‘Showman of the Screen’

New biography of movie producer Joseph Levine

Dec. 7, 2016
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Joseph Levine was a motion picture producer-hustler from central casting. A fulminating pear-shaped little man with an irritable temperament, he was always cutting deals, laying a track record that included everything from Grade D sword-and-sandal flicks to esteemed films such as The Graduate and all-star Hollywood hits like A Bridge Too Far.

With Showman of the Screen: Joseph E. Levine and his Revolutions in Film Production, A.T. McKenna has produced the first book-length biography on the irascible mogul. I don’t share the author’s enthusiasm for the subject, and yet, McKenna’s book persuaded me to give Levine at least some benefit of the doubt.

Rising out of an immigrant family in the Boston slums, Levine became a “mogul for the post-mogul era”—one of the first successful independent producers to take advantage of the collapse of the old Hollywood studio system. Not unlike Donald Trump, Levine waged war against the “elite,” posed as a populist and struck an anti-intellectual pose. McKenna explores the roots of Levine’s social and cultural insecurity, unabated despite the money he made. His populism was genuine enough from a man who not only wanted an audience but wanted to entertain several distinct audiences. As for the anti-intellectualism, McKenna points out that Levine played an under-appreciated role in establishing art house as a viable genre in the U.S. and was an avid art collector.

Like most interesting people, Levine was paradoxical, a bundle of seeming contradictions.

Among the challenges McKenna faced was sorting out Levine’s real from imagined accomplishments. He was, like the president elect, post-factual. He claimed to have produced as many as 500 movies, but this could have meant almost anything or nothing at all. Levine tended to “slap his name on just about any film that came into his orbit” and argued with colleagues and employees over who did what.

McKenna places Levine in the ballyhooing lineage of P.T. Barnum. Had he been born a decade or two earlier, Levine would gladly have worked the carnival circuit.

Showman of the Screen: Joseph E. Levine and his Revolutions in Film Production is published by University Press of Kentucky as part of its Film Classics series.


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