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American Cinematheque salutes David Lean

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Oscar-winning director David Lean was so obsessed with making movies that, lying on his deathbed 17 years ago, he was still determined to film "Nostromo," an epic drama based on the novel by Joseph Conrad.

"The day before he died I visited him," recalls actor James Fox, who worked with Lean on the director's final epic, 1984's "A Passage to India," and remained good friends with the filmmaker.

"The last thing he said to me was, 'I want to make this film,' " says Fox, who is now working with producer Richard Zanuck to bring "Nostromo" to the screen. "I felt that he had given himself so much to [the film]. It was the last six years of his life. The thing about David was that he seemed to live so much for his projects. . . ."

On Friday, as part of the BritWeek celebration commemorating the British consulate's 50 years in Los Angeles, the American Cinematheque's Egyptian Theatre will present a centenary tribute to Lean hosted by film historian David Thomson, who will discuss Lean's career and influences on such directors as Martin Scorsese, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and the late Anthony Minghella. The evening will include clips and reminiscences with "Lawrence of Arabia" editor Anne V. Coates, "Great Expectations" actress Jean Simmons and Fox.

'A great storyteller'

The Cinematheque's Aero Theatre will also screen several Lean masterworks beginning May 7, including the Oscar-winning best pictures "The Bridge on the River Kwai" (1957) and "Lawrence" (1962), the 1955 romance "Summertime" with Katharine Hepburn, the 1965 epic "Doctor Zhivago," the 1945 romance "Brief Encounter," his 1946 adaptation of Charles Dickens' "Great Expectations" and "A Passage to India."

"He is a great storyteller," says Gary Dartnall, who is producing the film programs for BritWeek. "He had a great visual eye, and because he used that . . . and told stories so brilliantly, they work so wonderfully today. You care about the people" in his films.

The centenary tribute and the screening series, says Thomson, will give Lean fans the opportunity see the smaller black-and-white films the director made before he turned to wide-screen epics with "Bridge."

"The quality of these films blew us away as we were looking through the material," says Thomson. "We hadn't seen some of them in a while. We are showing things that hardly have played in America, and they are ravishing. It does build up one's respect for him."

Thomson points out that even when Lean turned to epic storytelling, he managed to create intimate stories -- his characters were never dwarfed by the scenery or action. "We are in an age, and we are grappling with it because it's both good and bad, that the films that get nominated for the Oscars are independent films. They are small films. They are difficult films. It is a problem for the academy that so few people really have seen these films. But what Hollywood has lost, I think, is the knack for making first-rate films for big audiences. Lean had that. I think that is what Spielberg loves about him. It's that feeling of why not make a movie that is about very serious ideas, about great stories and yet is for a huge audience."

Coates, who won an Oscar for editing "Lawrence," says she learned much from working with Lean, who had begun as an editor. "I also learned to have confidence in my view on things. I was pretty nervous when I started with him. I had cut a couple of very good films with [director] Ronald Neame -- 'The Horse's Mouth' and 'Tunes of Glory' -- but I was still a nervous wreck working with David. He had been such an ace editor, but he taught me to -- if I believed in something -- to really go for it and have the courage of my convictions."

Not 'touchy-feely'

Fox had grown up watching Lean's films. The director was a hero to him, but he allows that Lean was hard on his actors on the "Passage to India" set.

"He was 76," says Fox. "He was a man of very few words, and actors therefore found him disconcerting. He certainly wasn't a touchy-feely sort of person, but he was a very generous and sociable person. I had dinner with him frequently on the movie, and then you were treated to all the great stories and great appreciations of actors. He had a great awareness of actors' manners and foibles. So he understood actors terribly well."

Neame ("The Poseidon Adventure"), 97, worked with Lean in the 1940s for producer J. Arthur Rank. "In those days we didn't have any interference of any kind. Rank said, 'Go away and make the film, tell us when we can see it and we will make it our job to sell it.' They were really and truly the golden ages. And I realized this man, David Lean, was going to be a great director. And in my opinion, he is still one of the all-time great directors."

susan.king@latimes.com

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