Friday, November 8

The Directors: Richard Brooks

Maverick is a word that always held an attraction for me.  My trusty dictionary says it is a term for a lone dissenter, perhaps an intellectual, an artist or politician, but definitely one who takes an independent stand apart from his or her associates.  It is a nonconforming individualist, a free thinker, one who pursues  rebellious, even potentially disruptive, ideas or policies.  They say you can't muzzle a maverick.  Richard Brooks was such a man.

At the beginning of filming arguably his last great film, Looking for Mr. Goodbar, he is said to have rounded up his cast and crew and offered these immortal words:  I'm sure all of you have your own ideas about what kind of contribution you can make to this film, what you can do to improve it or make it better.  Keep it to yourself.  It's my f---ing movie and I'm going to make it my way.  That seems very clear to me.  How 'bout you?

One thing Brooks always was was clear.  He took the waste out of most sentences.  He was rarely sweet-tempered, was known to have told people that if they couldn't do better, they needn't come back.   Writer Fay Kanin called him God's angry man.  Few actors worked with him more than once although a few brave ones who did were Burt Lancaster, Elizabeth Taylor, Jean Simmons, Stewart Granger, Sidney Poitier, Paul Newman, Humphrey Bogart, Shirley Jones and Richard Kiley. 

Peter O'Toole would famously say about Brooks that he was the man who lived at the top of his voice.  Shirley Jones, in her recent autobiography, said that while she ultimately got along with him fine, he was a martinet and everyone who worked for him hated him.  Whether that's just her opinion or one shared by many, I think it's safe to say that few would ever forget working with him.  And I  suspect they knew they were working on something good if not great.  I regard him of one of Hollywood's greatest directors.

The son of Russian Jews, Brooks was born in Philadelphia, an only child.  He grew up hating bigotry which would become the focus in a number of his films.  He also grew up very independent which would become the focus of how he ran all those films.  He would ultimately be regarded as a pioneer of the independent director-producer and this was even before he actually left the studio.  Those top dogs at MGM always regarded him as just a little bit too big for his britches but damn if he didn't turn out some fine films that brought them many dollars.

Brooks first and foremost regarded himself as a writer.  Journalism was what he pursued in college and he first worked as a newspaper sports reporter.  Having spent a bit of time as a reporter myself, I can easily see Brooks commandeering an editorial room.  There were several talented, tough-minded, opinionated, badly-behaved, personable men like Brooks in my milieu.  Sports reporting remained a favorite job for him.  Next it was radio where he was a staff writer for NBC.  He also co-founded a theater company called The Mill Pond Theater where he started toying with directing.

During these times the energetic Brooks also tried his hand at writing novels and he would ultimately write several .  It's not a stretch to get that the movies would be a natural place for Brooks to put pen to paper or haul out that old Smith Corona.  He hired on at Universal, typing out those absurd plots for reigning star Maria Montez's pictures.  Put this on the other end of the continuum from sports reporting.

After pulling some duty for Uncle Sam, he returned to Hollywood and began writing better stuff.  He polished off some marvelous film noirs that became The Killers, Brute Force, Key Largo, and Any Number Can Play and he wrote the novel which became one of the great film noirs of all time, Crossfire.

He owes his movie directing career to Cary Grant, which Brooks always acknowledged.  The actor was looking to do something dramatic, something different, and he came across a Brooks screenplay called Crisis.  It concerned an American doctor who gets involved with a South American dictator who's caught in a revolution in his country.  Grant determined at some point that he would only do the film if Brooks would direct.  And that's about all it took.  Brooks was itching to direct because he always wanted total control.  The truth is, he was also incredibly talented.

Crisis wasn't a bad movie at all.  I admit I only saw it for the first time six months ago.  I had never wanted to see it.  Grant was actually never a huge draw for me nor was his costar Jose Ferrer, but I thought they both were fascinating to watch here.  One could occasionally glimpse Grant trying a little too hard to be hard and that may be why he quickly returned to the type of romantic-comedy roles he knew so well. 

The film got Brooks on his new path.  He would go on to direct some 25 films, most of which he would also write.  How more fortunate could a director be than to work from his own screenplay?   If it were a screenplay based on another's novel or  play, no matter how famous the writer or the work, Brooks got a kick out of getting his own point of view on the page.  Since he was the director, too, he usually overruled any criticisms of his changes to the original source.  And one day he would add producer to these credits as well. 

He accepted or sought a contract with MGM, which he must have known was a double-edged sword.  On the one hand he would be paid handsomely for pumping out story after story and then directing the piece but the downside was Brooks wasn't in charge of the studio itself, despite the fact that he often behaved as though he thought he was.  But no lover of Brooks' work could ever dismiss what he did while at MGM.  It wasn't all successful, critically or with the public, but I can tell you he never did one thing with Leo the Lion that I didn't like.

He first knew Bogart from being on the set of Key Largo, where he  would take to the bottle as easily as those other boozers, writing as   he drank and schmoozed.  So it was no surprise that the new director would helm not one but two of Bogart's next pictures.  The first, Deadline U.S.A., while not so widely known, is a great Bogie flick and concerns newspapermen.  The second was Battle Circus, a Korean War love story involving Bogart with, of all people, June Allyson.  Hey, I liked it.

Brooks first worked with Elizabeth Taylor in The Last Time I Saw Paris in 1954.  I always loved the melancholy mood I got in seeing this film.  Brooks took F. Scott Fitzgerald's Babylon Revisited and made it into a feature for MGMs reigning queen.  Van Johnson, who played the drunken husband who loved and mistreated her, was a newspaperman.

Next came the film that first introduced me to Richard Brooks, Blackboard Jungle.  It may not be on my 50 Favorite Films list but it could certainly be on my 50 Most Influential Films if I ever put you through such a thing.  I became a different kid after seeing this puppy... not quite like the juvenile delinquents in the film but certainly no longer the vanilla wafer I had been.  We all know it was about violence in New York schools and in 1954 we had nevuh evuh seen anything like this.  Without Brooks we would never have been delivered of Bill Haley's Rock Around the Clock which made my head turn like Linda Blair's as it bla(i)red out at me as Leo completed his opening roar.  The song changed music as we knew it.  The film changed movies as we knew them, too.

Brooks' next three were all misfires of one sort or another but you already know I liked them all.  The Last Hunt, a routine but often exciting tale of buffalo hunters, costarred Robert Taylor and Stewart Granger for the second time, a followup to their successful All the Brothers Were Valiant.  It was not the kind of writing Brooks really wanted to do.  It is, however, interesting to note that Brooks was directing Granger for the second time and the director would one day be married to the actor's wife.  If you don't know who she is, you must be damp with anticipation.

Something of Value had Rock Hudson and Sidney Poitier as boyhood pals who become rivals in a Mau-Mau uprising in Africa.  And then there was The Brothers Karamazov, the Dostoevsky classic about four brothers adjusting to their tyrannical father's death.  What the atmosphere must have been like when control freak Brooks met control freak Brynner.  The affair seemed all a little too grand for most folks, despite Yul Brynner's popularity and the presence of Maria Schell and Claire Bloom.  I think Brooks did a fine directing job but it might be the film where he was most out of his element.  It certainly was most unlike anything he'd ever done up to this point.

Let the good times roll.  It's now 1958 and it's time to direct his own screenplay of Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, the most financially successful film he would ever do.  Click the link if you somehow missed the posting on one of the finest movies ever made.  I certainly think it's Brooks' masterpiece although there is another famous opinion to the contrary.  Keep reading.  Go get a drink or take a potty break if you have to.

After Cat came the unforgettable Elmer Gantry.  I am not using my adjectives too loosely.  Although it also didn't make my 50 Favorites, I could never deny that Elmer Gantry was anything less than unforgettable.  Brooks would win an Oscar for his screenplay featuring all that damnation and Bible-pounding and Burt Lancaster doing the best Burt Lancaster he could ever hope to do.  Actually the entire cast was on fire (pun intended).  Shirley Jones would win an Oscar and always-reliable Dean Jagger and Arthur Kennedy were outstanding. 

Delivering what is arguably the best performance she ever gave... and folks, she gave many... is Jean Simmons.  She is Sister Sharon, whose roadshow revivalism captures the hearts of many... including Elmer... including me... and including Richard Brooks.  He married her shortly after she divorced Granger.  We'll discuss this union a little more as they make their second and final film together.  But before we put Elmer to bed, let's add that Mrs. Brooks should have won an Oscar for this challenging role and she wasn't even nominated.  Excuse me while I get out an old Oscar program and my voodoo kit.

Brooks was back to Tennessee Williams and Paul Newman when they all joined up with Geraldine Page for Sweet Bird of Youth.  Brooks was the only one not involved in the Broadway production but he was the right one to steer the film.  It's the one about an aging actress and her stud boyfriend and his problems when together they stop in his hometown.

Peter O'Toole made his famous comment while working for the testy director in Lord Jim, an epic of a tale about a naval officer, a coward, who helps Asian natives stage a revolution.  The public stayed away as if they were personally in some danger, but I ventured to my theater and am glad I did.  This was the first of Brooks' films away from his MGM contract but its failure hurt him badly.

You would not be surprised to hear that I think The Professionals is a fabulous western... one of the best ever made, mind you.  You can take my Roy Rogers' spurs and lariat away if I am lying.  Brooks put quite a manly cast through its paces.  This thing is loaded with control freaks... migawd.  Lancaster, Lee Marvin, Robert Ryan and Woody Strode, each with some specialty to his credit, are hired by old Ralph Bellamy to retrieve his young wife, Claudia Cardinale, from bandit Jack Palance, who has stolen her.  Or has he?  The public fled to their local movie palaces for this one.  Brooks was feeling good again.

If anything is going to knock Cat off the top wrung of the Brooks ladder, it is In Cold Blood.  It's not my favorite Brooks' movie but I liked it (if that's really something one would say here) and it certainly got my undivided attention.  The true story of the vicious slaying of a Kansas farm family was written by Truman Capote and his choice for the directing job was Brooks.  There was likely no doubt in the writer's mind that Brooks had just what it took to bring such a harrowing story to the screen.  The film was as much a sensation as the book was.  Some would say this was Brooks' last truly great film and whether or not that is true, he made at least two more of some note.

Brooks was married four times.  The first one is a well-guarded secret and nobody seems to know anything about her, except that she and Brooks were both very young.  Next was to a would-be actress and then to a non-professional, neither of which lasted quite as long as the 20 years with Simmons although they had been separated for three.  She has said he always made her laugh but one day the laughter must have stopped.  After the marriage  ended, she said she had spent many years as an alcoholic.  I remember how sad I felt when I first heard that.  He has said that he was probably never a very good husband and that he acted at home as he did on his film sets.

It is said he not only wrote The Happy Ending for her, but that it was about her... and him... and their marriage.  It concerns an alcoholic wife who leaves her long marriage to go off and find herself.  Hollywood tongues were wagging in 1969, the year of the film's release, about just how close that screenplay was to real life.  They had been married nine years at the time and would have 11 more to go.

I quite liked Looking for Mr. Goodbar, although again, can one really like such a depressing film?  I was taken in by the sad story of a woman who is a teacher of deaf children by day and a sex-starved prowler at night who meets up with some dangerous characters.  Some were as taken by it as I was while others were totally repelled by the wanton sex, the carelessness, the audacious double life and the downer of an ending.  Whatever it was, it was certainly controversial.  Diane Keaton, Tuesday Weld, Richard Kiley, Richard Gere and Tom Berenger were likely among those who got to hear that tender welcoming speech. 

He was an independent producer by the time he made Goodbar.  If he had made it under his MGM contract, they would have forked over the big bucks but now he had to come up with the financing himself and he did so by mortgaging his home.  Goodbar and a couple of dud last movies put Brooks on the brink of bankruptcy.  It is truly sad that such a shining career had to end in such a dreary manner.

He gave a lot to Hollywood.  He gave them some wonderful films as a director, most of which came in on time and under budget and the public flocked to most of them.  Just as contract actors found themselves unprepared for their freedom from studios, so did the contract directors.  But Brooks was a pioneer of sorts for all independent directors (and producers) to come.

Even though I do these pieces on directors, it is hard to ignore Richard Brooks' contribution as a screenwriter, both original screenplays and adapted from others.  And of course there are also his novels.  He always said he was first a writer.  Late in life he said directing is only writing with a camera.  Editing is writing.  Scoring is writing.  It all has to do with a story, how to tell a story.

He said he wanted to be remembered as one who told a good story and an honest one.  You did it, Richard Brooks, you did it.

Picture Quiz II


  1. sounds like he was a really tough guy

  2. This is a very fine piece about an over-looked director. I came here today because I watched "The Professionals" on Movies! and thought, "Whoa Nellie! I need to find out more about this film!" All of that said, I must disagree with one of your thoughts. I don't believe that the film of "In Cold Blood" was nearly the sensation the book was. The book was so big during its first year, even I, an 11 year kid, was very familiar with the main story. The book basically invented a whole approach to journalism. It was BY FAR the biggest book of the year. The film was pretty big, no question, but not nearly as big.