Tuesday, March 14

The Directors: Alan J. Pakula

He came into his own in the 1970s with a trio of wonderful conspiracy thrillers, often called the Paranoia Trilogy, and his influence was celebrated throughout the entire decade.  The public flocked to his films because they knew they were in for a helluva good time.  He directed two stunningly-talented women to best actress Oscars. Before he directed he was a producer and part of a duo whose stamp on a film meant accolades for both.  What seems odd is that such a sophisticated filmmaker would not only fall in a slump from which he wouldn't truly recover but that his total directorial output was a mere 16 films. 

Alan J. Pakula could also be counted on for intelligent work and a certain stylishness that, added together, was a lure for moviegoers to get excited about his next project.  The thread that seemed to connect all his movies was his exploration of social and especially psychological themes.  He wanted to see his characters evolve emotionally. I like to see people deal with their fears, he has said.   Regardless of whether a film was a sensitive drama or conspiracy thriller, he protected his characters like a proud papa.  He was thoughtful with them and made every effort to present them as multi-layered.

Apparently he treated his actors with the same love and kindness as he did the characters they played.  As such, he was known as an actor's director and in his heyday it seemed everyone wanted to work with him.

Pakula was born in the Bronx in 1928.  His father co-owned a printing business and expected that his son would follow in his footsteps.  He might have, too, had he not worked for the Leland Hayward Theatrical Agency in between high school and college. Although he was little more than a gofer, he fell in love with show business.  He wasn't certain he knew what he would do in the industry, but he was determined to find out.  

He attended Yale University's drama school and shortly thereafter moved to Los Angeles and worked briefly in the cartoon department at Warner Bros.  He left there to be a production assistant at MGM and then at Paramount.  When his father again asked him to take over the family business, Pakula countered by asking him to help finance him as a producer.  He wanted to make a movie.

He and a Bronx buddy, Robert Mulligan, decided to become a producing (Pakula) and directing (Mulligan) team.  They would have a great run. However, since we are highlighting Pakula's directing chores, we will not dive into his producing gigs except to mention the names of the films: Fear Strikes Out, To Kill a Mockingbird, Love with the Proper Stranger, Baby the Rain Must Fall, Inside Daisy Clover, Up the Down Staircase and The Stalking Moon

In 1963, at age 35, Pakula tied the knot with actress Hope Lange, a bit wounded from her love affair with Glenn Ford.  The Pakula-Lange union lasted nearly eight years. Two years later he wed Hannah Boorstin, a writer of historical biographies, and that marriage lasted until death do they part.

Pakula and wife Hope Lange

When his professional relationship with Mulligan dissolved, Pakula determined he was ready to take over the director's reins of his films.  He frequently produced them as well and wrote the screenplays on four.

His first directing chore was Liza Minnelli's second movie, The Sterile Cuckoo (1969). She would garner an Oscar nomination in a tender story of two college kids in a romance a bit over their heads. Because of Minnelli's joy at making the film, Pakula always said it was one of his best directing experiences. 

The superb thriller, Klute (1971), is one of Pakula's best achievements in directing.  It would win Jane Fonda her first Oscar and contains one of Donald Sutherland's best performances (as a caring detective) and features a wonderfully creepy performance by character actor Charles Cioffi.  He plays a psychotic killer who is involved with a neurotic call girl who is wrapped up in a missing person case.      

Maggie Smith and Timothy Bottoms are Pakula's stars in a little confection with a mouthful of a title, Love and Pain and the Whole Damn Thing (1973). Gorgeous Spanish locations highlight a September-May romance story that is cute and quirky and a little weepy.  I hadn't seen it until three or so years ago and was surprised at how affectionate I felt toward it.

During the time of the unease of Watergate, Pakula gave us a masterpiece of paranoia called The Parallax View (1974).  An investigative reporter, played by Warren Beatty, uncovers a group of political assassins as he infiltrates their organization. They are so sophisticated, however, that he cannot get anyone to believe they exist despite the pile of bodies.  It was probably a little too uncompromising and downbeat for some.

Pakula then dealt with Watergate head-on with All the President's Men (1976) based on the popular book by reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.  Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman play them to perfection. Pakula's knack for displaying mounting dread, showcased so well in Klute and Parallax, is sensational in this film about the takedown of the Nixon administration.  A first-rate thriller all the way and how smart that there isn't a single car chase or fistfight or killing.  Personally, for those films he directed, I would consider this one his best.

Pakula, 2nd from right, with his President's cast

Jason Robards (lighting up above) won an Oscar playing legendary Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee and was used most effectively in Pakula's next, Comes a Horseman (1978).  The actor was evil incarnate as the ex-beau of Jane Fonda who's failing ranch he's trying to buy. I thought the two of them were wonderful in their roles (their last of three pairings).  It is a slow and deliberate western that is vividly photographed by Gordon Willis. It is the only oater that Pakula directed and was not well-received although I thought it was a good time.

Pakula only directed three comedies and Starting Over (1979) is the best.  It features a fine turn by Burt Reynolds which can no doubt be claimed because Pakula probably fed the actor's enormous ego while keeping his performance restrained.  It concerns a Boston professor (there's a stretch) whose new romantic relationship keeps getting derailed because of an ex-wife.

Rollover (1981) with Fonda and a miscast Kris Kristofferson is a thriller that didn't thrill too many. Concerning an Arab oil organization out to ruin the world economy, it is plodding, dull and fairly incoherent. Maybe Warren Buffet understood it but I certainly didn't.

Sophie's Choice (1982) would be Pakula's last critically-successful film. The story of a Holocaust survivor who is psychologically damaged by the experience and is later victimized by her schizophrenic boyfriend is a triumph for Meryl Streep who won an Oscar. I regard her performance as one of the greatest female performances of all time. I also think Kevin Kline as the boyfriend turned in his best work. My criticism has always been the film's length and the fact that it is both disturbing and difficult to watch.

At this point Pakula took a few years off from film-making and then returned with three of his lesser offerings.  The less said the better about Kristy McNichol and Dream Lover (1986).  If it was intended to be a successor to Klute's woman-in-trouble theme, it went horribly wrong.  In the following year's Orphans, Albert Finney is a wealthy drunk who is shanghaied by two brothers (Matthew Modine and Kevin Anderson) but no one went to see it. Even fewer saw See You in the Morning (1989) with Jeff Bridges, the director's most autobiographical film about a second marriage.

Presumed Innocent (1990) was regarded by some as a bit of a comeback for Pakula. Based on Scott Turow's best-selling novel, the film has a Hitchcockian feel to it in that it addresses one of the great fears in the world of crime... being accused of something you did not do.  Low-key Harrison Ford and his atrocious haircut star as a married prosecuting attorney investigating the death of a coworker with whom he was having an affair.  It gets bogged down in legalese but is helped a great deal by costars Brian Dennehy, Raul Julia, Greta Scacchi, Bonnie Bedelia and Paul Winfield.

Unfortunately Pakula then made Consenting Adults (1992) with a pair of Kevins, Kline and Spacey.  The former is the fall guy and the latter the bad guy in a tale of an insurance scam, adultery involving neighbors and murder.  For the first half hour I was intrigued but then it gets so hopelessly implausible that it becomes ridiculous.

It is the rare Julia Roberts film that has ever captured my attention (Steel Magnolias and Mona Lisa Smile stand among the few exceptions) and I will never understand why I have seen so much of her work.  In The Pelican Brief (1993) she plays an always perfectly-groomed and brilliant law student who uncovers a conspiracy and then becomes a target herself.  I wonder if author John Grisham liked Pakula's rather vacuous rendition of his work. Wouldn't you know it became one of the director's most seen movies?

A thriller that is light on thrills and high on confusion, it's too bad that The Devil's Own (1997) became Pakula's swan song. Harrison Ford is a police officer who discovers that his houseguest, all-American Brad Pitt, is an I.R.A. terrorist in hiding. There are too many clumsy attempts at political posturing combined with a rather odd moral reasoning and it just didn't work for me. Hopefully the old adage, you're only as good as your last movie, will be set aside for this wonderful film-maker.  

On the morning of November 19, 1998, Alan Pakula was driving on the Long Island Expressway on his way home when another car hit a seven-foot metal pipe lying in the roadway and sent it through the windshield of Pakula's car and into his head.  He died instantly.

It's amazing this talented man never won an Oscar but he was nominated three times in three different categories... for producing To Kill a Mockingbird, for directing All the President's Men and for writing Sophie's Choice.

He was a great friend to actors, respected by his peers and studio titans and highly appreciated by the public. He certainly was involved with some classic films.

Next posting:
The Bottoms Boys

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