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Taking Direction From Hollywood Greats

In the '60s and '70s, Tony Macklin interviewed some of the town's most important players. The revealing results are compiled in a new book.

September 17, 2000|ROBERT W. WELKOS | Robert W. Welkos is a Times staff writer

The college professor switched on his tape recorder and began asking questions.

There was American icon John Wayne lamenting how director John Ford "forgot I was around" on their now-classic 1962 western "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance."

There was Howard Hawks, who helmed such memorable films as "Red River" and "His Girl Friday"--yet only had an honorary Oscar to show for an awesome career--recalling how he and Michael Curtiz agreed to swap movies, Curtiz taking "Casablanca" and Hawks directing "Sergeant York," a fateful decision for both films.

And there was crusty Sam Peckinpah, ensconced in Marilyn Monroe's old living quarters on the Warner Bros. lot, summoning a secretary to bring him a glass of gin as the interview commenced ["No tonic, just soda and lime"], then launching into a blistering attack on the studio.

"The goddamn thing is, they have to be the biggest and most successful thieves in the world," Peckinpah raged, noting that his elegantly violent, 1969 western "The Wild Bunch" cost $4 million, yet Warners was showing a $7-million loss on the movie.

"What kind of bookkeeping is that?" he roared.

The tape recorder clicked off, and Tony Macklin, a part-time film critic who taught English and film studies at the University of Dayton, in Ohio, published the interviews in a quarterly academic journal on cinema called Film Heritage, which he founded in 1965 and edited until 1977.

Now, these revealing question-and-answer sessions, conducted as the old Hollywood was dying and a new cinema was being born, have been collected in the book "Voices From the Set: The Film Heritage Interviews" (Scarecrow Press, $39.50), edited by Macklin and Nick Pici.

The interviews are unusually candid, crusty and revealing, reflecting a now-vanished era when show business and the media were not so adversarial, when access to movie stars was not limited to stage-managed events, and the movies themselves--not box office--inspired conversation.

It was an era when Scorsese, Spielberg, Lucas and Bogdanovich personified the new wave in cinema then sweeping over Hollywood. But this younger generation also rediscovered and took inspiration from creative geniuses like Hawks and Ford, who left a dazzling legacy working within the old studio system.

Among those featured are film legends like Wayne and costume designer Edith Head; old masters like Hawks and Alfred Hitchcock; Hollywood mavericks like Peckinpah and Robert Altman; and, what was then an emerging new breed of director personified by Martin Scorsese and Alan Rudolph.

While the book is certain to be a feast for film buffs (did Verna Fields really save George Lucas' "American Graffiti" with her editing room cuts? Was Ethan really in love with his brother's wife in "The Searchers"?), Macklin hopes that it stimulates people to revisit old films.

Macklin looks back fondly on those vintage interviews, vividly recalling details as if they had happened only yesterday.

There was actress Shirley MacLaine spilling coffee on him; screenwriter Leigh Brackett ("The Big Sleep") offering him a glass of the most sugary lemonade he had ever gagged over; and costume designer Head making him stand on a pedestal before a mirror, telling him that his then-in-style leisure suit made him look like a "layer cake."

*

Sometimes, good fortune smiled on the professor. On the day he was to interview John Wayne in 1975, the actor's office was being refurbished, so Wayne invited him down to his Newport Beach house for lunch.

"What surprised me was that when I was there, the magazine Photoplay had just named him the most popular star of the year," Macklin recently recalled. "I would think that John Wayne would be above that, but he was really concerned that he won."

Wayne talked with candor about his films, his screen image, how he got his name, and even his politics.

"They've never made a point of this," Wayne said, "but I have tried never to play the pure hero. I have always been a character of some kind."

Later, he told Macklin: "In every picture that I've done, I've tried to have some human weaknesses and admit those human weaknesses. . . . Nobody seems to realize, speaking of an antihero, I was playing [Charles] Laughton's part in 'Mutiny on the Bounty' in 'Red River.' "

Macklin said Wayne seemed to warm to the opportunity to conduct a serious discussion of his films, instead of patiently listening as interviewers invariably asked if he fought in saloons.

While many critics today consider "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" a western classic, Wayne blamed his mentor, John Ford, for saddling him with a bland role.

"Well, 'Liberty Valance' was a tough assignment for me because, dammit, Ford had Jimmy [Stewart] for the [expletive]-kicking humor; he had the Irishman, [Edmond] O'Brien, playing the sophisticated humor; and he had the heavy--you know the dashing, wild, terrific guy. . . ."

"Lee Marvin, you mean?"

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