If you check the Imdb page of a certain Alan Smithee, you will find more than 80 listings under ‘director’ and quite a few under ‘producer’ and ‘writer’ as well. The first theatrical feature film that was directed by this Alan Smithee in fact dates back to 1969. But despite such a vast bag of work, Alan Smithee has never received any noteworthy recognition, applause or award. Rather, whenever his name has cropped up, it has been usually associated with some terrible films. So who is this notorious Alan Smithee?
No one has ever met him. And understandably so, because Alan Smithee is a creation of Hollywood. A man who never walked on the face of this planet but is credited with so much work in Hollywood that would make many stalwarts look lazy. To learn more about him, let’s go back to the year 1969. A western film starring Richard Widmark and titled Death of a Gunfighter was set to be released by Universal Pictures. The feature film carried the name of a certain Alan Smithee as the director whom no one had heard of before. The film in fact had Robert Totten in the director’s role when production had begun. Totten had been making his name by directing Western TV series such as Temple Houston and the more famous Gunsmoke. He had also directed the ABC series The Legend of Jesse James, another Westerner. Totten seemed to be the right man for Death of a Gunfighter, but after completing much of the filming, he was replaced due to his clashes with actor Richard Widmark. Don Siegel (Invasion of the Body Snatchers) was brought in to complete filming. As it turned out, the final version of the movie carried more footage shot by Totten than Siegel. The latter was hesitant to take ownership of the project, and the former refused. The matter was then decided by the Directors Guild of America (DGA), who agreed that the movie did not represent either director’s creative vision. And so was born Alan or Allen Smithee. Death of a Gunfighter was well received by the critics who did not hold back their praises for Alan Smithee even though famous critic Roger Ebert added that it is ‘a name I’m not familiar with’.
So who is Alan Smithee? It’s a pseudonym used mainly by directors who want to disown a project they have worked on, citing their inability to exercise creative control over the film. They have to prove this point to the DGA, and are then required to not discuss the circumstances leading to the move in public or even acknowledge being the actual director. Once Alan Smithee was in circulation with Death of a Gunfighter, director Jud Taylor managed to get it applied retroactively to her TV movie Fade-In, starring Burt Reynold.
Ever since then, the name Alan Smithee has popped up regularly in the credits for Hollywood films. Its usage has gone beyond directors, with writers, producers and once, even by a second assistant director, having their names replaced with Alan Smithee. It is easy to understand why someone would want their names expunged in such a manner. If a director strongly feels that his vision of the movie is being compromised because of the studio’s intervention and is dissatisfied with the manner in which the movie is shaping, then he would not want to carry the risk of being associated with the movie’s failure. After all, making a movie is an art form, and a director would want to yield the maximum control on it, just like a Michaelangelo would not have allowed anyone else to apply a brushstroke on his paintings. A movie doing well earns the director praise, but its failure also earns him a rap.
There have been some famous examples too when the name Alan Smithee popped up alongside popular movies. We all know of 1995’s Heat, right? The legendary Al Pacino – Robert De Niro duel. Michael Mann was the one who helmed this movie and we could never thank him enough. But when the film was edited to be shown on television, Mann chose not to have his name mentioned on the credits, and instead popped up our very own Alan Smithee, willing to be the scapegoat again. Though he may not have had a problem with getting credit for The Heat. Television versions of other known movies like Rudy, Meet Joe Black and The Insider (again a Michael Mann film) too have been credited to Alan Smithee.
Movies in later years carrying the Alan Smithee pseudonym could not completely keep the identity of the original director a mystery, for everything is so well-documented and circulated. Nonetheless, getting the Guild to allow the movie to be circulated with the director’s credit given to Alan Smithee is another way of broadcasting that the movie’s creative vision was taken over by someone else. Another famous example where Alan Smithee was brought into action was for the 1994 TV film The Birds II: Land’s End. A sequel to the famous Alfred Hitchcock movie Birds, the sequel was directed by Rick Rosenthal who had a bitter fight with Warner Bros. and managed to have his name removed from the movie’s credit as the following poster also reveals.
The Birds II: Land’s End was slammed by critics and Ken Tucker of Entertainment Weekly went on to say this about director Rosenthal – “He has good reasons to want his name erased from it. If it were me, I’d sue.” Not everyone managed to get their name erased easily though. Director of American History X, Tony Kaye had a public spat with actor Edward Norton and the studio, and so when he wanted his name to be replaced by Smithee, the Guild refused citing that his feud had been so public that any attempt by Kaye to distance himself was pointless.
In February 1998, a movie titled An Alan Smithee Film: Burn Hollywood Burn hit the theatres. It was a big budget satire narrating the story of a director called Alan Smithee who realizes he’s an unwitting studio puppet, being forced to make a big-budget action film he knows is horrible, and so steals the master reels and tries to make a deal. Ironically, the movie’s director Arthur Hiller managed to get his name removed from the movie, and guess who came in his place – Alan Smithee. The movie received horrible reviews from critics, bombed at the box-office and won five Golden Raspberry awards. Owing to the negative publicity, the Guild retired the pseudonym Alan Smithee though it still crops up here and there for movies not under the supervision of the DGA. Some directors have managed to find newer pseudonyms, though none of them has been used with such consistency as was the case with Alan Smithee. If some day this gentleman, Alan Smithee, who has been so kind enough to take the fall when no one else was willing to, does make an appearance in our world and observes the petty disputes that go on behind the scenes while creating something as artistic as a movie, then what would he think about us as humans, I wonder!