Moscow, Russia, 13 August 1912; emigrated to the United States, 1927:
Studied architecture at the University of Southern California, Los
Angeles, 1927–32, B.Arch. 1932; attended Beaux Art Institute of
Design, New York, 1932–33, Certificate-Beaux Art 1933.
Married Vera Gloushkoff, 1948.
1933–35—designer, Paramount, then designer and art director
for Samuel Goldwyn; 1936, Major; 1936, 20th Century-Fox; 1937–38,
1941–42, 1945–46, and Universal; 1947–48, then
freelance; also artist.
Academy Award for
West Side Story
18 October 1986.
Films as Art Director:
Alexander's Ragtime Band (H. King); Just around the Corner (Cummings)
Second Chorus (Potter)
The Shanghai Gesture (von Sternberg)
Tales of Manhattan (Duvivier); Life Begins at 8:30 (Pichel)
Hello, Frisco, Hello (Humberstone)
Doll Face (Seiler)
Home Sweet Homicide (Bacon); Shock (Werker)
The Shocking Miss Pilgrim (Seaton); I Wonder Who's Kissing Her Now (Bacon); The Senator Was Indiscreet (Kaufman)
Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid (Pichel)
Criss Cross (Siodmak); The Lovable Cheat (Oswald); Search for Danger (Bernhard); House by the River (F. Lang)
Woman on the Run (Foster); Quicksand (Pichel); Dakota Lil (Selander); Destination Murder (Cahn); Once a Thief (W. Wilder)
The Second Woman (Kern); The Prowler (Losey); A Millionaire for Christie (Marshall); Two Dollar Bettor (Cahn); The Basketball Fix (Feist)
Sudden Fear (Miller); Rose of Cimarron (Keller)
The Star (Heisler); Invaders from Mars (Menzies); Donovan's Brain (Fiest)
The Long Wait (Saville)
The Silver Chalice (Saville)
Courage of Black Beauty (Schuster); My Gun Is Quick (White and Victor); Zero Hour (Bartlett)
Anatomy of a Murder (Preminger); Thunder in the Sun (Rouse)
September Storm (Haskin)
West Side Story (Wise)
Two for the Seesaw (Wise)
The Sound of Music (Wise)
The Sand Pebbles (Wise)
A Dream of Kings (Daniel Mann)
The Andromeda Strain (Wise); Happy Birthday Wanda June (Robson)
The New Centurions (Fleischer)
Jonathan Livingston Seagull (Bartlett)
Reflections of Murder (Badham); Shanks (Castle)
New York, New York (Scorsese)
The Last Waltz (Scorsese); Matilda (Daniel Mann)
The King of Comedy (Scorsese)
By LEVEN: articles—
Film Index (Mosman Bay, New South Wales), no. 15, 1973.
Film Comment (New York), May-June 1978.
On LEVEN: articles—
Kaplan, Mike, in Today's Film Maker (Hempstead, New York), August 1971.
Film Dope (Nottingham), September 1986.
Obituary in Variety (New York), 22 October 1986.
* * *
Boris Leven has been described by the critic Carrie Rickey as one of the progenitors of theatrical realism in American art direction. Theatrical realism, as Rickey describes it, is an art directional style in which the realism of the world as we normally encounter it is couched against a reconstructed realism which only ostensibly disguises its manufactured qualities.
Leven studied at the Institute of Design and the University of Southern California Architecture School. His first credited film, Alexander's Ragtime Band , utilized more than 85 sets and was one of the first large-budget musicals to use a series of period sets as a backdrop for a progression of popular songs. Leven also designed Hello, Frisco, Hello , another of this genre for 20th Century-Fox.
Giant , directed by George Stevens, is arguably Leven's most significant work of the 1950s. Among the numerous sets, the Victorian home, which he designed to sit isolated in an expanse of prairie, carries the emotional chill of an Edward Hopper painting. Contemporary reviews of this film concurred that the thematic basis of the story, the social constructions of wealth and power, were borne out by the visual aspects of the film. Sets including the opulent railway coach and immense family home carry the sense of materialism and conspicuous consumption that contrast directly with the rugged Texas environment.
Rickey isolates the Academy Award-winning West Side Story as probably the first film in which the contrast between the real and the deliberately unreal was maintained throughout the course of the movie. The heavily stylized visual sensibilities are conveyed through dynamic camera angles, abrupt cuts, and sets which range from location shots of New York streets, to areas such as the gym/dance hall and the tenement rooftop which are patently false and maintain ties to the original, more abstract stage production.
Working again with West Side Story director Robert Wise in The Sound of Music , Leven relied much more heavily on Salzburg location shots which offered the necessary air of authenticity to this script based on the lives of the Trapp family singers. Only certain sets, such as the terrace where the oldest daughter dances with her boyfriend, offer a light sense of contrivance which refers back to the original stage production and allow a segue between some of the lighter musical numbers and the dramatic action.
Of his later work, Mandingo offers an example of Leven's mastery of accurately-based historical settings, while New York, New York sought in Leven's words a "totally false, totally Forties Hollywood" look. This film succeeds in visually comparing Hollywood stereotypes of New York City, one of glamor and sophistication and the other of crowds of energetic urbanites. These films illustrate Leven's adeptness at recreating period settings as well as his skill in fabricating sensational environments that correspond more completely to emotional and thematic demands.