Lillian Ross, who was a staff writer at The New Yorker for seven decades, called herself a reporter, but she was an artist, and her prime subject was art. In 1950, she profiled Ernest Hemingway, who planted the seeds of creative nonfiction in such books as “Death in the Afternoon” and “Green Hills of Africa.” Soon thereafter, she brought the concept to full flower, when, later that year, she went to Hollywood and stayed for a year and a half to observe the creation of John Huston’s movie “The Red Badge of Courage.” The five articles she wrote, collected as the book “Picture,” published in 1952 and newly reissued by NYRB Classics, was—as Ross herself knew—a bold literary advance. She wrote to her editor, William Shawn, “I don’t see why I shouldn’t try to do a fact piece in novel form, or maybe a novel in fact form.” She tried; she succeeded. (This Saturday, May 18th, Metrograph will present a tribute to Ross, who died in 2017, featuring a screening of “The Red Badge of Courage,” followed by a Q. & A. with Susan Morrison, of The New Yorker.)
The subject of “Picture” is: Whose film is “The Red Badge of Courage”? Does it have an author (or, as the French would say, an auteur)? Knowing Huston and his work, Ross recognized him as an artist who left his personal mark on the movies that he worked on; in following the making of the film, she sought to learn how the artistry of its writer-director could be maintained throughout the mechanical processes of filmmaking, the complex collaboration of the many artists and artisans whose techniques and crafts go into the making of the movie, and, above all, the corporate pressures that lead to drastic changes in the finished product. In a word, she wanted to see whether, and under what conditions, a Hollywood movie could be enduring art of the sort that would stand alongside the other arts.
Ross had access to the moviemaking process that was unprecedented at the time and has likely been unequalled since. Through her acquaintance with Huston, she spent time with him as the film was being planned, and he introduced her to the other major participants—Gottfried Reinhardt, the movie’s producer; Dore Schary, the head of production for M-G-M, which made the movie; and even Louis B. Mayer, the studio’s longtime boss—all of whom welcomed Ross into their offices. She sat in on their meetings, attended parties with them, was present for every day of the film shoot, and went to the editing room, the sound studio, previews with audiences, and even a shareholders’ meeting.
Ross discerned three intersecting fields of drama: one involved Huston’s effort to make a movie of great artistic ambition and achievement; the second involved the desire of all involved (the special effort of Schary), to make the movie a commercial success; and the third involved a power struggle between Mayer, who was in his mid-sixties and had been running M-G-M since its founding, in 1924, and Schary, born in 1905, who was named to his position in 1948. She also caught a virtual fourth dimension of power—the overarching dominion of Nicholas Schenck, who ran M-G-M’s parent company, Loew’s, from New York (and who makes a dramatic, deus-ex-machina-like entrance at the end of the story).
Mayer was an unsophisticated sentimentalist whose tastes for banal entertainments (and depressingly comedic contempt for “art”) placed him squarely in the American mainstream and led to the studio’s great commercial success. He was also a Republican. Schary, a liberal Democrat, was also an idealistic producer who had made films, such as “The Boy with Green Hair” and “Crossfire,” that directly challenge prejudice; he believed that movies could both entertain and edify. (He also gave such great, and leftist, directors as Nicholas Ray and Joseph Losey their start.) At M-G-M, he produced “Go for Broke!,” about Japanese-American soldiers fighting heroically in Europe in the Second World War; Mayer’s response, as reported by Ross, was, “I don’t like Japs! I remember Pearl Harbor!”
Which is to say that Ross, in her reporting, does what novelists of the first order do in their fiction: she brings abstractions to life, she catches and depicts the passions that motivate people to reach high, to plot deftly, to compromise, to take foolish risks or hedge their bets. Yet, no less than in her exemplary Profile of Hemingway, Ross also explores the inner life of an artist, in an attempt to illuminate the mysteries of the art itself. With amazingly forward-looking insight, she perceived that “the style of the Huston pictures . . . was the style of the man.” Describing his personal bearing, his repertory of gestures, his way of speaking, she wrote that “he was simply the raw material of his own art.”
Ross seeks the inflection point where Huston, the subject, becomes an adjective, in “Huston pictures”—where the act of directing marks the film conspicuously with the director’s character. Yet she also catches Huston rendering himself, inadvertently but perhaps inevitably, an object—of action by Reinhardt and Schary, especially. When Huston and Reinhardt pitched “The Red Badge of Courage” to the studio, they faced strong opposition from Mayer, who believed that it would inevitably lose money—but who nonetheless yielded to Schary’s enthusiasm and let the project proceed. (The maneuverings involved in the project’s approval reflect Shakespearean sinuosities of the psychology of power.) But, soon after the shoot of “Red Badge,” Huston followed up with “The African Queen,” which was made by his own production company and which he fully expected to be greatly profitable; after the first (and disastrous) preview of an early version of “Red Badge,” he headed off to London en route to Uganda and Congo to shoot the film. As a result, he was out of touch throughout the protracted and conflict-riddled completion of “Red Badge.” The film, meanwhile, ended up drastically altered, first by Reinhardt and then, over Reinhardt’s objections and without Huston’s creative input, by Schary, who suppressed scenes, used dubbed-in narration and dubbed voices, and added a banal, sentimental musical score.
True to her reporter’s sense of canny restraint, Ross avoids issuing judgment on the finished film—and, for that matter, on its intermediate phases. But, like a literary creator, she discerns a subtle pattern in the profuse tangle of impulses and interests that converge on the film, and recognizes its tragic destiny long before the critical and financial balance sheets could be read. Early on in the process, she catches Schary telling her, “A motion picture is a success or a failure at its very inception,” and he continues to explain his desire to see this movie through in accord with his “hunch” or “instinct” that Huston’s film “is liable to be a wonderful picture and a commercial success.” Yet it’s precisely because of the movie’s inception that “The Red Badge of Courage” proved doomed. The combination of creative and commercial pressures was unbearable for all concerned, and the tensions that resulted from the violent pull in opposite directions proved too much for its creators and for the movie itself.
Reinhardt, all too aware of Mayer’s hostility, was resolved to overcome it while throwing his own lot in with Huston’s designs, declaring, “Our picture must be a commercial success. . . . And it must be a great picture.” Ross is alert to the ways in which Huston’s overweening efforts at an artistic greatness got in the way of the movie’s even being merely good, while also positioning it far outside the commercial mainstream. After viewing footage from the first day’s shoot, Reinhardt offers many trenchant criticisms that Huston largely dismisses. Soon thereafter, in the course of the shoot, Huston began to doubt elements of the story, but, in his overbold confidence, hoped to find fixes that wouldn’t cost much or take much effort. Reinhardt knew at once that there was trouble in paradise—that the movie wouldn’t be a commercial success; he also harbored doubts about its artistic merits, which, whatever they may have been, were, in his view, utterly dispelled by Schary’s drastic changes. (Those merits are most clearly expressed by the director William Wyler, who, at a private screening of the first cut, expressed stunned enthusiasm for one particular scene. Schary ultimately cut that scene.)
Huston, as he’s followed in Ross’s lenses, is exuberant and expressive, but, like many complex artists, he is also a figure of elusive, iridescent ambiguity. When he dashes out of the country and avoids the bitter battles over the editing of “Red Badge,” is he merely deferring to the practicalities of his job (the filming of “The African Queen”), or is he intentionally sparing himself a catastrophic collision? Despite Ross’s obvious admiration for Huston’s talent and flair, she also reveals his inclination to egocentric frivolity—his habit of talking expansively about horses, saddles, and swords, to bail on production duties in favor of early-morning fishing expeditions, to unplug tough discussions with trips to “21.” (It’s a side of Huston that Peter Viertel, who worked on “The African Queen,” emphasizes in his thinly veiled roman à clef “White Hunter Black Heart,” from 1953—which Clint Eastwood adapted, in 1990.)
The commercial failure of the movie became apparent at the first preview—which was held, ludicrously, in a theatre where the audience had just seen “Harvey,” a comedy featuring James Stewart as a man who’s befriended by an imaginary human-sized rabbit. The studio’s idea of mainstream was that any movie would be marketed to the broadest possible audience; niche marketing hardly existed, and for good reason: there was hardly such a thing as a niche budget at M-G-M. (“The Red Badge of Courage” was budgeted at $1.5 million, and came in slightly over budget. By comparison, the studio’s 1951 production of “Quo Vadis,” at seven or eight million dollars, was said to have the highest budget in Hollywood to date. Imagine an ambitious, daring director today getting one-fifth of the budget of “Avengers: Endgame,” which cost three hundred and fifty-six million dollars to make.) Ross cites excerpts from reviews in the New York press, and gives pride of place to a review from the New York Post lamenting that Huston’s “light of inspiration” had got lost along the way, and asserting that the major cuts had the effect of “reducing a large failure to the proportion of a modest, almost ordinary picture.”
In revealing the venality, the banality, the crudeness, the prejudices of the men who made movies at M-G-M, Ross suggested the limits of what they could achieve—together. “Picture” is a vision of a system with inherently repressive and anti-individualist tendencies, but it’s also a view of a system that allows for a widely varied range of temperaments and, thus, for a vast variety of outcomes. “Picture” is more than a deeply reported view of the power struggles of Hollywood filmmaking; it’s a fine-grained study in one very idiosyncratic set of personalities whose blend was toxic—who reinforced one another’s weaknesses and muddied one another’s motives. But Ross also sees exceptional and forward-looking individuals who put their livelihoods on the line, even in a losing battle, for their confidence in personal creation. She records Reinhardt discussing the director Ernst Lubitsch, who gave him his first job in Hollywood, in the early thirties: “Lubitsch was a producer and director who did everything himself. The cutting. Every frame. And he was brutal with himself.” Ross’s portrait of cinematic conflict and compromise yields, in passing, a portrait of true artistry in movies that stands untarnished to this day.