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The director's cut

Ronald Neame, genial and generous at 92, recalls his work with Hitchcock, Garland, Coward and Guinness.

April 23, 2003|Kenneth Turan | Times Staff Writer

"I mean this very genuinely," Ronald Neame says, and the look on his face tells you he really does. "It's astonishing to me that five of my films will be running on Hollywood Boulevard -- and one of them is 50 years old. I've made some good, bad and indifferent films, and some absolute stinkers, but I've never thought of myself as other than a reasonably competent director."

If you listen to the British-born Neame, the kind of truly self-effacing man who means it when he says "please cut me off if I'm talking too much," you might believe that the American Cinematheque lost control of its senses by scheduling a three-day tribute that starts with a Friday night screening of "The Poseidon Adventure," of which the director confidentially says, "I know it's not something that should go down in history, but the weird thing is, it has gone down in history."

Yes, he's just published a charming memoir, "Straight From the Horse's Mouth" (which he will be signing at the Cinematheque at 4 p.m. Saturday), but Neame all but waves his hand when he says in his resonant voice, still pleasantly accented despite living and working in L.A. for 30 years, "It's not really great literature."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday April 24, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 43 words Type of Material: Correction
Neame profile -- Director Vincente Minnelli's first name was misspelled as Vincent in an article in Wednesday's Calendar about filmmaker Ronald Neame. The Neame profile also neglected to mention that his autobiography, "Straight From the Horse's Mouth," was written with Barbara Roisman Cooper.

But if you do talk to Neame long enough, admiring the Coldwater Canyon view from his cozy study ("My wife and I pride ourselves," he says, "on looking slightly down on $10-million houses, but only slightly"), listening to the fire quietly crackling and the mantel clock gently chiming, a somewhat different story emerges.

It's not just, though this is remarkable enough, that Neame, celebrating his 92nd birthday today, has personally experienced more of the movie business than anyone else still alive and lucid. His mother, Ivy Close, was an early British silent star who made her first film in 1912 (directed by Neame's father, Elwin) and went on to work for France's Abel Gance and America's slapstick Kalem Company. And Neame himself at 18 was the assistant cameraman on Alfred Hitchcock's landmark 1929 "Blackmail," the director's first sound film.

From then on, Neame, whom everyone calls Ronnie, was a central player in perhaps the greatest period of British cinema. As a cinematographer, he teamed with director David Lean and writer Noel Coward on such films as "Blithe Spirit" and "In Which We Serve." As a writer, he got the first of an eventual three Oscar nominations for his work on "Brief Encounter." As a producer he gave Alec Guinness his first major role in Lean's "Great Expectations" and went on to direct four of the actor's films, including the one that gives Neame's book its title.

Later, Neame directed Maggie Smith's Oscar-winning performance in "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie," guided a temperamental Judy Garland through "I Could Go On Singing," her last film, and produced "The Magic Box," a feature on early film, which "Martin Scorsese saw when he was 11 or 12 and says was responsible for him entering the film industry."

With his wonderfully calming voice, a genial and open face and manners that date from another era, Neame could have been telling the truth when he informed guests at his 90th birthday party, "I'm really 60, the 6 just got turned around."

A possible key to Neame's graceful longevity is what he admits is "an even temperament for the most part. I've learned to look at things from the other person's point of view, which is important for directing. I'm forgiving by nature. I don't bear malice."

If that doesn't sound like what directors prize today, Neame would have to agree. "When I talk to young people, they say 'I'm going to direct' even though so many of them haven't learned how to rehearse, how to put a sequence together. You've got to learn the craft, and it is a craft. It wasn't till I was in the business for 15 or 20 years that I thought I could become a director."

More than that, Neame is proud of having been "brought up in the school where we didn't feature the camera, we did everything we could to disguise the fact that a camera was there. Today, 'no camera' has become 'I am a camera.' Directors are so clever with their setups, they want to star in their films."

'A you-name-it boy'

This was very far from the case when Neame, forced to work early because of his father's death in a motorcycle accident, began in the business at age 16 as "a messenger boy, a tea boy, a callboy, a you-name-it boy." Two years later came the assignment to work as assistant cameraman for Hitchcock on "Blackmail."

"He was the boy genius without any doubt, even then," remembers Neame, who can still hand-crank a camera at the silent speed of 16 frames per second. "He had the same personality he always did: He was plump, wicked and loved playing practical jokes on people, though he didn't like anybody to do it to him. He was a sadistic character in some ways. I don't know why, but he took a liking to me."

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