Alan Smithee, the mysterious but prolific director whose 30-year career has been marked by controversy, is failing and may never work again. His problem isn't illness or old age, some say, but screenwriter Joe Eszterhas.
Smithee is the pseudonym slapped on a film when a director demands that his own name be removed from the credits. Since his invention by the Directors Guild in 1968, Smithee has showed up on dozens of films and TV shows, from an episode of "Twilight Zone" to the airline version of Martin Brest's "Scent of a Woman." Within the industry, Smithee's name has been a signal that something went awry. But to most Americans, for years, Smithee was just another show-biz auteur.
Then, Eszterhas made "An Alan Smithee Film: Burn Hollywood Burn," a documentary-style satire of the movie biz that--while it was a box-office dud--got lots of buzz on the Internet, prompted national press accounts and introduced the masses to Smithee. (The movie's conceit, as one amateur reviewer explained on the Ain't It Cool News movie Web site, is that a director named Alan Smithee wants his name off a picture "but the catch is, the name the DGA puts on in place of disgruntled directors' names is Alan Smithee.")
Ever since Disney released the film, in 1998, Smithee's reputation has suffered, with movie studios worrying that crediting him is tantamount to labeling a movie damaged goods. But this week came the first hard evidence that Smithee's days are numbered.
MGM's "Supernova," which opened Friday, was directed by Walter Hill, who subsequently petitioned the DGA to have his name removed. Normally, this would be Smithee's moment to shine. Instead, Hill, the production company and the DGA agreed to a different pseudonym: Thomas Lee. And that raised the question: Where was Smithee?
The answer, according to one DGA board member: Smithee has taken sick and is unlikely to recover.
"I have a fondness for the fellow. I gave birth to him. But Eszterhas ruined it," said veteran director John Rich, a member of the DGA board of directors since 1953 who helped coin the Smithee name. "Several on the board feel we should maintain Smithee. But I understand the view of the majority that he's been damaged to the point that it's unworkable. This is an ideal time for his obituary."
Writer-director Gary Ross ("Pleasantville") said Smithee should die happy because "considering he has such a body of undistinguished work, it's amazing he has had such a long career."
The DGA does not comment on particular credit disputes, and it requires directors who remove their names to refrain from talking about the films they've disowned. Officials at MGM declined comment as well (the film wasn't screened for critics and will be reviewed in The Times on Monday). And Eszterhas did not return repeated phone calls last week.
But throughout the industry, Smithee's failing health has prompted talk about not just credit battles but also the changing relationship between Hollywood and the consumer.
Eszterhas' Smithee project aside, moviegoers today know more about the inner workings of the movie business than ever before. Fueled by numerous nightly televised entertainment news shows and Internet sites that report on movies even as they're being made, fans can recite box-office statistics and report on the results of private test screenings. In this atmosphere, many said, it was only a matter of time before Alan Smithee was exposed as a cipher.
"It used to be an inside-baseball, inside-Hollywood name known just to people in the business. It was a way of indicating that a director had been unhappy with the process," said one insider who said discussions about Smithee's fate are "ongoing" at the DGA. "Given the baggage that Smithee has now, the question is whether his name will ever be agreeable again."
Many suspect that the answer is no.
"If MGM has broken the Alan Smithee barrier, I can't see why any other studio would put it on again," said one writer-director who was surprised that the DGA would give up the Smithee label--which was intended as an incentive to encourage studios not to change directors' work. "The DGA has set a precedent."
Former Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences President Arthur Hiller, meanwhile, said Smithee's death, if it comes, will be an honorable one.
"Either way, Alan Smithee has served his purpose," Hiller said, "drawing the movie audience's attention to the fact that production companies in some cases have taken over a director's film and changed the whole intent."
Smithee was born after the DGA found itself swamped suddenly with requests from unhappy directors who wanted to distance themselves from what they viewed as botched work. (The DGA is not the only guild that allows its members to use pseudonyms. The Writer's Guild routinely allows its members to write under other names.)
For years before that, the DGA had refused to allow pseudonyms for fear that some unscrupulous producers could force weak directors to take them, thus negatively affecting their earning power.
The issue flared, however, in 1968 on "Death of a Gunfighter," a Universal release that was begun by one director and completed by another. Neither director wanted credit or future residuals and a DGA panel ruled that the finished film was not representative of either one's work. To prevent Universal from running the film without a credit, which would both tarnish that particular film and undermine the idea that directors generally deserve prominent billing, the DGA invented Smithee.
"Somebody suggested Alan Smith. I said, 'That's ridiculous. There are so many Smiths,' " recalled Rich, the longtime DGA board member. "Somebody said, 'How about Smithe, with an E?' I said, 'How about two E's?' We also came up with Alana Smithee for the women, though I don't think we ever used it."
Over the years, while Alan Smithee's name was never codified in the DGA bylaws, his name became the only pseudonym used when there was a dispute. The TV versions of David Lynch's "Dune," Michael Mann's "Heat" and Michael Apted's "Thunderheart" were Smithee's work, as was the airline version of Martin Brest's "Meet Joe Black." Smithee did a lot of TV as well, including episodes of "The Simpsons" and "MacGyver" and TV movies like "The O.J. Simpson Story."
And in a twist so perfect that it seemed scripted, Eszterhas' "Alan Smithee Film" was credited to Smithee after the real director, Hiller, disputed Eszterhas' editing of the film.
As word of Smithee's condition spread, many in Hollywood reflected on his career. Writer-director Phil Alden Robinson ("Field of Dreams") said that in Hollywood--where the length of one's credits list can be more valued than its quality--Smithee's legacy is secure.
"I've always been jealous of Alan Smithee," said Robinson, who has used a pseudonym himself on some writing projects. "I've only directed four movies. But this guy has quite a list. The films weren't any good, but there sure were a lot of them. I'm going to miss him."