WAS "Kramer vs. Kramer" the first TV movie to win the Oscar as Best Picture of the Year? Well, no, but there is much about Robert Benton's film that suggests it might easily have been made for television. There are only a few characters, the basic situation is intimate and simple, and the film deals with a topic that can easily be taken as a sign of the times.
Sounds like the perfect TV move.
But director Robert Ellis Miller says there is an important shade of difference, something that distinguishes the film and makes it a little too good to have been made for TV. "The difference is, a little braveness," he says. "Benton was not afraid to sit on a closeup of somebody for 17, 20, 25, seconds. And television is boom-boom-boom, boom-boom-boom, keep it moving, keep it moving. They cut faster. Now, audiences love a moment of concentration on something, but in television they're always afraid someone might take that moment to change the dial.
"They're incredibly paranoid about that, but maybe they're right."
Miller would know more about these differences than many filmmakers, because he makes films both for TV and for theaters. His current theater picture is a picaresque lark called "The Baltimore Bullet." His most recent Tv feature was actually a more substantial and more artfully photographed film, "Ishi, the Last of His Tribe."
The thing is, movies for theaters seem to be getting worse as movies for television get better. Not that this is any proof of that, but CBS is advertising tonight's two-hour "Dukes of HAZARD" SPECIAL AS A "TV movie," a term that once was used only with reluctance and chagrin. In fact, CBS has ordered up 50 films for next season and other networks are bankrolling dozens of pictures, too.
Some movies made for theaters look as though they could just as easily have been made for television. Miller, who got his start in TV, says one of the differences is, "Films have to be larger than life, and the smaller entity belongs to the home. The larger one, the one with scope, is one you have to see on a big screen. The tale of an Indian teaching children ('Ishi') is perfect to bring into the living room. If it were a feature, I would have had to add bloody episodes, that kind of thing, and I didn't want to."
If he had been making "Ishi" for the theaters, Miller would have had a bigger budget, but not much else that was different. "A better dressing-room," he half-jokes. "A telephone. A larger crew. I might have had 20 horses instead of having to make do with 10. But I wouldn't have done it as a picture, anyway. It's too interior. It was really a very personal story, which is the ideal television."
On the other hand, he thinks certain recent or current pictures would have been just as much at home on TV. "'coal Miner's Daughter' would have made a wonderful television show," he says. "It didn't have to be a film. It had the investigation of a lifestyle -- poverty, family -- and all that is wonderful on television. Couldn't "The Seduction of Joe Tynan' have been a TV movie? I think so. Whereas 'The Rose' had to be a movie, because it's about size."
Miller, whose best movie-movie was a diligent, sensitive adaptation of "The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter" by Carson McCullers, leaped the gap from the last sterling days of live TV drama to the first harried days of making filmed episodes for TV shows in Hollywood. t"I don't think there's a rung on the television ladder that I missed," he says.
One of the things he's garnered in the transition from TV to film and back again is that the two forms aren't really as different from one another as many people think. For instance, he likes to scotch the idea that when directing for television, one should automatically put in more closeups. "Wrong. I don't believe it. I don't change my style that much from television to features. I get close even in pictures. Why are motion pictures like 'Butch Cassidy' and 'The Wizard of Oz' and 'Gone With the Wind' so wonderful on television? Nobody shot them for television. They're certainly not a series of closeups. I don't think television is necessarily a closeup medium."
Yet we do see many more closeups in TV than at the movies. "Well, there's a reason for that," says Miller with considerable patience. "It's economics. If you shoot something in masters (wider shots), the set is bigger, and more expensive, and it takes more lighting and time to set up. Then if you light it so you can lay track so the camera isn't static, and move the camera in on that track to get close, and rehearse those tracking shots, it's a lot more work, and that's the work they don't like to pay for in television."
Hence the flat, claustrophobic, ill-lit look of most TV series episodes and many TV movies.
Sometimes movies seem to get made as movies, and not for television, only because producers want to puff up budgets and film companies want to squeeze more money out of the property. But Miller says, "A failing picture is a total wipeout, but a failing television show is paid for by somebody" -- in advance -- and so makes a safer bet.
TV movies still don't have the status of theatrical features, even though the latter may, in general, be seeming less auspicious today than at any time since cameras first started cranking. Miller says also that he feels a great burden when making a TV movie than he does making the same film for theaters. b
"I feel more responsible directing a television show," he says. "Because with a picture, people have to decide whether to go, plunk down their money, hire a baby sitter and make a very big personal decision to commit to something. Now that's not true of television at all. People can see something by accident, or by laziness, or because it's better than something else on another network. And there's a great responsibility on the filmmakers because it's in the home, and grandma at 84 years of age can be sitting there with her great-grandson who's 12 and just learning about life.
"You have to deal with that, and you've got to be aware of that."
Miller, whose swept-back wavy hair makes him look grandly theatrical -- though he says he was only a "mediocre" actor on Broadway in his teens -- wasn't around for the birth of television, exactly, but he was there for its early infancy. He worked as an assistant director at CBS in New York during the Golden Age of live drama --the theater for the home rather than cheap movies for the home. On an anthology series called "Danger" he was assistant to Sidney Lumet, who went on to direct such films as "Dog Day Afternoon" and Paddy Chayefsky's tirade against TV, "Network."
The technology was not always willing even when the spirit was turning cartwheels; Miller remembers seeing corpses move on the air and hearing many horror stories of live goofs and fluffs. But he also says, "It was far more personal and less mechanical than it is today."
Also, less formal. Once, Miller's urbane cousin Mark was visiting him at the old CBS central control, above Grand Central Station in New York, when Mark noticed that the hour was fast approaching and there was no one in the announcer's booth to do the station break. As the seconds ticked toward the hour, Mark mentioned this to Robert Ellis. "Oh yeah," Miller said. And with that he nonchalantly dashed from the control room into the booth and precisely on the hour said into the microphone, "This is the CBS Television Network."
When the Hollywood studios stopped fighting television and started producing filmed shows for it, it was doomsday for live drama, and Miller. went from an expiring New York production center to Hollywood, where he graduated to director and worked on filmed shows to gain experience. It was like going from the frying pan into the microwave oven.
"I challenged myself," Miller says. "I said I wouldn't do too much junky television. But there was a lot around."
He directed episodes of "Naked City," "Route 66," "Perry Mason" and "The Twilight Zone." Nothing junky there.
But he also did "a few weeks of 'Donna Reed's.' and then I'd take an ambulance over to Metro and do 'Dr. Kildare.' I did both doctors -- two Ben Casey's and two Kildare's, I think.
"And then" he says with a sigh, and not of plesure, "I worked on a series called 'M Squad' with Lee Marvin. And the way they booked directors for that show was like cattle. I was signed to do two and I said, 'Why two?' And they said, 'Because you rehearse them both on Monday and shoot them both Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday.' That meant 68 pages of script to be done in four days. You had to shoot all the jail scenes from both shows the same day, and everything set in the office another day. So it wasn't thrilling. But I learned a lot."
Filming two half-hour shows simultaneously in one week was a particularly insane form of lunacy. "They flew! They were flying! Sometimes an actor would only change a hat from one episode to another. At no time did you change the pants or shirt. I'm not kidding. Television was a madhouse." y
And television hasn't changed all that much with regard to madness. Today a one-hour series episode is shot in six or seven days, not much more time than Miller had for two half-hour "M-Squad's."
"they're in color now, and that slows them up a bit," Miller explains.
None of this keeps him from wanting to do TV. "I've not done enough television since those days and I would do more in a minute," he says. He "ran" to do "Ishi" because the material excited him, and he whittled down the budget so he could give himself more shooting time. He directed "Just an Old Sweet Song" for CBS partly because of his long-time friendship with star Cicely Tyson, who made one of her first appearances in "Hunter."
Not all the offers are inspiring, however. Luckily he can afford to be choosy. "I turned down a Gary Coleman movie," he says. "He's a sweet kid, but my God! He's one of their No. 1 stars! Can you beat that?" He smiles. "He's a nice child, but I need a little more challenge in my old age."
Miller is about 50.
"I've had a very satisfying time. You know, the moment you have a success at anything, they ask you to repeat it. Which is exactly what I don't want to do. After I did 'Heart Is a Lonely Hunter,' I was offered everything that was deaf and mute. It was sent right to me. And that's the only thing in the world I wouldn't do.
"Maybe that's not smart, because success in the arts is largely a matter of repeating yourself. Maybe I should have. But I feel that if I've walked on the grass, it's down, and I don't want to walk on it again. At least, not until it comes back up."