It was a rainbow synthesis of words that made Ernest Lehman’s genius an integral part of his superb craftsmanship — more so, because his cinematic chemistry mirrored his silky-smooth and built-in delightful ability to entertain multiple pairs of seemingly opposite ideas simultaneously. In other words, of seeing the whole picture, while integrating the larger elements, their intrinsic and extrinsic details with consummate élan.
To pick two examples. Lehman wrote Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? , soon after he had worked on The Sound of Music . Well, if anybody watches the two films back-to-back, it’s awfully difficult to imagine a greater contrast between any two movies. This is not all. Lehman, with as much fervour, felicity, and snappy finesse, had earlier written King & I , Sweet Smell of Success  and North By Northwest  — a quintessential Alfred Hitchcock film with its indelible stamp, through-and-through, all right, yet it is also, in essence, a Lehman movie. The reason is simple — in other words, a simile as complex and engaging as the body of work that Lehman scripted.
While it is agreed that Lehman worked in much greater detail, and rapport, with Hitchcock than any other movie director, there’s more to his versatility that what meets the eye, or ear. As he once put it, “Absolutely. There were seldom any differences between the screenplay, and finished film. Take this example. In North By Northwest. I wanted the opening of the crop duster sequence to be shot from a helicopter. Instead, art director Robert Boyle constructed a tower for the camera to show Cary Grant standing all by himself, with nothing in sight... for 360 degrees. But, that whole sequence, almost shot-for-shot, is in the script.” A point proved.
Lehman made his Hollywood debut, as a screenwriter, in Executive Suite . His first work was commendable, as was his next, Sabrina , a light-hearted romantic comedy. Yet, he was disappointed, for the simple reason there was no mention of the word, screenplay, in the film. Worse still, his by-line did not appear in the credits. And, so, from the word go, he took up the cudgels, with the press, and elsewhere — to influence, and somehow bring into recognition the importance of the screenwriter in every cinegoer’s mind. The rest, as they say, is history.
Lehman’s screenplays were adapted from different sources: novels, plays, and musicals. He never called himself the author. He’s, by himself, only the ‘author’ of the screenplay, as he’d often say: no more, no less. In his own words, again, “If I’m adapting a novel, I think I am the one who decides where you find the movie in it, what you put in, what you leave out. [Also] what the screenwriter doesn’t put in the movie is sometimes as important, as what he does put in.”
Lehman re-engineered several novels for movies, at times. What’s more, he knew both the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ of such an excursion. “It is so difficult to write a good movie, whether it’s based on something good, and something not-so-good, your own material or someone else’s, that you never think in terms of, well, I didn’t really do very much; I didn’t change it all so much, or I’ve changed it so much they’ll lynch me for doing so.” His raison d’être, “My feeling is I’m the one who decides not to improve something that doesn’t need improving.” Words of wisdom, for screenwriters, big and small, wherever they are — Hollywood, or Bollywood.
It’s said that Lehman had one unvarying habit of agonising over each scene, frame-by-frame. He admitted to his idiosyncrasy, and thought it was vital. May be, he did not want to be ordinary, and also thought of a better way of saying the same thing and revealing what he wanted the audience to know, or feel, or get inside the character’s feelings and mind — all at the same time. He also may not have wanted to lose the audience. Not even for a second. His bottom line: always keep the viewers involved and engaged.
As producer-director Jeffrey Hayden contextualised the Lehman template on National Public Radio, "Well, when I think of ‘Ernie,’ he was a quiet and shy man, but with such high moral and ethical standards. One thing comes to my mind about Ernie is that — you know, people talk about how Hollywood screenwriters seem to write for the two coasts, you know, the LA and New York crowd. Well, I spent a lot of time with Ernie, hour after hour and after, in his little radio shack, which was above his garage, as he had his ham radio. He would contact people all over the world, in all these far, remote and quite rural places. He would spend hours talking to these people, just talking to them about their lives and what would be of interest to them. I always marvelled at Ernie's interest in all these other people. It was so wonderful..." This, perhaps, gave him the intensity, the literary artistry — the skin of his thought process and its evolution on the screen.
Lehman admired several movie-makers and directors. He often felt that directing was unbelievably difficult and back-breaking work. Like his own profession. He did it just right. He ‘lived’ the story before he ‘wrote’ it. He’s just as much delighted being a screenwriter, nothing else, albeit he failed in his directorial venture, Portnoy's Complaint . As he argued and explained, “[Today], everybody wants to be a director. But, directing is too difficult. You’ve to get into fights with actors. It’s confrontational; it’s antagonistic. It’s too tough. A writer becomes a writer because he wants to withdraw from the world and be in a room all by himself. He need not have to face a lot of people.” Lehman also thought that screenwriters’ writing courses were no great shakes: a little artificial. He didn’t believe in ‘acts.’ He truly believed in dramatic structures and the art of making consummately structured films: intuitive, instinctive, or even unconscious. He could afford to think on such lines, perhaps, because he was Lehman.
Yet, as luck would have it, he saw the big change from the Hollywood of yore, in the 1990s, and beyond 2000. Lehman obviously thought it was nasty — the script getting rewritten several times when the director stepped in, or when a superstar walked into the project. Not that Lehman did not have to rewrite for some directors. He did, but “not too much.” Yet, the paradox was Lehman never won an Oscar, like his ‘mentor’ Hitchcock — all he had were four best screenplay Oscar nominations. That he received an Oscar in his 85th year, for lifetime achievement, was passé, although the icing on the cake was he won the most ‘best screenplay awards’ from the Writer's Guild than anyone in the Guild's history. This was what he said in his Oscar acceptance speech, "I accept this rarest of honours on behalf of screenwriters everywhere, but especially those in the Writers Guild of America. We have suffered anonymity far too often. I appeal to all movie critics and feature writers to please always bear in mind that a film production begins and ends with a screenplay. However, this glorious night is demonstrating that film belongs to many — to the creators of original works, to superbly talented actors, directors, producers and to gifted collaborators. Had it not been for all of them, I certainly would not be up here, having one of the most exciting nights, in a long lifetime.'
All the same, Lehman was convinced that he had had a charmed life: a fortunate one, at that. Yet, ironically, for all his ‘wordy’ greatness, Lehman was supposedly a hypochondriac — something that is a weird, yet indispensable part of most genii. He worked alone, unlike films today, where you hear and see too many writers on almost every project. Lehman, it’s said, was also obstinate: with his speech, the right sounds, even his script. No small wonder, because he always wrote something sleek, smooth and suave — never the rough, or violent lines, even for villains… in tune with what may be called the Hitchcockian element: “I’m afraid I’m going to have to kill you.” Or, holding the audience to a patient journey — as in such lengthy movies, such as The Sound of Music,West Side Story , and Hello Dolly! , among others. His argument, “Keeping them that way is vital. It’s important to conceal exposition too and make it seem like the characters have to say what they’re saying, rather than saying it just to give information. One of my rules is: the audience already knows a lot. Don’t repeat anything that the audience already knows, so the character can just catch up with the audience.”
What’s Lehman’s most famous counsel to aspiring screenwriters, or even old hands, in the business? “My advice for anybody who wants to be a writer, or who is a writer, is not to be a screenwriter. You won’t be able to express exactly what you want to express. It’ll go through committees: it’ll be changed. You will have no control over it. [But] you need to do your best, though — because it’s your job and/or you love doing it.” His final word, “Never let the audience get up, and go to get popcorn. Keep them in their seats, wondering what is going to happen next.”
It sums up Lehman, screenwriter, author, and journalist par excellence — born, December 8, 1915; died, July 2, 2005 — for whom success in screenwriting meant a resolved and e[a]rnest preclusion of failure.