After 25 years, producer moved to directing for movie about blacklisting


Irwin Winkler, who has been in the business of making movie for some 25 years and has produced 35 films, has finally directed (and written) his first. It is called "Guilty by Suspicion," a drama tTC that returns to the time when the House Un-American Activities Committee, looking for communists and fellow travelers, trained it sights on the movie colony.

Lives were ended, careers were destroyed, and marriages were finished under all the pressure. People like Robert Taylor and Gary Cooper testified and managed to survive because they were "clean." Others were not so fortunate. Some had only attended a few leftist meetings during the Thirties, but that was enough to taint.

Larry Parks was one of those who testified. He named names and saw his career finished. You were damned if you did and damned if you didn't, and all this continued until 1960 when Kirk Douglas broke the taboo and gave screen credit to one of the "Hollywood 10," a group of directors and writers who had refused to cooperate and were sent to prison.

Winkler was in his early teens when the investigation began in 1947. He was about 20 when Sen. Joe McCarthy, the man whose name became synonymous with smear tactics, was censured by Congress. So why was he interested in doing a film on this historical episode?

"I was in Paris producing 'Round Midnight' when I met John Berry, one of the victims of the blacklisting that was part of that era," he said. "I began to wonder what I would have done if it had happened to me. I was intrigued with the question."

After watching others direct all the other films he had produced, Winkler decided to direct this one himself. "I was disappointed in some of the films I had produced. I had also written the script for this one and I didn't want anyone else to screw it up," he said. "It was just too big."

He brought the film in for $13,500,000 which, today, is Hollywood peanuts. "That's less than half the cost of the average film," said Winkler, who added that making a film for that much doesn't mean it was easy getting the money. "It never is," he said. "You have to have a bankable name."

If a movie actor is only as good as his last three films (it used to be one film), is a producer as good as his last film?

"No," said Winkler. "A producer is only as good as his brother-in-law, so long as his brother-in-law stays married to his sister and so long as he continues to work at a studio."

It's a heavy theme, this blacklisting. What makes Winkler think a film on this subject will find an audience?

"I produced the first 'Rocky' film," he said. "I was told that I was out of my mind, that nobody was interested in a boxer who lived in Philadelphia and that there would be no European market because Europeans do not take to boxing films. I was also told that nobody was interested in seeing a boxing film starring an unknown. You know what happened."

Yes, we do. We know that the first four "Rocky" films did phenomenally well. We also know that the fifth in the series died at the box office, doing some $40 million, hardly enough to qualify the movie as a hit.

"I don't think they have played themselves out," said Winkler. "'Rocky IV' was the most successful in the series. 'Rocky V' was the least, and I think it was because they waited too long. It was also too ambitious. 'Rocky IV' was a quickie, and that's what audiences wanted, another quickie."

"Guilty By Suspicion" is being released by Warner Brothers, so it follows that parts of the Warner facility were used in the film. The Warner screening rooms, for instance, doubled for the Twentieth Century Fox rooms, but it wasn't because Twentieth wouldn't let them on the lot.

They did, though permission was not immediate. In the film, Darryl F. Zanuck, head of Twentieth during the early Fifties, is impersonated by Ben Piazza who, as Zanuck, goes along with the blacklisting. The Twentieth lawyers were very nervous about that. They said the film made it look as though Twentieth took part in the blacklisting.

"Of course, they did," said Winkler, "but we went to Barry Diller, head of production, and he said 'Go ahead, do your filming here. We can't screen history. If Twentieth took part in the blacklisting, say so, and do your necessary filming here."

Richard Zanuck, son of Darryl, was also approached, and he made no objections. "He thought the script was fair and sympathetic to his father," said Winkler.

"Guilty By Suspicion" opens here on Friday. Robert De Niro stars as a Hollywood director whose career comes to a halt when he refuses to testify before the committee. If he wants to continue working, he must "clear" himself. As David Merrill, De Niro experiences the trauma that was the real thing back in those dark days.

"Of course, it could happen again," said Winkler.

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