Friday, May 15

The Directors: Robert Mulligan

Best known for his sensitive directing of one of the most acclaimed films of all time, 1962s To Kill a Mockingbird, Robert Mulligan was one of a number of directors to emerge from the heyday of live television.  His movie career, I suppose, was rather erratic although I pretty much liked everything he did.  He alternated between hits and misses and also between commercial films and films that simply appealed to him, knowing they may go nowhere.  They say he had no truly identifiable style but I found him to be uniquely good at directing adolescents in some worthy coming-of-age stories.

Mulligan was born in the Bronx in 1925.  His father was a cop and his younger brother, Richard, became an actor known primarily for his oddball director role in 1981s S.O.B. and the TV series Soap.  All his young life Mulligan wanted to be a priest.  In college he studied journalism.  After he was discharged from the Marines Mulligan got on at The New York Times as a lowly messenger boy.  In just a few years he found himself directing some of the prestige programs of the day, such as Playhouse 90 and Suspense

Hollywood soon beckoned and he found himself directing Anthony Perkins in the 1957 baseball-bio, Fear Strikes Out.  It was the story of Jim Piersall who overcomes mental illness and a domineering father.  It made some noise and Mulligan was on his way.  He still continued his work on quality television programs while making some films that were only so-so.

In 1960 and 1961, he made back-to-back films with Tony Curtis and then Rock Hudson.  The Curtis films were The Rat Race which garnered most of its attention from Debbie Reynolds in a change-of-pace dramatic role.  The Great Impostor featured Curtis as the real-life Ferdinand Demara who took on all sorts of jobs without having any credentials.  It was popular enough but suffered a bit from overuse of the cutesies.  The same might be said of Hudson's first film with Mulligan, Come September, although I enjoyed The Spiral Road with Hudson as an arrogant young doctor in the Dutch West Indies.  The casting of Burl Ives and Gena Rowlands didn't hurt.

Then came his signature film, To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), without which Mulligan might not have been a name to be reckoned with.  This began his superb work with child actors, his knack for coming-of-age stories and his ability to tell a sensitive story.  He also helped with an astonishing Gregory Peck performance as Atticus Finch.  We won't go further into this brilliant film because I have already done so in an earlier posting.

With Peck on the set of "Mockingbird"

His next three films starred Steve McQueen or Natalie Wood or both.  Love with the Proper Stranger (1963) I recently mentioned in postings on McQueen and Wood.  I thought it was a good film and their coupling was magical.  In 1965 came Inside Daisy Clover with Wood, a Hollywood story that seemed both safe and muddled. Mulligan might not have been the right director for it.  The same year was Baby, the Rain Must Fall, about a southern ne'er-do-well singer with a wonderful McQueen performance but the public wasn't so interested.

Up the Down Staircase (1967), about an English teacher in an inner New York City school suffered in much the same way Daisy did... too safe.  I always thought the kids were the ones who suffered having to be in a class most of the day with the nerve-racking and nerve-racked Sandy Dennis.  The Stalking Moon (1969) was the only western Mulligan ever made, but reteaming with Peck turned out to be a good thing in my mind because this was a fine western.  You may have seen my earlier posting on it.

The Stalking Moon was the final film that teamed Mulligan with his producing partner, Alan J. Pakula.  They had been a force of nature through all of Mulligan's films except for the ones that starred Hudson and Curtis.   Pakula, while he would continue producing without Mulligan, wanted to direct his own films.  We'll have a posting on him when we get to the 1970s.

Mulligan began the 70s with the Michael Sarrazin-Barbara Hershey film, The Pursuit of Happiness.  It concerned a politically-disillusioned college student who accidentally runs over a pedestrian.  I liked it but it could have had more punch.  Then came the box-office smash, The Summer of '42 (1971).  Another coming-of-age story starring Gary Grimes as a horny teen on Nantucket who becomes involved with a soldier's lonely wife (Jennifer O'Neill).  It was beautifully filmed and rightly won an Oscar for best musical score.

The stars of "Summer of '42"

The Other (1972), based on Tom Tryon's horror story of 9-year old twin boys involved in murders in the 1930s, enjoyed a popularity with fans of the novel and the genre.  Mulligan's next hit came six years later with Same Time, Next Year, based on the Broadway play and starring Ellen Burstyn and Alan Alda whose adulterous relationship over the years is the focus.

I thought Clara's Heart (1988), with Whoopi Goldberg and a young Neil Patrick Harris, was utterly charming.  He was a rich boy whose parents' marriage is unraveling due to another child's death and she was the family's Jamaican maid who looks after him.  I'm thinking it didn't do all that well at the box office.

Mulligan had a few misses in the 70s and 80s but luckily his final film, 1991s The Man in the Moon, was a hit.  It was the film debut of Reese Witherspoon as a young teen who is infatuated with an older boy but is heartbroken when he falls for her sister.

I have spent some enjoyable hours in movie theaters thanks to this man.  We must have shared a similar sensibility for certain types of stories.

Mulligan was married twice and had three children.  He suffered from alcoholism for many years.  He died of heart disease at age 83 in Connecticut in 2008.

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Geraldine Page

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