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Preminger: Not to be pegged

Times Staff Writer

THE Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is presenting “A Centennial Tribute to Otto Preminger” this evening at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater -- although no one is really sure if 2006 marks the 100th birthday of the maverick director of such classics as “Laura,” “Anatomy of a Murder” and “The Man With the Golden Arm.”

Though he is thought to have been born Dec. 5, 1906, in Vienna, some sources have given his natal year as 1905.

“As we were growing up, we never knew,” admits his daughter, Victoria Preminger, who will discuss her father’s work at the tribute along with two of Preminger’s leading ladies, Carol Lynley and Eva Marie Saint. “He had a passport that said one thing and a birth certificate that said the other,” she says.

With his striking bald head, commanding accent and authoritative demeanor, Preminger was a major player in Hollywood not only as a filmmaker but also as a larger-than-life personality who was an outspoken talk-show guest and a sometime actor who appeared as villainous Nazis, most notably in 1953’s “Stalag 17,” and as Mr. Freeze on the old “Batman” TV series.

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“For a long time he was considered a rogue director,” Victoria Preminger says. “But I definitely think he has gained in importance over the years. I think one of the difficulties in understanding the work of my father is that nobody questioned he was a good director, but he didn’t have one type of film. Basically, it was what was a good story, what was controversial at the time. He was a fairly independent producer and bucked the system. He wasn’t the most popular guy in Hollywood. Some of the things he did were a little bit ahead of their time.”

PREMINGER was a successful stage director in Vienna and made his feature directorial debut before he immigrated to the United States in 1935.

He worked as an actor and producer on Broadway and directed low-budget films at 20th Century Fox, where he constantly battled studio head Darryl F. Zanuck.

His first major hit film was the seminal 1944 film noir “Laura,” for which he received his first Oscar nomination as best director.

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Despite locking horns with Zanuck, Preminger continued to direct at the studio, including “Whirlpool” and “Where the Sidewalk Ends.”

In the early 1950s, Preminger formed his own production company, and his films became more daring and provocative.

“I think he was more responsible for toppling the Production Code and the blacklist than anybody else,” says Preminger’s longtime friend, director Peter Bogdanovich, who is hosting tonight’s event.

Preminger’s 1953 sex comedy, “The Moon Is Blue,” was considered risque because a character utters the word “virgin”; it was condemned by the Catholic Legion of Decency and failed to receive a Production Code seal of approval.

“ ‘The Moon Is Blue’ is somewhat dated, but it’s fascinating to see how this movie was so out there for its time,” academy programmer Ellen Harrington says. “It seems so mild, it would barely get a PG [today]. It’s really interesting as a social kind of marker of what America was like in the 1950s.”

Preminger’s harrowing 1955 film “The Man With the Golden Arm,” starring Frank Sinatra in his Oscar-nominated performance as a drug addict, also was released without the seal of approval.

No topic seemed off-limits to Preminger. He explored rape in 1959’s “Anatomy of a Murder” and the inner workings of the Catholic Church in 1963’s “The Cardinal,” for which he received his second best director Oscar nomination.

The academy’s tribute to Preminger continues with a film series beginning Friday at the Linwood Dunn Theater in Hollywood, highlighting recent restorations and new prints.

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susan.king@latimes.com

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‘A Centennial Tribute to Otto Preminger’

Where: Samuel Goldwyn Theater, 8949 Wilshire Blvd., L.A.

When: 8 tonight

Price: $3 to $5

Info: (310) 247-3600, www.oscars.org

The screening series features:

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* “The Man With the Golden Arm” and “Laura”: 7 p.m. Friday

* “Where the Sidewalk Ends” and “Daisy Kenyon”: 7 p.m. Saturday

* “The Moon Is Blue” and “Bonjour Tristesse”: 7 p.m. Nov. 10

* “Whirlpool” and “Bunny Lake Is Missing” 7 p.m. Nov. 11

* “Anatomy of a Murder”: 7 p.m. Nov. 12

Where: Linwood Dunn Theater, 1313 N. Vine St., Hollywood


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