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MOVIES : A Lion in His Winter : At 85, Fred Zinnemann looks back on a life in film; his anecdote-rich autobiography earns the rave reviews his last movie didn't

June 21, 1992|DAVID GRITTEN | David Gritten, based in London, is a frequent contributor to Calendar

LONDON — For almost a decade now, veteran director Fred Zinnemann, whose signature is on a handful of the most memorable films in Hollywood history, has been in voluntary retirement--driven out of the industry by the venom of reviews of his last film, "Five Days One Summer."

His age--he is 85--and some health problems have played a part in the decision, but those notices for the 1983 film, a May-December romance set in the French Alps and starring Sean Connery, left Zinnemann feeling dispirited.

"I'm not saying it was a good picture," he says. "But there was a degree of viciousness in the reviews. The pleasure some people took in tearing down the film really hurt."

He had seen his friend, the late David Lean, go through the same experience. Lean was depressed by the hostility to his "Ryan's Daughter" in 1970. After that, Lean made only one more movie, "A Passage to India," released in 1984, though he was working on Joseph Conrad's "Nostromo" at the time of his death last year.

"Five Days One Summer" will be Zinnemann's swan song on film. But the bitterness remains. "You feel that if nothing else, you're entitled to some measure of respect," he says. "No more than that."

Zinnemann's curriculum vitae would be remarkable if it contained only "The Men," Marlon Brando's first film from 1950. But Zinnemann went on to direct the classics "High Noon," "From Here to Eternity," "A Man for All Seasons" and the Oscar-winning "Julia," as well as superior films in a number of genres: "The Nun's Story," with Audrey Hepburn, the expansive musical "Oklahoma!" and the taut thriller "The Day of the Jackal."

Zinnemann has not been idle in his retirement. For the last five years, he painstakingly worked on his heavily pictorial autobiography, "Fred Zinnemann: A Life in the Movies," recently published by Scribners. The reviews have been excellent:

* Frederic Raphael in the London Sunday Times called the volume "fascinating" and described it as "an admirably terse account of a directorial career which coincides with the classic period of Hollywood."

* "Yet another account of a life in the movies, but somehow a great deal more than that," said Entertainment Weekly, which awarded it an A, its highest possible praise.

* The Boston Globe praised the book's "great richness of image as raw material."

One recent afternoon in his office near Berkeley Square in Mayfair, Zinnemann admitted his five-year endeavor had "been a long dreary road full of pitfalls."

"One problem was the cost of having so many photos. Publishers didn't understand why there had to be so many. And one publisher couldn't afford to proceed with the book, so we went to another.

"But I thought without the pictures it would be worthless. I'm not a writer. To give the book any form, there had to be illustrations. You had to see how (former Columbia boss) Harry Cohn looked to understand how he behaved."

There are now 440 pictures in Zinnemann's book, some of them priceless. Here is a scene of a drunk in an empty bar, which was cut from "High Noon," and a shot of Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly lunching with the crew; there is Brando visiting Zinnemann and Montgomery Clift on the set of "From Here to Eternity."

The book encompasses Zinnemann's early years in Vienna, followed by spells at film school in Paris and as a cameraman's assistant in Berlin. He arrived in the United States in 1929, worked for director Berthold Viertel and learned his trade as an apprentice until his 1942 directing debut, "Kid Glove Killer"--in which Ava Gardner had a two-line bit part.

Zinnemann breaks down his subsequent life into chapters that correspond to his films, and uses his experiences as a springboard for a host of reminiscences.

He still vividly remembers the young Brando, hot from his success in "Streetcar Named Desire" on Broadway, coming in to audition for Zinnemann and producers Stanley Kramer and Carl Foreman for the lead role in "The Men."

"He had real intensity," recalled Zinnemann. "He was like a volcano. He wasn't easy to work with. He was suspicious of Hollywood people, and he kept his own counsel."

But Brando took the part, playing a paraplegic war veteran in a hospital ward full of paralyzed former GIs. "Kramer and Foreman made the movie independently," Zinnemann says. "If anyone had gone to a studio with a film on a theme like this one, they'd have got nowhere."

True to his Method training, Brando lived in a real paraplegic ward for three weeks, by the end of which only doctors and nurses knew he was not truly paralyzed. (Though some actors now routinely prepare for roles with such fastidiousness, this was arguably the first time a film actor had prepared in such depth.)

"He'd conceived a character," Zinnemann said. "My directing of him was purely to do with the technical part. I don't come from the theater, and I'm not about to tell actors how to do something. I'll tell them about character development, what a particular scene requires, and that's it."

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