By the time he made the wretched 1977 conspiracy thriller The Domino Principle — his last picture to date — filmmaker Stanley Kramer was barely connecting the dots. Sniffed at by Andrew Sarris — ”His very ineptness has become encrusted with tradition,” wrote the auteurist critic — and abandoned by audiences, he’d strayed far from his broad, commercial showman’s instincts.
And what instincts they were: As a producer, Kramer first clicked by casting Kirk Douglas to superb effect in the boxing expose Champion (1949). He rehabilitated Gary Cooper’s career with the Western classic High Noon (1952), gave Marlon Brando an exploitation hit with The Wild One (1954), and showcased Humphrey Bogart as the paranoid Captain Queeg in The Caine Mutiny (1954). Restless to keep greater control of his creative vision, Kramer then upped the ante by both producing and directing such star-studded ”message” movies as The Defiant Ones (1958), On the Beach (1959), Judgment at Nuremberg (1961), Ship of Fools (1965), and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967), his biggest hit. Over those 10 heady years, though, the I-can-do-it-all approach burned him out. After 1968, Kramer’s knack for garnering either box office success or Oscar glory (his films won 15 Oscars on 85 nominations) dried up, and his career went into eclipse.
But hey, three decades later, here comes the sun. At the age of 84, Kramer has brought forth, with coauthor Thomas M. Coffey, a breezy new career memoir, A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World: A Life in Hollywood. This is, of course, a name-brand nod to Kramer’s 1963 mega-farce, the cameo-crammed road picture (everyone from Sid Caesar to Buster Keaton to Jerry Lewis to the Three Stooges) that indirectly inspired Steven Spielberg’s similarly gargantuan and even more unfunny 1941.
Not that you’ll find a shred of such historical analysis from Kramer about his impact on movies — or any substantive talk of fellow directors he admired, either. This is mainly a deardiary affair, dutifully trotting through the years, cast lists, script battles, and, always, the budgets — a mercantile focus that’s perhaps the most modern thing about Kramer’s otherwise rigid, gentlemanly sensibility. Out of step with these dish-minded times, he tediously commends actors as ”competent” and ”capable,” ”fully deserving” of his ”highest regard,” ”respect,” ”admiration,” and ”affection.” Is this tact or a low-wattage memory at work? Hard to say.
Yet given the sheer volume of first-rank stars that Kramer hired over the years — including Grace Kelly, Kirk Douglas, Cary Grant, Jose Ferrer, Sidney Poitier, and Vivien Leigh, among others — the odd insightful observation does bubble up. Picture, for instance, Robert Mitchum, Frank Sinatra, and Broderick Crawford playing interns on the set of the mediocre medical drama Not as a Stranger (1955), brazenly leering at and pinching the backside of nurse Olivia de Havilland. ”The things they said and did to her were common on many movie sets in those days,” remarks Kramer. ”Today, you could land in prison.” The most sustained and amusing insights come in a final chapter about the making of Coming to Dinner. ”Spencer liked to make fun of [Kate’s] New England accent,” Kramer recalls. ”One day…he said, ‘Kate, why don’t you talk like a person? You talk like you’ve got a feather up your a–.”
Had he dusted off more than just a smattering of such uproarious behind-the-scenes exchanges, Kramer’s Mad World might have seemed a bigger, merrier place. But this feels less like a sweeping portrait of Hollywood than a visit to a small, self-involved satellite — Planet Kramer. A sense of adventure or scope or genuine camaraderie with his many film crews is elusive, lost amid constant totings up of bucks and statuettes and even more constant self-flagellations over the movies that bombed (including The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T, the 1953 fantasy that became Kramer’s ”most horrendous flop”). Make no mistake, there’s pleasure in sizing up Kramer’s wide-angle overview. Just don’t expect many cutaways to close-ups. B-