Producer Sam Spiegel gets the legend treatment: a chunky, juicy biography, written by a former associate turned journalist, and now European editor of Harper’s Bazaar, Natasha Fraser-Cavassoni. To this day Spiegel remains the only person to win the Best Picture Oscar three times as a sole producer – for On the Waterfront(1954), The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) and Lawrence of Arabia (1962) – while his other credits include The African Queen (1951), Suddenly, Last Summer (1959) and Nicholas and Alexandra (1971). That output alone would be worth writing about, let alone the life that Spiegel had lived, or perhaps we should say survived, before he ever got to Hollywood.
A Jew born at the turn of the last century in the country that became Poland, Spiegel had been shuffled about in America in the late twenties, was sent to Germany, fled to Austria with the rise of the Nazis, and got into trouble in France and Britain. There’s not a huge amount known about this part of his life, but Fraser-Cavassoni has assembled intriguing coverage of it. When Spiegel returned to Hollywood in 1939 it was like Heathcliff’s return, such was the transformation: and whether throwing parties or throwing his weight around, Spiegel became one of the top producers of the time. Of course, in a book like this, it’s the behind-the-scenes sparring that most urgently grips the reader. His arguments with David Lean on the sets of The Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia, for example, are already well documented, but here we see that Spiegel was as unwavering in his view of movies as money and prestige.
If this biography falls short anywhere, it’s in its lack of proper scrutiny of Spiegel’s legacy. Essentially, he presided over some of the most monstrously over-inflated works in post-‘Golden Age’ Hollywood. Even his trio of Best Picture winners don’t escape the charge of being films which misled audiences into believing that they were ‘art’, and kept filmgoers’ eyes from far more worthy films of the time. Next to, say, Stanley Kramer, a director like David Lean was a ‘master’, but Spiegel’s films lapped up the attention while true greats like Anthony Mann and Nicholas Ray were effectively sidelined.
That said, Spiegel’s life is testament to the survival instinct and panache necessary to make it as a producer, and this book is an intricate, fastidiously researched account of the persona and the era in which he thrived. And at a time when films seem to have an ever-increasing number of producers – I think I counted fourteen on the poster for Narc (2002) – it’s good to recall that such people as Spiegel got down and dirty for their love of the movies.