Alan Smithee - Director... of Sorts
Created | Updated Jul 4, 2013
Not a lot of people have seen the movies of Alan Smithee1. Fewer have ever heard of him. And if few have heard of him, fewer still have seen him. Well, no one has really seen him, because he doesn't actually exist. But that didn't stop him from being a prolific director and having a career that spanned more than three decades.
Who is this Smithee Fellow Anyway?
The Directors' Guild of America (DGA) had a rule. If a director felt that, for whatever reason, he had lost creative control of a movie, he could petition for the removal of his name from the project. If a director won the petition, his name would be replaced with the pseudonym 'Alan Smithee'. So you can guess the calibre of Alan Smithee's movies: real stinkers for the most part.
His career (as well as his mere existence) began in 1967 with a movie titled Death of a Gunfighter. This film, starring Richard Widmark, Lena Horne and Carroll O'Connor, received positive reviews when it was released two years later. But before that, the 'previous' directors, Don Siegel and Robert Totten, felt that they didn't want to be associated with it. The DGA doesn't like to let directors remove their names from movies. They feel that directors are the 'authors' of movies and they should take the acclaim, as well as the blame, for any movies they create. However, if a director could prove to the guild that he lost control of the final edit, the guild would allow the credit to go to the name 'Alan Smithee', a name the guild believed unique enough not to belong to anyone2 in particular. Many have speculated that the name was picked because it is an anagram of 'the alias men', but that is just a fortunate coincidence. Siegel and Totten won their petition, and Smithee gained his first movie credit.
Smithee directed quite a bit for television. Some of his better-known projects are the MacGuyver and The Twilight Zone series. He also directed such memorable television movies and specials as Joan Rivers and Friends Salute Heidi Abromowitz, Dalton: Code of Vengeance II, Call of the Wild (with Ricky Schroder), The Birds II: Land's End, and The OJ Simpson Story. However, he's most famous for directing a couple of movies for small screens that other directors take credit for on the big screen. Director David Lynch was more than happy to let Smithee take the credit when he saw the television edit of Dune. Martin Brest did the same when he saw the airline version of his Academy Award-nominated Scent of a Woman. Who'd have ever thought that Alan Smithee would be the director of a movie that had been up for an Oscar3 (before he got a hold of it, of course)?
He did get his name up on the big screen a few times (oh boy, did he ever). More than 20 films to date4 have Alan Smithee's name in the opening credits. Some of these had some commercial success - Mostly on video and cable - such as Morgan Stewart's Coming Home, (formerly) Dennis Hopper's Catchfire, The Shrimp on the Barbie and Hellraiser IV: Bloodline. Others just had good titles such as Ghost Fever, Appointment With Fear, Le Zombi de Cap-Rouge and Bloodsucking Pharaohs in Pittsburgh (a personal favourite of this Researcher).
Smithee also has a few credits as producer, writer, editor, cinematographer, composer, production designer and second assistant director. He even tried his hand at acting a couple of times, stealing roles from his relative from the theatre, George Spelvin. As a writer, he penned The Nutt House when Ivan and Sam Raimi didn't want to, and he also gets credit for The Tony Blair Witch Project. He was second assistant director on Twilight Zone: The Movie5. But it's his two stints at producing where he finds his voice. Student Bodies, made in 1981, could show the recent spate of teen horror spoofs a thing or two about the genre. Well, OK, the lead actress would probably have a hard time at charades, but the movie is funny. (This movie also features the sole big screen performance of an actor know only as 'the Stick'6. Later, using his son's name (Alan Smithee, Jr) in 1998, he produced Wadd: The Life and Times of John C Holmes, a documentary about the legendary actor known less for the length of his career (over 2000 films) than for the length of 12 and 5/8 inches.
So, What About that Movie with Eric Idle?
The most smithee7 Alan Smithee film is without a doubt An Alan Smithee Film Burn Hollywood Burn8. This movie had a chance to be good; a very slim and brief chance, but a chance nonetheless. It had a good premise. The basic idea was 'What would happen if a director wanted to remove his name from a film, but his actual name was Alan Smithee?' It could have been good, but then Joe Eszterhas got a hold of it. An Alan Smithee Film Burn Hollywood Burn tells the story of such a director, (played by Eric Idle) who loses all control of his film. It's made in a documentary style like This is Spinal Tap9. The film within the film is called Trio and the studio casts three superstars in the lead roles10. Whoopi Goldberg, Jackie Chan and Sylvester Stallone try to play themselves. One of the ways Smithee loses control is to the stars. His script calls for one of the leads to die, but of course none of these three stars die in any film, so it will have to be one of the others. The stars take control, the studio takes control, the editors take control, and so Alan steals the reels. He threatens to burn the film if he doesn't get some control back. Hilarity was supposed to ensue, but instead decided to go home and read a book. It was a promising premise, but nothing could save it from these filmmakers.
The film is full of well-known faces, in-jokes, sight gags, slapstick, self-reference, pop references, etc, ad nauseam, but all of these jokes fall flat on the popcorn buttery floor. If you laugh at all while watching this film, you're laughing at it and not from it. This film did do one good thing, however. It got critics everywhere to agree... that it reeked
If someone were asked what the most ironic thing that could happen to An Alan Smithee Film Burn Hollywood Burn would be, they would probably think it would be to have the real director remove his name and replace it with 'Alan Smithee'. Now while that did happen (as the studio gave writer and producer Joe Eszterhas the final cut which director Arthur Hiller detested and caused him to petition the DGA and win), they'd be wrong about that being the most ironic thing about it, as we will see shortly. Many thought that Hiller might have tried petitioning as a publicity stunt. Well, they would have thought that up until they saw it anyway. Cinergi Pictures and Hollywood Pictures together spent more than $US10 million to make little over $US60,00011. The tag line for An Alan Smithee Film Burn Hollywood Burn read 'The movie Hollywood doesn't want you to see'. Hollywood got its wish!
So, What is Alan Smithee Up to These Days?
Sadly, and this is the most ironic thing about it, he's dead. And An Alan Smithee Film Burn Hollywood Burn killed him. Before An Alan Smithee Film Burn Hollywood Burn, the only people who knew about Alan Smithee were mostly movie buffs and Hollywood insiders. Now the DGA feels that 'Alan Smithee' is no longer sufficiently anonymous (and of course no studio, no matter what the director wants, would want their film to be in any way associated with An Alan Smithee Film Burn Hollywood Burn). There were rumours that an alternative name had been chosen, but that's not the case. The new DGA rules require a petitioning director to submit five names from which they will pick one. This is to prevent any in-jokes or editorial statements from the petitioning director. So, Alan Smithee is officially deceased. He hasn't just changed his name. He has directed a couple of television programmes posthumously, but he must have done so outside the purview of the DGA. Alas, Alan, we hardly knew you.