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KAREL REISZ AND HIS THREE-YEAR ITCH

“Dammit,” said Sidney Lumet, frowning at the gentle, balding director before him. “Why must you be so boring and picky?”

Well, picky Karel Reisz most certainly is. In the 25 years since he made his first feature, the celebrated “Saturday Night and Sunday Morning,” he has made less than 10 movies. With the possible exception of one--"The French Lieutenant’s Woman"--the others are mostly unknown to the average American moviegoer. Yet to cinema buffs, the very mention of Reisz’s name is enough to evoke instant admiration.

The stars he has directed--among them Albert Finney, Vanessa Redgrave and Meryl Streep--will tell you that what makes him so special is the relationship he develops with his actors on the set, and the way he allows them their voice.

“He is one director I know who does not arrive each morning with preconceived ideas,” Finney says. “He wants to hear what you think. The man is a joy to work with.”

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The Czech-born, London-raised director was in town the other day for the Oct. 2 launching of his latest movie, “Sweet Dreams,” starring Jessica Lange and Ed Harris.

Produced by Bernard Schwartz, “Sweet Dreams” is the Patsy Cline story, from her early struggles to become a top country singer to the day in 1963 when she died in an airplane crash. It uses her recordings, which Lange mimes.

If he pulled it off (he hopes he did) and if he has made the legendary singer credible (he believes he has), it will be particularly rewarding for Reisz because, like many Europeans, he barely knew who Patsy Cline was before getting the script.

“I’d seen ‘Coal Miner’s Daughter’ (the Loretta Lynn story, which featured Beverly D’Angelo as Cline), but I really knew nothing about her or her music,” Reisz admitted. “And I don’t really know why Bernard Schwartz picked me--unless it was because he had good luck with an English director (Michael Apted) on ‘Coal Miner’s Daughter’ (which Schwartz produced).”

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For Reisz, it was an interesting experience to be sent a film script out of the blue and to like it so much that he said “yes.”

“The films I’ve made in the past I’ve usually helped generate myself,” he said. “But this script (by Robert Getchell, who wrote “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore”) was so good that there was no question in my mind; I wanted to be involved. So I jumped in. But it was the story that intrigued me, and the way he’d invoked provincial life. To be frank, the fact that it was Patsy Cline was not the chief attraction.”

Once he’d become involved, Reisz ran a film clip of Cline to see what she looked like.

“In it, she was quite plump and she was being interviewed by some local fellow. (He commented on her heaviness.) This made her giggle and she turned her back to the audience and entered into the fun. I realized then that here was a woman with absolutely no vanity.

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“So the first task was to make Jessica believable, and that meant stripping her of her natural elegance. Fortunately, she’s got a great appetite for getting things right, so there was no problem. I must say I found her surprisingly unvain. . . .”

Judging from past performances, Reisz should now pack his bags, go back to the home in Britain he shares with his wife, actress Betsy Blair, and wait another three years before picking a subject. In fact, he is about to hand over a script for a proposed movie abut torch singer Libby Holman to producer Ray Stark.

Another singer?

“I feel a bit embarrassed when people say that,” he said mildly. “The fact is, Libby was a little, short-sighted Jewish girl who was not a particularly talented singer but (who) had an extravagant and strident personality. Her career as a torch singer was quite brief. When her husband committed suicide, she was accused of murder--and it is this period of her life on which we’ve concentrated.

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“I tried once to make a film spanning a whole life (“Isadora,” starring Vanessa Redgrave as Isadora Duncan) and it was just too difficult. It was also a disaster. So I’m not doing that again.

“So this is not a biography in the true sense, just a slice of her life. I’ve worked quite closely with the writer (Richard Kramer), and Ray Stark seems very keen on the project. Perhaps because he had such a good time with the Fanny Brice story (“Funny Girl”).”

Reisz sipped his tea, thoughtfully.

“I like to say I attempt something different each time, but after making ‘Sweet Dreams,’ I do see a sort of pattern emerging. I mean, here is another film where the woman is cleverer and more talented and in every way more substantial than the man. I had that in ‘Isadora’ and again in ‘French Lieutenant’s Woman.’ It must be something that intrigues me.”

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Because Reisz picked Jeremy Irons as Meryl Streep’s co-star for “French Lieutenant’s Woman” before he had been seen in “Brideshead Revisited,” and gave their first screen chances to such actors as Finney (“Saturday Night and Sunday Morning”) and Redgrave (“Morgan”), he is often given credit for being an astute star spotter.

“And one takes the credit happily,” he said, “but it’s not really true. All those people I used in my films already had reputations onstage.

“But I do like using fresh faces. They have a kind of innocence of the camera that gives them a freedom to express themselves that they’ll lose later on when they become canny.”

Reisz thoroughly enjoyed working with Jessica Lange, for whom he has high regard.

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Americans, he finds, make the best movie stars.

“An American star tends to be convinced his own personality is in itself admirable and interesting,” he said. “That’s not true of Britain. A lot of our stars are slightly ashamed, I think. There’s the feeling, ‘I’m doing this for the money, but what I should be doing is “Coriolanus.” ’ They don’t think it’s such a marvelous thing to be--a star.

“The ones I find admirable are actors like Olivier, Gielgud and Richardson. Just look at their credits, the profusion of their work. It’s extraordinary. Of course, a lot of their work wasn’t that great--but it hardly matters. I do think we take things much too seriously now. It’s so boring. Every time you make a movie, there’s so much riding on it that people become neurotic; they feel their entire career depends on its success.

“There was a time, you know, when if you directed a film, the producer or perhaps some studio executive would come to the set to give you encouragement. Now, it’s completely the other way around. Now, because of the huge investments involved, we have to calm them down, saying, ‘Don’t worry, it’s going to be all right. . . .’ ”

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