Wednesday, July 12, 2000

'Backstory' looks behind the old-movie scenes

        PASADENA, Calif. — Sometimes the best movie stories never make it into a film, even a classic.

[photo] Sally Field
        • Sally Field had to fight studio heads for the lead role in Norma Rae, her Oscar-winning turn as a textile mill union organizer in 1979.

        • Marilyn Monroe's famous wind-blown white halter dress in The Seven Year Itch flipped up over her head, though that footage was edited out of the film — but not the 1955 movie promos.

        • Although Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway made the perfect Bonnie and Clyde in 1967, few knew that Mr. Beatty wanted a different co-star.

        “I was a complete unknown. I had done two films, and this would have been my third,” said Ms. Dunaway during a press conference at the Television Critics Association summer press tour here.

        “You know, a lot of people had been talked about — Tuesday Weld and Natalie (Wood) — for it. I'm not really 100 percent clear on what the objection was.”

        These are the stories of Backstory, the American Movie Classics documentary series that debuts Aug. 12. Each week the movie channel will interview stars, producers, directors and film experts about the events behind the cameras of favorite hit films.

        “The public has a tremendous appetite for more information about classic movies,” said Kate McEnroe, president of AMC Networks.

        AMC wanted to show movie lovers more about the movies they think they know by heart. “The more they know about it (a film), the more they will want to see it,” she said.

        Had these films been made today, these are the sound-stage stories which would saturate Entertainment Tonight, Extra, Access Hollywood, HBO, CNN, E! or the Disney Channel.

        The half-hour series will revisit Norma Rae (Aug. 19), The Seven Year Itch (Aug. 26), The Longest Day (Sept. 2), All About Eve (Sept. 9) and The Poseidon Adventure (Sept. 16). M*A*S*H and The Rocky Horror Picture Show also are on the list.

        Shelley Winters, who starred in Irwin Allen's Oscar-winning Poseidon shipwreck disaster, told TV critics that she did most of her own underwater stunts in the 1972 Oscar-winning film. The real acting job was done by co-star Red Buttons, who was afraid of heights and couldn't swim.

        Co-star Gene Hackman, the Poseidon hero who led the passengers to safety through the capsized hull, also revised the film's climax. Director Ronald Neame said the script originally called for Mr. Hackman to dive into the water to save Ms. Winters, but the actor convinced him to reverse the roles.

        “I was furious at Gene Hackman,” Ms. Winters said about the scene, in which her character died.

        “Shelley was convinced that I was destroying her part,” Mr. Neame said. The actress stormed off the set in disgust after Mr. Neame complained that “this was the worst morning I've had since I directed Judy Garland.”

        Ms. Winters, an expert swimmer who gained 40 pounds for the role, said that a conflict arose with Mr. Hackman because she could hold her breath longer underwater during the rescue scene.

        “Gene Hackman claimed I was trying to drown him,” she said.

        Ms. Field's Norma Rae had to be shot in Alabama because non-union factory owners in North Carolina and South Carolina “found out what the film was about and threw us out,” said Ron Leibman, who played the New York union organizer.

        Norma Rae never played in many mill towns in those states, he said. People told the actor: “We saw the "coming attractions' of this union film Norma Rae coming to our theater. And then it never came.'

        “I said, "We must have done something right.' The mill owners who ran those towns were frightened to show the film,” he said.

        Veteran actor Robert Wagner cautioned that making too many “making of” shows would ruin the movie magic for millions.

        “To expose how we do it, the (special) effects . . . I think it's better to keep that a little bit secret,” said Mr. Wagner, who was interviewed by AMC for a Backstory on The Longest Day, the 1962 World War II epic.

        “It's our secret, really. And if they keep showing how we do it, I think that takes away from it a great deal,” he said.

        “When you're on a movie, and you see everybody come together, all the actors and the director . . . and making it happen, put it on film, and people being moved by it — it's magical. It really is magical,” Mr. Wagner said.

        After all, classic movies have kept the audience spellbound for years without any Backstory.

        “I get fans' letters saying they've seen (The Poseidon Adventure) five or six times,” Ms. Winters said. “I write back: "Are you hoping it's going to end different?' ”

        TV Critic John Kiesewetter is reporting from the summer press tour. Write him at 312 Elm St., Cincinnati, 45202.