Tuesday, March 25, 2008

David Lean Centennial

Today is David Lean's 100th birthday. One of the most legendary directors in cinema, the two-time Oscar winner (who is also the namesake of the BAFTA's Best Director award) was known for his epic auteurship, but also crossed genres with considerable ease. His early career got off to an impressive start with several collaborations with Noel Coward on adaptations of Coward's works. He followed this with definitive screen adaptations of two of Dicken's most famous works (Oliver Twist and Great Expectations). I've not yet seen all of his films, but allow me to recall those I have...

Blithe Spirit (1945) - Highly amusing Technicolor feature starring Rex Harrison as Charles. Constance Cummings is Ruth. Original cast member Kay Hammond recreates her Elvira. Most notable is Margaret Rutherford, also from the original company, preserving her role as the scene-stealing eccentric medium Madame Arcati. (For the record, I might add that the ever-delightful Mildred Natwick originated Arcati in the first Broadway run).

Brief Encounter (1945) - Has a fleck of ash flying into a person's eye every been more romantic or devastating? Adapted from Coward's one-act Still Life, the film was an overwhelming success, winning the Palme d'Or at Cannes as well as gathering a Best Actress Oscar nomination for Celia Johnson. The film is rather iconic: it's use of the railway station, Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2 for the musical score, Celia Johnson's voice-over narration, character actor Trevor Howard as a romantic lead, the memorable climax and of course the overwhelmingly British sensibility throughout. It's remarkable to watch today.

Summertime (1955) David Lean again tackles a stage adaptation. this time Arthur Laurents' The Time of the Cuckoo, a stage success for Shirley Booth as a spinster who carries on with a married man in Venice. Katharine Hepburn is the star. Or is it Venice. Both are remarkable to watch. The color cinematography is extraordinary and in spite of the ways the screenplay was softened, the film is still masterful and dare I say it, preferential to the original play or subsequent musical adaptation. Filmed in 1955, I'm surprised that Lean opted to use the standard Academy ratio of 1.37:1 instead of going for the widescreen expansiveness of CinemaScope or VistaVision. For such a romantic film, it starts to point towards his creative peak.

The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) Fascinating (and fictionalized, people) account of British POWs who are forced to build a bridge for Japanese forces in Southeast Asia during WW2. Frequent Lean collaborator and antagonist Alec Guinness won his Academy Award as the obsessive Colonel whose behavior borders on collaboration with the enemy. William Holden stars as the sardonic escapee who reluctantly returns on a mission to the destroy the bridge. Won 7 Oscars total, including Best Picture and Director.

Lawrence of Arabia (1962) His most famous film. Hands down. If Lean hadn't made any other film, he would still be held in high esteem for this effort. Peter O'Toole is T.E. Lawrence in this lengthy epic of the rise and fall of a megalomaniacal and bizarre military genius. Two years were spent making this film - and the effort shows. Needs to be seen on a big screen for the first sand shot to be appreciated. It's so stunning you think it can't be real. A dynamic achievement that also won Best Picture and Director. Also Lean's first collaboration with composer Maurice Jarre (who also won for that extraordinary score).

Doctor Zhivago (1965) The first David Lean film I ever saw. My brother was in high school and had to watch it for his Russian class. I was entranced. The poet/doctor (Omar Sharif) whose romance for his wife and for his muse, Lara (in the role that made Julie Christie an icon) is set against the tumultuous backdrop of the Russian Revolution. Based on the Nobel prize winning novel by Boris Pasternak (which to date is the only "Russian novel" I've successfully read), the film is a visual delight. Also, the most famous score of any David Lean film with the balalaika-based "Lara's Theme" later adapted into the popular song "Somewhere, My Love." Another Oscar for Maurice. Lean didn't hit the trifector: The Sound of Music bested Zhivago for Best Picture and Director.

A Passage to India (1984) Lean's final film. An adaptation of E.M. Forster's novel about racial tensions in Colonial India. Judy Davis stars as Miss Quested, a repressed British tourist who falsely accuses a successful Indian doctor of rape (and the resulting chaos and inevitable trial). The film is superb, but most notably for the brilliant Oscar-winning turn by Dame Peggy Ashcroft as Mrs. Moore, the open-minded and kindly chaperone, whose performance alone makes the film required viewing.

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