In 1973, at the age of 71, an entertainment-industry veteran named John Houseman played a haughty Harvard Law School professor in a movie called The Paper Chase. Houseman, then the dean of the Julliard drama school, had never acted before, save for an uncredited cameo in Seven Days in May a decade earlier. His performance won him an Oscar and made him a star, and he spent the rest of his long life playing similar parts in movies, on TV, and in commercials for such unlikely things as cooking oil, fast-food cheeseburgers, station wagons, and the services of Smith Barney, a retail brokerage whose oft-parodied slogan was “They make money the old-fashioned way—they earn it.”
Houseman, who died at 86 in 1988, was amused and gratified by the well-compensated celebrity that he attained in old age, but he knew perfectly well that his career as a supporting actor was a fluke and that it was for his other, astonishingly varied achievements that he ought to be known. A Romanian-American grain merchant with a nose-in-the-air public-school accent who turned to theater when the Great Depression destroyed his business, Houseman staged the premiere of the Virgil Thomson and Gertrude Stein opera Four Saints in Three Acts, collaborated with Herman Mankiewicz on the screenplay for Citizen Kane, and produced films by such noted directors as Joseph Mankiewicz, Vincente Minnelli, Max Ophüls, Nicholas Ray, and Robert Wise. The long roster of other artists with whom he worked in various capacities includes Bertolt Brecht, Raymond Chandler, Aaron Copland, Duke Ellington, Martha Graham, Katharine Hepburn, Alfred Hitchcock, and Charles Laughton. In 1972 he founded the Acting Company, a touring ensemble of young classical actors that numbers among its alumni Kevin Kline and Patti LuPone, and in the same year he published Run-Through, a handsomely written, arrestingly frank autobiography that ranks with Moss Hart’s Act One as the finest of all American theatrical memoirs.
Above all, Houseman is known for his close but short-lived association with the young Orson Welles, with whom he co-founded the Mercury Theatre in 1937. He produced all of Welles’s early stage successes, including the Mercury’s legendary modern-dress version of Julius Caesar and the Federal Theatre Project productions of The Cradle Will Rock and Macbeth that made Welles a celebrity; and he doubled as the producer and sometime writer of Welles’s radio programs, most notably the 1938 adaptation of H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds that caused a nationwide panic.
While Houseman also did a fair amount of stage directing throughout his life, it was as a producer that he did his most significant work. That is why he is no longer widely remembered. Because their function is not well understood outside the entertainment business, it is unusual for producers who do not direct their own films to be familiar to the public at large. Even at the height of his Hollywood career, Houseman’s name was unknown to moviegoers, and his early collaborations with Welles have vanished into theatrical myth. Significantly, he is seen only in passing in the two feature films about Welles in which he is portrayed on screen: Tim Robbins’s Cradle Will Rock (1999) and Richard Linklater’s Me and Orson Welles (2008), neither of which gives any sense of his personality, much less his real-life stature.
Houseman was, in fact, a figure of considerable consequence, one who deserves to be remembered as far more than a mere valet to genius. But it is impossible to appreciate his myriad contributions to film and theater without first understanding exactly what they were—and there is no job more ambiguous, or harder to define, than that of a producer.
Although Houseman was nominally credited as the director of Four Saints in Three Acts, his contribution to that legendary production, as he summarizes it in Run-Through, is a good working definition of what a producer does:
I soon discovered that what Virgil [Thomson, the composer of Four Saints] needed was not just someone to stage his opera but some sort of director-producer-impresario who would combine, coordinate, and regulate the various artistic elements he had already selected.
In addition to writing the score of Four Saints in Three Acts, Thomson had already chosen his conductor and set designer, decided that the opera should be performed by an all-black cast, and come to the conclusion that Houseman should work with a choreographer who would be mainly responsible for developing the show’s stage movements. For the most part, Houseman functioned as a kind of artistic midwife to Thomson, and he served the same role when he started to work with Orson Welles in 1936.
Welles was chronically undisciplined, and Houseman played the hard-headed realist to the younger man’s airy fantasist, creating and maintaining the institutional structure that allowed his partner’s improvisational genius to flourish. Even so, theirs was a true collaboration. The two men jointly chose the plays that they produced, and while Welles was solely responsible for their staging, Houseman functioned as his “editor”:
It became my main responsibility…to disentangle the essentials of the production as [Welles] had originally conceived it from that obsessive preoccupation with insignificant detail in which he was inclined to seek refuge when fatigue or self-doubt had begun to wear him down.
The proof of Houseman’s indispensability to their partnership was that after they parted company, Welles never again managed to mount a fully successful stage production. The neurotically vainglorious Welles, however, did his best to bamboozle posterity into supposing that none of his collaborators, least of all Houseman, deserved any substantial amount of credit for anything he did. By 1972, Houseman’s role in the Mercury’s productions had faded from memory, and it was doubtless in part to set the record straight that he wrote Run-Through.
He is no less forthright about Welles’s attempts to steal credit for writing “The War of the Worlds,” whose script was the sole work of Howard Koch, and Citizen Kane, which was written by Herman Mankiewicz (though Welles awarded himself an unearned screen credit as co-writer).
In fact, Houseman had functioned as Mankiewicz’s collaborator in everything but name. Even though he had broken with Welles at the end of 1939, he agreed to help the alcoholic Mankiewicz write the film’s screenplay. Working in much the same way that he had with Welles, he edited Mankiewicz’s rough drafts, served as a sounding board for his emerging ideas, and conceived the “News on the March” newsreel parody that is one of Kane’s most striking and dramatically effective scenes.
Welles took the Mankiewicz-Houseman script, slashed away the underbrush, suggested new scenes, and restructured old ones. But none of Citizen Kane was actually written by Welles, and when he tried to take credit for the screenplay, Houseman warned him that “if anyone but [Mankiewicz] was to get credit for the script of Kane, it would be me.”
Houseman’s work on Citizen Kane gave him a taste for filmmaking, and in 1944 he became a producer at Paramount, moving in 1946 to RKO and, later, MGM, where he worked at increasingly irregular intervals until he finally left the movie business in 1963. During that time, he oversaw 18 feature films, among them The Blue Dahlia (1946), a mystery with a screenplay by Raymond Chandler; Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948), a film version of Stefan Zweig’s 1922 novella directed by the German émigré Max Ophüls; Vincente Minnelli’s most successful nonmusical movies, The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), an unusually frank “backstage” drama about the film industry itself, and Lust for Life (1956), a Vincent Van Gogh biopic based on the painter’s letters; and Joseph Mankiewicz’s 1953 screen version of Julius Caesar, which starred Marlon Brando and John Gielgud.
What is most striking about these films is how they strive to elevate themselves and their audiences. Not one, to be sure, is an art film in the accepted meaning of the phrase—they are “middlebrow” pictures made to entertain an educated general audience—but almost without exception, all of them aspire to a kind of seriousness not commonly associated with the Hollywood studio system, and there can be no doubt that the source of that seriousness was Houseman himself.
The auteur theory of film criticism, which presupposes that the director of a film is by definition its “author,” overlooks the well-known fact that in the days of the studio system, it was the producer, not the director, who was usually (though by no means always) the prime mover of the films on which he worked. As Houseman explained:
He might do no more than follow the orders of his studio head or he might be the major creative factor in the films that bore his name—selecting the material, developing it with a writer of his choice, engaging the director and cast, supervising its filming and having the final say in the editing, scoring and, even, merchandising of his finished picture.
Unlike some of his colleagues, Houseman was the very model of the “creative” producer. Although he had no calling as a screenwriter and seems never to have wanted to direct a film on his own, he made all of the initiating decisions that were brought to fruition by the men and women he hired. Once he chose them, though, he endeavored, just as he had with Welles, to “maintain a climate within which [they] could work freely and creatively, without interference from anyone—even myself.”
This enlightened attitude led to the creation of a body of work whose collective quality has gone unrecognized. To some extent this is because Houseman’s films vary so widely in style and subject matter, from the elegiac romanticism of Letter from an Unknown Woman to the hard-edged film noir despair of Nicholas Ray’s On Dangerous Ground (1952). Yet all of them bear the stamp of his cultivated taste, and without him, none would have been made.
In the 1960s, Houseman embarked on yet another career as an educator, co-creating Julliard’s drama program, before his unlikely final act began with The Paper Chase. But the signal achievement of Houseman’s later years was the writing of Run-Through and its two sequels, Front and Center (1979) and Final Dress (1983). In these stylish, penetratingly self-aware reminiscences, he left behind indelible pen portraits of Brecht, Chandler, Hitchcock, Laughton, and the many other artists with whom he had worked, as well as an incomparably vivid account of his collaboration with Orson Welles. Houseman’s depiction of that relationship bears on every page the mark of closely observed truth and does more than anything else written about Welles to illuminate the character flaws that stopped him from realizing his prodigious gifts: “I became not merely the hated figure of authority, to be defied and outwitted…but the first hostile witness to the ghastly struggle between narcissism and self-loathing that characterized Orson’s approach to a part.”
What Houseman learned from Welles became the foundation of his later career. Lacking the primary gift of creativity, he nonetheless knew how to recognize it in others, and then make it possible for them to do their best work. That ability, and the films that it inspired, led the critic David Thomson to call him “one of the small number of people who raised the term ‘movie producer’ to a level of honor.” If anything, though, Thomson’s praise was understated. The truth is that John Houseman was one of the even smaller number of movie producers who earned the right to be called artists.