Ahh, Stanley Kramer!
I always tell people that the best part of my job as a writer is talking to people whose work I admire about the work I admire. There’s no better example of that than Stanley Kramer. Today being what would’ve been his 102nd birthday, I think it the perfect time to re-share the interview I did with him a while back. He agreed to meet with me in November 1994 at the legendary Sportsman’s Lodge. The interview was, of course for Lee Marvin Point Blank so consequently, Marvin was the main topic of conversation. Most of Kramer’s thoughts on Marvin went into my book but the opportunity to speak with the pioneering producer/director naturally bled into other topics. That which didn’t go into the book is presented here for the first time. Sadly, Stanley Kramer passed away in 2001 (on Lee Marvin’s birthday!) and what survives here are the opinions, anecdotes and cantankerous musings of a filmmaker whose value can never be overestimated.
Dwayne Epstein: As a producer, you did a film in 1952 called Eight Iron Men based on a play…
Stanley Kramer: Was Lee in that?
D: Yeah, he was. Do you remember anything about it?
Stanley Kramer: No, not very much. But he must have impressed me because I used him several times after that.
Pvt. Carter (Arthur Franz, seated), Sgt. Mooney (Lee Marvin) and Pvt. Coke (Richard Kiley) decide to rescue a fallen buddy against orders in producer Stanley Kramer’s EIGHT IRON MEN.
D: What would be in a script that would make you think Lee Marvin could play the part?
Stanley Kramer: My natural sense of genius. I mean why do you cast? You cast out of ego, too. You see it that way. People say to me, “Why did you use Gene Kelly?” or “Why did you use Fred Astaire in a dramatic part?” or “Why did you make the first picture with Marlon Brando?” Because I felt that I was doing something special.
D: And you were.
Stanley Kramer: Not always.
D: You had the guts to at least try something different.
Stanley Kramer: Try, yeah. That’s why I got into it.
D: How did Lee Marvin and Brando get along?
S: Not too well. Brando had done Streetcar and a couple of other things. I was the only one who made two films with him that didn’t make any money.
D: I always thought The Wild One (1954) was a big hit.
S: It was banned more places that it played.
D: Was there a rivalry between the two actors that transferred to the screen?
S: Since they played the heads of rival gangs, they played it that way.
D: Lee hid behind his personality?
S: He created a personality and hid behind it. He wasn’t that way, at all.
D: What was he really then?
S: Soft. Sensitive. Easy to hurt.
D: You saw that side of him?
S: I lived that side with him. I must have done about five pictures with him.
Lee Marvin, in his first leading role, opposite RIchard Kiley in producer Stanley Kramer’s taut WWII drama, EIGHT IRON MEN. The working title, believe it or not, was THE DIRTY DOZEN (!).
D: How would that sensitive side show itself?
S: Well, sometimes with another actor or actress. Sometimes with a director. It would depend. He wanted to do a good job much more desperately than his personality indicated.
D: So there was a sense of insecurity about him?
S: Sure, but he was very talented.
D: Having worked on The Caine Mutiny (1954), would you say there was a comparison between Bogart and Lee Marvin?
S: I don’t think so.
D: How would they be different?
S: Well, Bogart was a star incarnate, from the beginning. First time I ever got together with Bogart, for example, was in Hawaii, The Beachcomber’s Restaurant. There was about eight of us at the table and the film was starting rehearsals the next morning. We had all been settled in there for about three or four days. Around 11:00, I looked at my watch and said, “For all the guys that have to work tomorrow, I think it’s time to turn in.” Bogart said, “Wait a minute. What do you fancy yourself to be? Who are you, the producer of this picture? For Christ’s sake, dictating the time to go to bed and everything, that’s ridiculous! What’s your function here?” Fortunately, I thought of a line. I said, “My function is to see that recalcitrant actors get to bed on time.” He looked at me and just stared at me. Then, he broke out in a laugh. He said, “Okay.” That was all just before we started The Caine Mutiny.
D: Do you remember if Lee Marvin got along with Bogart, because I know he was enamored of Bogart?
S: Right, he was. I don’t remember. Too many other things going on.
D: The first film you directed, Not As A Stranger with Robert Mitchum, Lee Marvin had a small part in that. What was it like working with him then? It was a pretty volatile cast with Sinatra, Mitchum, Broderick Crawford….
S: I don’t recollect. You’ll have to make it up.
D: [laughs] I won’t do that. Some critics said Gene Kelly was miscast in Inherit the Wind (1960). I thought he was wonderful in that.
S: I did, too. It’s hard to find reasons for that failure of that movie except I know some of the reasons. United Artists never went all the way down the line with it, to open it and do it, exploit it. It needed that. I thought Tracy and March would carry it, you know?
D: They were like titans.
S: They were titans, too. They had respect. That was a wonderful experience for me. Sometimes it goes, sometimes it doesn’t. When I was working on Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967), everybody said, “Christ, this will fold like an accordion.” Yet, they stood opposite each other. The guy kissed the girl in the opening scene.
D: The world didn’t come to an end.
S: No, maybe if it had we’d have made more money. If you have any personal questions, feel free to ask me.
D: What do you look for in a script? Obviously, you have a certain style of filmmaking like all great directors do…
S: No I don’t.
D: I think you do. I think you have a film that says Stanley Kramer on it.
S: How do you…That’s why I made a picture, the picture I made was It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, World (1963). That’s not a Stanley Kramer picture.
D: Right, since every now and again, you got to break the mold. No question about that. But chances are, if there’s a film that says Stanley Kramer on it, it’s not going to be a light piece of fluff. You tackled tough subjects mostly…
S: I didn’t think they were so tough when I tackled them. I made them because I believed in them and visualized it and thought, “Well, I could do this. Make a great thing out of it.” Doesn’t always turn out that way. That’s what makes a Christian out of you.
D: What do you look for in a script when you read it?
S: I don’t look for anything in particular. Surprise me! Shock me! Stun me! Intrigue me! Do something! I don’t know whether it jumps off the page but maybe I can visualize something. Chances are, if it jumps off the page, it wouldn’t be very good.
D: Did you ever think of directing a play instead of just films? You seem to be a very good actor’s director.
S: Who told you that?
D: No one. That comes just from watching your films. You give great showcases for actors in your films.
S: Well, then the film would be the showcase. But, nobody ever offered me a play script and I never thought of one so…I’ve directed stage productions, workouts, locally and so forth.
D: Interesting. When you cast Burt Lancaster as the judge on trial in Judgment at Nuremberg, was there a chance of casting Lee Marvin in that or any role in the film?
S: I’m sure I did along the way. Maybe there was some reason why he wasn’t in it. See, I had Tracy near the end of his life, since it was an all-star cast, I did that so I could get try to get an audience where it all jelled, because it never did sufficiently. We got an audience but not enough. Lancaster was a replacement. That part was set and agreed to and all negotiated out for Olivier to play. He got married. He married Joan Plowright. He said, “Unless you can postpone the picture for four months, it’s out.” I couldn’t. At any rate, Lancaster was one of those nasty…It didn’t work entirely because everybody else had a background of being German; Schell and all the defendants. But Lancaster read it and wanted it. I didn’t like the accent he played with.
D: He tried.
S: He tried and he performed pretty well.
D: You produced John Cassavetes’ first studio film, A Child is Waiting (1963). I’m guessing he preferred his own independent projects so he wasn’t crazy about the experience.
Producer Stanley Kramer making a point to director John Cassavetes on the set of A CHILD IS WAITING. The look on Cassavetes’ face betrays the looming storm.
S: He wasn’t crazy about the experience because of me, probably. We had difficulties. He was a talented fellow. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have put him in the job. But I had a self-centered idea about films. There can only be one dominant and you can’t do it by conference, by agreement. One guy has the concept and the driving force. That’s what I always felt to be true, anyhow. Cassavetes was young, unregimented, not accustomed to listening, and I was in his ear a lot. It was a project I would have done. I was busy on something else. The reason I didn’t direct it is I made the project go up to that point but it was the kind of subject most people wouldn’t be interested in, anyhow. We used a lot of people from the hospital.
D: Burt Lancaster played the head of the hospital but would you have considered Lee Marvin for Lancaster’s role as the lead?
S: Yeah, I would have considered Lee Marvin for anything. I thought he was a hell of an actor.
D: Do you recall if you did or not for that role?
S: Probably not because Lancaster was a much bigger name. Some of those subjects needed a symphony of names. It’s always a confining thing. See, in the early days, Marlon Brando had never made a film, and that was good. Kirk Douglas hadn’t done anything, and that was good. There were other people. Jose Ferrer was not known in films. Gary Cooper was but Grace Kelly hadn’t. I had used a lot of people exciting in those days. Then, I began to switch cast, vis a vis Astaire or Gene Kelly, that kind of thing…dancers [laughs].
D: On Ship of Fools (1965), how did Lee Marvin get along with Vivien Leigh?
The climatic ‘shoe fight’ in SHIP OF FOOLS in which Vivien Leigh beats Lee Marvin for misaking her for a prostitute. Marvin kept the shoe as a treasured memento.
S: I don’t know if there was anything personal going on between them. I would be the last one to ask about that. But, he got along very well. After all, he was a queer duck. Meeting him for the first time, for an actor who’s supposed to be playing with him, it must have been an experience for her, too. I’m sure it was.
D: Would you say there was a mutual respect for each other’s talent?
S: The respect that he had for her was unbelievable. What her respect was for him, I don’t know.
D: How did Lee Marvin get the part in Ship of Fools?
S: I picked him. If you ask me on what basis, I don’t know. Usually, casting is a feeling. [pause] I can’t stress enough that he was really two people. He had an outer facade and this terrible, sensitive, introspective underneath. How do you deal with that, as an actor? It’s not easy. He was very respectful of Vivien Leigh. The first scene they played together I remember very well because of Marvin. He came into the dining room, crossed the room and sat down at the table.
A disheveled Lee Marvin as ex-ballplayer Bill Tenney in director Stanley Kramer’s SHIP OF FOOLS.
D: That’s right.
S: How do you know that’s right?
D: I’ve seen the movie several times. Wasn’t it the scene where he’s at the table and she comes in and he doesn’t get up for Vivien Leigh who sarcastically says ‘don’t get up.’?
S: You’ve seen it more recently. At any rate, he worked out the lines, how to cope with it and then did me the honor of discussing it. He often did that, very often. This was always deep with him because either he had something profound to say which people ought to listen to — he always seemed to be so surfacely amuck or rough. When you bear that, when you lifted the curtain and looked behind it, there was a lot to see.
D: So you’re saying there was much more depth to the man then people realized?
S: Not only much more depth but he was sensitive underneath. His sensitivity he protected as best he could. I always gave him credit of his intelligence. I remember…let me think a minute. I constantly had a feeling he left too soon. I think he had a lot more to say and do, I really feel that. I don’t think he ever crested, is what I mean
D: Have you seen a film in recent years and thought Lee Marvin could’ve done it?
S: Well, it wouldn’t be that obvious. I made a picture once called On the Beach (1959). Fred Astaire played a scientist in it. Everyone said, “What the hell is Fred Astaire doing in this? Can’t visualize it.” I visualize it somewhere along the line. I think he came through very well. It would be the same with Marvin. If Marvin, for example, played a hard…I often look for a role for something like a football coach or a college instructor so I could use him and stand out from that.
D: Well, Anthony Quinn in RPM (1970) was a college instructor. Did you consider Marvin for that role?
S: I don’t remember that. It was a gigantic failure. That’s what I remember most.
D: It was a game effort.
S: Unfortunately, you don’t get points for that. I’ve had a lot of game efforts [laughs].
D: During Ship of Fools, anything else in particular about it that stands out in your mind?
S: Well, I had a conglomeration of people in the film, as you know. It was the one and only experience I had with an actor named Oskar Werner. He happened to be one of the great actors of all time. He and Spencer Tracy, but I only made one picture with Oskar…He was very difficult for everybody. I made a pact with him. If our objectives, our high objectives were up there and clear to both of us, he’d get rid of all this crap and go for it, which he bought and did. Many times he would do something and say to me something he never said to anybody: “What do you think?” That was a big concession for him.
D: How did he get along with the other actors?
S: Fairly well. He and Signoret, I got together and made a pact with both of them. They made a pact with each other: Drop the resentment and the dislike and let the roles dominant.
D: Seemed to work. Their love scenes seemed very believable.
S: Of course. So many other things I was satisfied with most of the way. I remember one day I had a scene with Vivien Leigh and she was drunk, she was playing it. It occurred to us, on her walk down the ship’s corridor, do something, the Charleston. Just suddenly broke into it like it was on her mind. And she did it and went off quickly. Then she went on her way to the cabin. That was my idea. I want credit for that one!
D: What are you doing with yourself, lately?
S: I’m preparing to make a picture, yeah. That’s one of the things I’m doing. I also wrote another book.
D: Anything you can tell me about the upcoming film?
S: Well, I can tell you it’s present time. I have two projects. The first one, I’d like to be the story of modern Soviet Russia: After the fall of the Soviet Union. It’s a good love story. I got to bring it up to date. Changes every month.
D: Any casting in mind?
S: Well, the guy who’s dogging me the most is Max Schell. Last time Max Schell and I got together, he won the Oscar. This is very special, too. Good love story.
D: You mentioned a new book. Is it on filmmaking or your own experiences?
S: Well, running through it is film anecdotes, motivations, agonies, prejudices.
D: Any of the later films that weren’t necessarily hits with critics or audiences, say, The Secret of Santa Vittoria (1969) that you may have reconsidered casting?
S: I don’t recall, maybe. In terms of casting, you have to have a big enough ego and I had it. You visualize something, you get an idea, a thought, and you follow it through against the current. If it comes off, great. If it doesn’t, you made a mistake.
D: So, you’re saying casting against type worked for you a lot better?
S: No, it didn’t work a lot better but it worked, sometimes. Not always.
D: Can you think of an example where it failed?
S: Yeah, but I won’t tell you.
D: [Laughs] Okay, that’s fair. That seems like a good note to end on.
S: All right. Hope you got enough.
D: I sure did.