Otto Preminger was born on 5 December 1905, in Wiznitz, Bukovina, Austria-Hungary, in a Jewish family, to Josefa and Markus Preminger. His father was a public prosecutor who was the former Attorney General of the Austria-Hungary. He also had a younger brother, Ingo Preminger.
Inspired by his father, he took up law studies at the University of Vienna. However, while still a teenager, he discovered his passion for acting and began appearing in plays around Vienna.
When he was 17, leading theatre director and his soon-to-be mentor Max Reinhardt assigned him a primary role in a production of Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’. He delivered an impressive performance.
Otto Preminger soon began to direct plays and garnered critical and popular attention. He started his own stock companies, Die Komodie Theatre and Die Schauspielhaus. By his late 20s, he became one of Europe’s most famous theatre producer-directors. Meanwhile, he also obtained his law degree in 1928.
In 1931, he ventured into film making with the German film ‘Die Grosse Liebe’ (The Great Love). Nevertheless, he remained focused on theatre. In 1933, Reinhardt made him producer-director of the famous Theatre in der Josefstadt.
He moved to the United States of America in 1935 and staged the Broadway play ‘Libel’ (1935–36) before embarking on his Hollywood career. His initial two American B-films were ‘Under Your Spell’ (1936) and ‘Danger—Love at Work’ (1937) for Twentieth Century-Fox.
While shooting ‘Kidnapped’ (1938), he had a major disagreement with Twentieth Century-Fox studio executive Darryl F. Zanuck. As a result, he was removed from the project. Failing to find work with other Hollywood studios, he soon found himself unemployed.
He then decided to return to New York and his first love, the stage. At Broadway he directed several plays, notably ‘Margin for Error’ (1939–40), in which he played the role of a Nazi. He also taught stage direction at Yale University from 1938 to 1941.
In 1942, he returned to Hollywood to enact the role of a Nazi in Irving Pichel’s ‘The Pied Piper’ for Twentieth Century-Fox. Later on, he reprised his stage role in the film adaptation of ‘Margin for Error’ (1943) for Fox again. He also ended up directing the film. Eventually, he signed a seven year contract with Fox.
In 1944, he made ‘Laura’, a classic film noir that established his reputation as a brilliant but tough director. The film helped him receive his first Academy Award nomination for best director. Next, he completed ‘A Royal Scandal’ (1945) started by Ernst Lubitsch. The film, a biography of Catherine the Great, was his first directed costume drama.
Subsequently, he made ‘Fallen Angel’ (1945), a classic noir; ‘Centennial Summer’ (1946), a weak but colourful musical, his first film to be shot entirely in colour; and ‘Forever Amber’ (1947), a commercial success based on Kathleen Winsor’s bestseller.
Continuing with the successful literary adaptations, he made ‘Daisy Kenyon’ (1947), based on a novel by Elizabeth Janeway. His next adaptation – ‘The Fan’ (1949), based on Oscar Wilde’s ‘Lady Windermere’s Fan’ was a critical and commercial disappointment.
He then made two thrillers, ‘Whirlpool’ (1949) and ‘Where the Sidewalk Ends’ (1950) that became his trademark genre. ‘The 13th Letter’ (1951) was again a thriller.
After his contract with Fox expired, he worked for various studios. He directed the underrated thriller ‘Angel Face’ in 1952 and continued to act intermittently as well. In 1953, he performed the role of a brutal Nazi commander in Billy Wilder’s ‘Stalag 17’.
Subsequently, he adapted into film a romantic comedy stage drama – F. Hugh Herbert’s ‘The Moon Is Blue’. The film defied the then prevalent Production Code; he refused to comply with the dictates of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), making the film controversial and hence, a box-office success.
He returned to Fox in 1954 to make ‘River of No Return’ and ‘Carmen Jones’. In 1955, he directed ‘The Man with the Golden Arm’, an unfaltering depiction of drug addiction starring Frank Sinatra. Non-compliant with the Production Code, the film was a critical and commercial success.
He then made ‘The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell’, a fact-based courtroom drama about an U.S. Army officer. The film’s success was followed by a biopic on Joan of Arc, ‘Saint Joan’ (1957), which bombed at the box office.
He then directed ‘Bonjour Tristesse’ (1958), an adaptation of Françoise Sagan’s best-selling novel about a teenage girl. The film earned mixed reviews. His next, ‘Porgy and Bess’ (1959), based on the George Gershwin opera was more successful.
Through the ‘Anatomy of a Murder’ (1959) he again challenged the Production Code. It was a powerful courtroom drama with controversial and sexually explicit subject matter. The film received seven Academy Award nominations, including that of best picture.
In the 1960s, he made ‘Exodus’ (1960), a 208 minute epic adapted from Leon Uris’s bestselling novel. The film was a box-office success. ‘Advise & Consent’ (1962) was a popular adaptation of an Allen Drury novel.
He made ‘The Cardinal’ in 1963. The film earned him his second and last Oscar nomination for best director. Next was ‘In Harm’s Way’ (1965), a World War II epic with a compelling story line. ‘Bunny Lake Is Missing’ (1965) was despised by many at the time of its release but later developed a cult following.
In 1966, he took a break from directing to appear as the wicked Mr. Freeze in the TV series ‘Batman’. He returned to the big screen with the drama, ‘Hurry Sundown’ (1967). However, his films began to lose their charm. ‘Skidoo’ (1968), a gangster comedy was believed to be his worst film.
In 1970, he made ‘Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon’ (1970), a fable about love and friendship. Although not a commercial success, he earned back some of the lost respect of his audience.
Next was ‘Such Good Friends’ (1971), a witty black comedy. ‘Rosebud’ (1975), a film about a yacht seized by terrorists, was again a commercial failure. His last picture was ‘The Human Factor’ (1979), an adaptation of Graham Greene’s espionage novel.
ACHIEVEMENTS AND AWARDS
‘Laura’ (1944) starred Dana Andrews as a cruel police detective who falls in love with a murder victim (Gene Tierney) during the course of his investigation. The film helped Preminger receive his first Academy Award nomination for best director, and Joseph LaShelle won an Oscar for his cinematography.
‘The Man with the Golden Arm’ (1955), was a steadfast depiction of drug addiction, starring Frank Sinatra as a heroin user. The film defied the Production Code and was released without MPAA’s approval. Adapted from a Nelson Algren novel, the film was a commercial success, and Sinatra received his first and only Oscar nomination in the best actor category.
‘Anatomy of a Murder’ (1959) was a controversial strong courtroom drama with sexually explicit subject matter. Ben Gazzara played the role of a husband who kills a man for supposedly raping his wife (Lee Remick). James Stewart received an Oscar nomination for portraying the defence attorney. The film, one of the best trial movies ever, received seven Academy Award nominations, including that of best picture.
Otto Preminger was nominated twice for Academy Award Best Director – for ‘Laura’ and ‘The Cardinal’. His ‘Anatomy of a Murder’ was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture.
He won the Bronze Berlin Bear Award for ‘Carmen Jones’ at the 5th Berlin International Film Festival.