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Calendar Goes To The Oscars : A Hollywood Legend's List : Veteran director Fred Zinnemann, 85, whose films have won more than 25 Academy Awards, casts his eye over this year's top Oscar nominees

March 28, 1993|DAVID GRITTEN | David Gritten, a frequent contributor to Calendar, is based in London

LONDON — If anyone should know the ingredients for an Oscar-winning movie, Fred Zinnemann is that man.

The veteran director, one of film history's most distinguished names, brought 20-odd pictures to the screen in a career spanning 40 years. Marlon Brando's debut film was Zinnemann's "The Men" (1950). Montgomery Clift won an Oscar in Zinnemann's "The Search" (1948), his first major film role. Meryl Streep's screen debut was in Zinnemann's "Julia" (1977). Five Zinnemann films--"The Search," "High Noon" (1952), "From Here to Eternity" (1953), "A Man for All Seasons" (1966) and "Julia"--captured a staggering 25 Academy Awards among them.

Zinnemann, 85, quit filmmaking 10 years ago, but given his astonishing track record, he seems the ideal man to cast an eye over this year's major Oscar contenders.

Zinnemann, who has lived in London for 30 years, still watches films, enthusiastically if selectively. Because he has a hearing problem, it is difficult for him to view films in a crowded theater; instead he watches them on video in his central London office.

At the request of The Times, he saw six films--"The Crying Game," "A Few Good Men," "Howards End," "The Player," "Scent of a Woman" and "Unforgiven"--which are nominated either in the best film or best director categories.

In assessing each, Zinnemann commented on several aspects of movie-making: directing, acting (including supporting roles), casting, cinematography--and in one case, stunts. He started on a note of caution about the tendency of today's movies to be gore-soaked or to dwell on society's psychopaths:

"I've always felt drama at its best should be a mix of terror and pity. Of pictures today, many are long on terror, and either short on pity or without pity at all. Many movies share with TV a hypnotic and addictive element which can rob you gradually of a sense of reality and judgment, and which can actually change the way you think. That is, they can make you follow and accept the ideas and values of other people. I'm sick of sick movies that deal with rage and hatred, of which violence is the daughter."

The Crying Game

"I was tremendously impressed with 'The Crying Game.' Looking at it, you felt both the terror and the pity--not only in the splendid performance of Stephen Rea, which was extraordinary, but also of Forest Whitaker. Rea makes a lot of fancy leading men look one-dimensional and flat. He has great depths of compassion; you feel he is a victim as much as (Whitaker).

"I feel one small negative thing: The film ends in melodrama shortly after the IRA people come back and find Rea. This gets to be very plotty and turns into a kind of contrived ending. Miranda Richardson is marvelous, but she enjoys playing a villain too much and it shows; it makes the situation even less probable.

"I saw Neil Jordan's 'Mona Lisa,' and liked it. This is a man who knows about pain and suffering. There were some fine supporting performances in 'The Crying Game': the bartender (Jim Broadbent) for one, the leading terrorist (Adrian Dunbar) another. The stuntmen were marvelous. The twist in the story cer tainly surprised me.

"The film has something of the spirit of (Irish playwright) Sean O'Casey. It also reminded me of John Ford's film 'The Informer,' because it's about people who are victims of their own characters.

"I'm very high on this movie."

A Few Good Men

" 'A Few Good Men' is one of the few pictures that give me hope that there's still a future for movies and that we are not reduced to a diet of robots, rage and hatred.

"There were two outstanding performances here: an excellent one from Jack Nicholson and a very good one by Wolfgang Bodison (as the young African-American lance corporal defendant). (Bodison) played it from the heart and gut. I've never seen anyone express contempt with just one look the way he does. He was enormously good at conveying complicated emotions without a word. You knew exactly how he felt.

"Tom Cruise is one of the really excellent young stars in movies; he's very promising. I find some of his mannerisms similar to Montgomery Clift, the way he spreads his hands when he makes a point. He's not at Clift's level yet; but perhaps he's young, and hasn't suffered very much!

"It was directed brilliantly by Rob Reiner, just the way a commercially successful picture should be. It was well organized and well told. The production's perfect, but it was not overproduced; you didn't feel they were trying to stun you with effects. It all seemed to blend properly; if you come out of a movie and say, 'Wasn't the music great?' you know that movie's not in balance. This wasn't like those films where you're supposed to be stunned by the money poured into them.

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