Director Wise knows all the scores Director: Movie pro who has done it all will be at a sci-fi convention with his classic 'The Day the Earth Stood Still.'

July 27, 1996|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

Robert Wise may be the only movie director with credentials to be the guest of honor at a science-fiction convention, a Rodgers and Hammerstein convention, a "Citizen Kane" convention, even a rally against the death penalty.

Probably no director has proven more comfortable with, and deserving of, the adjective "eclectic." Or thrived so under it, with four Academy Awards to his credit along with a raft of other honors and honorifics.

"There's no one distinctive Robert Wise mark on my films," says the veteran director, who will be on hand at the Senator Monday for a screening of his 1951 film, "The Day the Earth Stood Still."

"I've been accused by some critics of not having a trademark style," he explains over the phone from his Los Angeles home. "My answer to that always is that I've done every genre there is, and I approach each genre in the cinematic style that I think is appropriate. I wouldn't want to approach 'The Sound of Music' the same way I did 'I Want to Live.' "

Nor would anyone else in their right mind accord similar treatment to the warblings of the Von Trapp family and the desperate struggle of death-row inmate Barbara Graham. Or to the visiting aliens of "The Day the Earth Stood Still," which made a star out of a robot named Klaatu and stands as the main reason Wise will be in town for this weekend's FANEX 10 science fiction convention at the Sheraton Baltimore North in Towson.

But Wise, 81, directed all three of those movie classics, and his ability to handle pretty much anything thrown his way has served him well during nearly six decades in Hollywood. Since 1939, Wise has left his mark on a veritable what's-what of cinema: "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" and "My Favorite Wife" as editor, "The Body Snatcher," "Run Silent, Run Deep," "West Side Story," "The Sand Pebbles," "The Andromeda Strain," "Star Trek -- The Motion Picture" as director.

Oh yes, there's also this pair of films he edited for a guy named Welles: "Citizen Kane" and "The Magnificent Ambersons."

"I think Orson was, without a doubt, as close to genius as #F anyone I've met," says Wise. "He could be guilty of such an outrageous piece of behavior one moment, you'd want to tell him to shove it and walk off the picture," he explains. "But before you could do it, he'd have an idea that was so brilliant he'd leave your mouth gaping open."

If working on "Kane" was a joy, working on "Ambersons" garnered Wise a bit of unwelcome cinematic notoriety. With director Welles in South America, his editor was assigned the task of cutting the film to meet studio bosses' demands. For years, Wise has listened to the laments of critics who bemoan the butchering of Welles' should-have-been classic.

"I think it was always a film that was a victim of its times," says Wise, who takes comfort in the knowledge that "Ambersons," altered as it may be, is still considered a minor-bordering-on-major masterpiece. "By the time the picture came out, the whole country was wound up with the war effort. Women were working in the aircraft factories, guys were going off to training camp they just didn't have any interest in the troubles and trials of the Amberson family at the turn of the century."

In 1951, having left RKO studios for Fox, he read the script for "The Day the Earth Stood Still," an early sci-fi effort that suggests Earth could learn something from an alien visit. The special effects may seem cheesy today, but the film holds up well, thanks to a strong screenplay and fine acting from Michael Rennie and Patricia Neal.

"I read the script, thought it was marvelous, loved what it had to say about people in this world getting along together," Wise says. "I went back immediately and said, 'This is it, I want to do it.' "

No wonder. For even Wise admits there may, in fact, exist a thread that connects his movies -- a thread he says was made explicit only once, in "Day." When the alien played by Rennie urges everyone to get along, and warns of the consequences if they don't, he's mouthing the sort of social consciousness common to many of Wise's films.

"Whatever you have to say should come out through the plot of the story, through the characters, and not having to have somebody get up and talk about it," Wise insists.

"In Dialogue With Robert Wise," including a screening of "The Day the Earth Stood Still," begins at 7: 30 p.m. Monday. Tickets are $12 and can be bought at the Senator box office, 5904 York Road. Call: (410) 435-8338. FANEX 10 runs through Sunday at the Sheraton in Towson. Call (410) 555-1198 or (301) 604-4166.

Pub Date: 7/27/96

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