Who is Alan Smithee?

atkins-bookshelf-moviesFor almost 50 years, Alan Smithee has been one of the hardest working individuals in Hollywood. He is credited for directing more than 50 movies, television show episodes, and music videos. After viewing his expansive body of work, one will eventually realize why he keeps such a low profile and has never won a coveted Oscar. Alan (or Allen) Smithee is a pseudonym that was created by the Directors Guild of America (DGA) in 1968 as a screen credit for a director who demands to have his or her name removed from a movie (or  TV show or video) because he or she was not able to exercise creative control over the project. Many times, it is due to interference from the movie’s producers or the studio heads. In general, Alan Smittee films are mediocre at best, and an cinematic train wrecks, at worst. According to DGA rules, a director is not allowed to discuss why he chose to invoke the Alan Smithee credit and cannot admit to being the movie’s director. Of course, in the Internet age (thanks IMDB!), most of this information becomes public prior to a film’s release.

The Alan Smithee credit was first used for Death of a Gunfighter that was filmed in 1968 and released in 1969. The original director, Robert Totten, was replaced midway with Don Siegal; however, when the film was completed, neither director wanted to take credit. The DGA agreed that the film did not represent either Totten’s or Siegal’s creative vision, so it came up with the name Al Smith. Since there was an Al Smith already working in film industry, the DGA — in a stroke of creative genius — changed it to Alan Smithee. When the film was released, the public and film critics had no clue that Alan Smithee was not really a person.

Alan Smithee worked tirelessly throughout the following decades until he was retired unintentionally by one disastrous film. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, veteran director John Rich, who helped come up with the original pseudonym, lamented: “[Joe] Eszterhas ruined it. Several on the [DGA] board feel we should maintain Smithee. But I understand the view of the majority that [Smithee has] been damaged to the point that it’s unworkable. This is an ideal time for his obituary.” Rich is referring to the forgettable 1998 film titled An Alan Smithee Film: Burn Hollywood Burn. The movie presents a cinematic catch-22: the leading character, a director named Alan Smithee, wants to remove his name from a film he directed but cannot because the only pseudonym he can use is identical to his own name. Ironically, in a case of life imitating art, the film’s director, Arthur Hiller, wanted to invoke the Alan Smithee credit on a film about Alan Smithee due to the producer’s (Eszterhaus) alleged interference. The film was a box office flop — earning only $45,779 (with a budget of $10 million); moreover it exposed Hollywood’s insider practices and jargon. The Smithee name was forever cursed in superstitious Tinseltown.

The first film to be released in the post-Alan Smithee period, was MGM’s Supernova starring Angela Bassett and James Spader. Originally, Geoffrey Wright was tapped to direct the film, but he quit early on due to a script dispute. The studio brought in Walter Hill who completed the film; however the studio was not happy with the final cut. It is reported that Francis Ford Coppola was brought in to re-edit the film. Ultimately, Hill did not want his name attached to the film and the DGA had to come up with a successor for Alan Smithee. The pseudonym they came up with was just as inventive as the first: Thomas Lee. Regardless of who really directed the film, just as its title suggests, it exploded and quickly dissipated at the box office. Only time will tell if Thomas Lee’s career will be as long-lasting as Alan Smithee’s.

Read related posts: Movie Extras
The Oscar Bump
Why is it Called a Trailer?

For further reading: articles.latimes.com/2000/jan/15/entertainment/ca-54271

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