Ernest Lehman - Writer

Writer, Producer, and Director. Born: Ernest Paul Lehman, New York City, 1920. Education: Studied creative writing at City College of New York. Family: Married Jacqueline, children: Roger, Alan. Career: Became copy editor of Wall Street financial journal, then briefly freelance short-story writer, before working as publicity writer for Hollywood Reporter columnist; 1953—invited to Hollywood to script first film, Executive Suite ; 1960—nominated for Best Screenplay Academy Award for North by Northwest ; 1962—nominated for Best Screenplay Academy Award for West Side Story ; 1966—produced first film, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? ; 1972—made directorial debut, Portnoy's Complaint ; 1977—published first novel,

Ernest Lehman (right) with Richard Benjamin
Ernest Lehman (right) with Richard Benjamin
The French Atlantic Affair ; elected president of the Writers Guild of America, in the 1980s.

Films as Writer:


Executive Suite (Wise); Sabrina (Wilder)


Somebody Up There Likes Me (Wise); The King and I (W. Lang)


Sweet Smell of Success (Mackendrick) (co-sc, story)


North by Northwest (Hitchcock)


From the Terrace (Robson)


West Side Story (Wise)


The Prize (Robson)


The Sound of Music (Wise)


Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Nichols) (+ pr, ro as extra)


Hello Dolly! (Kelly) (+ pr)


Portnoy's Complaint (+ d, pr)


Family Plot (Hitchcock)


Black Sunday (Frankenheimer) (co-sc)


The French Atlantic Affair (Heyes—mini for TV) (co-sc)


Sabrina (Pollack) (co-sc)

Other Films:


The Inside Story (Dwan) (story)


By LEHMAN: books—

The Comedian and Other Stories (fiction), New York, 1957.

Sweet Smell of Success and Other Stories (fiction), New York, 1957.

North by Northwest (screenplay), New York 1973.

The French Atlantic Affair (fiction), New York, 1977.

Screening Sickness and Other Tales of Tinsel Town (collected articles), New York, 1982.

Farewell Performance (fiction), New York, 1982.

By LEHMAN: articles—

"Dialogue on Film," interview with James Powers and audience, in American Film (Washington, D.C.), October 1976.

"Nobody Tries to Make a Bad Picture," in American Film (Washington, D.C.), March 1978.

"He Who Gets Hitched," in American Film (Washington, D.C.), May 1978.

"Ernest Lehman Remembers," interview with James Bawden, in Classic Images (Muscatine, Iowa), October 1994.

"Back Story," in Fade In (Beverly Hills), vol. 2, no. 3, 1996.

"North by Northwest/Writing North by North-west," in Scenario (Rockville), vol. 3, no. 1, Spring 1997.

On LEHMAN: books—

Newquist, Roy, Showcase , New York, 1966.

Corliss, Richard, Talking Pictures , Woodstock, New York, 1974.

Ernest Lehman: An American Film Institute Seminar on His Work , Glen Rock, New Jersey, 1977

Brady, John, The Craft of the Screenwriter , New York, 1981.

Engel, Joel, Screenwriters on Screenwriting , New York, 1995.

On LEHMAN: articles—

Madsen, Axel, "Who's Afraid of Alfred Hitchcock?," in Sight and Sound (London), Winter 1967/68.

Billington, Michael, "From Dolly to Portnoy ," in Times (London), 30 December 1969.

Canby, Vincent, "Here's to Hollywood's Downtrodden Writers," in New York Times , 30 October 1983.

"Lehman, Ernest," in Dictionary of Literary Biography , Volume 44: American Screenwriters, Second Series , Detroit, 1986, 157–65.

* * *

Given that Ernest Lehman has scripted some of the most Oscar-laden films ever made, it comes as something of a surprise to realize that he has never won an Academy Award for Best Screenplay—several nominations, but no Oscar. Lehman himself might well, with a rueful shrug, adduce the fact as further evidence for the persistent undervaluing of the writer's contribution to any movie, good or bad. "I've spent the best years of my life trying to convince movie critics . . . that if a film is any good, it was probably well written, and that if it was a stinker, it was probably due to a bad screenplay, but I couldn't even make a dent ."

Not that Lehman, intelligent and ironic, has ever been one to make grandiose claims. "I don't take writing as seriously as some writers would, or should," he says, and refuses to regard screenwriting as an "art": "When it works it's skill and craft and some unconscious ability." Lehman's own skill and craft have never been in doubt; the opening of his very first film as screenwriter, Executive Suite , could stand as a textbook model of classic exposition, lucid and economical. What is more disputable is whether that skill and craft—and ability—have been exploited to anywhere near their full potential.

Of Lehman's relatively brief filmography as screenwriter only one, North by Northwest , is an original. All the rest are adaptations, from novels or the stage—although in some cases, such as The Prize , the script might almost qualify as an original, so thoroughly was the source material reworked. (In Sweet Smell of Success Lehman, was working from his own novella, and the plot structure is entirely his, but after he quit the production the dialogue was rewritten almost in toto by Clifford Odets.) Furthermore, four of his films were adaptations not just of plays, but of Broadway musicals ( The King and I , West Side Story , The Sound of Music , and Hello Dolly! ), a genre always liable to incite critical condescension.

In Talking Pictures Richard Corliss, mocking Lehman as "Curator-in-Chief of the Hollywood Museum of High-Priced Broadway Properties," suggested that these "close adaptations . . . strike Lehman's admirers as acts of treason against his considerable talent." Lehman would dispute the closeness no less than the treason. In the case of Sound of Music , he points out that much of the film's dramatic structure, including the famous airborne opening, was his creation alone. "I saw the Broadway show, and it consisted of lead-ins to the next number. No story." Even with West Side Story , where the original had a far stronger plot, Lehman extensively restructured the play to bring out its social emphasis. "I rearranged it quite a bit to keep the dramatic line very clean, and I moved around musical numbers."

When it comes to adapting novels, Lehman argues that the writer's contribution to the finished movie is yet more crucial—and no less generally undervalued. "There are a million decisions made by the screenwriter. . . . He's the one who looks at a sequence . . . and decides: It won't work in the movie . We'll have to forget it. Or change it from a ship to a plane. The director doesn't say, 'Let's shoot the scene in a plane instead of a boat.' No, it's written. It's written ." Corliss's contemptuous phrase, "a mere service-station attendant of other writers' vehicles," seems singularly inapt in view of Lehman's shrewdly gauged treatment of Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? , and his elegant transmutation of Victor Canning's novel The Rainbird Pattern into Hitchcock's final movie, Family Plot .

All the more puzzling, then, that a writer with such an evident instinct for screenwriting should number only one original screenplay among his credits—especially when that one is so outstanding. Lehman's script for North by Northwest has a good claim to be the finest ever written for a Hitchcock film. Witty, literate, well-paced, and stylish, it deftly captures the sly mix of terror and teasing humor that typifies Hitchcock's cinema at its best, while still lightly sketching in a serious subtext: the regeneration of an empty, selfish man. Yet for all its clear and satisfying structure, the writing of it caused Lehman continual agony. "I recall having tried to quit the picture a dozen times. . . . I never knew what the hell I was going to write next." Rather than face that agony again, he preferred to divert into producing, and once even disastrously into directing (the ill-starred Portnoy's Complaint ), before quitting screenwriting for good. North by Northwest , regrettably, seems destined to remain unique in his output.

—Philip Kemp

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