MOVIES : Back to the Dark Days : Producer Irwin Winkler turns writer-director to make a film about the Hollywood blacklist--a story that few movies have told

"No one wants to hear from the producer," says the producer, Irwin Winkler. "He's the guy by the pool with a cigar in his mouth and a couple of lovelies on his arm. But when you're a director, they want to hear what you have to say about everything--the war, the world. . . ."

Winkler has just walked 45 minutes from his Bel-Air home to Orsini's, an Italian restaurant on Pico Boulevard near Century City that remains a favorite among Hollywood's fiftysomething crowd. He wipes the sweat off his tanned brow, peels off his safari jacket and continues to muse on his roles as writer and director of "Guilty by Suspicion."

"It's a different kind of commitment," says the 59-year-old Winkler, whose producer credits range from "Rocky" to "GoodFellas." "As a producer, the most important call you can get is on Saturday morning, when the Friday-night grosses come in. As a director, you want your film to be successful. But your outlook is a bit different. You become very conscious of the reviews. . . . The stakes are higher: If the film succeeds, you take the bow. If it fails, there is no one else to blame."

The stakes are especially high on "Guilty by Suspicion," which opens on Friday in 800 theaters nationwide. Starring Robert De Niro as a blacklisted director in the early '50s, Winkler's film is one of the few features to explore the impact of McCarthyism on Hollywood. As such, it throws Winkler into the delicate role of social critic--commenting on his own community's history and personalities.

The studio executive who refuses to hire suspected communists in "Guilty by Suspicion" is Darryl F. Zanuck, the father of Winkler's close friend Richard Zanuck. The backdrop for the film is 20th Century Fox, where in 1975 Winkler made the movie "Peeper," starring Michael Caine and Natalie Wood.

Winkler weaved into his screenplay some of the characteristics and dialogue of such people as Arthur Miller, who stood up to the House Committee on Un-American Activities, and Elia Kazan, who informed on friends. Winkler changed the name but left largely intact the character of a studio lawyer who encouraged Hollywood filmmakers to inform in order to keep their jobs--a man that Winkler declines to name but says is still around today.

In "Guilty by Suspicion," De Niro plays David Merrill, a successful young Fox contract director who returns from Paris to find that the only way he can keep his career on track is by coming clean about his past leftist activities--and by supplying congressional investigators with names of those who attended political meetings with him more than a decade earlier.

As Merrill refuses to do so, his career slides into oblivion: At one point he even has to quit a job at a tiny New York camera shop when FBI agents show up to question his boss. When Merrill finally hits bottom, he gets a last chance to testify before HUAC and reclaim his career.

In Winkler's story, Merrill is not a communist. In fact, he was booted out of one of the few block meetings he attended because he wanted to debate the party line. Merrill represents the dozens of liberal non -communists who were nonetheless persecuted for their political associations.

That's very different from the way this project began. Winkler originally assigned himself as the producer on a three-man creative team that was to include director Bertrand Tavernier (" 'Round Midnight") and once-blacklisted writer-director Abraham Polonsky ("Body and Soul"). Winkler was inspired to make a film about the blacklist after hearing the story of John Berry on the set of " 'Round Midnight." Berry, who played the part of the nightclub owner in that film, was forced to move to Europe to continue his career after fellow director Edward Dmytryk accused him of being a communist in 1951.

Tavernier subsequently left the Winkler project to make another movie, but Polonsky completed a screenplay about an American communist who succeeded in holding on to his political beliefs but ultimately was forced into exile in France.

Polonsky's script dealt with the courage it takes to stand up for one's unpopular political beliefs. In 1989, he described it as "a picture about someone who's guilty of being a radical and has to face the problem and say, 'Yes, I'm a communist and I don't have to answer any questions about my politics.' "

Winkler saw the story differently. "Abe wanted the character to be a die-hard communist," he recalls. "He wanted to do a political story. I thought it was more interesting if the guy wasn't even a communist. That's something you can relate to. If he was a communist, it's too easy for the audience to understand why (HUAC) called him up and attacked him. I never wanted this to be a defense of communism. I wanted it to be a defense of liberty."

Winkler also wanted to create something of a morality tale--not raising the question "Will it happen again in America?" but rather, "What would you do in this situation?"

Winkler puts it this way: "You've worked all your life to achieve a certain kind of success. You've fought your way through all the muck and mire of this business. Then someone calls you in one day and says you're going to lose it all unless you compromise yourself."

This story is no different, Winkler says, than the foreman on the assembly line who asks a worker to keep an eye on a colleague suspected of using drugs. "You say, 'Wait a minute, this guy lives next door to me, he's a friend of mine, I've been working with him for 15 years, and you want me to tell on him?' And the foreman says, 'Obviously, you must be doing the same thing or else you would tell."

With this theme in mind, Winkler began rewriting Polonsky's screenplay, and a copy of the finished script with both their names on it was circulated. Barely a trace of Polonsky's original work had survived the rewrite. Furious, Polonsky insisted that his name be removed from the film. He also refused an executive producer credit, even though it would have apparently involved a hefty fee.

Polonsky has talked about the episode in the past but declined to comment on the dispute for this story. However, his producing partner, Mike Kaplan, confirms that Polonsky still hopes to do his own film on the subject.

During his 35-year career, Winkler has produced more than 30 films, most of them with his former partner, Robert Charthoff. The pair won a best-picture Oscar for "Rocky" in 1976 and earned subsequent nominations for "Raging Bull" and "The Right Stuff." More recently, Winkler has produced "Revolution," "Betrayed," "Music Box" and "GoodFellas," the latter giving the producer his fourth best-picture nomination.

While he continues to produce the commercially popular "Rocky" series, Winkler is more often linked with films by such critical darlings as Martin Scorsese, who directed both "Raging Bull" and "GoodFellas" (and who plays a cameo in "Guilty by Suspicion") and Costa-Gavras, who directed "Betrayed" and "Music Box."

A hands-on producer, Winkler has felt more than once that his directors let him down. Peter Bogdanovich, he says, "really screwed up" a great screenplay in making "Nickelodeon," which the director co-wrote with W.D. Richter. He describes Hugh Hudson as a "terrific director" but says he was disappointed with the results on "Revolution," which had what Winkler describes as "one of the best screenplays I've had in years." (It was written by Robert Dillon.)

Despite those disappointments, Winkler never gave into his own impulse to write or direct--until "Guilty by Suspicion." He says he was encouraged to do so by both De Niro and Scorsese, and Warner Bros. executives gave their go-ahead on the movie after reading the script over a weekend.

There have been many books written about McCarthyism in Hollywood, and several documentaries have been broadcast, including KCET's "Legacy of the Hollywood Blacklist" in 1987 and Bill Moyers' "John Henry Faulk: The Man Who Beat the Blacklist" in 1990. But dramatic accounts of the blacklist have been few and far between. On TV, they include CBS' "Fear on Trial," the Faulk docudrama that won writer David Rintels an Emmy in 1975, and HBO's "Fellow Traveler" starring Ron Silver, which was broadcast a year ago.

The blacklist served as a backdrop to some films, such as "The Way We Were." But until "Guilty by Suspicion," Winkler believes that only one major Hollywood production focusing on that era had been made: Martin Ritt's "The Front" in 1976, which was set inside the TV industry in New York and starred Woody Allen and Zero Mostel.

Winkler's film is set in Hollywood and is populated with real characters from the period. Actor Ben Piazza stands out for his chilling performance as a rather cold-hearted Zanuck. But Winkler insists he didn't intend to portray the studio chief as a villain, rather as a powerful man who had to knuckle under to the blacklist.

"I always thought Zanuck was the most interesting of the studio executives," says Winkler. "He was always a filmmaker more than anything else. I thought (MGM's) Louis Mayer was a bit too much of a regal figure, too much of a potentate. (Columbia's) Harry Cohn was a little vulgar. Jack Warner was a buffoon--or at least he was portrayed that way.

"Dick Zanuck was a good friend of mine," Winkler adds. "I didn't want to do anything he'd be unhappy with. So he read over the script, and gave me notes on what his father might or might not have said in certain situations."

When the film was completed, Winkler set up a private screening for his friend. Reached by phone on the set of his next production in Houston, Zanuck said he was pleased with the portrayal of his father. He echoed Winkler's description of the former studio boss as a man caught in an untenable position during the blacklist era.

Richard Zanuck was not the only one whom Winkler felt he needed permission from. He was intent on using Zanuck's studio, 20th Century Fox, filming in its 1940s-era commissary and on the back lot. "I gave the script to the Fox lawyers, and they said 'Absolutely not: Your film is very disparaging toward 20th Century Fox,' " Winkler recalls. "I was really in trouble then. So I called (Fox Inc. Chairman) Barry Diller and he said 'Send me over the script.' He read the script, called me back and said, 'Anything you want--Fox participated in the blacklist 40 years ago, we're never going to learn a lesson if we don't show it.' "

Scholars of the period will have a heyday spotting familiar figures in "Guilty by Suspicion." De Niro and Annette Bening, who plays his wife, are composite characters, as is "Cheers" star George Wendt, who appears in the film as De Niro's longtime pal and screenwriter. But others in the film are based on real people.

Scorsese plays a director based on Joseph Losey, who had actually quit the Communist Party before being named in 1951 but was nevertheless forced to move to England in order to work. The Broadway producer who appears before HUAC as a friendly witness seems to be based on Abe Burrows: There is a poster outside his theater of the play he directed, "Three Wishes for Jamie," and props from that production can be seen on the stage. Burrows remained blacklisted even after he provided names to the committee.

The congressional investigator is based on Sen. Joseph McCarthy's counsel, Roy Cohn. The witness who testifies before De Niro appears to be based on actor Larry Parks, star of "The Jolson Story," who pleaded unsuccessfully with HUAC not to force him to "crawl through the mud" by becoming an informer.

As Victor S. Navasky, author of "Naming Names," tells it, Parks' hearings set the precedent for other Hollywood figures called before HUAC over the next decade: Witnesses could cooperate and provide information; they could risk a contempt of Congress charge and a jail term, or they could invoke the Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination and lose their jobs.

In "Guilty by Suspicion," Patricia Wettig, best known for her role in TV's "thirtysomething," plays the emotionally distraught actress Dorothy Nolan. That character is based on actress Dorothy Comingore, best known for her role as the mistress in Orson Welles' "Citizen Kane." Comingore took the Fifth Amendment before HUAC, according to Navasky. But her husband, screenwriter Richard Collins, named 26 people. After their divorce, a custody battle for the children ensued, in which Comingore was accused of being an unfit mother because of her alleged alcoholism and communist leanings.

Hollywood trivia buffs might also recognize Merrill's Mulholland Drive home as Frank Sinatra's former bachelor pad. Winkler also inserts his own ode to Gary Cooper, who despite his conservative leanings defended writer Carl Foreman when he was accused of being a communist during the production of "High Noon." Filming on the original "High Noon" set, Winkler set up a Western that Merrill was allowed to direct. The star of the film: Jerry Cooper.

There are also victims of McCarthyism in the film: Blacklisted actor Sam Wanamaker plays the studio attorney, Felix Graff. Allan Rich, who plays a film producer, also was blacklisted. Joan Scott, widow of jailed "Hollywood Ten" producer Adrian Scott, plays a schoolteacher. Ileana Douglas, granddaughter of actor Melvyn Douglas and Helen Gahagan Douglas--who was branded the "Pink Lady" and defeated in a California congressional race in 1950 by a young Richard M. Nixon--plays Zanuck's assistant. Bill Bailey, a trade union activist who appeared before HUAC, plays a studio security guard.

At the end of the film, Winkler includes an epilogue stating that the blacklisting of leftist Hollywood figures ended in 1970, a date that may strike many in the audience as curious. But Winkler says he chose that date because of the famous "only victims" speech that Dalton Trumbo gave that year when he received the Screen Writers Guild Laurel Award. Trumbo, one of the Hollywood Ten, shocked many in his audience when he said, "It will do no good to search for villains or heroes or saints or devils because there were none; there were only victims."

Winkler is already at work with his next project, a Scorsese film about George and Ira Gershwin, and he is writing a script exploring another area rife with ethical dilemmas--the media. He recently parted ways with director Paul Verhoeven because he didn't like the filmmaker's take on the Joe Eszterhas script "Basic Instinct." "All he wanted to do was show female parts--and male parts--in various stages of excitement," Winkler insists.

In the future, Winkler will continue to be picky about his projects. "I'm not going to make those mistakes," he says in referring to "Basic Instinct." "If I'm going to produce something, it's going to be with somebody I think is special. Once I go beyond a handful of directors, like Scorsese, there are very few I want to work with."

And if he can't find the right director to work with, he can always do it himself.

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