American screenwriter Ernest Lehman (1915–2005), though not especially known for prodigious output, wrote screenplays for some of the most famous and best-loved films produced in the mid-twentieth century. His credits include screen adaptation for major Broadway productions including West Side Story, The Sound of Music, and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Throughout his career, Lehman received six Academy Award nominations and, in 2001, he received an honorary Academy Award for his career accomplishments, the first time a screenwriter was ever presented with a special award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Though he was considered a highly talented adapter of source material (e.g., plays and novels), perhaps his most highly regarded work is the original screenplay for one of director Alfred Hitchcock's best films, North by Northwest.
Lehman was born on December 8, 1915, in Long Island, New York, the son of Paul and Gertrude Lehman. The couple jointly owned and operated women's clothing stores. Reportedly, his family was affluent, but its finances were severely affected by the Great Depression. Lehman was raised in New York City and attended the College of the City of New York, where his educational interests included chemical engineering as well English and creative writing. When he graduated, he first earned a living as a freelance writer.
His first published work, appearing in 1939 in Collier's magazine, was a profile of contemporary entertainer Ted Lewis. After that, Lehman turned out stories and articles that appeared in such popular and mainstream magazines as Esquire, Liberty, Redbook, and Cosmopolitan. However, he found freelancing too stressful—it was a "very nervous way to make a living," he once remarked—so he found a steady job as a copywriter for a publicity firm that specialized in theatrical productions and celebrities. In addition, Lehman worked for a while as a publicity writer for The Hollywood Reporter columnist Irving Hoffman. Lehman, a resourceful and observant writer, used these early career experiences as background for later stories and screenplays (in particular for the 1957 film The Sweet Smell of Success). In 1948, he sold one of his stories to Hollywood, and it became the basis for The Inside Story, directed by Allan Dwan.
Moved to Hollywood
After his short story "The Comedian" appeared in Collier's in 1953, Paramount Studios enticed him to move to Hollywood, where he would work on the screenplay adaptation. Though the project was cancelled, Lehman found other work and soon settled in California.
After signing on with Paramount Pictures as a screen-writer, Lehman was almost immediately loaned out to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), where he wrote his first screenplay, for the film Executive Suite. Produced by John Houseman, who got his start with Orson Welles' famous Mercury Theater productions, directed by the up-and-coming Robert Wise, and adapted from a novel by Cameron Hawley, the film provided a harsh look at Wall Street. A major production with an all-star cast (it featured William Holden, Frederic March, Barbara Stanwyck, June Allyson, Shelley Winters and Walter Pidgeon), the film received good notices. Lehman would later collaborate with Wise on other enormously successful projects, including the screen adaptations of West Side Story and The Sound of Music.
Following the success of Executive Suite, Lehman was asked to work on Paramount's romantic comedy Sabrina, a Billy Wilder-directed film that starred Audrey Hepburn, William Holden and Humphrey Bogart. Though it was not considered a typical "Bogart" film, nor did it provide Holden with one of his more memorable roles, the film helped define Hepburn's screen persona. Lehman co-wrote the script with Wilder and Samuel A. Taylor. Adapting the script from Taylor's play Sabrina Fair, the writing team was nominated for an Academy Award for Original Screenplay and received a Writers Guild of America Award.
In 1956, Lehman worked with director Wise again, writing the screenplay for Somebody Up Their Likes Me, a "biopic" about heavyweight boxer Rocky Graziano that helped catapult Paul Newman into the ranks of major American actors. That same year, Lehman, working for Twentieth Century-Fox, adapted for the screen the popular Rodgers and Hammerstein musical The King and I, for which he received his second Writers Guild of America nomination.
Sweet Success for Lehman
During the decade, Lehman also worked on the Mark Robson-directed From the Terrace, an adaptation of John O'Hara's best-selling novel. But Lehman's greatest achievements are considered his work on The Sweet Smell of Success (1957) and Alfred Hitchcock's North by Northwest (1959). The first was based on Lehman's own experiences as a publicity copywriter and presented a powerful and grim account of the dark underside of the glamorous "show-biz" world of New York City. Featuring stark black-and-white cinematography (supplied by master cameraman James Wong Howe), directed by Alexander Mackendrick, and starring Tony Curtis and Burt Lancaster (turning in perhaps their greatest career performances), the film was unrelenting in its unpleasantness, but it was nevertheless considered a great film. Based on Lehman's previously published magazine stories, the script was co-written by famous playwright Clifford Odets, who wrote most of the searing dialogue. Ironically, the film was a box-office failure at the time.
His script for Hitchcock's North by Northwest (1959) arguably represents Lehman's highest career achievement. It was his first original screenplay, and it provided the foundation for one of the greatest suspense films of all time. Released by MGM, North by Northwest is placed by film scholars and critics among the pantheon of "masterpieces" directed by Alfred Hitchcock in the 1950s and 1960s that included Strangers on a Train (1951), Rear Window (1954), the 1956 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much, Vertigo (1958), Psycho (1960), and The Birds (1963). The script included such memorable set-pieces as the famous cropdusting scene that takes place at a cornfield bus stop as well as the memorable pursuit on Mount Rushmore. The writing achievement earned Lehman another Academy Award nomination and another Writers Guild of America nomination. If Lehman had decided to never write again, his name would have remained a legend among screenwriters for his North by Northwest script.
Adapted Broadway Smash Hits
In the 1960s, Lehman lent his scriptwriting talents to Hollywood "blockbusters." In 1961, he wrote the screen-play adaptation of the Broadway smash hit West Side Story. The film, an updated Romeo and Juliet story was set in contemporary New York City and depicted urban warfare between street gangs, the Jets and Sharks, it also provided Lehman with another opportunity to work with Wise. In addition, this screenplay earned him a third Academy Award nomination, as well as a third Writers Guild Award. The film won ten Academy Awards, scoring an Oscar for every category in which it was nominated, except for screenwriting.
In 1963, Lehman wrote the screenplay for The Prize, adapted from the Irving Wallace novel, starring Paul Newman as a Nobel Prize-winning novelist who gets caught up in foreign intrigue when he travels to Stockholm to accept his award. Robson directed the film.
In 1965, Lehman wrote the screenplay for one of the most beloved films of all time: The Sound of Music. Again, Lehman was working with source material that came from a huge Broadway musical hit, and it marked his fourth collaboration with Wise. However, his work in this Academy Award-winning film (it was Best Picture of the year) did not earn him even a nomination. Still, Lehman earned praise for his deft reordering of the song sequence and the restructuring of the story line. Many felt that his changes made the movie even more effective than the stage production.
Produced First Film
For his next film, Lehman wrote the screen adaptation for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, the stage drama written by famed playwright Edward Albee. Lehman also produced the film, as he sought to have more creative control. At first, his choice for his first-ever producing effort seemed an odd one. Albee's play, though powerful, was rather unpleasant and Lehman's contemporaries did not believe the vehicle had much potential at the box office. However, Jack Warner, the head of Warner Brothers, the company that released the film, strongly supported Lehman's choice.
The results more than justified Warner's somewhat risky move. The film was one of the big box-office hits of 1966, and it received thirteen Academy Award nominations. Lehman received writing and producing nominations. The latter nomination was especially appropriate, as Lehman made all of the right choices in putting together the project. To direct the film, he selected successful stage director Mike Nichols, who was making his cinematic debut (Nichols later went on to direct The Graduate, one of the big film hits of the 1960s). For the lead roles of "George" and "Martha," the hard-drinking, combative married couple, Lehman cast the real-life husband-and-wife team of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, who proved letter-perfect in their portrayals. The film's vivid black-and-white photography was accomplished by talented cinematographer Haskell Wexler. In addition to his Academy Award nominations, Lehman received another Writers Guild of America Award.
Lehman closed out the decade with another combined writer-producer effort, albeit a somewhat less successful one, with the film, Hello, Dolly! The 1969 adaptation of the long-running Broadway production, did receive an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture, as well as six other nominations (Lehman was again nominated as a producer), however, the film was a disappointment at the box-office. Hello, Dolly! was denigrated by film critics, even with Barbara Streisand in the starring role and famous dancer and choreographer Gene Kelly performing the directorial duties.
Moved on to Other Literary Projects
Following Hello, Dolly!, Lehman's film career never again reached the heights he attained in the 1950s and early 1960s; however, he always kept himself busy with a variety of projects. In 1972, Lehman directed his one and only film, Portnoy's Complaint, which was based on Philip Roth's best-selling and controversial novel. The film, which starred Richard Benjamin, was a total failure.
In 1976, Lehman re-teamed with Alfred Hitchcock, writing the screenplay for the suspense master's last film, Family Plot. Lehman adapted the script from the novel The Rainbird Pattern by Victor Canning. While the tongue-in-cheek film—the plot centered around a fake medium—received warm notices from critics, it did not measure up to Hitchcock's previous work.
Lehman followed that film by co-writing the script for Black Sunday, a thriller directed by John Frankenheimer about a terrorist plot to bomb the Super Bowl. After that, Lehman tackled literary projects outside of films. In 1977, Lehman published The French Atlantic Affair, a suspense novel about an attempted "shipjacking." The book was a best-seller and it became a television mini-series in 1979.
During the 1980s, he remained very active. In 1982, he published his second novel, Farewell Performance. Throughout the 1970s, he was a columnist for American Film magazine and, in 1981, a collection of his columns was released in book-form as "Screening Sickness."
From 1983 to 1985, Lehman served as president of the Writers Guild of America, West. In 1986, he wrote a screenplay for a film to be called I Am Zorba, but the project was never completed. In 1987, 1988, and 1990, Lehman wrote and helped coordinate the 59th, 60th, and 62nd Academy Awards shows on ABC-TV.
Lehman continued writing in the 1990s. He wrote an adaptation for Noel Coward's Hay Fever but it was never filmed. He also worked on an original screenplay, Dancing in the Dark, and an autobiography. Both remain unpublished.
Received Honorary Academy Award
In 2001, Lehman received an Honorary Award by the Board of Governors of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences "in appreciation of a body of varied and enduring work." In announcing the award, Academy President Robert Rehme said, "Ernest Lehman has written and produced some of the most memorable films ever made. He is not only a prolific screenwriter, but an accomplished novelist, journalist and motion picture producer, whose films rank as genuine classics."
Upon receipt of the honorary award, as quoted in the Hollywood Reporter, Lehman told his audience, "I accept this rarest of honors on behalf of screenwriters everywhere, but especially those in the Writers Guild of America. We have suffered anonymity far too often. I appeal to all movie critics and feature writers to please always bear in mind that a film production begins and ends with a screenplay."
As his comment suggested, Lehman championed the cause of writers throughout his career. Besides serving as president of the Writers Guild of America from 1983 to 1985, he served two terms on the Guild's board (1954–56, 1961–70), served as vice president of the screen branch (1965–67, 1980–88), and he sat on many Guild committees. In 1972, Lehman received the Guild's prestigious Screen Laurel Award.
Suffered Long Illness
During the last years of his life, Lehman suffered a prolonged illness and died of a heart attack, July 2, 2005, at the UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles, California, at 89 years old. He was survived by his second wife, Laurie, a son from his second marriage, Jonathan, and two sons from his first marriage, Roger and Alan. His first wife, Jacqueline, died in 1994. Lehman remarried in 1997.
International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakes, Volume 4: Writers and Production Artists, Fourth Edition, St. James Press, 2000.
"Ernest Lehman," Hollywood.com, http://www.hollywood.com/celebs/fulldetail/id/194185 (December 20, 2005).
"Ernest Lehman voted honorary Academy Award," Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, http://www.oscars.org/press/pressreleases/2001/01.01.25.html (December 20, 2005).
"Famed Screenwriter Ernest Lehman, 89," Hollywood Reporter, http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/thr/article_display.jsp?vnu_content_id=1000973530 (December 20, 2005).
"The Ernest Lehman Collection," Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin, http://www.hrc.utexas.edu/collections/film/holdings/lehman/ (December 20, 2005).
Writer, Producer, and Director. Born: Ernest Paul Lehman, New York City, 1920. Education: Studied creative writing at City College of New York. Family: Married Jacqueline, children: Roger, Alan. Career: Became copy editor of Wall Street financial journal, then briefly freelance short-story writer, before working as publicity writer for Hollywood Reporter columnist; 1953—invited to Hollywood to script first film, Executive Suite; 1960—nominated for Best Screenplay Academy Award for North by Northwest; 1962—nominated for Best Screenplay Academy Award for West Side Story; 1966—produced first film, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?; 1972—made directorial debut, Portnoy's Complaint; 1977—published first novel,
The French Atlantic Affair; elected president of the Writers Guild of America, in the 1980s.
Films as Writer:
Executive Suite (Wise); Sabrina (Wilder)
Somebody Up There Likes Me (Wise); The King and I (W. Lang)
Sweet Smell of Success (Mackendrick) (co-sc, story)
North by Northwest (Hitchcock)
From the Terrace (Robson)
West Side Story (Wise)
The Prize (Robson)
The Sound of Music (Wise)
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Nichols) (+ pr, ro as extra)
Hello Dolly! (Kelly) (+ pr)
Portnoy's Complaint (+ d, pr)
Family Plot (Hitchcock)
Black Sunday (Frankenheimer) (co-sc)
The French Atlantic Affair (Heyes—mini for TV) (co-sc)
Sabrina (Pollack) (co-sc)
The Inside Story (Dwan) (story)
By LEHMAN: books—
The Comedian and Other Stories (fiction), New York, 1957.
Sweet Smell of Success and Other Stories (fiction), New York, 1957.
North by Northwest (screenplay), New York 1973.
The French Atlantic Affair (fiction), New York, 1977.
Screening Sickness and Other Tales of Tinsel Town (collected articles), New York, 1982.
Farewell Performance (fiction), New York, 1982.
By LEHMAN: articles—
"Dialogue on Film," interview with James Powers and audience, in American Film (Washington, D.C.), October 1976.
"Nobody Tries to Make a Bad Picture," in American Film (Washington, D.C.), March 1978.
"He Who Gets Hitched," in American Film (Washington, D.C.), May 1978.
"Ernest Lehman Remembers," interview with James Bawden, in Classic Images (Muscatine, Iowa), October 1994.
"Back Story," in Fade In (Beverly Hills), vol. 2, no. 3, 1996.
"North by Northwest/Writing North by North-west," in Scenario (Rockville), vol. 3, no. 1, Spring 1997.
On LEHMAN: books—
Newquist, Roy, Showcase, New York, 1966.
Corliss, Richard, Talking Pictures, Woodstock, New York, 1974.
Brady, John, The Craft of the Screenwriter, New York, 1981.
Engel, Joel, Screenwriters on Screenwriting, New York, 1995.
On LEHMAN: articles—
Madsen, Axel, "Who's Afraid of Alfred Hitchcock?," in Sight and Sound (London), Winter 1967/68.
Billington, Michael, "From Dolly to Portnoy," in Times (London), 30 December 1969.
Canby, Vincent, "Here's to Hollywood's Downtrodden Writers," in New York Times, 30 October 1983.
"Lehman, Ernest," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 44: American Screenwriters, Second Series, Detroit, 1986, 157–65.
* * *
Given that Ernest Lehman has scripted some of the most Oscar-laden films ever made, it comes as something of a surprise to realize that he has never won an Academy Award for Best Screenplay—several nominations, but no Oscar. Lehman himself might well, with a rueful shrug, adduce the fact as further evidence for the persistent undervaluing of the writer's contribution to any movie, good or bad. "I've spent the best years of my life trying to convince movie critics . . . that if a film is any good, it was probably well written, and that if it was a stinker, it was probably due to a bad screenplay, but I couldn't even make a dent."
Not that Lehman, intelligent and ironic, has ever been one to make grandiose claims. "I don't take writing as seriously as some writers would, or should," he says, and refuses to regard screenwriting as an "art": "When it works it's skill and craft and some unconscious ability." Lehman's own skill and craft have never been in doubt; the opening of his very first film as screenwriter, Executive Suite, could stand as a textbook model of classic exposition, lucid and economical. What is more disputable is whether that skill and craft—and ability—have been exploited to anywhere near their full potential.
Of Lehman's relatively brief filmography as screenwriter only one, North by Northwest, is an original. All the rest are adaptations, from novels or the stage—although in some cases, such as The Prize, the script might almost qualify as an original, so thoroughly was the source material reworked. (In Sweet Smell of Success Lehman, was working from his own novella, and the plot structure is entirely his, but after he quit the production the dialogue was rewritten almost in toto by Clifford Odets.) Furthermore, four of his films were adaptations not just of plays, but of Broadway musicals (The King and I, West Side Story, The Sound of Music, and Hello Dolly!), a genre always liable to incite critical condescension.
In Talking Pictures Richard Corliss, mocking Lehman as "Curator-in-Chief of the Hollywood Museum of High-Priced Broadway Properties," suggested that these "close adaptations . . . strike Lehman's admirers as acts of treason against his considerable talent." Lehman would dispute the closeness no less than the treason. In the case of Sound of Music, he points out that much of the film's dramatic structure, including the famous airborne opening, was his creation alone. "I saw the Broadway show, and it consisted of lead-ins to the next number. No story." Even with West Side Story, where the original had a far stronger plot, Lehman extensively restructured the play to bring out its social emphasis. "I rearranged it quite a bit to keep the dramatic line very clean, and I moved around musical numbers."
When it comes to adapting novels, Lehman argues that the writer's contribution to the finished movie is yet more crucial—and no less generally undervalued. "There are a million decisions made by the screenwriter. . . . He's the one who looks at a sequence . . . and decides: It won't work in the movie. We'll have to forget it. Or change it from a ship to a plane. The director doesn't say, 'Let's shoot the scene in a plane instead of a boat.' No, it's written. It's written." Corliss's contemptuous phrase, "a mere service-station attendant of other writers' vehicles," seems singularly inapt in view of Lehman's shrewdly gauged treatment of Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and his elegant transmutation of Victor Canning's novel The Rainbird Pattern into Hitchcock's final movie, Family Plot.
All the more puzzling, then, that a writer with such an evident instinct for screenwriting should number only one original screenplay among his credits—especially when that one is so outstanding. Lehman's script for North by Northwest has a good claim to be the finest ever written for a Hitchcock film. Witty, literate, well-paced, and stylish, it deftly captures the sly mix of terror and teasing humor that typifies Hitchcock's cinema at its best, while still lightly sketching in a serious subtext: the regeneration of an empty, selfish man. Yet for all its clear and satisfying structure, the writing of it caused Lehman continual agony. "I recall having tried to quit the picture a dozen times. . . . I never knew what the hell I was going to write next." Rather than face that agony again, he preferred to divert into producing, and once even disastrously into directing (the ill-starred Portnoy's Complaint), before quitting screenwriting for good. North by Northwest, regrettably, seems destined to remain unique in his output.
LEHMAN, ERNEST (1915– ), U.S. film producer and screen-writer. Born in New York, Lehman graduated from City College. He went to Hollywood in 1951. He won Writers' Guild awards for his screenwriting of Sabrina (Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay, 1954), The King and I (1956), North by Northwest (Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay, 1959), West Side Story (Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay, 1961), and The Sound of Music (1965). As a producer, he made his debut in 1966 with Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? for which he also wrote the screenplay (Oscar nomination for Best Picture and Best Screenplay). He was also the writer-producer of Hello, Dolly! (Oscar nomination for Best Picture, 1969). Other Lehman screenplays include The Inside Story (1948), Executive Suite (1954), Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956), From the Terrace (1960), The Prize (1963), Portnoy's Complaint (1972), Family Plot (1976), and Black Sunday (1977).
In 2002 Lehman's 1951 novella Sweet Smell of Success (and 1957 film) was turned into a Broadway musical and was nominated for three Tony Awards.
He was president of the Writers' Guild of America from 1983 to 1985. In 2001 he won an Honorary Academy Award "in appreciation of a body of varied and enduring work." Books by Lehman include The Comedian and Seven Other Stories (1957); the novels The French Atlantic Affair (1977) and Farewell Performance (1982); Screening Sickness and Other Tales of Tinseltown (1982); and Sweet Smell of Success and Other Stories (2000).
J. Brady, The Craft of the Screenwriter (1982).
[Jonathan Licht /
Ruth Beloff (2nd ed.)]