Wednesday, March 26, 2014

David Lean – Cinema Legend – March 2014

David Lean is one of cinema’s greatest directors (the BAFTA award for directing is named after him for example). He is known for his great epics and also for being the prototypical filmmaker tyrant, demanding much from his actors and crew. Lean directed sixteen films between 1942 and 1984, winning two Oscars for Best Director (while being nominated seven times; only William Wyler with twelve, Martin Scorsese, and Billy Wilder each with eight have more).

Early Career:

Lean was fascinated by cinema from a young age. He spent his free time in the evenings watching movies. In 1927, he decided to pursue a career in film. He started at Gaumont Studios in London doing odd jobs (like getting people tea), but he worked hard and found his responsibility increase. He had a talent for editing. By 1930, Lean was editing newsreels for Gaumont. He then began editing films from 1931 to 1941, including films like Pygmalion and the Archers49th Parallel. He developed quite a reputation as a good editor, leading to his promotion to director.

David Lean Directs Noel Coward:

For Lean’s feature debut as a director, he co-directed In Which We Serve with playwright Noel Coward (based on Coward first screenplay). Coward was famous at the time, being the primary conveyor of the concept of Englishness for the 20th Century, and yet he was nervous about directing his first film. He asked his friend actor John Mills to recommend someone to help him, and Mills recommended the best editor in the country David Lean. Coward also starred in the film (being a talented polymath).

With In Which We Serve being a critical and commercial success, Coward and Lean decided to embark on a continued partnership for three more films, in which Lean would direct and adapt Coward’s plays into feature films. The first of which was This Happy Breed, followed by Blithe Spirit and Brief Encounter. The latter proved to be their biggest hit, winning the 1946 Cannes Film Festival Grand Prize and earning Lean his first Best Director Oscar nomination. Brief Encounter endures today as a brilliant romantic drama with difficult emotions and themes.

Britain’s Most Acclaimed Director:

Now an established director in England, Lean moved on to more ambitious projects. He decided to adapt two of Charles Dickens’s most famous stories: Great Expectations and Oliver Twist. Great Expectations is a marvelous film with striking visuals and artistic design (including incredible cinematography from Guy Green). Lean also worked with actor Alec Guinness for the first time (Lean would later consider Guinness a good-luck charm and cast him five more times). The film was nominated for Best Picture, Director, and Writing Oscars and won Oscars for Cinematography and Art-Direction. It is my favorite adaptation of Dickens’ classic novel (and there are countless).

Oliver Twist is just as ambitious with its aesthetics (Guy Green’s photography is again fantastic), and Alec Guinness again makes an appearance (playing Fagin); however, the film does not quite capture the same magic as Great Expectations and thus, while still a hit with critics and moviegoers, it did not attain the same level of accolades as Great Expectations. I think they are both very good, but Great Expectations is superior.

Lean next returned to romantic melodrama with The Passionate Friends, which in many ways feels a lot like Brief Encounter (but not quite as powerful). He followed with two of his lessor films the crime drama Madeleine and the biopic/war drama Breaking the Sound Barrier.

Regaining his prior form, Lean adapted Harold Brighouse’s play Hobson’s Choice, starring the great Charles Laughton. The comedy/drama is about a successful boot maker who tries to rule the lives of his unruly daughters. To avoid the expense of it, he refuses to allow his daughters to marry, but his eldest Maggie has other ideas. She sets her sights on Will Mossop, Hobson’s very talented employee, snatching him up as her husband and partner in opening up her own boot making shop. The film was a big hit in England and won the 1955 BAFTA for Best British Film.

With the success of Hobson’s Choice and Lean’s Dickens adaptations, Hollywood came knocking. Lean wrote and directed the romance drama Summertime, which was co-financed by American and British backers and it also starred Katharine Hepburn (the biggest international star to appear in one of Lean’s films at the time). It also marked Lean’s first color film. Summertime is about a lonely American woman who un-expectantly finds love while on holiday in Venice, Italy. Lean was nominated for a Best Director Oscar for the third time.

Epic Cinema:

Lean decided to make the full transition to Hollywood in the late 1950s, signing a deal with Columbia Pictures and producer Sam Spiegel. He would make less films, but they would now be massive in scale and scope. He first epic was the war drama The Bridge on the River Kwai about British and American prisoners of war during WWII and the brutality they faced at the hands of their Japanese captors. In an effort to garner better treatment for his men, British officer Colonel Nicholson makes a deal with the Japanese prison commander: the British will help them build a bridge if they are treated well – however, are the British now helping their enemy win the war? The film was a massive success in every way. It won Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Writing, Best Cinematography, Best Editing, Best Score, and Best Actor for Alec Guinness (who starred along with William Holden). It remains one of the greatest epics in film history.

For his second film with Columbia Pictures and Sam Spiegel, Lean decided to adapt the story of T.E. Lawrence, a famous British soldier who united the many Arab tribes to help fight the Turkish army during the Great War. Lawrence of Arabia was possibly an even bigger hit than The Bridge on the River Kwai. It too won seven Oscars (but was nominated for ten versus The Bridge on the River Kwai’s eight), including: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Art-Direction, Best Sound, Best Editing, and Best Score. It also introduced the world to the great actor Peter O’Toole (who criminally never won an Oscar for his acting, despite his eight nominations for Best Actor). Lean also formed a new collaborative partnerships with playwright Robert Bolt (who he would work with on almost all his future projects), cinematographer Freddie Young, composer Maurice Jarre, and production designer John Box. It is my opinion that Lawrence of Arabia is the epitome of grand Hollywood filmmaking at its absolute best and that it might possibly be the best film ever made.

Lean then moved to MGM to make Doctor Zhivago, a romantic drama about a Russian doctor/poet who falls for an unattainable woman (Lara) set against the tumultuous times of the Bolshevik Revolution. Doctor Zhivago proved to be an even bigger commercial hit for Lean with bigger box office numbers than Lawrence of Arabia; however, it did not attain the same level critical prestige. It only won five Oscars (on ten nominations), not including the most esteemed: Best Picture and Best Director. I would argue that it also does not hold the same level of distinction today as The Bridge on the River Kwai or Lawrence of Arabia. That said, it is still a fantastic epic. Interestingly, the film is maybe even more famous for its score than the film itself. Lara’s Theme was hugely popular at the time of its release in 1965.

Next, Lean decided to make a grand epic romantic drama set in Ireland, shooting extensively on location. Released in 1970, Ryan’s Daughter was met with harsh criticism. Many claiming that its long runtime and seemingly epic structure did not match the scope of its narrative (about a married woman in a small Irish village who has an affair with a troubled British officer). The film still won two Oscars but was not nominated for Best Picture or Best Director (when all of Lean’s previous three epics had been). Lean was very discouraged by the film’s reception, leading him to retreat from filmmaking for many years. I think Ryan’s Daughter works fairly well, but it is certainly not among Lean’s very best films.

Lean, working with Robert Bolt, finally had a project he was excited about enough to return to filmmaking. He wanted to make a new adaptation of Mutiny on the Bounty, the true story of the cruelty of a ship captain leading to a mutiny, as a two-film epic (part one focusing on the events leading up to the mutiny and the second focusing on the aftermath). Lean all but had the film ready when he faced two major setbacks: first Warner Bros. withdrew their financial backing and second Bolt suffered a major stroke and could not continue working on the film. Ultimately, Lean had to abandon the film, but its new producer Dino De Laurentiis finished the film (as The Bounty) with director Roger Donaldson (brought in by the film’s star Mel Gibson, as the two were friends).

Lean’s final film is A Passage to India, which he wrote and directed. The epic drama is about a friendship between an Indian doctor, an Englishwoman engaged to marry a city magistrate, and an English educator that is doomed by the cultural change in India as it rises up to gain its independence from British rule. The film was well received winning two Oscars (on eleven nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director) upon its 1984 release, but has not held up as well.

At the time of his death in 1991, Lean was hard at work on a new film entitled Nostromo (an adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s novel).

Career Highlights:

1)      Brief Encounter (1945)* – writer, director (Blu-ray Noel Coward-David Lean Collection, Video On-Demand, Trailer)
2)      Great Expectations (1946)* – writer, director (DVD, Trailer)
3)      Oliver Twist (1948) – writer, director (DVD, Video On-Demand, Trailer)
4)      The Passionate Friends (1949) – writer, director (Video On-Demand, Trailer)
5)      Hobson’s Choice (1954) – writer, director, producer (DVD, Trailer)
6)      Summertime (1955) – writer, director (DVD, Video On-Demand, Trailer)
7)      The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)* – director (Blu-ray, Video On-Demand, Trailer)
8)      Lawrence of Arabia (1962)* – director, producer (Blu-ray, Video On-Demand, Trailer)
9)      Doctor Zhivago (1965)* – director (Blu-ray, Video On-Demand, Trailer)
10)   Ryan’s Daughter (1970) – director (DVD, Video On-Demand, Trailer)
11)   A Passage to India (1984) – writer, director (Blu-ray, Video On-Demand, Trailer)
*Editor’s picks

No comments:

Post a Comment