He's the boss. Bossman. Bossmeister. Mr. Boss-o-rama. He gets to say "action" and "cut." He gets to be sensitive with the actors, warm and caring with the actresses, tough with the Teamsters, wise with the critics and when it hits, the whole world falls down before him and tells him he's a genius.
When it misses, he can't get his calls returned.
He's the director, fulcrum of the system by which movies are made in the late 20th century, for better or worse.
We have before us today three such men, each with a new movie in the marketplace and each, by the coincidence of such things, a member of what might be called the "old" generation of craftsmen, itself somewhat threatened by a more aggressive and less "literary" generation of post-Spielbergian youth.
Each has had big hits and bad flops. Each has had careers that resemble roller-coasters.
And each, in his 60s, has endured and provisionally prevailed, at least to this degree: In an industry that eats human flesh for breakfast, they're still making movies, if in some cases only barely. Norman Jewison was a Wunderkind of Canadian TV in the '50s, segued into American television in the end of that period and went from there to a mainstream director's career that has included such hits as "In the Heat of the Night" and "Fiddler on the Roof" and "Soldier's Story." His specialty seems to be adaptation, and he's now on the screen with his version of the Jerry Sterner play, "Other People's Money."
John Frankenheimer is also out of the television world of the late '50s, where he was the hottest of the young Turks who reinvented storytelling technique on the live sound stages of "Playhouse 90." His big career blunder was in making his great movie early -- "The Manchurian Candidate," everybody's favorite paranoid thriller -- and authoring an early body of work that was as brilliant as anybody not named Stanley Kubrick: "Seven Days in May," "The Train," "Seconds," "The Iceman Cometh," among others.
But then he made a big mistake: He didn't die. He's continued to work, though he's no longer the A-list star he once was now that the M-TV kids have taken over. His "Year of the Gun," an adaptation of a Michael Mewshaw novel, has just been released.
Finally, we have Robert Benton. Originally a clever magazine writer (with partner David Newman, he invented Esquire's Dubious Achievement awards), he really hit the big time with his first produced screenplay (with partner Newman), "Bonnie and Clyde." He's since directed a number of well-received pictures, including "Kramer vs. Kramer" (for which he won the Oscar) and "Places in the Heart." But he's also flopped with "Nadine" and "Still of the Night." His troubled production of "Billy Bathgate," with Dustin Hoffman," has also just opened.
So here they are, at pregnant moments in their careers, trying to stay in what is becoming a younger man's game, bringing a pro's caginess to what may be the director's most urgent task, which is to survive.
For Jewison, the key has been translating properties from other media to the screen: He's a brilliant adapter, whether the work in question began as play or novel.
The key to bringing "Other People's Money" to the screen wasn't the play upon which it was based, but the ideas behind the work.
"I found the play provocative," he says, "but in itself not enough. It was just a four-person cast, set in one room, with some nice speeches. And it summed up the whole pig-year thing of the '80s. But film, being more realistic, means that you have to go home with people. You can't just see them in one room."
Thus he and screenwriter Alvin Sergeant, working up at Jewison's Ontario farm, sat down and between them tried to invent realistic contexts for each of the key characters.
"Alvin is very slow and sure," he says, "and he absolutely insists on knowing the characters. We decided we had to give Larry the Liquidator [the omnivorous pig capitalist played with gustatory glee by Danny DeVito] a violin. It took us days to figure out what he would play on it!"
"You have to bring the story the playwright told on stage to a more realistic level. You have to bury the story in detail."
A gift for realism
No longer so upscale, Frankenheimer relies on his pro's gift for meeting deadlines and budgets and his reputation for realism to keep him in the game.
"Year of the Gun" is set in the Italy of 1978, during the high-water mark of the Red Brigade terrorists; the country was in turmoil and anarchy seemed about to break out everywhere; and his roughest trick was to make it seem real.
"It was a real dilemma," he says now. "I was fully aware that many Americans have long forgotten the Red Brigades, and in any case, I didn't want to turn the movie into a political lecture. But I also wanted a certain level of political reality, so that we
knew exactly who these people were and why they were doing what they were doing."
Accordingly, for the American release, the movie will wear a "legend" -- a brief bit of precredit text that sets up the political context, perhaps a bit non-cinematically but nevertheless efficiently.
And from there, Frankenheimer unspools his movie with ultrarealism. Whatever its flaws in structure or weakness in plot, the film shows that this most vivid of action directors retains his gift for putting you in the center of swirling, yet always coherent, action. You may not believe in the story but you certainly believe that Frankenheimer has dumped you into the middle of the year of the gun.
And on $12 million!
"It's always a nightmare getting financing," he says somewhat wearily, "whether you're working for a big studio or independently. On a studio film, you've always got some junior executive telling you you can't shoot this or that. He wants to save a few thousand bucks and wreck the movie. It's penny-wise, pound-foolishness. On an independent film like this, you're more directly involved in the cash. This one finally came together on some last-minute Japanese investment and video rights. I've always brought my films in on time and under budget, so that's a big help." The narrowness of margin with which he was working was a constant problem. One of the key roles went to an actor in whom he hadn't a lot of faith, and he's frank to say, "After four days of shooting, you realize you just have to make do. There's just not enough money to fire someone and bring in someone else and reshoot everything you've done."
So Frankenheimer soldiered on, trying to make up for the weaknesses in the performance by adopting an almost headlong rush through the materials, with so much pace and plot, so many reversals and stunning developments that you may not notice who the offending player is.
Benton has been somewhat luckier. He's not as dynamic as Frankenheimer, but he clearly understands the game better, and he's still on the A-list, although he hasn't had a hit since "Places of the Heart." "Billy Bathgate" may be the A-est of all his pictures, with the great Dustin Hoffman at the center and a script adapted from the E. L. Doctorow novel ("Mr. Doctorow" to the rest of us, "Edgar" to Benton) by the great British playwright Tom Stoppard. Financing, of course, was not a problem. The Disney Studios even oblig ingly rebuilt a teeming, seething East Side of Manhattan as backdrop for a young man's adventures among the exotic fauna of the night-blooming gangster world.
Outlaws aren't new to Benton, not after having written "Bonnie and Clyde," which was set in the same year, 1935.
"But in some ways I see this picture as the negative of 'Bonnie and Clyde.' That was set in a very real world of motels and diners and rural highways and it was about outsiders who had one grand moment. This is set in a kind of world of movie gangsters, among a kind of American mythology. I mean, when you open a movie with two guys in tuxedos except that one of them has his feet in a tub of concrete, you know you're in a special movie world." Already controversial is Stoppard's decision to abandon the voice of Doctorow's book, which was Billy's own first-person account, impressionistic and earthy at once.
"I absolutely agree with Tom's decision," Benton says enthusiastically. "It was a brilliant decision. We tried to find the visual equivalent for the richness of language in the evocative photography of Nestor Almondros. We try to keep that kind of visual life in the piece."
Asked the deceptively simple question as to what it is a director actually does, he says, "Well, he really does nothing and he does everything. He makes the major set of choices. I agree with [Francois] Truffaut that from the first shot in the movie, everything must flow logically, and the director is there to respect that choice.
"Half of being a director is establishing a picture of the entire story, and knowing where it's flexible and where it's not. Basically, he stands around and chats with people and says yes or no."
Hollywood for now has said yes to him, but he knows, as they all do, that by the cyclical nature of the business, it will sometime say no.