Irwin Winkler's first experience as a film producer is a classic lesson for anyone trying to make sense of Hollywood. The lesson, of course, is that you shouldn't try to make sense of Hollywood.
It happened in the mid-'60s when Winkler and Robert Chartoff, his business partner in New York, submitted a script to MGM. Winkler said the script, about an Englishwoman who falls in love with a man facing danger at every turn, had been written for Julie Christie.
There was reason for optimism. Christie had just won an Oscar for "Darling," and was completing a film called "Dr. Zhivago" that figured to draw even more attention to her.
Then came the call from MGM head Robert O'Brien that would set Winkler's and Chartoff's Hollywood careers in motion.
"He said, 'I think it's a good script, but I don't think it's right for Julie Christie,' " Winkler recalls. "He said, 'I think it's right for Elvis Presley.' "
There you go. Winkler and Chartoff had the script "Double Trouble" re-gendered, Elvis did it (as a rock singer who falls in love with an English heiress facing trouble at every turn), and what was to become one of Hollywood's most successful production teams was launched.
If this were a movie, we'd cut to the stage of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in 1977, to the moment when Winkler, Chartoff and Sylvester Stallone are clasping their hands together over their heads in jubilation at having just won the best-picture Oscar for "Rocky."
Freeze that image and pull back. It's a photograph hanging on Winkler's library wall at home. The man who started his career as a clapper (his first assignment for the William Morris Agency in New York was to go to shows and applaud its clients) has won the biggest prize of all.
There have been other successes since. Two more "Rockys" to prime the bank account, and, to salve the ego, there were a combined 16 Oscar nominations for "Raging Bull" and "The Right Stuff."
This is an interesting winter for Winkler. "Rocky IV" opens on Thanksgiving, threatening to out-earn the three that preceded it. Then Hugh Hudson's "Revolution," which Winkler conceived and produced alone, opens Dec. 14 in order to qualify for the Academy Awards.
"Revolution," which stars Al Pacino and Nastassja Kinski, is a film that only a producer who has done all of the above could get away with.
"There are all kinds of ways to produce a movie," Winkler says. "People bring you a script, or you buy a book. But the ideal situation, which 'Revolution' typifies, is you get an urge of your own and develop it."
"Revolution" is basically a love story, Winkler says, set against the Revolutionary War. He got the idea while watching director Martin Scorsese painting toy British soldiers in his apartment during breaks in the editing of "Raging Bull."
"I watched Marty paint these redcoats, then line them up on a battlefield," Winkler says. "I did it out of boredom, but then the editing was done, the movie came out, and I still had these redcoats in my mind."
Winkler's interest in the American Revolution was piqued, he says, by his total ignorance of the subject. He began checking books out of the Beverly Hills Library and reading up on it. Then he researched the film library, where he was able to find only three films that had used the Revolution as a dramatic backdrop.
"I said, 'Well, there must be a reason,' " he says. "Maybe nobody wants to see a movie on the subject. At least, I'll be covering ground no one else has covered."
Despite his own self-education on the subject, Winkler said "Revolution" will not be a history lesson. The film covers the eight-year history of the war, but there are no George Washingtons, Benjamin Franklins or King Georges on view.
He says he's still smarting too much from the box-office failure of "The Right Stuff" to try another historical approach.
"I wanted to do a relationship movie," he says. "You'll learn something about the period and how people dealt with that war, but these are relationships that could be cast in any war and still work."
"Revolution," which cost nearly $20 million to make (roughly 20 times the cost of the first "Rocky"), has a strange pedigree considering its subject. It was made by an English director in England and Norway.
"In the United States, everything is either gone or it's Williamsburg, something we couldn't use," Winkler says. "I went to England before I hired a writer, to see if there was any point in continuing. In two days of traveling through these small towns, I knew we could make this movie."
Winkler says that when Hudson was suggested to him as the director, he hesitated: "I wasn't interested, frankly, in an English director. Then I realized both films he had made--'Chariots of Fire' and 'Greystoke'--were anti-Establishment. The American Revolution was nothing if not anti-Establishment."
MAIDEN VOYAGES: "Rocky IV" will be the first release of the all-new United Artists Corp., which is being spun out of its satellite marriage with MGM.
This is good news for UA's charter chairman Jerry Weintraub, who seems assured of having a blockbuster to launch his career as a studio head.
Speaking of divorce Hollywood style, Island Alive Films is now two distribution companies named Island and Alive. Alan Rudolph's "Trouble in Mind" will be first out for Alive.