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Definition: Auteur, the French word for author, signifies a director whose individualistic artistic control over the making of a film has earned him or her the attribution of author. In addition to controlling visual content, these directors write, co-write or choose screenplays suited to their distinctive styles of visual narration.

Hollywood auteursHistory:  Auteur theory was introduced in France during the 1940s most notably by critic André Bazin. “Directors are the authors of the film,” Bazin wrote in 1943, “and should create their own signature style and not be totally influenced by the script given.” Auteur theory centered around mise en scene, originally a stage term that translates to “placing on stage.” In filmmaking, it became a catchall for everything that contributes to a film’s visual presentation—location and set design, actors’ appearances and gestures, camera placement and blocking, frame and camera angle selection, lighting, the spatial relationships of all items in a scene and their proximity to the camera, etc. Auteur theory was an essential element of the New Wave movement in French cinema and in its purest or "Art House" form held that auteurs must control all components of mise en scene.

The theory was a significant departure from the filmmaking process of Hollywood’s Studio System, the so-called “dream factories.” With the advent of sound in 1927, Hollywood recruited writers who could plot and write dialogue. Even literary luminaries such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, Dashiell Hammett, Lillian Hellman and Raymond Chandler collaborated with studio scenario writers who could translate literary visions into directions for film visuals. Screenplays not only supplied movie storylines and dialogues but called the shots. Meanwhile studio contract directors were primarily coaches of actors—coaches comparable to today’s coaches in professional sports. Directors focused on enabling actors to play well together and do it on time and on budget.

There were, however, auteur theorists and proponents who, by the 1960s, would identify some Hollywood directors as auteurs. Among the proponents was Andrew Sarris, a New York film critic and friend of French director François Truffaut. Sarris is credited with popularizing auteur theory in the United States and his 1962 essay, “Notes on the Auteur Theory” coined the term auteur theory. Six years later Sarris published The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929–1968, which identified the greatest film directors in Hollywood. By then, the definition of auteur had moderated for many critics and filmmakers. Although directors should be the creative force in filmmaking, they believed, the enterprise is too complex for a director to micromanage successfully and instead required a team effort. A director should exercise control over mise en scene to the degree that a film delivers its message with the director’s creative signature.

Hollywood directors first heralded as auteurs include:

  • Orson Welles
    auteurOrson Welles’s direction of “Citizen Kane” (1941) made him the definition of Hollywood auteur for New Wave critics. The film was hailed as a new style of filmmaking by a director who had the unprecedented freedom from Hollywood studio interference to develop his film’s story, select his own cast and crew, veto any cuts and exercise final cut privilege. However, Welles’s acclaim begged the question: How could an auteur be someone who had never directed or otherwise worked on a motion picture? Even more to point: How could the signature of a novice director be cinema’s greatest orchestration of visual narrative techniques, including innovations such as 1) deep focus photography, which allowed everything 18 inches to 200 feet from the camera to be in sharp focus simultaneously; 2)  low angle shots that included the first ceilings ever photographed on a Hollywood sound stage; and 3) a story told entirely in flashbacks from the points of view of different characters. Today it is generally accepted that credit for the film’s visual narrative is shared by Welles, cinematographer Gregg Toland, and screenplay co-author Herman J. Mankiewicz. Still. The fact remains that artistic control of the film resided in Welles alone.  
  • Alfred Hitchcock
    Hitchcock’s moniker as “The Master of Suspense” indicates his directorial stamp was the evoking of emotion. This insight suggests a parallel between auteur theory and a venerable auteur hitchcockprinciple of public relations, i.e., print news appeals primarily to intellect while television news appeals primarily to emotions. The parallel is striking if we equate print with dialogue. Hitchcock neither wrote nor co-wrote his screenplays. Rather he commissioned scripts with plots and themes conducive to his style of visual storytelling, then translated those scripts into storyboards. Of all Hollywood directors, Hitchcock probably is regarded as the preeminent auteur. “Psycho” (1960), which Hitchcock personally financed for $807,000 when no one else would, was praised for its direction in a review by critic Andrew Sarris. Sarris later noted his review mystified his conventionalist readers.
  • Jerry Lewis
    Lewis was embraced by France’s New Wave after his directorial debut with “The Bellboy” (1960). Paramount granted Lewis complete artistic control over the film, which he starred auteur comedyin and co-wrote. However, unlike Orson Welles, Lewis brought to the director’s chair the experience of having appeared in several films. He would recall that “The Bellboy” was so high on visual gags and low on dialogue that Paramount withdrew financing on the grounds that it could not invest in a “silent movie.” Lewis financed the film himself for $900,000 and, with its success, went on to co-write, direct and star in several box office successes during the 1960s. Enjoying creative autonomy, Lewis drew on filmmaking techniques to complement physical and vocal comedy that French critics particularly praised as uniquely unpredictable, uninhibited and expressive. Critics would later laud Lewis as the model for later comedic writer-producer-directors such as Woody Allen and Mel Brooks.
  • John Ford
    "John Ford, John Ford, and John Ford," is how Orson Welles responded when asked to name his favorite directors. Welles reportedly screened Ford’s “Stagecoach” at least 40 John Ford auteurtimes preparing to direct “Citizen Kane.” Certainly no one more eloquently conveyed a sense of place than John Ford. The exteriors in “Stagecoach” are arguably the film’s leading character, its long shots of Monument Valley becoming iconic images of the American Western Frontier. Moreover, the framing of a distant stagecoach against the vast desert landscape evokes the challenge humans faced to survive in a setting as hostile as it was majestic. This visual theme was repeated in other Ford films such as “The Searchers” (1956) and the “Grapes of Wrath” (1940). In general, no other director’s visual sensibility is more likened to that of a painter. And true to that analogy, Ford shot his films in sequence relying only on his mind’s eye—an eye so keen that he left studio editors little footage to cut. While a studio might complain about budget and schedule, it tended not to second guess the cinematic vision of a director who would win four Academy Awards—more than any director in history—and be the first recipient of the American Film Institute Life Achievement Award.
  • Howard Hawks
    Unlike his contemporary John Ford, Howard Hawks received no major awards until 1974, when he received an Oscar for lifetime achievement. Hollywood may have overlooked Hawks altogether but for praise he received beginning in the 1950s from French critics auteur Howard Hawkswriting for the journal "Cahiers du Cinema," origin of the New Wave movement and auteur theory. During a career that spanned and outlived the Studio System, Hawks directed and produced projects not as an inhouse director but as an independent producer-director. Eventually he made films for all eight studios becoming the precursor of independent filmmakers who would arise with the decline of the Studio System. His non-allegiance to any one studio no doubt deprived him of the studio political clout needed for award recognition. So too did the fact that Hawks made films in several different genres and did so complying with each genre’s conventions. Meeting an audience’s genre expectations was recognized by studios as a formula for commercial success and shielded Hawks from studio interference. However, within the structural bounds of each genre, Hawks freely pursued a signature directorial style. This included the theme of a man or group of men committed to a professional and/or moral duty in the face of daunting resistance. Joining the man or men is the Hawksian woman”— an independent and assertive female who earns treatment as an equal. Her interaction with the protagonist frequently involves moments of gender reversal, such as when the heroine causes even a leading man like John Wayne to appear to blush. Hawks further infuses interactions of his main characters with energy and realism generated by staccato dialogue that often has the lines of his characters overlapping.  

A half century later sources such as the Ulmer Scale agree that the name of the director generally far surpasses that of an actor or screenwriter in generating financing for a film. If nothing else, auteur theory foretold the rise of the director in Hollywood, and particularly the rise of the producer-director as exemplified by George Lucas, Stephen Spielberg, James Cameron, Peter Jackson, Martin Scorcese, Quentin Tarantino, among others. Today the term auteur is little used, it being enough for someone to be called a motion picture producer-director.

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