look at you and say, astonished, 'You noticed?'"

Aldrich's reputation partly stems from the roller-coaster nature of his career. Harry Cohn, the ruthless head of Columbia Pictures, who inspired the malevolent studio boss (played by Rod Steiger) in The Big Knife, had contracted with Aldrich for a multi-picture deal but then caught on to the movie's characterization and proceeded to make Aldrich's life miserable. This led to a terrible period for Aldrich, full of misbegotten movies—with the exception of The Last Sunset (1961), a fascinating psychodrama Western with Kirk Douglas and Rock Hudson, and a period in European exile, capped by the tortuous production of Sodom and Gomorrah.

But the unexpected triumph of Baby Jane marked Aldrich's return to Hollywood, opening a fascinating period leading to the underrated and richly entertaining Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte (where else can one watch four acting legends—Davis, de Havilland, Moorehead and Joseph Cotten—go at each other for two hours?), The Flight of the Phoenix (Aldrich's only collaboration with James Stewart, leading one of his most robust ensemble casts), followed by one of his few box-office smashes, The Dirty Dozen, one of the highest grossing films of 1967.

After this high point, Aldrich realized his long-held dream of the Aldrich Studio, which he hoped would lend him the clout and freedom to make movies his own way without the big-studio interference he had suffered for many years, vanished. Despite operating on a slim budget, the operation collapsed in less than three years after a string of varied and fascinating dramas landed with a commercial thud: the stunningly savage and twisted anti-Hollywood melodrama The Legend of Lylah Clare (1968); The Killing of Sister George (1968), which was the first Hollywood movie slapped with the new MPAA rating board's dreaded X; Too Late the Hero (1970), a grand if misbegotten World War II epic starring Cliff Robertson and Michael Caine; and, later, The Grissom Gang (1971), a deliciously nasty foray into Depression-era gangster antics.

Aldrich enjoyed another major hit in the 1970s with The Longest Yard (1974), the first of consecutive movies with Burt Reynolds, who also starred in the less-known but engrossing Los Angeles crime drama Hustle (1975). And yet—as was typical of his entire career—some of his less successful movies of the same period are now arguably more interesting, particularly the brilliant Western Ulzana's Raid (1972), his last with Burt Lancaster, about a failed U.S. Army battle against Apache guerillas in Arizona. "Whoever made a better anti-Vietnam movie than this?" Hill says. "Nobody."

"Most of my father's money went to buying story properties for future projects," says Adell Aldrich. "But he was also extremely generous to those who were loyal to him. He kept everyone at the Aldrich Studio on the payroll even when they weren't working, and this really hurt the business. He simply couldn't stand watching the staff go without a paycheck. He was the same way with his blacklisted friends. When I went through his files after he died (in 1983), I found out how much money he loaned to friends who couldn't work and what he spent to buy their scripts, just to give them extra money to survive in exile."

Adds Silver: "Aldrich's own movies are defined by an obsessive theme of survival. But what characterized his own life was loyalty."

It's why Aldrich had the same editor (Michael Luciano), cinematographer (Joseph Biroc) and composer (Frank De Vol) for most of his work—they were professional, fast and reliable, able to match Aldrich's famously rapid work pace. The loyalty extended to his yeoman's work for the Guild, not only with extensive work on committees and sub-committees, but with his transformative, two-term tenure as president.

It's for this reason that a year after Aldrich's sudden death from kidney failure, the Guild established the Robert B. Aldrich Service Award honoring extraordinary Guild service. "I think this was the Guild's way of saying thank you to a really great man," says Hill. "Look, the Guild simply wouldn't be what it is today without Robert Aldrich. American movies wouldn't be either."

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