Ross Hunter: Beautiful Dreamer
If you’re a fan of those kitschy movies of the 50’s and 60’s, then you have Ross Hunter to thank. For the better part of two decades, Hunter was the most successful producer in Hollywood. His movies weren’t always good. He said he wasn’t given enough money to get great scripts. But they were always glamorous. For a time, Hunter’s version of big screen glamour was so popular that it came to define an era.
In the September 1991 issue of Movieline Magazine, Stephen Rebello caught up with Hunter to discuss his long career and the state of glamour in film.
What single human being said all of the following:
• “Glamour is locked in the closet and someone has misplaced the key,”
• “I don’t want to hold a mirror up to life as it is. I just want to show the part which is attractive,”
• “Glamour is important because it gives the average guy a chance to dream of getting out, the average woman a chance to dream of getting her hair done and wearing a pearl necklace.”
If you guessed Blanche Du Bois–guess again. These are pearls of wisdom from a man who could have taught Blanche a few things about how to show herself in the right light. In fact, this is a man who did show old-style stars, from Barbara Stanwyck to Lana Turner, how to lure an entire generation of moviegoers into the dark to be property illuminated themselves.
From the ’50s through the early ’70s producer Ross Hunter, the most consistently money-making producer ever, ruled Hollywood, and it was his vision of Glamour that helped crown him, and keep him, king. Magnificent Obsession. All That Heaven Allows. Tammy Tell Me True. Imitation of Life. Pillow Talk. Midnight Lace. Back Street. Madame X. The Thrill of It All. Thoroughly Modem Millie. Airport. All these movies–pastel-colored tearjerkers, no-sex-please-we’re-virgins farces, toney-women-in-jeopardy potboilers–were woozy with an over-plush chic that people referred to as “The Ross Hunter Touch.” Critics mocked Hunter for making “women’s pictures,” moist with nostalgia for stars and movie conventions of the ’30s and ’40s. One wag said Hunter was to movies what Liberace was to music; another called him a “sanctimonious apostle of old-movie-queen glamour and the kitsch of our ancestors.” Yet for nearly two decades, Hunter so classed up Universal Studios–home of low-budget flicks featuring talking mules and creatures from the black lagoon–that the tight-fisted bosses ceded to him an astonishing 25 percent of the take on his movies. All the more remarkable when you consider that only three of his 60-odd releases failed to make money, and that his hits rank among the biggest cash cows the studio assembly line ever spawned.
How did Hunter work his magic? “Universal wouldn’t give me money to buy great scripts, so I had to depend on a look, an image,” he says, radiating a vitality that belies his age–he must be sixtyish. “Universal thought I was crazy,” he adds huskily, “but I believed that an industry that produced two or three hundred movies a year had to make four or five pictures about the beautiful people.”
Seated in the study of his eye-popping house on a Hollywood mountain top, with “101 Favorite Melodies “-type offerings such as “Sweet Leilani” noodling in the back-ground, Hunter lays out his basic winning strategy. “I thought: why not give people a chance to fantasize, to use my pictures as a crutch if they need that? I knew that the only way I’d be given ranking was if the public could identify with what I put on the screen, and wanted more. I’d go out on tour and meet my audiences, listen to the kinds of movies they said they wanted. Whoever heard of a producer going out on the road to sell a movie right after he finishes it? Taking not necessarily the star, but the star’s wardrobe, on tour? Or giving big premiere parties, lots of which I paid for? But a producer has to have a handshake with the public, to find out what will tear them away from their homes. I went out there creating an image for myself through my movies, saying, ‘You’re going to see a picture with real stars looking glamorous in beautiful gowns on beautiful sets. No kitchen sinks. No violence. No pores. No messages.’ And it worked.
“I always went on the road with a theme, like ‘There’s no such thing as an unattractive woman.’ I’d take along [costume designer] Jean Louis, and all the dresses he’d designed for my movie. International models were part of the package, and we’d stage gorgeous fashion shows for women’s clubs all over the country. The point was this: you can’t buy these clothes, but you can buy a movie ticket to see them again. As a result, those women became fans who turned out to see my pictures whether they were good or bad. They knew that when the credits said, ‘A Ross Hunter Production,’ they were sure they’d know what to expect.”
They did. Hunter’s “feel” for what his public wanted seemed near-telepathic. Audiences knew that a ticket to a Ross Hunter movie bought one the spectacle of such aging divas as Jane Wyman and Susan Hayward emoting like fury through layers of lacquer, pink gels and camera lenses gooey with Vaseline. The movies were corn–straight, no chaser– with positively no winking at the audience. Hunter’s best films–most often directed full throttle by Douglas Sirk, who called them “a combination of kitsch and craziness and trashiness”–soar way, way over the top. In Magnificent Obsession, playboy-turned-surgeon Rock Hudson selflessly restores the sight of Jane Wyman, the woman whom he had earlier blinded and widowed in one fell swoop. In Imitation of Life, tawny Susan Kohner passes for white and becomes an L.A. showgirl whose specialty number features her practically dry-humping a champagne glass. In the same film, Hunter cast 39-year-old Lana Turner as a struggling model/actress, flaring her nostrils to declare, “I’m going up and up and up and nobody’s going to pull me down!” Turner was, at the time, an international figure of scandal whose teenage daughter had recently stabbed her mother’s dark, sexy lover–and Hunter saw the wisdom in having her play a famous star who competes with her teenage daughter for her dark, sexy lover. Imitation of Life, indeed. Ross Hunter movies, bless their chintz- and jewel-encrusted hearts, are what movies–and Hollywood–are all about.
By the time he delivered the one-two punch of Thoroughly Modern Millie and Airport in the late ’60s (those films were, up to that time, two of Universal’s biggest money-makers ever, he looked infallible. Then something unraveled, as it surely must with any moviemaker whose success is predicated on the delicate balancing act of trying to keep two steps ahead of the public’s ever-changing fancy. The so-called “now” era that began in 1969 with the runaway hit Easy Rider and continued through Last Tango in Paris, dawned overnight. Studio bosses desperate to prove their coolness grew their hair longer, dropped “groovy” and “far out” into their speech, and, searching frantically for the next freak hit, signed up every inexperienced film school grad in sight.
In the midst of the ’60s “revolution,” Hunter could not have seemed more “old hat” than when he came to market with Lost Horizon, a pricey, lumbering, over-hyped, star-packed musical remake of Frank Capra’s Shangri-La fantasy. “Only Ross Hunter,” wrote critic Judith Crist, “would remake a 1937 movie into a 1932 movie.” Re-cut by the studio but still shunned by audiences, Lost Horizon was a Howard the Duck, a Bonfire of the Vanities, a Hudson Hawk, in an era when bigtime debacles weren’t a monthly occurrence. With an astonishing record of hits behind him, Hunter made one $5 million mistake, and his detractors were ready with the epitaphs. He was, they claimed, passé, too precious by half. Most damningly, they accused him of having lost his knack for keeping up with the public, let alone anticipating their whims in advance. Spielberg, Silver, Guber and Peters, Simpson and Bruckheimer, take note: If it can happen to Hunter, it can happen to anyone. It does. It will. After Lost Horizon, Hunter signed other deals, and made quite an impact when he moved into the television arena. Today, he’s got two projects in development that promise to return him to the big screen.
Why not? With robotic conservatism back in fashion and all Hollywood barking up the return of “family entertainment,” you can see neo-Hunter-ism seeping its way back into theaters. Director Pedro Almodovar pays him homage with the decor and stylized acting of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. Some of David Lynch’s wackiest stuff on the early ‘Twin Peaks” offered more than a soupcon of Hunter. John Waters swears by him. Before directing Soapdish, Michael Hoffman reportedly screened three Hunter movies for his crew and cast and more or less said: “Do that.” (Too bad they didn’t.) And what, after all, are Pretty Woman, Beaches, Stella, Backdraft, and Dying Young but vintage Hunter-type pictures, recycled for the ’90s?
Mention all this to Hunter and he chalks the films off to a resurgence of glamour–a commodity which, he says, must make a comeback. “Glamour can have many fingers,” he intones, after gently scolding a maid who brings tumblers of soda (“Not paper napkins, please, the linens”), “It’s a look, a feeling, something that turns your head. A very special opportunity to be something other than yourself. Glamour is an attitude: you can get glamour just by painting your bedroom a different color. Stars don’t exist anymore because they have no energy. No mystery.”
Hunter himself does what he can to preserve what mystery there is surrounding past stars. “I won’t discuss the private lives of my stars. I’ve already sent back a huge advance to a very big publisher because they wanted my autobiography filled with gossip about this or that actor.” So he won’t drop a dime on the ravenous supernova whom, legend says, he supplied with a constant flow of well-built young men and vats of Scotch? Or the one who displayed to crew members like medals of honor her black-and-blue marks from the rough trade she favored?
“When I became a producer, I had to succeed,” he explains. “No matter what I had to do. No matter what it cost me. I thought: Look, I’m dealing with actors–people who are very much in need of sex and love. The majority of them didn’t get it. I’m going to have to cope with that if I am, to succeed. Keep it clean, if I could–but if I couldn’t, keep it private. I learned to play the game. Hold my head high. Not be ashamed of what I’m doing. Maybe you want to cry, but if it helps you to get where you want to go, you do it.” After a moment, Hunter says quietly, “You see, I had been such a flop as an actor.”
The story of how Ross Hunter, né Martin Fuss, the absurdly good-looking youngest of three kids of a Cleveland housewife and clothier, became a Columbia Pictures contract player unspools like a flashback sequence from one of his own movies. He grew up “seeing the movies starring the Crawfords, the Bacalls, and sneaking up to the balcony of the local movie palace to watch Lana Turner and Robert Taylor in Johnny Eager, just dreaming I could touch her.” He received his masters degree from Western Reserve University, and was teaching when the head of casting at Paramount called him to say: “We’ve just received a petition, with some pictures of you, from your students. They think you should be in movies.” He eventually signed a seven-year contract with Harry Cohn at Columbia and wound up becoming a self-described “bobby-soxer’s delight” in such mid-’40s “B”-movies as Hit the Hay and Sweetheart of Sigma Chi.
“Making $1,500 a week and pulling more fan mail than Cary Grant and Glenn Ford” convinced Hunter that he was “the greatest thing that ever happened to acting.” Few agreed. After 20-odd movies, Cohn dropped him–“a terrible, terrible shock, because when you’re big in this town, you’re huge, whether or not you deserve it. The minute you’re out, every door in town slams in your face,” On the advice of the superb actress Ann Sheridan, Hunter studied film production at night and wound up in the low-budget feature department at Universal. There, in 1952, he cut his teeth on “awful, ridiculous Audie Murphy westerns or tits-and-sand pictures starring Yvonne De Carlo that I had to make for two-and-a-half dollars.” His pictures made profits his bosses could not ignore.
The reel Ross Hunter kicked in when, scrounging around Universal’s story department, he ran across an unproduced soap, “All I Desire”, and decided to ride glamour as his ticket out of Palookaville. He set out to rework All I Desire in the manner of Stella Dallas, the classic Barbara Stanwyck movie of 1937 that for him epitomized “the glamour, the escape, the entertainment of movies of producers like Goldwyn, Mayer, Selznick and Hal Wallis.” Universal was not convinced there’d be an audience for such nonsense, and threw Hunter an unglamorous, paltry $400,000 budget. But Hunter went for broke– by calling Stanwyck herself. “Miss Stanwyck, I’ll be honest,” he gushed. “All I Desire has schmaltz and I stole everything I could from Stella Dallas, which is my favorite movie. I even stole the ending!” Stanwyck broke in, saying, “What the hell are you talking about?” before telling Hunter that she made $150,000 a movie. But Hunter knew Stanwyck’s last few films had not done well, so he pitched a different style of deal. She listened. In the end, she agreed to take $25,000 and a hefty percentage. The movie returned its investment. Six times over.
By now, sure he was launched, Hunter told studio boss William Goetz that he wanted to make–or rather, remake–big, fat love stones like those that made icons of Claudette Colbert and Irene Dunne in the ’30s and ’40s . “I told them,” says Hunter, still a persuasive pitch man, “that people go to movies to escape. Pick up a newspaper and you just might want to kill yourself. Audiences want to be moved emotionally, to see glamorous people in fabulous settings, because their own humdrum little lives are just the opposite.” Hunter suggested rewarming that old chestnut of the 30s, Magnificent Obsession, with Rock Hudson, then Universal’s “B”-movie hunkola, in the lead. “I told Goetz: Rock is better than the westerns and tits-and-sand stuff he’s been in. Clean him up and you’re going to have a great, big, smashing romantic star on your hands.’ Goetz said, ‘No one wants to see this kind of movie anymore, but I’ll give you $850,000 to make it–only if you get a top female star.’ Like Stanwyck, Jane Wyman was willing to do the movie for a mere $25,000 and a considerable piece of the profits. However, her then-agent. Lew Wasserman, turned me down. Had Jane taken a percentage, she would have made close to $7 million.” Which is to say that Magnificent Obsession was a megahit. Hunter and Hudson went on to make five more movies together, and Hunter himself became the studio’s schmaltz king.
Why did audiences so eagerly chow down Hunter’s brand of swill? “Chemistry,” he says, not missing a beat. “I can predict whether two actors are going to spark. Chemistry enhances glamour. Period.” He doesn’t mention the fact that quite apart from chemistry, audiences always love a good cry–which he proved again and again by reworking already proven tearjerker material.
None of Hunter’s creations spark him to talk today as much as Imitation of Life and Pillow Talk. He lights up when he describes how he turned the former, a remake of a 1934 Claudette Colbert saga of the trials and tribulations of a black mother and a white mother, into a publicity feeding frenzy. The studio bosses thought Hunter was mad to want Lana Turner–then a scarlet woman believed by some to have killed her small-time gangster/gigolo boytoy–for the lead. ‘That’s exactly why I wanted her,” Hunter explains. “It was two months after the killing, and everyone else in town considered her finished–an untouchable. At first, she turned down the script, because she thought it was too close to her own life, her own daughter. But every woman in the world said, ‘Oooh, if I could only be Lana for one minute.’ Every woman would like to have a stud like Johnny Stompanato–dead or alive, Lana had him.”
The kid who had dreamed of one day touching Turner now had her within reach. He doggedly plied Turner with dozens of roses; she agreed to let him stroll the Malibu sands with her and read her the script aloud. “She cried through most of it,” Hunter asserts. When she’d dried her tears she said yes to Hunter’s now-standard formula: a reduced fee, but with a healthy percentage of the take. To offset Turner’s old-time movie queen allure, Hunter cast as her daughter Sandra Dee, a squeaky former model who became his “manufactured star–I wouldn’t let her out of the house unless her hair was done and her makeup wonderful.”
Universal predicted doom for Imitation of Life in the theaters of the South. Hunter recalls “going to theaters all over the South for two months–some of them ‘For Blacks Only’–telling people, ‘It’s not the story of a white mother and black mother but the story of two mothers, one of whom happens to be black. I’m going to do everything I can to make a movie that will give you people a chance to go into a darkened theater and cry unashamedly.’ ” The movie opened to box-office bedlam. The trouble that did arise had nothing to do with what Universal had feared. Hunter took his star cross-country to promote the movie. “As we got off the train in Chicago, Lana was shot at.” Whether it was by a member of the Stompanato family or a gun-happy fan, Hunter doesn’t know. “But being the trouper that she was, Lana still got up on those stages to he interviewed before each and every showing of the movie,” Now that’s show business. And, because of windfall profits from the movie–and later star turns in Portrait in Black and Madame X, that resulted from her resurrection from the Stompanato affair–Hunter enthuses, “Lana never has to work again in her life.”
Imitation of Life marked the peak sob of Hunter’s career. Afterward, he jumped to pumping new life into another all-but-forgot ten staple of the ’30’s and ’40’s, the sex comedy. (How well Hunter had learned from stars of the big studio days to reinvent his image every few years.) Pillow Talk put Doris Day and Rock Hudson together–“both poison at the box office at the time, but their chemistry jumped out at you,” Hunter says–and spawned a mini-industry. “Audiences had seen Doris as the girl-next-door for so long, they said: ‘Hell, why should I pay $2 to see what I can see in the mirror?’ Well, she had the wildest ass in the business, so I called Jean Louis and said, ‘Let’s do something about that great figure,’ I said to Bud Westmore, ‘Let’s wipe off the freckles’ and to Larry Germain, ‘Let’s give her a chic, sophisticated hairdo.’ Again, the studio thought I was out of my mind, but I said: I know my public. Since every girl-next-door thinks she’s Doris Day, they’ll think, If she can look like that, maybe I can.’ The world was against it because it was a sophisticated comedy. Nobody wanted to book it. But the country was ready to laugh, and the rest is history.” Pillow Talk and Hunter’s other Day sex farce, The Thrill of It All, were both smash hits.
Hunter and his production partner Jacque Mapes grew so successful they decided to up their output to several movies a year. Meanwhile, finally, Universal–as well as other studios–rushed to crank out starry and, well, glamorous carbon copies of their films. Fox worked up the suds with two Peyton Place movies, From the Terrace, and Ten North Frederick. United Artists churned out By Love Possessed. Paramount did Where Love Has Gone, from a Harold Robbins book based on the Turner/Stompanato scandal. MGM turned out Butterfield Eight, The V.I.P.s and The Sandpiper, and Hunter’s own studio made such frothy sex farces as Come September, That Touch of Mink, The Grass Is Greener, and Bedtime Story. The knockoffs looked so much like the originals that critics complained that both Lover Come Back and Send Me No Flowers, Rock-and-Doris movies made by other producers, were not up to Hunter’s standards.
Recognizing that he’d typecast himself as the progenitor of the two genres, Hunter felt the need to stretch. He thought he could make Rodgers and Hammerstein’s with-six-you-get-eggroll musical, Flower Drum Song, work on the screen, but–to put it mildly–it didn’t. Another musical, this one an original–Thoroughly Modem Millie starring Julie Andrews–broke box-office records everywhere. No producer was more powerful–or hands-on–than Hunter. Millie director George Roy Hill tried to bar Hunter from the set, but the producer showed just who had the real clout by recutting the movie himself. In all the heat, his relationship with Universal curdled. “I saw it as my duty to try and get a blockbuster every year to keep the studio going, “Hunter says of his alma mater. “The studio started going downhill when Lew Wasserman bought it for $11 million. You had to know something was wrong immediately because the library (of old films) alone was easily worth $100 million. Wasserman was my agent, my father confessor, and although he has one of the greatest minds in the world, unfortunately he hasn’t the slightest idea how to produce a movie.”
Hunter followed up the musical blockbuster with the first all-star “disaster movie,” Airport, and broke box-office records all over again. The breaking point between Hunter and Universal came over the movie version of the hit Broadway musical “Sweet Charity”. Even today, Hunter refuses to go beyond generalities in discussing what happened when he worked with Bob Fosse, who had directed and choreographed the original stage version. “I walked out on ‘Sweet Charity,'” he says flatly, “because I knew it was going to be a bomb.” Yet, according to eyewitnesses, he and Fosse, who had been star Shirley MacLaine’s own choice as a first-time movie director, clashed epically. Hunter believed that MacLaine, whom he thought had never “carried” a box-office hit on her own, should be supported by Jack Lemmon and Cary Grant. Fosse instead insisted on John McMartin, from the stage production, and Ricardo Montalban in those roles. In the end, Wasserman stunned many industry insiders when he backed Fosse instead of his veteran moneymaker. Hunter left. The movie bombed.
Hunter really saw the handwriting on the wall when he suddenly found no home at Universal for long-planned pet projects like Jazz Babies, a musical that would unleash his Thoroughly Modern Millie stars Mary Tyler Moore and Carol Channing in the Hollywood of the ’30s. Then Elephant Hill, which was to star Susan Hayward, got canceled not long before production was set to begin, “When I realized what was happening at Universal, I asked [to be let out of] my contract. They wouldn’t let me out–until finally they said they would…providing. The provisions were shocking to me.” Apparently, Hunter was so desperate to get out and regain his creative freedom that he met them. With great fanfare, Hunter signed a deal with Columbia–the studio where he had been a contractor–to produce such movies as the Broadway comedy Forty Carats with Audrey Hepburn and Dean Martin. Too bad he didn’t. Instead, Hunter agreed to produce the studio’s musical version of Lost Horizon.
What was anyone thinking? Another Asian-themed musical for the man who made chop suey out of Flower Drum Song?. Although Hunter says today he thought the Larry Kramer script “just awful” and battled Burt Bacharach and Hal David over their “terrible” songs, the juggernaut was in motion. Hunter should never have agreed to use Liv Ullman (fresh off Forty Carats) in the leading role. Then, as now, she was hardly known for her song and dance skills. Hunter proponents say, in fact, that he had so little to do with the making of the movie, few expected his name would even appear on the credits. Others believe Hunter should have fought to make certain the studio removed his name. “It was just a ridiculous movie,” Hunter says. “I was too successful and lots of people in the industry who were unhappy over that gloated.” At that point, it would have made sense–and added perhaps another decade to Hunter’s longevity–for a studio to pair the producer of Airport with another of the disaster epics then ruling the box office, but Hunter rejected projects from Columbia and Warner Bros. Hunter says, frankly, “Let’s call my state of mind what it was–depression.”
Hunter thought it best to slip into glamorous reclusion. “I was never going to produce movies again as long as I lived,” he recalls. “I was going to see my friends, do some writing, some theater.” Instead, old friends helped persuade him to take an offer by George Barrie, the president and CEO of Faberge, to run Brut Productions, the TV and film company that had recently scored a hit with A Touch of Class. After three and a half months of unsuccessfully trying to get favorite projects into production, Hunter walked, in what the papers described as a “direct result of artistic differences with George Barrie,” Then Hunter got his hands on Neil Simon’s script of Patrick Dennis’ bawdy, ersatz showbiz memoir, Little Me, which had been a big hit Broadway musical for Simon in the early ’60s. Hunter signed on to make it at Paramount, envisioning a sterling cast that would have included Goldie Hawn, Carol Channing, Rock Hudson, Peter Sellers, Burt Reynolds and Joel Grey. The day Hunter arrived at the studio, Barry Diller replaced Frank Yablans as studio chief and promptly put Little Me on the back burner. “I stayed for all three years of my contract while everybody knew Paramount wasn’t letting me do any movies because I wasn’t brought there by Barry Diller.”
Blocked by that three-year contract from producing for the big screen, Hunter instead produced a mini-series of Arthur Hailey’s best seller ‘The Moneychangers.” The ratings were so strong NBC agreed to Hunter’s demands for complete autonomy, zillions of dollars up front, and ownership of the negatives of any TV movies he and Mapes did. “I didn’t like TV,” says Hunter, “although it made me much more financially secure than movies.
“Everywhere I go, people ask, ‘When will you come back to bring beauty and entertainment to movies?’ I’m flattered that I’m sent scripts all the time, but I know why: they’re looking for people who know how to produce and to make pictures for a decent amount of money. I blame this whole new breed of super-agents for blowing the business way out of proportion. If I have to pay Jack Nicholson $12 million and a piece of the gross, what do I have left for a script and production? The so-called super-agents of the world have decided they’re going to dictate to the heads of the studios. And the studio heads are accepting it instead of taking a stand. There’s no reason on earth to do a movie today because there’s no way you can come out making money.”
Couldn’t Hunter be lured back by the chance to do his specialty, a massive career rehab on a star in a slump? Say, Bruce Willis? “A terrific screen personality who could be a wonderful Pillow Talk-type actor if only he’d stop drowning himself in action.”
How does he see Mel Gibson? “Much more talented than we’ve seen. I’d like to see him in a suit and tie, but he’s going the Bruce Willis route because violence sells.”
And Madonna? “My hat’s off to her for creating an image for herself, but it’s not a lasting one because it’s too slutty.”
Tom Cruise? ‘Too much, too soon. He could be a very romantic leading man, but he’s being paid way out of proportion.”
Julia Roberts? Suddenly, Hunter is on fire. “That girl is a star,” he asserts. Recently, he admits, he was consumed with the idea of pairing Roberts and Shirley MacLaine in a remake of the great stage musical Gypsy–which he planned to make with private money–until his budget man told him the movie would cost between $40 and $45 million, “If I find the right project, I’ll do it with smart people willing to go back to the old way, the best way. Nobody will get a piece of the gross, but we’ll all gamble on a piece of the profits. And, oh yes, it will be glamorous because glamour is coming back personally in the people who are buying tickets. They’re trying to look better, buying ‘designer’ type clothes. They’re washing their f aces, and combing their hair again. Glamour must come back because audiences will demand it.”
Stephen Rebello wrote our June cover story on Christian Slater.
Posted on September 29, 2016, in Movieline Articles, Movies and tagged Airport, Imitation of Life, Lost Horizon, Magnificent Obsession, Pillow Talk, Ross Hunter, Thoroughly Modern Millie. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.