ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT

AFI program honors Newman, Heston, Ledger and more

After the deaths last year of filmmakers Ingmar Bergman, Michelangelo Antonioni and Edward Yang, and cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs, organizers of the 2007 AFI Film Festival created a "Milestones" programming block to honor them.

"These were the people [we] looked up to and learned about and studied and were formed by," says AFI Fest artistic director Rose Kuo. So the group felt compelled to pay them tribute.

But would there be a need for such programming this year? Unfortunately, yes. The 2008 AFI Fest, which opens Thursday, is celebrating the work of Paul Newman, Charlton Heston, Heath Ledger and director-producers Sydney Pollack and Anthony Minghella.

For the most part, Kuo didn't go with the obvious selections, opting to pick a film "you might not think of first, [one] that sort of demonstrated what complex and interesting and diverse careers they all had."

Although, for Newman, she went with a well-known film, the 1961 drama "The Hustler." Newman's "Fast Eddie" Felson "is one of the most charismatic and deeply flawed characters ever," Kuo says. "He is a very complicated hero character. It's also kind of interesting to see it in the context of today's economic crisis to see the rendering of such a ruthless capitalist."

For Pollack, Kuo chose his 1969 Depression-era classic "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?," which made Academy history by earning nine Oscar nominations without receiving a best picture nod. Kuo selected the 1999 mystery "The Talented Mr. Ripley" for Minghella.

Though Heston was known for his heroic, larger-than-life roles, Kuo went with the 1965 Sam Peckinpah western "Major Dundee," in which Heston is far from a hero -- a discharged Union Calvary officer during the Civil War who tracks down a band of murderous Apaches.

"It is one of his best performances," Kuo says. "Sam Peckinpah was a maverick artist who was at odds with Hollywood. Heston tried to support him. And again, a lot of people haven't seen the movie."

Fewer people have likely seen Kuo's choice for Ledger -- the 2003 Australian period adventure, "Ned Kelly," in which he plays a 19th century bandit, a Jesse James from Down Under. "He had become one of Hollywood's leading stars, so it was kind of nice to revisit something he had done in Australia," Kuo said.

For information on screening dates and times, go to www.afi.com/afifest/

King is a Times staff writer.

susan.king@latimes.com

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