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Calendar Big Oscars Issue : The Goldwyn Era : Samuel Goldwyn Jr. has been waiting all his life for 'The Madness of King George.' The Oscar nods are gravy.

March 26, 1995|Kenneth Turan | Kenneth Turan is The Times' film critic. and

In every life there are signpost moments, events that both encapsulate and call attention to where a person has been and what he has accomplished. For Samuel Goldwyn Jr., this Oscar season has been such a moment.

It's not only that the independent company that bears his name came away with five nominations, placing it on a par with such corporate giants as Warner Bros. and Fox and ahead of TriStar and Universal. It's that four of those, including the prestigious best actor, best supporting actress and best adapted screenplay nominations, came for a work of such remarkable qualities that Goldwyn has told associates he's waited his entire life for a film like it.

That would be "The Madness of King George," a picture that probably would not have been made without Goldwyn's passionate interest (though with typical absence of raging ego he didn't take personal credit on it). Its success, both artistic and commercial, is the culmination of a career, proof that, at age 69, Goldwyn has fully come into his own. And, paradoxically, it is also a film that emphasizes his connections to the past, whose echoes reach down and link up with the kind of work done by the celebrated father whose name he bears and whose house he lives in.

"Good movies are what I wait my whole life for," says Goldwyn, a thoughtful, silver-haired man with tortoise-shell glasses. "You wait for a movie where you say, 'I can take the whole dare on this.' Every so often you get a gut on something, you feel, 'I've got to do this picture, I've got to.' And finally you have to trust your gut."

As chairman and chief executive officer of the Samuel Goldwyn Co., Goldwyn presides over a balanced enterprise that is involved in the production of television as well as film, most notably with the very successful "American Gladiators" show, proof, he cracks, "that I'm not just hanging out at Croatian film festivals." The company's film library is now estimated at more than 900 titles and, partly through the acquisition of Heritage Entertainment, it has become the operator of the country's largest specialized theater circuit, boasting roughly 125 screens nationwide.

Yet what is most noteworthy about Goldwyn is that his current success is merged with an ethos, forged in a very different Hollywood, that makes him seem like the movie business's Last Gentleman. His immigrant father, the Goldwyn in Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, was an industry pioneer who went on to become perhaps the town's preeminent independent, a producer of 80 films whose best efforts, classics such as "The Best Years of Our Lives," "Wuthering Heights" and "The Little Foxes," were said to have "the Goldwyn Touch."

"I vicariously lived the life of an independent producer from the time I was 4 years old," Goldwyn says. "And what was always important was writing, writing, writing. It was hard for my father to read, it took him a long time, but he had tremendous retention and tremendous appreciation for writing. 'Don't forget,' he would say, 'it all starts with the word.' "

For Robin Swicord, screenwriter and executive producer on "The Perez Family," an upcoming company release, working with Goldwyn has not been business as usual. "In a rash moment I said I would work for him for free for the rest of my life, and that's because of his ethics," she says. "He's gutsy but he's not an egomaniac, he doesn't insist on being the most important person in any conversation. And he's interested in high quality films, he has an aesthetic sense, which is something you don't always run into."

It was his commitment to writing that got Goldwyn involved with "Madness" when it was a play on the London stage--and it is typical of his approach that he rightly insists on the critical role of playwright Alan Bennett, who had years before written the script on the Goldwyn-distributed "Prick Up Your Ears."

"I saw the play ("The Madness of George III") at the National in London and I felt it was just crying out to be a movie," he says. "But when I went to Alan backstage and said, 'I want to do this movie terribly,' he just looked at me. 'It'll never make a movie,' he said. 'Maybe television.' I must have deviled his agent 50 times, but Alan would not sell me the piece. Finally he said, 'Let me first write it as a film and see if I like it.' That's a writer of integrity."

One of the concerns of Bennett and director Nicholas Hytner turned out to be whether star Nigel Hawthorne, whose George III was the performance of a lifetime, might be edged out of the movie version, as he had been in "Shadowlands," for more conventionally bankable British stars. But Goldwyn was as keen on Hawthorne as they were, and was impressed by the actor's clear vision about how his part had to be changed for film.

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