Advertisement

A Director Who Knew Talent, Tales

Appreciation: Fred Zinnemann made a handful of the best-remembered films of all time, but it was always the stories (and the people in them) that counted.

March 18, 1997|DAVID GRITTEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

LONDON — A quick scan of Fred Zinnemann's resume tells you all you need to know. His was the name on a whole bunch of memorable movies.

He was the maestro who directed "High Noon," widely considered the greatest western ever; "From Here to Eternity," one of Hollywood's finest war films; and "A Man for All Seasons," one of cinema's most lauded historical dramas. He won best director Oscars for the latter two films. The second rank includes "The Day of the Jackal," "Julia" and "Oklahoma!"--all of them better films than most directors get to make in a lifetime.

Zinnemann also gave Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift, Ava Gardner, Jessica Tandy and Meryl Streep their debuts on the big screen. With "From Here to Eternity" he resurrected Frank Sinatra's then-fading career.

Yet his death over the weekend, six weeks short of his 90th birthday, is mourned in the film world for reasons other than his remarkable body of work. He was regarded with singular affection by collaborators; in Britain, where he lived for the last 35 years, one still encounters older crew members who will reminisce warmly about "Mr. Zee."

This was partly because Zinnemann defied the archetype of the Hollywood director. A mild man with an engaging smile, he was never flamboyant; similarly his films, painstaking and beautifully crafted, lack a look-at-me-ma style. But his courtly manners masked a steely determination to get his way. He often argued with studios, especially over actors; he liked to cast against type.

He held out for the unknown Edward Fox to play the lead in "The Day of the Jackal," and insisted that Gary Cooper, by then past his peak, would be perfect as the sheriff in "High Noon." Perhaps his biggest casting coup was Deborah Kerr as the adulterous wife of an officer in "From Here to Eternity"; Kerr had been saddled with a prim image, yet her embrace with Burt Lancaster on a Hawaiian beach, as surf crashes over them, is among cinema's great erotic scenes.

Along with a sadness about Zinnemann's death is a bleak knowledge that he was among the last of a breed of immigrant Jews from central Europe who gravitated to Hollywood in the '20s and '30s to enrich films with their awareness of stories originating in other media: novels, theater, even opera. As critic Clive James noted, "They came, trailing centuries of European civilization behind them." Now Billy Wilder, born in Vienna as was Zinnemann, is the last major figure of that generation.

Zinnemann liked filming stories that were about something--often one person confronted by a crisis of conscience. (Think of Cooper's sheriff in "High Noon" and Paul Scofield's Oscar-winning turn as Sir Thomas More in "A Man for All Seasons.") He was dismissive of today's blockbusters that emphasize action and special effects above human dilemmas. "So many films are conceived in cold blood in a boardroom with the sole purpose of making money," he told me a few months ago.

Yet his tastes were far from reactionary or safe. He liked nothing better than receiving guests in his Mayfair office, just to discuss the latest movies. I visited him several times in recent years; he could always be relied upon to express strong opinions. When I last saw him in January he urged me to see Carroll Ballard's "Fly Away Home."

Because much of his work looked expensive and handsome, it was surprising that he also enthused about edgy fare like "The Crying Game" and "Pulp Fiction" (he viewed the casual, workaday violence of Tarantino's film as an awful moral warning). Yet he dismissed many visually splendid films like Bertolucci's recent work and much of the Merchant Ivory canon: "You end up looking at the drapes, not the people," he said.

*

In the last decade he also lobbied tirelessly for directors' being able to assert rights over their own work, and against the colorization of films. These, he believed, were moral issues. He was recently seeking legal redress against an Italian distribution company that televised a colorized version of one of his earlier movies, "The Seventh Cross." "It was absolutely brutal," Zinnemann told me. "Color totally destroyed the film."

He will be missed particularly in Britain, where he settled partly because his wife, Renee Bartlett, is English. He aligned himself wholeheartedly with the British film industry, as president of its directors' guild and as a prominent member of both the British Academy and the British Film Institute.

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|