Otto Preminger had a reputation as a consummate professional who could deliver troubled productions on time and under budget. He also had a rep as a petty tyrant who ruled over his sets like a back-lot Fuehrer—and he didn't exactly help that image when he developed a sideline playing Nazis in movies like Stalag 17. Instead, he empowered detractors who claimed he was a bullying interpersonal fascist, onscreen and off.
History hasn't been kind to Preminger. In many ways, he became a victim of the persona he worked so hard to create. Like the fascists he portrayed, he made the trains run on time, metaphorically speaking, but he incurred a long list of enemies in the process. Foster Hirsch's massive, sympathetic new biography Otto Preminger: The Man Who Would Be King nakedly aspires to rehabilitate Preminger's tattered reputation. Hirsch's prolonged defense of Preminger's eclectic, oft-maligned oeuvre is comprehensive and scholarly, but lacks passion or humor. Perhaps that's fitting, given his subject's famously Teutonic personality.
The scion of a wealthy, prominent Austrian Jewish family, Preminger first made his mark on the stage, but he found his greatest success as a director-producer of American films, first as a specialist in kinky noir, and later for stately epics that explored the machinations of powerful institutions. For much of his career, Preminger had his finger on the pulse of the cultural zeitgeist and an intertwined gift for provocation, controversy, and self-promotion. But by the time he shepherded Jackie Gleason through an LSD scene in 1968's infamous Skidoo, the times had passed him by.
Hirsch's background as a film professor comes through in his mastery of film jargon and his ability to discuss films in ways that drain them of their mystery and vitality. He maintains a monomaniacal focus on Preminger's creative output, delving into Preminger's Svengali-like relationships with Jean Seberg and Dorothy Dandridge only so far as they affected their work together. His book is far from emotionally intimate, but that might just be because for Preminger, work wasn't just a central focus: It was his life. His persona often overshadows his output, but Hirsch suggests that the best way to honor his legacy is to ignore the image and focus on the films.