Biedermeier: his identity, both mistaken and true
Otto Biedermeier, the Hollywood icon and B-movie legend, was murdered by his wife, Mysterious Circumstances. Tom Lenz, a film historian and the director’s biographer, wants to update his 20-year-old monograph as well as to pay his respects.
After meeting again with Ms. Circumstances, a former circus performer whose specialty of magic tricks on the high wire had made her briefly famous before capturing the heart of the filmmaker, Tom Lenz has his doubts.
Once, I had asked,“Why? Does it matter? No one seems to care. People apparently want to be lied to. That’s what politics is. That’s why they go to the movies, isn’t it?”
Otto was firm in his answer. “Truth matters. You have to look for it. What our children know is our only legacy. That’s why I make my movies.”
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Otto Biedermeier, 1939? – 2016
October 19th, 2016. A Hollywood Tab exclusive by Thomas Lenz
“I don’t make parody. Life itself is a parody and I attempt to capture that,” the quote that he is most famous for, is itself a parody of the original statement made to a Chicago film critic in 1984. The transcript of that interview reads, “I don’t make parody. That’s cheapjack and just another form of plagiarism. Life itself is a parody, and too often counterfeit. I attempt to capture that and offer an alternative.”
Otto Biedermeier has died, and it is perhaps parody that killed him.
The headlines that screamed with minor variation from most major newspapers during the past forty-eight hours, ‘Hollywood Icon Murdered,’ have now been replaced by news of the latest suicide bombings in the Middle East. The further possibility that this was no murder at all has already dampened early enthusiasm for lurid details and diminished the point size of follow-up ledes. Though nothing more has been learned, the unsalaried spec writers now move to the carcass of the story like a wake of vultures seeking morsels the hyenas have left behind. Thankfully, due to past associations, the Tab has generously assigned me to follow the story to its conclusion. As of Tuesday evening, this is what we know.
As his own brand of humor would have it, the budget-comedy-horror director and producer, Otto Biedermeier, aka Lincoln Kelly, has been found dead under Mysterious Circumstances. Miss Circum-stances, the female lead of Biedermeier’s most famous film, The Drool, called both police and ambulance to their shared residence in Malibu at 2 am, Sunday morning, immediately after returning from a party. She has had no further comment. Given the circumstances, police are uncertain, but still suspect foul play.
Mr. Biedermeier’s own movie oeuvre makes any reverent discussion of the events surrounding his death difficult for film fans. Fowl Play was Mr. Biedermeier’s second film, released in 1966, and though a mystery more than a horror film, it featured a British rock band, unable to actually play their instruments, who murdered any female groupies that learned their dark secret. In the age of The Monkees, the film did well despite a budget of barely $100,000, most of which was borrowed from the actors themselves so that the director could pay union scale.
Importantly, it is with Fowl Play that Biedermeier firmly established what was to be his characteristic directorial ‘style.’ The opening pan shot refocused in passing to some intimate detail; the closing pan to a telling freeze-frame; and his tendency to direct the camera elsewhere while an actor speaks are just a few examples. Though he liked the idea of such directorial devices, he called all of his tricks ‘merely habits,’ and repeated most of them in each film he made. His use of chiaroscuro harkened back to the work of Carol Reed and early Hitchcock. His forthright characters might have appeared in an Archers film from Emeric Pressburger and Michael Powell. His straightforward sense of humor reminded many of the films of Alexander MacKendrick. But that one trick of not directing the camera to the speaker had been learned while filming his very first effort, the holocaust documentary Lost Circus.
Otto Biedermeier became famous for producing low-budget movies ‘ripped from the headlines,’ and frequently in production, after furious bouts of writing, only weeks following an event. Responding to an inquiry about one often used device that some viewed as an idiosyncrasy, he told me, “A journalist cannot be faulted for respecting a subject’s own habits. I learned long ago that people often look away when they are speaking, usually out of embarrassment or shame. I turn the camera to what they might see. But when they look me in the eye, I never turn away.”
Early police reports are that Mr. Biedermeier’s body was found on his bed, with a knife wound to the chest that likely penetrated his heart. Murder was immediately suspected, but not confirmed, because the weapon used was part of a collection that Mr. Biedermeier kept as movie props. The house was well-locked and always barred in that way against the many fans frequently trying to get close to the moviemaker in the hope of hooking a part in an upcoming film. “I go out to my balcony in the morning to drink my coffee and they are sitting on the beach like sea lions, staring back,” he once said.
The knife in question, found at the scene, was especially constructed with a slide-blade that retracted directly into the handle, and lacked the locking mechanism that would keep it fixed in place. There is speculation that this mechanism may have rusted, offering the possible explanation that Mr. Biedermeier, known to practice action scenes on his own in order to avoid wasted time and added expense, may have accidentally killed himself by mistake when he fell on the bed. The script for a new movie, The Perch currently in pre-production, and calling for a knife murder, was also present on the floor at the scene.
The Malibu house, designed by his daughter Audrey to compliment the sea-torn cliffs of nearby Point Dume, is cantilevered above the beach, and as this reporter can testify, the entire home, including the bedroom and its sweeping balcony are essentially inaccessible except by the front door. As a N.Y.U. graduate student in 1996, I spent some days there interviewing Mr. Biedermeier for a Ph.D. thesis that was subsequently published by the University of California Press as a monograph on the moviemaker’s work. It should be addressed here that this generosity in giving a young film student his time is still warmly felt to this day.
It was the success of Fowl Play that allowed for the larger budget that is readily seen in Biedermeier’s third effort, Tryst Trap, released in 1967. Using an all-European cast, Biedermeier tried to save money by shooting Tryst Trap on location in Trieste, Italy, and dubbing sound in the Italian manner. This was Mr. Biedermeier’s first and only financial failure. However, many ascribed the poor response of American audiences not to the dubbing but his attempt to make a horror-comedy based on the holocaust, still too sensitive a subject.
“I came back from Europe and people were watching a weekly comedy on television about a prisoner-of-war camp. It gave me the wrong idea, I suppose.”
A well-received 2008 ‘Ottobiography,’ Double Take, chronicled Mr. Biedermeier’s fortunes and a life-long search for his own origins. Given the subject of his 1989 film, A Deadly Projection, it is clear he had little use for psychological therapy, and the realizations in Double Take appear to have been the culmination of a slow process resulting from his personal efforts to understand his past. Admittedly, this was a background subject hardly mentioned in my own monograph and much needed in reconsideration.
However, the personal details offered to this reporter 1996 were only bits and pieces. Otto Biedermeier usually addressed his nightmares on film, in a droll but never sardonic manner. At the time of our interview, he had been famously silent about his childhood, and the details that he suddenly presented to me then seemed out of character. Given certain fantastical aspects, related in that quiet and often uninflected voice he used on the set, and allowing for the fact that I was, after all, in Hollywood, the land of make believe and self-promotion, I had wrongly supposed Otto might be ‘putting me on’ and I failed to include more of the material—in retrospect, a matter of my own inexperience as much as an impending deadline, or the lack of ready secondary sources. It appears to me now that his admissions to me were just the beginning of a larger self-examination.
But one quote I did use was this: “I have always started each film in the mind of a six-year-old child awakened from a deep sleep; a child with nothing—empty of hope, illusion, delusion, or any understanding. I must discover everything from the beginning.”
In fact, the filmmaker was born to a Gypsy father and Jewish mother during World War Two and later found abandoned among thousands of homeless refugees by United States Army soldiers in Trieste. As an orphan, he was eventually given passage via War Relief Services to Chicago. I believe it was this plane ride into what must have appeared to that young mind to be a fantasy world that he later recreated in a failing DC-3 for the 1979 film Flight Response.
Otto was subsequently adopted into the heart of Illinois farm country, raised by an Irish Catholic family named Kelly, and given the name Lincoln. It was as Lincoln Kelly that he was to later graduate from New York University in 1961. And it was this name change that was the reason why records for the better-known Otto Biedermeier were not to be found at that school when I attended there.
It was the lack of academic training in film production that led this reporter, when still a grad student, to simply suggest that his stylistic innovations were the result of a natural genius for the moving image. In fact, it was his work as an intern at local television stations, particularly the innovative WNTA, and his firsthand experience working with a U. S. Army film unit that I now believe directly influenced his style in filmmaking. Genius he was, nevertheless.
The number ‘16’ plays an added part in all of this. Perhaps for lack of a better name, and long before the invention of the rifle of that designation, ‘M-16’ was the identification given to a redheaded child, apparently mute, but estimated to be only six years old by his U.S. Army and Red-Cross caretakers. Biedermeier was the 16th nameless male child to be processed at the facility on a single day, October 16, 1945. It was later learned that children had often been forbidden by their parents to give family names to authorities for fear of being swept up in the arrest and genocide of Jews, Gypsies, and others. Each of Mr. Biedermeier’s films ends with the white hand drawn ‘M16’ on the exposed film, a designation he also applied to his production company.
Immediately following graduation, and with little money, the young Mr. Kelly kissed his adoptive mother goodbye, shook his father’s ‘calloused hand,’ and sallied forth, accompanied by his college sweetheart, Jesse Fleming, packing two borrowed 16-millimeter cameras and one change of clothes, to discover his origins in Europe. Though the evidence for his actual birthparents was slight, and much of that constructed around his own vague memories coupled with a surviving two-page circus program from Vienna in 1939 (which had been found along with other paper, sewn into his clothing, perhaps only for added warmth). A Red Cross report on the child known as ‘M16’ states that the program was the only whole and undamaged piece, and thus kept and filed as such by a thankfully bureaucratic clerk. Biedermeier’s determination was that this program was a clue and the key to his identity. His search extended from Trieste to Vienna and then to Prague as the determined filmmaker peddled a bicycle the entire distance to achieve the slow progress of the original caravan, while following backwards the faint trail of a one-ring circus, by that time almost forgotten.
Among other performers, that brief circus program featured a Josef Biedermeier, magician, and one Alma Klage, his assistant. I believe this small document is, even now, framed and visible in Otto’s second home near Red Rock Canyon. That filmed journey of 1961 ends at the Clementinum in Prague with Biedermeier’s discovery of a three-line newspaper wedding notice in the Lidove Noviny which offered the added information, in bold letters, that his mother was a Jew and his father a gypsy. This, with his own hands holding the bound newspaper up to the dim light of a storage room, was to be his first final freeze-frame, yet another signature in all his movies.
The Selective Service draft caught up with him in 1962 and Lincoln served in the Army for most of the next three years. His previous experience with 16-mm film had resulted in a posting with an Army Special Bulletin crew and an existential experience of war when often flown by helicopter onto the scene of engagements. I asked him about this period of his life, and he specifically refused to offer detail, saying, “I was not doing what I wanted to do and I had no control of what I shot or how it was used, so there is nothing much to say.”
However, Jesse Fleming spent this intervening time very well, editing and re-editing the film they had made together and speaking with anyone who might be interested in what they had done, finally getting the attention of an associate of David Susskind in New York.
Lincoln Kelly assumed the name Otto Biedermeier in 1965, when their cinema verite collection of interviews with the last aging witnesses to the passage of the Lost Circus was first broadcast as a documentary on New York’s WNDT Channel 13 television and later released to local television stations nationally.
Many years later, I wrote Otto a letter after the publication of Double Take and told him how thrilled I was with the larger accounting of his personal discoveries. Perhaps presumptively, I asked if it was possible that, given the times, both his parents’ names were also assumed. He answered, “I have no complaint with that proposition,” clearly, I realized later, a double entendre on his mother’s name, ‘Klage.’
It has long been reported that Biedermeier still had a large collection of 16-millimeter film covering his first twenty years as a director and taken by him on the various sets he used. These were originally thought to be a kind of pre-video age ‘continuity,’ or test shots, used during filming, but in June of this year one of these clips, with revealing footage of actor George Rooney and actress Sylvia Place, was somehow stolen and later came into the possession of the National Enquirer, causing a still unresolved legal contest.
As a young actor, Rooney had starred in the Biedermeier production, Apples for Oranges, a ‘beach party’ film made on location in Fort Lauderdale, Florida in 1978 and now famous for its mix of cheesecake and horror as well as the comic circumstance of New England private school students set loose in the Sunshine State. The clip, mere minutes in length, contained what appears to be a secretly filmed tryst between Mr. Rooney and actress Sylvia Place. A copy of this was only recently released on the internet by the National Enquirer when Mr. Rooney sued that paper for defamation of character after being called a ‘profligate and promiscuous womanizer,’ among other colorful slander. Miss Place was only fifteen at the time the movie was made.
As unlikely as that is, speculation is now rife that many more of the clips contain similar compromising circumstances. These films have been carefully kept in a 19th century Wells Fargo safe in the bungalow and former stagecoach stop owned by Mr. Biedermeier near Red Rock Canyon, Nevada. Several aging Hollywood ‘A-list’ actors, who had their own beginnings in Biedermeier productions, and are now possibly in need of attention and or publicity, have expressed concern. A motive for murder is certainly suggested there, but the circumstances previously mentioned make this unlikely.
Interestingly, that bungalow, as well as the cast-iron and steel safe, have been filmed many times by other directors over the years for various television and movie productions and were a steady source of additional income for Mr. Biedermeier’s own low budget efforts. The property, originally purchased for the film, The Cattle and the Cowed,’ a political comedy made in 1974 and featuring vampire zombies among the saguaro cactus and Joshua trees, was as close to a ‘western’ as Mr. Biedermeier ever made. The ‘hanging tree’ scene, a direct homage to The Oxbow Incident, with the mob arguing among themselves about the best way to tie the rope until the prisoner himself ties the knot correctly, has been viewed millions of times on YouTube. Both house and safe can also be seen in the later classic, The Drool.
The ‘bungalow,’ as he himself referred to it, had been a long-abandoned wreck when Biedermeier purchased the property in 1975. He rebuilt the structure, assisted by his wife Jessie, his ten-year old son Jason, and long-time friend Josh Green, “post by post and plank by plank” with the added purpose of making films on the property. The family lived there until 1987. The Malibu house was built in 1996.
It is known that Miss Circumstances, Otto Biedermeier’s third wife, changed her name following the surprise success of The Drool and just prior to their marriage. She had previously been a circus performer—an unusual combination of magician and funambulist, with the Barnum & Bailey western touring company, performing then under the stage name Dolly Dare. Her birth name is not known to us at present. Mr. Biedermeier discovered the actress working on location, prior to making Three Rings, but one Wife in 1994, her mysterious past being just one more coincidence in a life apparently filled with them.
Mr. Biedermeier’s brief second marriage to French actress Michelle Babineaux, star of the 1991 political farce, White House, Black Dog, resulted in one daughter, Alma. Miss Babineaux has since remarried. Both mother and daughter are now living in Paris and have refused any comment, but my interview with the filmmaker in 1996 included the information that they had been long estranged and were uninterested in being contacted.
Mr. Biedermeier met his first wife, Jessie Fleming, at New York University. “We both loved photography and things sort of developed in the dark room,” she once said to an interviewer concerning her work behind the camera. She later accompanied the director on his bicycle adventure to Europe in search of his birth parents and they married in1965, soon after his return from the Army.
Jesse Fleming was the sound technician and primary film editor on all the Biedermeier movies until her accidental death in 1987. They had three children together, two sons and a daughter. Jason, a Lieutenant in the United States Marines, died in Iraq in 2005. Kenneth, the youngest, died in the same automobile crash that killed his mother. We have been unable to contact his daughter, Audrey, an architect in Santa Monica, for this report.
Long ago, when I had already been made cynical by a shallow education but was still young enough to be looking for answers, I asked the great director what he meant by that quote, ‘I don’t make parody. Life itself is a parody and I attempt to capture that.’ Of course, I had taken it simply as a statement of futility and cynicism in keeping with the age.
He told me then, “Journalism fails when it only reports what it wants to hear. That fellow who wrote up that interview did not listen. What I was saying then was that I don’t make parody because life itself is a parody. A satire. A burlesque. We humans mock better than we appreciate. It’s why we love cartoons. What makes slapstick funny. The distortion of reality is easier to see than the reality. We imitate our parents, you see, without knowing what they know. We copy our teachers, without learning what they have learned. We repeat what we hear but not what was said. It is how we learn to fail. Few will stop and think. Those few who care, try to add something. They try to build. But then, too often, what we are told is false, or what we see is only one side of a larger picture. Worse, much too often, it’s counterfeit. Pretense. Hollywood is all about the pretense. I have tried to turn the pretense on its head. I have attempted to show what is true by contrast and make that clear. I try to show what is false and offer an alternative.”
I asked, “Why? Does it matter? No one seems to care. People apparently want to be lied to. That’s what politics is. That’s why they go to the movies, isn’t it?”
He was firm in his answer. “Truth matters. You have to look for it. What our children know is our only legacy. That’s why I make my movies.”
Further developments in this case will be carried right here in the Hollywood Tab.
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