Alan Smithee has been making shitty movies for nearly 50 years. Not just trashy blockbusters, or soppy rom-coms, or those big ambitious psychological thrillers that make absolutely no sense to anyone but the writer—but every type of truly terrible movie. Work so awful that nobody would ever want to have their name associated with it.
In fairness, that's exactly why Smithee's extensive back catalog is so very, very bad: because "Alan Smithee" (or sometimes "Allen Smithee") is a pseudonym used by various directors over the years to distance themselves from films that, for whatever reason, they haven't been able to exercise ample creative control over, and therefore believe to be cinematic trash.
The first movie credited to Smithee was the 1969 Western Death of a Gunfighter. After the star, Richard Widmark, objected to the original director midway through filming, a new guy was brought in. As neither director wanted their name on the finished movie, The Director's Guild of America credited it to Allen Smithee, and his career took off. Over the years, Smithee's work has included a David Hasselhoff cowboy comedy; a sequel to Hitchcock's The Birds; an episode of the ill-fated detective spinoff Mrs. Columbo; and the extended TV cut of 1984's Dune, as the screenwriter and director of the original film, David Lynch, wasn't happy with the television edit. All this led to Smithee becoming "the most well known nobody in Hollywood," according to the Guild's magazine.
Professor Jeremy Braddock of Cornell University, who edited the book Directed by Alan Smithee, explained to me how directors' careers live and die by their reputations. "In the late 1960s, directors were given more freedom to make movies, more freedom to establish themselves as artists and auteurs. It also means that their names can accrue value, or alternatively be tied to a compromised or bad production. So, commercially, at this time, the director's name started to be used as a marketing tool."
In his book, Braddock takes the idea of an auteur—the director as author and artist—and applies it to Smithee's films. Even though a different person directed each one, he points out, the Smithee films reveal the influence of the industry rather than an individual. Braddock then suggests that this "in itself is also a form of genius, the genius of the system. We can also think about these great studios as being auteurs in a way."
Rick Rosenthal directed the 1983 film Bad Boys (nothing to do with the 1995 Lawrence/Smith buddy cop movie of the same name), which helped to launch Sean Penn's career, and now acts as a consulting producer on Amazon's critically acclaimed transgender drama Transparent. Something he's less keen to be linked with is the sequel to Hitchcock's classic, The Birds II: Land's End, which he directed but subsequently removed his name from. Tippi Hedren, who both starred in the original and featured in the sequel, said of the film: "It's absolutely horrible. It embarrasses me horribly."
Rosenthal maintains that the film did well for producers at Showtime, and told me that his use of Smithee had nothing to do with the success of the film. He signed up to direct with assurances that parts of the script would be changed, but "those scenes were removed and the original scenes were put back in. I was told no, I had to shoot those scenes. That was the start of it, and the shape of the film was quite different from what I thought I was going to be shooting."
Unfortunately for others in Rosenthal's position, it's not always that easy to get Smithee to take the rap. The Directors Guild judges each pseudonym request individually, before negotiating with the film's production company, which can result in the director losing any further royalties or income from the film. Rosenthal remembers his hearing as a positive experience—a "kind of a healing process," as he put it to me.
Tony Kaye, the director of American History X, found it only made things worse. He infamously objected to the influence of the film's star Edward Norton over the studio. During the editing process, Kaye spent $100,000 placing ads denouncing Norton in the LA press, and he invited along a rabbi, a monk, and a priest to try to mediate during his meeting with a studio executive. When he later tried to disown the film and attribute it to Smithee, the Guild decided that his feud had been so public that any attempt by Kaye to distance himself was pointless, and denied his request.
Rosenthal has also taken his dealings with studios very personally in the past. He hasn't worked with Showtime since The Birds II, and burned his bridges with Warner Bros TV in style: "I hired a plane to fly a banner over a studio that I was leaving, and kind of had a little bit of a dispute," he told me. "It didn't say anything terribly negative, but I played a character called Uncle Richard, and it said 'Bye Bye Uncle Richard.' The net result was that I didn't work for that studio again for 11 years."
Although he wishes he'd taken friends' advice earlier and considered future projects, Rosenthal admits that it's easy to act irrationally in the movie business: "You have an argument with somebody and you're like, 'Well, fuck it, why am I continuing to work this hard for somebody who just doesn't get it?'"
The trailer for 'An Alan Smithee Film: Burn, Hollywood, Burn'
Officially, Smithee was retired following the release of 1997's An Alan Smithee Film: Burn, Hollywood, Burn. This big budget satire featured a director called Alan Smithee as the main character. When Smithee—Monty Python's Eric Idle—realizes he can't disown his own movie because he shares the name of the Guild's pseudonym, he steals the film and threatens to destroy it. Ironically, Burn, Hollywood, Burn was so bad that its real director, Arthur Hiller, chose to use the pseudonym Smithee to distance himself from it.
This wasn't just a publicity stunt, either, as the movie went on to win five Golden Raspberry awards, including Worst Picture (it lost Worst Director to Psycho). Roger Ebert called it "a spectacularly bad film—incompetent, unfunny, ill-conceived, badly executed, lamely written, and acted by people who look trapped in the headlights." He gave it no stars, which seems fitting for a movie about a shit movie. Since then, the Guild has started to use other pseudonyms, although some directors continue to hide behind Smithee, as his IMDB page can attest.
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Rick Rosenthal believes that the only way new directors can guarantee creative control, and therefore avoid resorting to the pseudonym, is by making lower budget films, as "the moment an auteur director has a failure, his or her wings are clipped. It becomes that much more difficult to retain the control that they might have had before a big film flops or fails."
Smithee and the studio influences that formed him will live on in the increasingly extravagant blockbusters we've been seeing over the past decade, as the huge crews remain loyal to the studios rather than directors. While Alan Smithee will probably never win an Academy Award, the films attributed to him reveal what happens when an individual's vision gets crushed by the industry. He might not be a true auteur, but at least he's given us some memorable (and memorably trashy) films.
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