Even the most successful figures in entertainment have their injudicious moments.
During his long career in Hollywood as a producer, director and screenwriter, Irwin Winkler has had a few, none more mistaken than doubting Francis Ford Coppola. Interviewing prospective directors for The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight in 1970, Winkler feared the future director of The Godfather just didn't have the chops to direct a Mafia picture.
“It's amusing...now,” says Winkler, 87. “More recently, after he directed Creed (2015) for my production company, I asked Ryan Coogler why he'd want to direct an impersonal Marvel Comics movie like Black Panther. ‘You're better than that,’ I told him. Well, I think he made that one pretty personal, too.”
Missed calls have not been a prominent feature of Winkler's filmography, which includes such celebrated pictures as They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, Rocky, The Right Stuff, Raging Bull and Goodfellas. The first half-century of his work is chronicled with disarming candor in the memoir A Life in Movies: Stories From 50 Years in Hollywood.
Winkler, a Coney Island native, broke in with the William Morris Agency in the 1950s. But after a brief, undistinguished stint as an agent he soon moved into talent management with Bob Chartoff, a productive personal and professional association that would endure until the latter's death in 2015.
Talent management eventually led, in 1967, to producing movies. Winkler had found his métier.
Today, he reminds us why it is the producer who receives the Best Picture Oscar. Audiences tend to have an incomplete picture of the manifest responsibilities the job entails, he says.
“Thirty years ago people asked me ‘What does a producer do?’ I found it difficult to answer because there are so many different functions. It is actually quite different now than when I started. Then the producer was the initial creative force as well as the business force. These days, some young person can just show up with a couple of million dollars and say he or she is the producer.”
For more than 30 years, Winkler kept a diary of his “workdays, phone calls, meetings, lunches and dinners”—a “moment to moment, day-to-day process of getting a film made.” It was an invaluable aid. A Life in Movies exhibits not only the expected professional expertise, but a breezy writing style, great recall, and a wealth of fascinating anecdotes. Winkler says his aim was singular.
“I do think that over the years producers’ contributions have been overlooked, which is one of the reasons I wrote the book. I have directed films for over 20 years as well, and I know that the force behind a movie is very often the producer, who may have found a project, read a book or seen an article that he or she thought would make a good movie. But the producer’s contribution, which often continues throughout the filmmaking process, is often forgotten because so much credit is given to the director.”
That said, when he produces a Martin Scorsese movie, like the forthcoming The Irishman—Winkler’s eighth collaboration with the director and Robert De Niro—he recognizes that Scorsese is the principal creative force behind it, as was also the case in films Winkler directed.
Winkler continues to make movies with his sons David and Charles (another son, Adam, is a professor of constitutional law at UCLA and a National Book Critics Circle award nominee). Apparently, “retirement” isn't in his vocabulary.
“I’ll just work till one day I can’t because I’m dead. I’m in great health, and this year has been a banner year for me, what with ‘The Irishman’ bringing together so many old friends and associates like Scorsese, De Niro, Al Pacino, Harvey Keitel and Joe Pesci.
“It would have been a nice place to stop working, but right now I’m already working on three new pictures.”
Bill Thompson writes regularly for Kirkus Reviews.