Audiences privileged enough to go to the TCM Classic Film Festival back in April were able to experience the bittersweet première of this documentary. Producer Richard D. Zanuck, alongside his father, was part of a dynasty unchallenged to this day. The TCM documentary, based around a famous phrase both him and his father used, may be overly sympathetic, but for all its bias it’s utterly compelling. Zanuck was a man who did what he had to in order to get ahead, put out quality work, and became an inspiration for those who wanted to change the movie industry in their own way.
Richard D. Zanuck was a successful producer, president of 20th Century Fox, and the son of legendary 20th Century Fox head Darryl F. Zanuck. Don’t Say No Until I Finish Talking details the younger Zanuck’s life from childhood to his death, with a core portion devoted to his relationship with his father; a relationship that, according to Richard, was “like brothers.” Zanuck doesn’t quibble on the amount of nepotism involved to elevate him to where he ended up. A tongue-in-cheek anecdote Zanuck tells involves him mentioning his father’s name on the one of the studio theaters. Darryl Zanuck recognized that his son would be compared to him, and warned Zanuck, Jr. about the dangers of entering show business; the movie industry was the one area where both men were able to come together and experience a bond, of sorts. The use of home movies of a young Zanuck and his family help the audience to see the real people; no glitz or stars to be seen, the audience voyeuristically is invited to watch the everyday antics of a family who happened to be Hollywood royalty.
Completed before Richard D. Zanuck’s death earlier this year, Don’t Say No Until I Finish Talking benefits from having Zanuck describe his own life. He lends the necessary authenticity to make this a filmic autobiography. He describes an ordinary childhood amongst unordinary circumstances; the 20th Century Fox backlot was his playground, and he was never intimidated by celebrities because they surrounded him everyday. With a lifestyle so lavish, it’s difficult for anyone to maintain a humble ego but Zanuck does. When the documentary explores his failures, Zanuck proclaims those are his favorites. When he’s unceremoniously removed as head of 20th Century Fox, by his own father none the less, he’s doesn’t play the blame game.
As evidenced by the documentary, Zanuck is a man prone to giving and receiving respect; so, of course, all those interviewed are highly complimentary. The interviews conducted are with a who’s-who of Hollywood including Clint Eastwood, Johnny Depp, Tim Burton and Ron Howard. Being a producer hoping to shake-up the film industry, Zanuck helped to inspire the next crop of directors, including a young Steven Spielberg. The famous director discloses a sweet story about Zanuck shaping his directing efforts and bluntly telling Spielberg he wasn’t ready to direct. There’s an honesty about Zanuck that’s respectable; he wasn’t one to blow smoke. The latter half also details Zanuck’s collaborative relationship with Tim Burton.
Since Zanuck provided his input, nothing salacious is revealed. Zanuck’s last wife, Lili Fini Zanuck, provides insight on their marriage and personal life, but there’s no discussion on Zanuck’s first two marriages (whom Lili Fini Zanuck says were nothing like her). I’m was unsure if they weren’t interviewed because they are no longer alive or what, but it does show where the documentary wants to skirt a few issues. Lili Fini Zanuck comes off as a caring and devoted wife who became a partner to her husband. The final image in the movie is the presentation of a letter – written four days before Zanuck’s death – congratulating and thanking the filmmakers of the documentary for their portrayal of him. It’s a melancholic and bittersweet way to end, but the final image of Zanuck’s signature is a fitting – and literal – sign-off for a man who took Hollywood by storm and remained incredibly humble.