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RODERICK MANN

Patience Is the Hallmark of Jack Clayton's Success

December 27, 1987|RODERICK MANN

Looking at Jack Clayton, one of the most quiet-mannered movie directors around, it's hard to imagine that once, in a fit of rage and frustration, he put his fist through an office window at Paramount.

Frustration (and accompanying rage) being endemic in the movie industry, perhaps it's surprising there aren't more broken windows in Hollywood. And, for all we know, in Britain, where Clayton lives, the studios may be littered with broken glass.

One thing is certain. Frustration was not involved in the making of Clayton's new movie, "The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne," which stars Maggie Smith and Bob Hoskins. Only a long wait: 25 years.

"It was always under option by someone else," said Clayton the other day. "I first tried to buy it in 1961 (six years after the Brian Moore novel was first published)."

One of the people to whom the book was under option during that time was the late John Huston, who wanted to star Katharine Hepburn in the movie. That came to nothing.

"John asked me to stand by for him on 'The Dead,' " said Clayton. "He was ill, of course, and couldn't get insurance. I couldn't do it because I was busy starting this film. He was delighted when I told him 'Passion' was finally going to be made."

Writer-producer Peter Nelson finally got the rights and wrote a script, which he took to United British Artists (a production group made up of, among others, Smith, Albert Finney and Harold Pinter). When Smith committed to the $4.5-million project, it was steered toward Clayton. Handmade Films then put up the money, with Elton John also chipping in.

"I have such admiration for Handmade," Clayton said. "Here was a subject that had been on the shelf for years because no one considered it commercial. But they went ahead."

Most of the movie was shot at Shepperton Studios, outside London, with just 10 days of the seven-week shoot on location in Dublin.

"And of course we had to shoot the church desecration scene (Hearne has a nervous breakdown and wrecks an altar) in London, because the Irish wouldn't permit us to do it in Dublin," said Clayton. "Frankly, I was surprised we were able to find a priest in London who'd let us use his church."

Clayton, who firmly believes that there is always a right psychological moment to release a movie, admits he has no idea whether this is a good or a bad time to distribute a film that, on the surface, could be taken as anti-religious.

"I just don't know," said Clayton, whose first feature, "Room at the Top," was released in 1959 to much acclaim. " 'Room at the Top' isn't one of my favorite films but it came out at exactly the right time. There was something in the air that was just right for an English social drama. Whereas 'The Pumpkin Eater,' which I consider a much better film, came out at the wrong time and did not do well.

"It's absolute luck, timing. Personally I'm a great admirer of Steven Spielberg, who I think knows the market better than anybody. He has a great sense of timing. Of course, all his films are made for the public. I have to admit that when I take on a film I don't think about the audience at all. I just pick a subject I love and hope for the best."

Because of this, perhaps, a few of Clayton's movies--he has directed just seven in 28 years--have been ill-received. His remake of "The Great Gatsby," with Robert Redford and Mia Farrow, did not find favor with the critics.

His next movie, his first made entirely in the United States, "Something Wicked This Way Comes"--based on Ray Bradbury's tale of a mysterious carnival troupe and its effect on a small town--also proved a disappointment.

It was this movie that prompted one of Clayton's rare outbursts of anger--and the shattering of glass.

"I do have a terrible temper on occasion," he said. "Most people can't believe it, because I have a reputation for being gentle, but when I do flare up I can be violent. And that happened when the script of 'Something Wicked' was turned down by Barry Diller at Paramount after I'd already been given the go-ahead. Out of sheer frustration, I put my fist through a window."

(Eventually financed by Disney, the movie was substantially altered by the studio following an unsuccessful preview of Clayton's original cut.)

Because he makes so few movies, Clayton, 66, who started as a tea boy for Alexander Korda in 1935, is considered one of the pickiest producers around.

"But, of course, I've worked on a lot of projects that never got made," he said. "Three in recent years, as a matter of fact."

Emotional subjects--such as "The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne"--attract him greatly, he admits, comedy hardly at all.

"When I was associate producer on 'I Am a Camera,' I took bets about which lines would get a laugh," he said. "I must have made 100 bets throughout the film and lost all of them."

What about John Huston's spy spoof "Beat the Devil," the movie starring Humphrey Bogart and Jennifer Jones that is now judged a black-comedy classic? He was associate producer on that one too.

"To be honest, I never thought it funny when we made it, perhaps because I had so many problems to contend with. When we began shooting, we had only three pages of script. And five times a day Jennifer Jones' husband (the late producer David Selznick) would send me long memos. I really couldn't tell if the film was funny or not.

"The only person totally unworried, of course, was John. When the film was finished, he offered me a deal to produce his next four pictures. It was hard to turn down because I liked him so much. But I wanted to direct and I've never regretted the decision."

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