13 March 2012 | D_Burke
Alan Smithee Himself Is Fascinating, Even If He Doesn't Exist
"Who Is Alan Smithee?", or "Directed By Alan Smithee" as its DVD release is titled, is a documentary about a fascinating subject and chapter in Hollywood history. If this documentary had more time, and perhaps wasn't restricted to AMC's maximum of 50 minutes to make time for commercial break, it also could have told more of a story.
The basics of Alan Smithee's origin are all here. Smithee is not a real person, but a pseudonym used by directors who wish to take their names off a picture they have directed. The Smithee name was a well-kept Hollywood secret by the Director's Guild of America, who approved the use of that name, until "An Alan Smithee Film: Burn, Hollywood, Burn" (1998) gave the name more notorious exposure.
This short documentary told the story of Smithee's beginnings very well. I was always curious why they chose the name Alan Smithee, and why they couldn't have just used a name like "John Smith". The rationale behind the name above other options was explained in great detail, particularly by former members of the DGA.
However, the documentary only explained the story behind two films credited to Alan Smithee: the first one, "Death of a Gunfighter" (1969), and "Burn, Hollywood, Burn". While the documentary briefly showed a list of Alan Smithee's other films, I wanted to hear more stories behind those other films.
I liked some of the commentary contributed by other directors who had lived to tell about Hollywood's shady other side, such as Martha Coolidge and her failed attempt to get her name taken off "Joy of Sex" (1984), her dismal follow up to the well-received "Valley Girl" (1982). She makes the argument that the studio wanted more nude scenes despite the fact that the scenes had nothing to do with the story. Seeing as Coolidge does not seem to be fond of exploitation, you can't help but believe her.
But when this documentary gets on the subject of British director Tony Kaye, director of "American History X" (1999), that's when the documentary loses its focus and credibility. Apparently, "American History X" was not in Kaye's vision, and was re-cut to fit the studio's demands.
While you have to credit Kaye for standing up for his artistic liberty, the film that resulted wasn't just good, it was great. Kaye would have made a better argument releasing a director's cut of the film. With this documentary dedicating 20 minutes of Kaye's vain efforts to take his name off the film, it makes Kaye look more like a bitchy perfectionist.
I wanted to hear more about other films with the Alan Smithee pseudonym. They show a clip of "Shock Treatment" (1981), the poorly-received sequel to "The Rocky Horror Picture Show", in this doc, but don't explain why director Jim Sharman, who directed both films, wanted to take his name off it. In fact, the clip they show is very energetic, and suggests "Shock Treatment" is a fun movie. Also, according to IMDb, Sharman is still credited, not Alan Smithee.
Plus, while they show a clip of David Lynch, who used the pseudonym for the director's cut of "Dune" (1984), they neglected to tell the story behind his reasoning to discredit himself from his re-cut. Strangely enough, the director's cut was better than the original "Dune" release, the latter of which was a notorious critical and commercial failure. Did the studio re-cut his director's cut? Why? "Who Is Alan Smithee?" should have answered these questions.
"Burn, Hollywood, Burn" was ironic for two reasons. First, legendary director Arthur Hiller ("Love Story" (1970), "Silver Streak" (1976)) actually took his name off the movie because the studio re-cut it to his dissatisfaction. Second, the movie outed Alan Smithee despite receiving terrible reviews and bombing at the box office. If this documentary had eased up on Tony Kaye's artistic woes and told some more compelling Alan Smithee anecdotes, it could have taken that distinction away from "Burn, Hollywood, Burn". It would have deserved it, too.