'The Sound of Music,' 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?': Ernest Lehman Screenwriter

by Andre Soares

Ernest Lehman screenwriterErnest Lehman: Screenwriter who specialized in adapting plays into screenplays

Though hardly a household name, screenwriter and sometime producer Ernest Lehman worked on some of the best-known Hollywood movies of the '50s and '60s. Among those were Alfred Hitchcock's chase thriller North by Northwest, Alexander Mackendrick's critically acclaimed Sweet Smell of Success, and the popular stage-to-screen adaptations of the Broadway hits Sabrina, The King and I, West Side Story, The Sound of Music, and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. (Image: Ernest Lehman.)

During the course of his 25-year film career, Ernest Lehman received six Academy Award nominations, including four for screenwriting: Sabrina (1954, with director Billy Wilder and playwright Samuel A. Taylor), North by Northwest (1959), West Side Story (1961), and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966). Lehman's two other Oscar nominations were for his work as the producer of Best Picture nominees Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Hello, Dolly!. In 2001, he became the first screenwriter to receive an Honorary Oscar, for his “varied and enduring work.”

Adapting other people's works

Curiously, much of Ernest Lehman's reputation as a screenwriter is the direct result of dialogue, characters, and situations created by other writers, mostly playwrights. With the exception of his original screenplay for North by Northwest and his co-adaptation (with Clifford Odets) of one of his novellas into Sweet Smell of Success, Lehman's most acclaimed work involved the conversion of someone else's stories from one visual medium (the stage) to another (film).

That type of adaptation may require a major revamping of the storyline, and the addition, deletion, and/or transformation of numerous characters and scenes, or it may at times simply require the retyping of dialogue and situations into screenplay format. Without comparing the original play to the final screenplay it's impossible to pinpoint how much – or how little – credit for the final product should go to the screenwriter(s) and how much to the original author(s).

For instance, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. Should screenwriter-producer Lehman be chiefly credited for the film's artistic success (he helped to trim about 40 minutes from the stage version), or should most of the credit go to actors' director Mike Nichols and, in regard to the screenplay, to playwright Edward Albee, whose dialogue we hear, and whose characters and situations we see on screen?

With the exception of The Sound of Music, which felt like a movie (and for which, perhaps a bit ironically, Lehman failed to get an Oscar nod), the films Lehman adapted from the stage are invariably – for better or for worse – stagebound. The King and I, West Side Story, and Hello, Dolly! all have the look and feel of filmed plays, frequently to the detriment of the cinematic narrative. Though, admittedly, that's as much the “fault” (or choice) of the directors in question, respectively, Walter Lang, co-directors Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins, and Gene Kelly.

Ernest Lehman photo via oscars.org.

The King and I Deborah Kerr Yul BrynnerThe King and I, Sabrina: Ernest Lehman biography and movies

Born on December 8, 1915, on Long Island, N.Y., Ernest Lehman had a comfortable life until his family's financial stability was eroded by the Depression. Following graduation with a degree combining chemical engineering and English from the College of the City of New York, Lehman began working as a freelance writer. Since that was hardly a viable way to earn a living, he eventually settled as a writer for a publicity firm that catered to show-business personalities. (Image: The King and I Deborah Kerr, Yul Brynner.)

During that period, Lehman wrote several short stories and novellas. The first he sold was a profile of bandleader Ted Lewis that came out in Colliers magazine. More than 50 others were published by Esquire, Cosmopolitan, Redbook, and other publications. Additionally, Republic Studios' 1948 World War II comedy The Inside Story was based on “Silver Creek, N.Y.,” a tale Lehman had co-written with Academy Award winner Geza Herczeg. (Herczeg won the Oscar for co-writing The Life of Emile Zola).

Ernest Lehman in Hollywood: Executive Suite, Sabrina, The King and I

By the early '50s, Ernest Lehman had acquired enough of a reputation for Paramount to offer him a writing contract. His first screenplay (on loan to MGM) was Executive Suite, an all-star 1954 melodrama about the behind-the-scenes dealings at a large corporation. Directed by Robert Wise, and starring William Holden, June Allyson, Fredric March, Barbara Stanwyck, Shelley Winters, and others, the glitzy but uninspired Executive Suite was a considerable box office success, garnering four Academy Award nominations.

Back at Paramount, that same year Lehman collaborated with director Billy Wilder and playwright Samuel A. Taylor on the screenplay for Sabrina, a half-hearted romantic comedy that became a huge hit largely because of its cast: Audrey Hepburn, Humphrey Bogart, and William Holden. The film won one Academy Award (for black-and-white costume design) and received four other nominations including Best Screenplay. (In 1995, Sydney Pollack remade Sabrina – from a screenplay by Barbara Benedek and David Rayfiel – with great fanfare but to considerably less acclaim. Julia Ormond, Harrison Ford, and Greg Kinnear starred.)

Lehman followed those back-to-back successes with a popular adaptation of boxer Rocky Graziano's autobiography, which became MGM's sentimental 1956 melodrama Somebody Up There Likes Me, directed by Robert Wise, and starring a miscast Paul Newman as Graziano. Also in 1956, Lehman's first adaptation of a Broadway musical, 20th Century Fox's The King and I. Starring Deborah Kerr and Yul Brynner, the sumptuous but stagy production became a gigantic box office hit, winning a total of five Oscars (including a Best Actor statuette for Brynner) out of nine nominations, among them Best Picture.

The King and I Deborah Kerr, Yul Brynner image: 20th Century Fox.

Sweet Smell of Success Burt Lancaster Tony CurtisSweet Smell of Success and North by Northwest: Ernest Lehman in the late '50s

The following year, Ernest Lehman adapted his own novella Tell Me About It Tomorrow, which was based on his experiences at the show business publicity firm. Due to illness, he had to withdraw from the project shortly before production work was to begin. Playwright Clifford Odets wrote the final draft, renamed Sweet Smell of Success, and eventually shared credit for the screenplay. (Image: Sweet Smell of Success Burt Lancaster, Tony Curtis.)

Directed by Alexander Mackendrick, in a radical change of pace from his 1950s Ealing comedies, Sweet Smell of Success stars Burt Lancaster as a poisonous Walter Winchell-type gossip writer and Tony Curtis as a sleazy p.r. man. (In the early 1940s, Lehman had ghosted the New York Daily Mirror's column “Walter Winchell on Broadway.”) Although a box office disappointment at the time, this dark – if a tad melodramatic – portrayal of the pathological hunger for success in American society is now considered a classic.

(Also in 1957, another of Lehman's short novels, The Comedian, was adapted by Rod Serling for the CBS series Playhouse 90. Directed by John Frankenheimer, the special starred Mickey Rooney, Kim Hunter, and Edmond O'Brien.)

After dropping out of the screen adaptation of Hammond Innes' The Wreck of the Mary Deare – and following Alfred Hitchcock's suggestion that he create an original screenplay – Lehman came up with one of his most prestigious and best-remembered efforts, North by Northwest, a nonstop chase film in which agents and spies pursue a man accused of a murder he didn't commit.

Directed by Hitchcock, the classy – if vapid – thriller was a major box office success on the strength of its director and its stars, Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint, and James Mason. For his “original” screenplay – actually a revamped version of Hitchcock's own The 39 Steps – Lehman received his second Academy Award nomination.

Critical disappointment From the Terrace; Academy Award winner West Side Story

During that period, Lehman's only artistic letdown was the overwrought 1960 family melodrama From the Terrace, which he adapted from John O'Hara's novel for director Mark Robson, and stars Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. Following that critical misfire (but commercial hit), Lehman had one of the biggest box office and critical successes of his career with his adaptation of the Jerome Robbins-Arthur Laurents Broadway musical West Side Story.

Directed by Robbins (the ballet sequences) and Robert Wise (the Romeo and Juliet drama), and starring Natalie Wood and relative newcomer Richard Beymer as the star-crossed lovers, the film version opened in 1961 to great acclaim, ultimately winning a near-record 10 Academy Awards, including Best Film and Best Direction. (Lehman, the only West Side Story nominee to fail to win an Oscar, lost out to Abby Mann for his adaptation of his own television play Judgment at Nuremberg.)

The Sound of Music movie Julie AndrewsThe Sound of Music, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?: Ernest Lehman mid-'60s hits

Ernest Lehman's next two screenplays were successful but inconsequential affairs: The Prize (1963) and The Sound of Music (1965). The former, based on the novel by Irving Wallace, was a North by Northwest rehash directed by Mark Robson (with a Hitchcockian flair), and starring Paul Newman, Elke Sommer, and Edward G. Robinson. The latter was another film adaptation of a Broadway hit musical (by composer Richard Rodgers and writers Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse) – a diabetes-inducing concoction that struck a chord with sugar-addicted audiences worldwide, thus becoming the most commercially successful film up to that time. (Image: The Sound of Music Julie Andrews.)

Directed by Robert Wise (his fourth and final pairing with Lehman), and starring Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer, The Sound of Music went on to win five Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director. The movie received an additional five nominations, though Lehman's screenplay was glaringly left out.

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? screenplay

In the mid-'60s, Lehman decided to transfer to the screen a property unlike anything on which he had previously worked: Edward Albee's harrowing Tony Award-winning play Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, the story of two highly dysfunctional heterosexual couples' long night's journey into – an even darker – day.

Relying on the support of Warner Bros. chief Jack Warner, and on the stellar duo Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor (instead of Albee's less commercial choices, James Mason and Bette Davis), Lehman – acting as writer-producer – managed to get the difficult project off the ground, cutting large chunks of the play so as to keep the film's running time at a movie-audience-friendly 130 minutes. Mike Nichols made his directorial feature-film debut, helping to turn the 1966 psychological drama into a major critical and commercial hit. Albee's adult dialogue, though toned down from the original, was partly responsible both for the film's box office success and for the demise of the Production Code, Hollywood's old set of censorship rules and regulations.

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? went on to receive 13 Academy Award nominations – including Best Film, Best Direction, and Best Adapted Screenplay – more than any other film that year. Although it won five Oscars, including Best Actress for Taylor and Best Supporting Actress for Sandy Dennis, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? lost the other major awards to the considerably weaker A Man for All Seasons. Fred Zinnemann's historical drama, in fact, was that year's big Oscar winner, taking home statuettes for Best Film, Best Director, Best Actor (Paul Scofield), and Best Adapted Screenplay (Robert Bolt).

Credit for the artistic success of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

In the case of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, the most impressive film in Lehman's career, the screenwriter's job was akin to that of a book editor. He may not have improved on Albee's play, but as per the reviews at the time Lehman did manage to trim the play down without losing the author's original vision. Although his editorial work was undeniably accomplished, the film version of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? just as undeniably owes its artistic success to the performances (thanks in large part to Nichols' solid handling of his actors), and to the characters and situations – Albee's, not Lehman's, creations.

Hello Dolly movie Barbra StreisandHello, Dolly!, Portnoy's Complaint: Ernest Lehman - Later Years

With Hello, Dolly! (1969), Ernest Lehman's next effort as a writer-producer and another lavish film adaptation of a stage musical (book by Michael Stewart, music by Jerry Herman), Lehman's string of successes came to a bombastic halt. (Image: Hello, Dolly! Barbra Streisand.)

One of the most expensive (and overblown) musicals ever made, Hello, Dolly!, though hardly a box office flop, failed to recover its mammoth production costs. Despite its seven Academy Award nominations – including a Best Picture nod – the film was perceived as a major critical and financial disappointment. Gene Kelly handled the directorial chores, while box office behemoths Barbra Streisand and Walter Matthau played the leads.

Three years later, Lehman made his directorial debut with his own adaptation of Philip Roth's bestselling novel Portnoy's Complaint. As it had previously happened with From the Terrace, Lehman failed to properly adapt a literary work to a visual medium. Film reviewer Roger Ebert, for one, called Portnoy's Complaint a “true fiasco. It has been written, produced and directed by Ernest Lehman as a sort of expedition with gun and camera into the untamed jungle of Alexander Portnoy's fantasies.

Ernest Lehman and Alfred Hitchcock together again

Ernest Lehman ended his screenwriting career with two screenplays for minor films: Alfred Hitchcock's swan song, the crime caper Family Plot (1976), and, sharing credit with Kenneth Ross and Ivan Moffat, John Frankenheimer's Black Sunday (1977), about the threat of a terrorist attack during the Super Bowl. (Additionally, the 1979 TV miniseries The French Atlantic Affair, the story of a luxury liner hijacked by terrorists, was based on Lehman's first novel.)

Film projects that failed to materialize in later years include The Short Night, which would have reunited Lehman with the then ailing Hitchcock, and in the mid-'80s, I Am Zorba!, a musical version of Zorba, the Greek that would have paired Lehman once again with Robert Wise.

In 1982, Lehman's second novel, Farewell Performance was published by McGraw-Hill. Later that year, Screening Sickness and Other Tales of Tinsel Town, a collection of his columns for American Film Magazine (for which he wrote for three years in the late '70s) were published in book form by G.P. Putnam's Sons.

Ernest Lehman's WGA Award wins and nominations

Between 1983-85, Ernest Lehman served as president of the Writers Guild of America, West (WGA). Throughout his career, he won six WGA awards: Sabrina (shared with Billy Wilder and Samuel A. Taylor), The King and I, West Side Story, The Sound of Music, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and the Laurel Award for Screen Writing Achievement in 1972. In addition, Lehman was nominated four times for the WGA Award: Executive Suite, Somebody Up There Likes Me, North by Northwest, and Family Plot.

A twist in Lehman's career took place in 2002, when his own Sweet Smell of Success was used as the basis for a Broadway musical.

Ernest Lehman died at age 89 on July 2 at Los Angeles' UCLA Medical Center. He had been stricken with pneumonia, and suffered a heart attack.

Screenwriters, playwrights, and writers

“We have suffered anonymity far too often,” Lehman said while accepting his honorary Oscar in 2001. “I appeal to all movie critics and feature writers to please always bear in mind that a film production begins and ends with a screenplay.”

And oftentimes, before the screenplay there is a book or a play – or even another screenplay. That also shouldn't be forgotten.

Hello, Dolly! movie Barbra Streisand photo: 20th Century Fox.

Sweet Smell of Success Burt Lancaster, Tony Curtis picture: United Artists.

The Sound of Music movie Julie Andrews photo: 20th Century Fox.

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5 comments

Andre -

This piece isn't about Ernest Lehman the man. It's about the movies Ernest Lehman adapted. I've seen those movies. I know them. Those are my own personal opinions, that's why the article is under my byline. No one has to agree with me.

Also, you *can* write about someone you've never met. Historians, researchers, and journalists do it all the time. I've never met Ramon Novarro, but that didn't prevent me from writing a (dare I say, well-informed) biography about him.

As for “failing” or “succeeding” — again, that's a matter of opinion. Surely there are people who believe that my writing “fails” to convey something or other. That's how it goes. I have to accept that. They have a right to their opinion, just like I have a right to mine.

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Jessie Cooper -

My Uncle was Ernest Lehman, and he told me one time when I visited him in California, that he was a writer more than 25 years. He wrote when he was in College, and was a writer for a New York magazine, (though I forget what the title is.)
Also, he didn't only win an Oscar, but he won 3 Edgar Awards, which is an amazing award that is hosted in New York, for mysteries and such.
Also, not to be hypocritical, but I feel that if you want to right about someone who is as famous as my Uncle, and you have never met him, and you don't know the everything, and you have never talked to him, you shouldn't be writing about someone who you don't know.
Also, my Uncle's scripts never failed. he never failed in writing- and it is rude to say that he “failed.” You can't say that he failed when he was one of the best writer's for movies of all times.

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Andre -

A clarification: I never felt that Lehman demanded more credit than he deserved. And that's not what I state in the piece.

And having reread the article, nowhere do I claim that it was Ernest Lehman's fault if his screenplays “failed” whereas other people should get the credit if they “succeeded.”

My point was simply that when adapting something for the screen, credit must be given to those who created the original characters, dialogue, and dramatic setup.

Reply
Ron Taube -

It is a shame that when a person dies that they would get a memorial story like this. When Mr. Lehman did something worthy the credit seems to always go elsewhere and when the work fails it is do to his efforts. Apparently enough producers and directors of merit thought he was a good screenwriter to hire him over and over again. Perhaps the author of this piece should realize that a good screenwriter often appears invisible in the work as Lehman usually did. He gave producers and directors what they wanted, sharp dialogue fast moving plots or whatever was asked for. Perhaps the author of this piece thinks that Lehman demanded more credit than he deserved but I think when he said ” a film production begins and ends with a screenplay.” he wasn't necessarily bragging but was stating how little credit most screen writers often get for their work.
I wonder if the writer of this piece will be remembered as long as Mr. Lehman will be by writers and directors.

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Iris -

I'm not sure I agree with everything in this multipart article, but I do agree that “The King and I” was a stagebound adaptation of the Broadway musical. Deborah Kerr and Yul Brynner were marvelous, and so was the work of the film's cinematographers, production designers, costume designers, etc. But Ernest Lehman's screenplay left quite a bit to be desired. The direction of Walter Lang could have been snappier, too.

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