BEVERLY HILLS, CALIF. -- The American Film Institute departed from tradition Thursday night by giving its Life Achievement Award to Sir David Lean, a man who didn't even see a movie until he was 17 and ended up directing such classics as "The Bridge on the River Kwai," "Lawrence of Arabia" and "Doctor Zhivago." It was the first time the AFI had honored a filmmaker from abroad, but as host Gregory Peck, last year's winner, put it, "When you run across a man like this, sometimes you have to bend the rules."
And the feisty Lean, who will be 82 in a few weeks, surprised the black-tie audience of movie industry pooh-bahs by departing from tradition himself and using his acceptance speech to give a glimpse of the pain and discontent that even legendary filmmakers come up against in today's Hollywood.
Lean, eager to begin shooting his long-awaited adaptation of Joseph Conrad's "Nostromo," revealed that "some rubbish happened to me today; I had to wait until two hours before I came here to get the okay on going ahead with 'Nostromo.' It's sort of an asinine game that we creators should be strung along like that, and I really resent it."
Worried that his remarks might "seem presumptuous," Lean made it clear that "everything I say is from the heart. It's because I love movies," and further emphasized that his concerns were not personal: "It doesn't matter if it happens to old birds like me. It hurts, but that's it. But you have to protect the young birds coming up. Please, you chaps in the money department. Remember that making films is a very, very nervous job. We need your help."
Lean also expressed vivid discontent with the sequel mania that has gripped Hollywood in the past few years. "Noel Coward once said to me, 'My dear, always come out of another hole.' But that seems to be contradicted today. We try to get back and come out of the old holes with parts one, two, three and four, and that's terribly, terribly sad. If we must make parts one, two and three, don't make it a staple diet. We'll sink if we do. This may seem like a sort of cheek, but I really believe this. We're running into deep waters."
Lean ended with a quote from Irving Thalberg, MGM's legendary head of production in the 1930s. "We miss Thalberg. He had a foot in both camps, he understood money and filmmaking. He said, 'The studio has made a lot of money and they could afford to lose a little money and take risks with these new filmmakers.' "
The award ceremony, written and produced by George Stevens Jr., was the 18th annual event. It will be broadcast next month on ABC. Partly because of Lean's age, and partly because he has made only four films in the last 30 years, the evening featured fewer co-worker tributes than usual and focused rather more heavily on admirers.
The program also concentrated on Lean's last five films -- "Kwai" (1957), "Lawrence" (1962), "Zhivago" (1965), "Ryan's Daughter" (1970) and "A Passage to India" (1984) -- epic achievements in which Lean in effect out-Hollywooded Hollywood. A section from "Kwai" in which that fabled 90-foot-high, 425-foot-long bridge (which took the filmmakers eight months to plan and build) gets blown up and crumbles magnificently into the river, was the first clip in at least a decade to get a rousing standing ovation from the AFI crowd.
But when it came to clips from Lean's strictly British ventures, even classics like "Brief Encounter" (1945) and his Charles Dickens interpretations, "Great Expectations" (1946) and "Oliver Twist" (1948), the audience seemed hardly to know the works.
It was a Brit, Peter O'Toole, who shot to stardom in "Lawrence," who provided the most memorable speech of the night. Speaking by satellite hookup from England, where the local time was 4 a.m., O'Toole looked bleary-eyed and had the clipped, halting tones to match.
"It's no secret that first thing in the morning you do not find me at best," O'Toole said slowly, every word a colossal effort as the crowd exploded with laughter. "However, you do not find me at my worst either. You do, however, find me.
"And David, when you have had absolutely all of these highly deserved and proper plaudits, when you're fed to the teeth of saying, 'Too kind, most loyal,' what would please me and the entire cinema-going world would be if you simply get off your ass and go out and make a picture."
Lean was lauded by directors ranging from to Lawrence Kasdan, who said he'd determined to become a director after seeing "Lawrence of Arabia" at age 14, to Steven Spielberg, who said that film is "between a cornerstone and a grail. It still makes me feel puny. It keeps cutting us down to size."