Three veteran directors still make movies despite competition from the younger set

THE OLD PROS

November 03, 1991|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

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."

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