In 1952, the fiction writer and journalist Ernest Lehman (1915-2005) from New York arrived in Hollywood and started working as a screenwriter for Paramount Pictures, getting loaned out to MGM, and moving on to 20th Century Fox. He had written numerous short stories, articles, satire and some drama criticism.
As a screenwriter, he wrote adaptations of novels (Executive Suite, The Prize, From the Terrace, Portnoy’s Complaint, Family Plot), plays (Sabrina, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Hello, Dolly!), musicals (The King and I, West Side Story, The Sound of Music), a biography (Somebody Up There Likes Me), of his own novella Sweet Smell of Success and an original screenplay for North by Northwest.
His first screenplay at Paramount, South Sea Story remained unproduced. Other unproduced projects were: Labor Story (1954), Man Against Himself and The Wreck of Mary Deare (1957), Blind Man (1960), The Short Night (1979), Brenda Starr, Reporter (1980), I am Zorba! (1986), Hay Fever (1991), Dancing in the Dark (1993).
Lehman also produced some of his own screenplays and directed Portnoy’s Complaint, which is based on a novel by Philip Roth. He was President of Writers Guild of America, West 1983-85. He was an Oscar nominee five times but never won; he received an Honorary Award from the Academy in 2001, being the only screenwriter to be awarded one.
SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS
Sweet Smell of Success was released in 1957. Lehman adapted it with Clifford Odets from Lehman’s novella Tell Me About It Tomorrow. The story centres around gossip columnist, the fast-paced and witty dialogue delivered by Tony Curtis and Burt Lancaster in the film is a joy to watch. Lehman wanted to direct as well but bowed out due to medical reasons and Alexander Mackendrick took on the job. Above are Lehman’s thoughts (written in 1956) in response to Mackendrick’s comments on the screenplay.
“These are director Alexander Mackendrick’s opinions, suggestions, criticisms – all based on my blue-covered mss. called “Final Screenplay… 8/21/56. The pencilled comments on these suggestions were my reactions. These suggestions were the result of long and exhausting story conferences between Burt Lancaster, his partners, the director and myself. I was told that I would have to do much rewriting in New York City on location while the picture began shooting in a few weeks, but was told that they would “understand” if my illness (a spasm in the colon brought on by the tensions of working with this group of people) made me decide to bow out.
“I said I would consult with my doctor and give them an immediate answer. The doctor immediately put me in a hospital, the next day examined by “tension” internally, found it quite inflammed, phoned the producers and told them that, under no conditions, would he permit me to return to “Sweet Smell”, or any movie, until I felt fine again. He ordered me to take a long and work-free vacation. I went to Honolulu and then to Tahiti. The “Sweet Smell” company went on to New York, with Clifford Odets offering to help out with a little rewriting. A little snowballed into far too much. The picture went $1 million over budget. I loved Tahiti. Ernest Lehman
Sweet Smell of Success is in the Writers Guild of America 101 Greatest Screenplays list (voted by the members of the Guild). See the full list here.
NORTH BY NORTWEST
Lehman met Hitchcock through their mutual friend, composer Bernard Herrmann. North by Northwest was Ernest Lehman’s only original screenplay. Hitchcock had an idea of a chase across the face of Mount Rushmore. The idea of a man being mistaken for a nonexistent secret agent was suggested to Hitchcock by journalist Otis L. Guernsey Jr.. That was the starting point for Lehman’s screenplay: the chase on Mount Rushmore, mistaken identity, and the United Nations building.
The cover of the brochure from Mount Rushmore National Memorial has Lehman’s notes on it made during his research trip. Below is a contact sheet of research photos taken by Lehman.
A page from an early draft of North by Northwest by Ernest Lehman.
Ernest Lehman and Alfred Hitchcock on location during the filming of North by Northwest (1958)
THE SOUND OF MUSIC
Lehman’s notes made from his meeting with Maria Von Trapp while writing the screenplay for The Sound of Music.
The Sound of Music was directed by Robert Wise. It was nominated for ten Academy Awards and won five, including Best Picture. Lehman won his fifth Writers Guild Award.
WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?
Lehman’s notes from a meeting with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in 1964, where they discussed their roles in the film.
Warner Brother acquired the rights for Edward Albee’s stage play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and hired Lehman to write and produce it (Lehman’s first time as a producer). The play was notorious for its profanity and sexual themes; Lehman and first-time director Mike Nichols had to fight to keep the original language of the play in the film, which became directly responsible for abandoning the old system of self-cencorship and adopting the film rating system that is still in use today. Who’s Afraid was nominated for thirteen Academy Awards, including Lehman’s fourth for screenwriting, and won four.
Ernest Lehman and Elizabeth Taylor on the set of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in 1965.
Screenwriter Ernest Lehman’s archive is held by The Ransom Center. The collection consists of more than 2500 items from his personal and professional files, covering Lehman’s 40-year career in New York and Hollywood as a screenwriter, novelist, short story writer, journalist, producer, and director.