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Martin Ritt: Maverick From Old Film School

December 19, 1985|CHARLES CHAMPLIN | Times Arts Editor

Martin Ritt, Sally Field was saying at a luncheon in Ritt's honor on Tuesday, is not a director to loiter sphinx-like behind the camera, especially when the camera is hand-held, as it is for many of the shots during his films. He gets as close as he can to the action.

During the making of "Norma Rae," she remembered, they were shooting a highly emotional scene in a motel room. "I was saying the fiery things I was saying, and the cameraman, John Alonzo, was moving with me, and all of a sudden Marty realized that he was going to be in the shot. He dropped flat on the floor and lay there, and I just stepped over him and kept talking. And neither of us broke; that was amazing."

The film was nominated for an Academy Award and Field won her first Oscar for the performance. She and Ritt have just collaborated again (for the third time; they also made "Back Roads" together) on the romantic comedy "Murphy's Romance," which opens on Christmas Day and co-stars James Garner.

In honor of the film and of Ritt's first half-century in show business, Columbia tossed a large luncheon at Chasen's and gave a check for $10,000 in his name to the Actors Studio, where he taught for years while the blacklist kept him out of other work.

Ritt at 66 is one of that diminishing band of senior directors whose work looms large in film history, and one of the even more diminished band still allowed to work, and working well. He made his first feature almost 30 years ago, in 1957. It was a tough drama of life on the docks called "Edge of the City" and starring Sidney Poitier, who was one of the many Ritt alumni on hand for the luncheon.

Since then there have been Faulkner's "The Long Hot Summer" and "The Sound and the Fury," both adapted by Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank Jr., his most frequent collaborators who also did "Hombre," "Hud," "Norma Rae" and "Murphy's Romance" among others.

What links all his films are strong relationships, superior and sensitive performances and a social consciousness that extends from the largest issues--racial prejudice in "Sounder," blacklisting in "The Front," the rights of labor in "The Molly Maguires" and "Norma Rae"--to the quiet struggles of individuals to discover and achieve a happier accommodation to life.

The clips shown at the luncheon included a passionate Richard Burton as "The Spy Who Came in From the Cold" and Walter Matthau, nude except for a hat, playing the piano in that eccentric comedy-drama about love and death "Pete 'n Tillie."

Matthau was at the lunch and noted that he had known Ritt for 41 years, since they were both young actors in New York. Ritt, he said, was "the best American he'd ever known," with no patience with "the dogmas of any labeled group." His career was marked by "his persistence in the pursuit of fair play." And, Matthau added, Ritt would never settle for a cheap laugh to accommodate any actor. "That's why I can't stand him," Matthau said affectionately.

The diners included old friends and colleagues from the New York theater, like Eli Wallach and Anne Jackson, Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy and many Ritt alumni, including Beau Bridges and Ron Leibman from "Norma Rae," Mary Steenburgen and Malcolm MacDowell and Dana Hill from "Cross Creek," Robert Radnitz who produced it and "Sounder" and Jon Voight from "Conrack."

The Ravetches could not attend but sent a long funny letter in biblical cadences recalling Ritt's delight in working on locations of surpassing and primitive difficulty.

Ritt is a maverick as, one way or another, most of Hollywood's best and most distinctive directors have tended to be. He is famous for wearing jump suits--the siren suits conspicuously modeled by Winston Churchill during World War II and after--in preference to any other attire on any occasion. (He wore a dark blue number at the luncheon.)

He is also famous for upholding the older Hollywood tradition of very well-made films completed on time and on budget, and even under time and under budget.

"We were two weeks early on 'Norma Rae,' " Sally Field said. "Actually, we had to slow down a little because the people at the studio began to worry we were doing something wrong to be so far ahead."

In fact, Field said, the swiftness results simply because Ritt knows what he wants, communicates it clearly to his actors and his crew, rehearses before shooting begins and then gets on with it. But he leaves room for those discoveries and suggestions that may just improve on his original design. "He's never negative," Field said. "If he suggests that you change something, it's because he's seen a way to do it better."

She was so eager to work with Ritt again that when she formed her own production company, Fogwood, she undertook a search for material and eventually located a Max Schott novella that Ritt and the Ravetches liked and that became "Murphy's Romance," with Field herself as executive producer.

Ritt, who lets his films speak for him, has said "the audience shouldn't be aware of the director's work until the film is over." Although he began as an actor after two years of law school, Ritt is not eager for a high profile. Taking the podium after the flow of uncommonly affectionate and admiring tributes, Ritt said, "There's not a hell of a lot I can say," and essentially didn't, to a standing ovation.

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