The awarding of stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame has become so commonplace that it hardly creates a stir anymore, but the latest recipient, Swiss producer Arthur Cohn, offers a vivid contrast to the famous entertainment industry figures customarily chosen. Last week, Cohn became the first foreign producer to be so honored, a recognition of his unique and distinguished career.
Over the decades he has produced such films as Vittorio De Sica’s “The Garden of the Finzi-Continis,” which dealt with the fate of Italy’s Jews in World War II; the anti-war, anti-colonial fable “Black and White in Color,” which launched director Jean-Jacques Annaud, and most recently, Barbara Kopple’s “American Dream,” a heart-rending and incisive documentary on an aborted strike at a Hormel meat-packing plant in Minnesota.
These three films won Oscars, as did two others produced by Cohn, “Sky Above, Mud Below,” a documentary on primitive life in Dutch New Guinea, and “Dangerous Moves,” a drama of intrigue set during a chess match. Cohn’s films typically are socially or politically concerned without being heavy-handed.
An elegant man with a boyish enthusiasm for filmmaking and a fierce pride tempered by charm and a disarming candor, Cohn has regularly won respect for his achievements. His many honors all over the world and in Hollywood, in particular, have added both crucial prestige and box-office appeal to his films, yet he has always maintained his independence. Few filmmakers, foreign or American, have benefited so strongly from Hollywood without being co-opted by it. That’s because his intimate, personal films offer no competition to Hollywood pictures but instead inspire accolades from a motion picture industry that only rarely produces such films itself.
“I have never felt in all my time here any inkling of envy,” said Cohn over a recent brunch at the Beverly Hills Hotel. “Sir David Lean told me a few months before he died that the true success of any artist in the film industry occurs when he has passed the barrier of envy. Everybody here has always been so sympathetic, so enthusiastic. All the films I have made, without exception, started their careers in America. Because of Hollywood--the American Film Institute, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences--my films have been able to go around the globe.”
Of the friendships that Cohn has forged over the years with leading American film industry figures, he said emphatically: “I have never thought, ‘What’s in it for me?’ That kind of thinking makes me truly vomit--that element of calculation in a human relationship I hate. I talk to so-called VIPs as human beings and listen to them on a personal level, not a business level.”
In any case, a policeman observing the unveiling of Cohn’s star remarked he had never seen such a crowd of onlookers, most of whom Cohn knew personally.
“They didn’t come for the free lunch afterwards, that’s for sure,” observed Cohn proudly. “They came out of personal respect for me. They gave me support because they want to encourage me to continue to make unusual films that are considered to be total sleepers. In this country, in this city, there are lots of people who admire the way I do films and wish they could it themselves.”
In the course of outlining his upcoming projects, Cohn, who is headquartered in Basel, his birthplace, revealed his way of doing things. “I have the problem all independent producers in Europe face: We always have to be preparing three pictures at the same time to be sure that one of them goes. I am always concentrating on the script, and it always takes longer than you expect to have a solid script.
“I always say a good script is 50% of the film. A solid script a mediocre director can’t ruin; a mediocre script a good director cannot salvage. This enormous importance I give to developing a script to past perfection is very rare, even in Europe.
“Most producers run from activity to activity often just for activity’s sake. They have the delusion that in order to be successful they have to be busy at all times. But my mother taught me that it is vital in life to go through light and shadow, emphasizing that if you don’t have periods of shadow--disappointments, depression--you do not appreciate sufficiently that light when it comes back,” he said.
“I do not worry when I do not have a film in or near production; everything in life needs proper timing. Both here and in Europe they try to force timing instead of letting timing control them. I applaud the appointment of Sherry Lansing at Paramount--she understands the needs of the independent producer more than most.
“I have four ‘concrete’ films in preparation. Over 10 years ago I bought the film rights to Paul Gallico’s novel, ‘Foolish Immortal,’ a mystical adventure story. I assigned a writer--Susan Gauthier--in Los Angeles to do for me the 10th version; I’m sure with another producer nine different films would have already been made.
“One of my principles in life is not to have regrets. When I evaluate a project, I think--how will I look at the film and the script three years from now? I want to be sure at the beginning that I will not feel later that I could have done things better.
‘The second film is based on a book that was a bestseller in Europe, ‘The Beautiful Mrs. Seidenmann.’ It’s the story of a Polish woman in the Second World War who, in the postwar years, experiences new waves of anti-Semitism. It’s a beautiful book but extremely difficult to transpose to the screen. The major action is in the time of the Holocaust. Much to my regret, I think at this time there is a total indifference to this era, so I must shift the emphasis to the postwar period.
“A third writer, Peter Jungk, is trying to do that now--he is well known for his biography of Franz Werfel. The next project is a wonderful script by Joseph Stefano, who adapted ‘Psycho.’ In my personal opinion, it is the best script I have to develop in all of my activities. I am here to determine which of three directors will direct it next summer.”
Called “Two Bits,” which refers to the 25 cents admission price to the movies in Philadelphia during the Depression, it focuses on the relationship between a boy and his grandfather, who teaches him to seek even seemingly impossible goals. The fourth film, called “White Lies,” is a satirical interracial romantic comedy set in Manhattan.
“It will be directed by Ken Selden,” continued Cohn. “He was recommended to me by Jean Firstenberg of the AFI, where he is considered one of the most promising pupils. I have won three Oscars with first-time directors. I always like to work with new directors--maybe because I have an easier time in having a say in the film. I absolutely insist on having the final cut, in which I show my creativity.
“I have never considered myself a money man or an organizer but as a very creative producer. I spend as much as two or three years following a film from A to Z. Producers who are not prepared to spend such time on a film have no right to blame a studio or a distributor or anybody else if their film does not succeed.
“ ‘The Garden of the Finzi-Continis’ was turned down by nine distributors, ‘Black and White in Color’ by 15 and ‘Dangerous Moves’ by 22. I didn’t allow anybody to tell me those films were nothing, but they all found a home in Europe, thanks only to the Oscars they won. The academy did a tremendous thing,” he said.
“I have a few other basic principles: You must cast a film to be believable, not for the box office. The audience must be able to identify with the characters. ‘A Brief Vacation,’ which was directed by Vittorio De Sica, had such a good script I had my choice of European stars, but we chose an unknown Brazilian actress, Florinda Bolkan. Had the role of this poor woman been played by Sophia Loren or Jane Fonda it would have been harder to believe in the character.
“I also am very active in the editing stage. After we won the Golden Bear in Berlin for ‘The Garden of the Finzi-Continis,’ I reshot the ending at the suggestion of a German critic. She pointed out that a shot of an empty tennis court did not convey that all the Italian Jews of Ferrara had been transported to the camps. We shot empty streets of the neighborhood, and it was much stronger. De Sica was a great man who listened and benefited by having the distance someone else could provide. Can you imagine being able to do that in Hollywood-- after winning the Golden Bear? I took as much as nine months re-editing ‘Dangerous Moves’ and changed the whole rhythm of the film.
“Vittorio De Sica, who treated me like an adopted son, was one of my three mentors. Another was Mr. Nagamasa Kawakita, the Japanese producer, whose Asiatic wisdom was a wonderful source of inspiration. Then there is Billy Wilder, who was born not so far from me in Mulhouse.”
Cohn started out as a radio journalist, reporting on sports and foreign politics for Swiss radio. (He is sensitive about revealing his age: “You can say I am 56 if you will also say that the writer of this piece is also 56.”)
In the early ‘60s, he tried his hand at a script, called “Past Life,” about a man who rushes hectically through life only to discover at the end he has achieved nothing. He submitted it confidently to Myron Carlin, at that time Warners head of international production and distribution, who returned it with the remark, “Past Film.” It was then and there Cohn decided that if he was serious about filmmaking, he would have to have collaborators.
Cohn credits his parents with instilling his unflagging self-confidence. His father was a well-known lawyer who helped frame the constitution of Israel and to set up its legal system. His mother, who was born in Berlin, was also well known, as a poet; he remembers her contributing songs to a famous anti-Nazi cabaret, the Cornichon.
“My success is really due to my parents,” said Cohn. “They gave me roots and wings. They taught me their beliefs, their family traditions and their religion. They also gave me wings so that I should be able to fly out on my own--so that I could succeed based on my own achievements and not because I was the son of well-respected people. At the same time, they taught me not to forget my roots.”