Ron Howard savors success

A fruitful career in TV and movies drives director on

November 27, 2003|By George M. Thomas | George M. Thomas,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

Ron Howard has heard the criticism. His films are too commercial, sometimes bordering on schmaltzy and manipulative.

Ultimately, however, it doesn't matter to him, and apparently it doesn't matter to the audiences who flock to see his movies.

Count the hits: A Beautiful Mind, Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Ransom and Apollo 13. Yes, there have been some disappointments such as EdTV, a film about a cable channel devoted to the life of an ordinary man, which seems remarkably prescient today; and Far and Away, a film starring Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman that explored Irish immigration at the turn of the 20th century.

"I want everybody to love everything I do, but by the same token, if you let that be your guiding principle, creatively you'd be paralyzed from the set," director Howard, 49, said during a recent telephone interview.

The Missing, which opened yesterday, is the follow-up to Howard's Oscar-winning A Beautiful Mind. It stars Tommy Lee Jones and Cate Blanchett as an estranged father and daughter in the West in the late 19th century who must forge an uneasy alliance to get Blanchett's daughter back.In the meantime, they come to terms with their relationship.

Jones' character, Samuel, left his family, including daughter Magdalena (Blanchett), to live with the Apache tribe. Now, years later, she is raising her daughters with little desire to have a man help her.

When Sam returns to make amends with her, he's greeted with contempt. Still, in order to make peace with his God, he offers to help Magdalena find her daughter, a teen-ager who has been kidnapped and is going to be sold in Mexico.

With Jones and Blanchett aboard, The Missing was a no-brainer for Howard. "I thought Tommy Lee Jones was just the purest creative choice that we could make. He is really an ambitious actor when given the opportunity," Howard said. "And I know he'd grown up in the region. I thought he was fantastic in Lonesome Dove and I just believed the combination of his intellect and his dramatic intensity would make him a good choice."

Jones and Blanchett are good enough reasons for any director to work on a project, but Howard had his own as well.

"I felt there was a combination of an adult family story that was dramatic yet relatable on a contemporary level, an unusual and surprising suspense story, and it all existed in a world that was presented in an authentic way," he said. "There were twists, turns and it worked against the conventions of the Western movie genre - I found those qualities hard to come by and irresistible."

One of those qualities is that a woman occupies a place in a Western that she wouldn't otherwise. Magdalena represents a strong, independent woman, a rarity in the West. "It was very important to have strength, but also enough vulnerability that she didn't just become an action figure. She's a well-rounded, relatable woman."

After the emotional intensity of A Beautiful Mind, which won him a best director Academy Award and the golden boy for best picture as well, no one could blame Howard if he elected to lighten up this time around, and the thought did cross his mind, he said. But it was much more important for him to choose the right project. "This was a movie I wanted to see and I certainly didn't want to let it get away and let somebody else make it."

He did take a little time to bask in Oscar's golden glow. After all, he'd been passed over before in the annual awards derby.

"It [winning the Oscar] is a kind of validation. Although the greatest validation comes when you get films made that you want to make," he said. "Professionally I don't think it matters at all, but on a personal level it's a great tradition and I loved being included."

During some of that time away he took the time to work to get other films and TV projects off the ground. The Alamo is set for an April release and he and producing partner Brian Grazer have a hit TV series in 24 and a new series in Arrested Development, both on the Fox network.

He's even found the time to walk the nostalgia road by taking a trip back to Mayberry, the fictional town where The Andy Griffith Show took place and where he was known as Opie Taylor. Given that The Andy Griffith Show Reunion: Back to Mayberry scored a major win in the weekly ratings, can a Happy Days reunion be far behind? On that show, he played all-American boy Richie Cunningham.

Potential producers of such a show shouldn't worry. When they call, Howard will have no problem answering.

"I can be objective enough about it to realize that it's unique [being part of two enormously popular TV shows] and I have enough humility to appreciate the value in that and in those experiences," he said.

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