You sit down with your spouse, loved ones or friends to watch a movie. You’ve got your snacks and drinks ready and you get comfortable, prepared for an entertaining few hours to come. During the credits you see the title “Directed by Alan Smithee” and think nothing of it. Chances are that when the film is over you are going to curse the name of Alan Smithee and wonder how a hack like him could ever get a job directing traffic, much less a Hollywood movie.
Alan Smithee has had a nearly forty yearlong career directing everything from B-movies to sequels to made for television movies and even the occasional music video. Most of these endeavors have been bad to put it nicely. A few are watchable – very few. His name has even showed up on television and airplane showings of major motion pictures, some of whom have even been nominated for Academy Awards.
When was the last time you saw Alan Smithee on a talk show? Or heard him on a radio interview? Or read an article in a major magazine when he was publicizing his new movie? The answer is… never. Alan Smithee does not exist.
Alan Smithee is a pseudonym that was created in 1969 for a western called Death of a Gunfighter starring Richard Widmark. It seems that Widmark and Gunfighter’s director, Robert Totten, were not getting along. It was mutually agreed that Totten would leave the picture and veteran director Don (Invasion of the Body Snatchers; Dirty Harry) Siegel was brought in to replace him. When the film was completed neither Totten nor Siegel wanted credit for the entire production. The Director’s Guild of America stepped in, insisting someone get credit, and decided to give it to one “Al Smith.” It was soon discovered there was already an Al Smith in the DGA so, figuring no one spelled Smith with an e on the end, made it Smithe. Fearing that someday a budding young director named Al Smithe might come along, the DGA made the first name Alan and added another e to the end just in case. Death of a Gunfighter, directed by Alan Smithee, opened in 1969 to probably the best reviews Smithee would ever get. The New York Times review said, “The film was sharply directed by Alan Smithee, who has an adroit facility for scanning faces and extracting sharp background detail.”
Thus Smithee became the signature name for a director who wanted to remove his name from his movie once it was proven that his vision had been compromised or taken over by others, and no longer wished their name associated with the film in any way.
Most of the time the problems begin after the film has been completed and is in post-production. Either a producer, a studio executive or even a big named star will step in to make decisions against the wishes of the director. Before he knows it the director is seeing a version he doesn’t agree with and a call to the DGA ensues. Once the DGA investigates they will determine whether the director has the right to remove his name from the film. Sometimes the DGA refuses.
Two noteworthy examples include The Gingerbread Man, based on the novel by John Grisham. The late Robert Altman directed the mystery and when it was completed the producers removed him from the editing room and took over. Altman immediately threatened to remove his name in favor of Smithee’s and hen it appeared the DGA was going to side with him, the producers compromised and allowed Altman to finish editing as long as some of their changes were included. Altman reluctantly agreed and the film was released to poor reviews. Those who have seen Altman’s original cut say it is another of his masterpieces.
American History X was a powerful film about the lives of two young men raised to be vicious racists. When the older brother (Edward Norton) goes to prison he is reformed and comes home to try and save his brother from meeting the same fate. Once the film was complete British director Tony Kaye went into the editing room and soon found himself being overruled by Norton, one of the film’s producers. Kaye publicly ranted and raved about the changes Norton was making claiming that his version was “the greatest movie ever made.” One would have to back Kaye’s right to see his version as he created it but he did himself no favors by bashing the film before it had even been released. The film as it is now is a very good one, and one that earned Norton a Best Actor Academy Award nomination and it’s hard to see what Kaye had against it though one can only wonder how much better his version may have been. Kaye went to the DGA asking to have his name removed but was refused for having already publicly attacked the movie. Tony Kaye has not directed in film since.
Television film director Jud Taylor has had his name removed from two of his projects and explains, “I had a couple of problems in my career having to do with editing and not having the contractually-required number of days in the editing room that my agent couldn’t resolve. So I went to the DGA and said ‘This is what is going on.’ The Guild went to bat for me. I got Alan Smithee on them both. It was a signal to the industry from a creative point of view that the shows had been tampered with.”
Most of Alan Smithee’s credits have come from television movies though every so often a theatrical release would appear with his name. “Cool Hand Luke” director Stuart Rosenberg successfully got his name removed from the 1987 war movie “Let’s Get Harry,” a movie that barely received theatrical release. Other movies with Smithee’s name on it are duds that most people have likely never even heard of including a teen comedy called Morgan Stewart’s Coming Home, a Cheech Marin comedy called Shrimp on the Barbee, and a Sherman (George Jefferson) Hemsley comedy called Ghost Fever.
Some of Smithee’s television (cable or free) movie credits include The Birds II: Land’s End, Solar Crisis, Stitches, Bloodsucking Pharaohs in Pittsburgh and Hellraiser: Bloodline. By the titles one might think the original director’s were perhaps a bit embarrassed by the films they created.
One of the oddest credits for Alan Smithee was as a producer for a 1981 comedy spoof of slasher films called Student Bodies. Director Michael (The Candidate; Bad News Bears) Ritchie served as producer on the film and removed his name in favor of Smithee’s. Oddly, director Mickey Rose is credited so perhaps Ritchie was more then a little under whelmed by the final cut of the film and decided no amount of editing in the world could save it.
The other oft use of Alan Smithee comes from films that have had their run in theaters and are being shown on airplanes, cable television and network television. Some of these films come from our top directors and each has freely explained that they removed their names from the edited versions simply because they did not supervise the editing and did not approve of the cut to be broadcast. David (Blue Velvet) Lynch has disowned the television version of his big budget flop Dune when he really should have disowned it before it hit theaters. Dune, based on the best selling novel by Frank Herbert, was released in 1984 as a prospective $40 million blockbuster turned incomprehensible mess. Adapting the huge novel to the big screen was a huge undertaking to begin with and Lynch’s original cut ran well over four hours. Neither Lynch nor the producers were happy with the film so they worked together to cut it down to the three-hour opus that was released. Several other versions were cut together with Lynch’s approval but the television version was cut down an extra hour making it completely impossible to watch and comprehend – much like the theatrical version. Lynch did not approve the television cut and removed his name.
Other films to see their directors remove their names from television broadcast versions, apparently not satisfied with the edited cuts include Michael Mann’s Heat with Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino and The Insider with Pacino and Russell Crowe. Martin Brest’s Meet Joe Black with Anthony Hopkins and Brad Pitt suffered a similar fate though some critics suggested Brest might have been wiser to credit Smithee in the original theatrical release. The Guardian, a very bad horror film from Exorcist director William Friedkin, found its cable debut with a credit to Smithee.
The most unusual use of the Alan Smithee pseudonym was used in 1997. Joe Esztherhas, screenwriter of such films as Basic Instinct and Showgirls wrote a comedy called Burn HollywoodBurn: An Alan Smithee Film starring Eric Idle as a director who makes a film so bad he wants to have his name removed from the final cut. The problem? His real name is Alan Smithee! Director Arthur (Love Story; The Hospital; Silver Streak) Hiller hated the final cut so much that he actually removed his name from the final cut. Thus, Burn Hollywood Burn: An Alan Smithee Film ended up with a director credit for Alan Smithee.
Because of the publicity regarding this, the DGA has attempted to do away with the Alan Smithee credit by simply choosing a different pseudonym on a film-by-film basis. The latest example of this was for the 2000 sci-fi thriller Supernova when director Walter (The Warriors; 48 HRS.) Hill removed his name and was replaced with the pseudonym Thomas Lee.
Never fear bad movie buffs. Alan Smithee’s name still pops up now and then on television movies, especially those made for cable. So should you happen to sit down to watch a movie that looks interesting but you have never heard of it, and you see the name Alan Smithee, you can expect a bad movie experience.
You have been warned.