Alan King’s mellow portrayal of Hollywood giant Sam Goldwyn might have been scripted by the house scribes at the Goldwyn Studios, who never met a difficult or complex character they couldn’t soften and sweeten for family consumption. There are no flaws buzzing around the producer as an aging giant — no hint of ruthlessness, not even a healthy lust for power — only the specter of mortality. If the characterization is simplistic, it is also appealing, and King plays it up royally.
In this virtual one-man show, Goldwyn is caught in a crucible moment, hectoring his loyal secretary and sweating out the troubled 1952 production of “Hans Christian Andersen” that threatens to bring his fabled career to an inglorious end. Rattling around his palatial office (you can practically smell the leather book bindings in David Gallo’s elegant setting), he ponders the changes that have overtaken the movie industry since he launched the Hollywood studio system with his first feature film in 1913.
What with television rampaging over the entertainment landscape, the big studios shutting down and audience tastes running to more realistic fare (like “that dirty sex film ‘The Trolleycar Named Desire’ “), is there any place anymore for pretty fairy tales? Feeling the winds of time at his back, the aging producer allows himself to wonder if he has finally lost the fabulous “Goldwyn touch.” He circles the question gingerly, poking at it to see if it bites.
In King’s deceptively genial performance, Goldwyn keeps reaffirming the principles of good taste and populist instincts that got him where he is today, the only Hollywood producer who solely owns, controls and bankrolls his genuinely independent studio. “I don’t make garbage,” Goldwyn declares, and King puffs out his chest in a display of pride that could be comic but is actually quite moving. This is a man who knows who he is and what he stands for — a Jewish tradesman committed to giving good value — and King’s respect and affection for such an honest man inspires the same feelings from an audience.
Even in his funniest moments, insulting people (“Writers,” he tells us, “love to bite the ass that feeds them”) and mangling the English language with both hands (Tony Curtis, he assures a jealous Farley Granger, is “just a flush in the pan”), Goldwyn keeps his dignity.
At the same time, he can see the writing on the bigscreen. The script, by Marsha Lebby and John Lollos, injects a note of panic into the comic bravado with which Goldwyn fends off reports of closing theaters and crashing studios. (The hunted look in his eyes makes it hard to laugh at his attempt to dismiss television as a novelty that people are watching only because “they never had a piece of furniture that talked.”) The fall of his archenemy, Louis B. Mayer, shakes him to the core, as does the memory of how Florenz Ziegfeld died a penniless man when the great age of vaudeville was overtaken by the even greater age of movies.
Gene Saks, whose overall direction is paced to lead us to the laughs, wisely allows King to hold these pivotal moments for the longer emotional beats they deserve. Although acting and directorial techniques can’t supply the complexity missing from Goldwyn’s character, they can and do give him the illusion of depth — which was, after all, the man’s stock in trade.