Film Forum’s indispensable “The Maysles & Co.” retrospective boasts favorites and rarities, few rarer than this. The Maysleses’ irresistible Showman, their first solo feature, is an early vérité tagalong, 53 minutes of keeping up with raconteuring producer Joseph E. Levine as he jet-sets through Hollywood, Rome, Boston, New York, and Cannes, collecting and delivering Sophia Loren’s Oscar for Two Women (1960), which he produced, and occasionally getting hell for Hercules (1958), which he also produced.
Some drama rises from the gulf between Levine’s prestige pictures and his box-office junk: “I made money with Two Women because I used the methods to sell Two Women that I used to sell Hercules!” he hollers, somewhat cheerily, as if there’s no gulf at all. That declaration comes in a fractious interview with the producer and talk-show host David Susskind on New York’s WMCA. Rotund, robust, and bespectacled, Levine barks that Hercules “did ten times the business of your Raisin in the Sun! Twenty times the business! You can’t dictate to the American people or to any people what it is they want to see!” Susskind asks, with prosecutorial zeal, “Do you like Hercules?”
Other scenes prove less revealing, but they still fascinate: Loren and Kim Novak swan through, and Levine’s life is a whirl of tuxes and phone calls, of selling every film until there’s no longer a buck to be wrung from it. Outside of Susskind, nobody seems worried over whether the movies are good. One admirer notes, “Lookit Joe, he took twelve pages in Variety” — for a showman living the life of hustle, what could matter more than that?
Since they know show business themselves, Film Forum is screening this with the Maysleses’ 1965 short-subject Meet Marlon Brando, which lets you do just what the title promises.
Directed by Albert & David Maysles
Through April 21, Film Forum