ALAN J. PAKULA
His Films and His Life
By Jared Brown
Back Stage. 416 pp. $29.95
THIS TERRIBLE BUSINESS HAS BEEN GOOD TO ME
By Norman Jewison
Thomas Dunne/St. Martin's. 304 pp. $25.95
Rebel with a Cause
By Wes D. Gehring
Indiana Historical Society. 303 pp. $19.95
Jared Brown's Alan J. Pakula is a welcome tribute to a respected triple threat, a producer-director-writer who carved out an impressive four-decade career before his freak car-accident death at age 70 in 1998. Brown maintains that Pakula's work hasn't been given its due because of the director's understated technique and eclectic choices of material. After 12 years as a creative producer -- "To Kill a Mockingbird" (1962) being his summit -- Pakula directed Liza Minnelli in "The Sterile Cuckoo" (1969), instantly forging his reputation as an "actor's director" who created safe and liberating working environments. He subsequently guided a striking number of outstanding performances -- two of which, Jane Fonda's in "Klute" (1971) and Meryl Streep's in "Sophie's Choice" (1982), could reasonably be tagged the top female performances of their respective decades. Brown memorably shows Fonda slowly finding her confidence under Pakula's guidance, and, conversely, Streep astounding Pakula with her fully formed Sophie at their first rehearsal.
Pakula's sensitivity, intelligence and collaborative skills are inarguable, but few will second Brown's opinion that Pakula's directing career "was responsible for some of the greatest films in American history." I don't see how Brown can hail "The Parallax View" (1974), "Starting Over" (1979) and the "dazzling" "Presumed Innocent" (1990) as among those "greatest," though his hyperbolic enthusiasm has made me want to revisit them. To his credit, he has no trouble leveling Pakula's worst pictures, especially "Rollover" (1981) and "Consenting Adults" (1992). The closest Pakula came to directing a great film was "All the President's Men" (1976), and its making forms the centerpiece of Brown's book. Though the subject of Watergate was deemed too political (and unsuspenseful) for commercial success, the resulting movie was taut and engrossing, winning not only awards but audiences. In fact, Brown's book is a lot like "All the President's Men": thorough, absorbing and satisfying. I may not always agree with Brown, but I salute his passion to augment Pakula's critical standing.
Like Pakula, Norman Jewison began directing movies in the 1960s and made some very good but not quite great films in a range of genres. Unlike Pakula, Jewison -- the man who directed "Fiddler on the Roof" (1971) -- is not a Jew, as he informs us in the first sentence of his energetic autobiography, This Terrible Business Has Been Good to Me: "For as long as I can remember I've always wanted to be a Jew." Thrilled when unexpectedly asked to helm "Fiddler," he amusingly said, "Oh my God, they think I'm Jewish!", in fear the offer eventually would be withdrawn. Canadian-born Jewison relates such anecdotes with snap and verve, coming across as a man of infectious high spirits. When directing, he notes, "I try to make my enthusiasm contagious," and this has carried over into his writing.
Jewison began his rapid rise at the dawn of Canadian television. He came to America in 1957 and by 1962 was directing a Judy Garland prime-time special. That same year he made his first film, "40 Pounds of Trouble," swiftly adjusting from television's breakneck pace to film's patience-testing slowness and establishing a reputation as a light-comedy specialist. In 1967, he fulfilled his need to make films of more heft with "In the Heat of the Night," thus joining that select, frustrated club of men who have directed a Best Picture Oscar winner without netting the Best Director statuette.
"A Soldier's Story" (1984) and "The Hurricane" (1999) followed "In the Heat of the Night" in Jewison's trilogy about the African American experience, the films of which he seems most proud. He calls the success of "In the Heat of the Night" "a confirmation that America was ready for our message." Such occasional bouts of bloated self-congratulation may make you wince, as will his assertions that the effective, though minor "In the Heat of the Night" and the tasteful, plodding "Fiddler on the Roof" are classics. Despite his tackling of social issues, "Moonstruck" (1987) is probably the film for which he'll be remembered, and I would have preferred more details about the making of this buoyant comedy, reflective of his natural vitality, and less about the "importance" of his message pictures.
Jewison fondly recalls most of the stars he directed, from Garland and Doris Day to Rod Steiger and Denzel Washington. (A "Rocky"-inflated Sylvester Stallone, in Jewison's "F.I.S.T." , is an exception.) He describes vivid encounters -- most favorable, some not -- with legends: Ingrid Bergman, Mae West and John Wayne, who asked the liberal Jewison if he was one of those "pinkos." Jewison also reveals his painful disenchantment with America during the Vietnam War and following the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy. Jewison brought his family back to Canada and spread out on a working farm, leading John Huston to crack, "Never mind the movies, just keep making that wonderful maple syrup." But with no signs of flagging energy, the 78-year-old Jewison clearly has a movie or two left in him.
Marking the 50th anniversary of James Dean's death, Wes D. Gehring's inessential James Dean insists that his subject's Hoosier background has been severely slighted in the Dean story. Gehring, a proud Hoosier himself, repeatedly reminds us of the support and encouragement that Dean received from family and friends in his hometown "haven" of Fairmount, Ind., even after his stardom (something like Scarlett O'Hara returning to Tara for her strength). I'm sure Fairmount is a swell place, but Gehring really hammers his point. He refers to Dean continuously, countlessly, as a Hoosier, to the degree that non-Indianans may start to wonder how they have overcome the disadvantage of being from any place else.
Also off-putting is Gehring's sustained discomfort with the notion of homosexual desire in Dean. He describes the high-school Dean's closeness to a charismatic reverend who mentored the teenager in arts appreciation. As the reader's mind inevitably tumbles to the possibility of a sexual relationship, Gehring barges in to denounce any claims of physical intimacy between Dean and such an "esteemed community leader." He does acknowledge Dean's live-in sexual liaison with a radio director but contends that Dean was simply trying to advance his career. (Better a user than a queer!) Gehring appears to hope that Dean at least didn't enjoy the sex he had with men, concluding, "If truth be told, he seemed to have been a heterosexual who also wanted to explore new experiences, both for his art and himself." In contrast to Pakula or Jewison's life stories, maybe there's nothing more to know about James Dean. *
John DiLeo is the author of "100 Great Film Performances You Should Remember -- But Probably Don't."