Can taste be a function of drive? On the edge of turning 40, Alan Pakula was a thriving movie producer ("To Kill a Mockingbird") whose need--To direct? To stand out?--turned him into a movie director ("Sophie's Choice").
Very few producers, age 40 or not, rich or not, make the leap Pakula made. It's a show business rule of thumb that moneymen and artists are devil's advocates; Pakula--who read Variety at age 8 and directed "Antigone" at 20--knew enough of art and money to rise above the ranks of artist manque. Beginning with his debut film as director, "Sterile Cuckoo," and continuing with his paranoia trilogy--"Klute," "Parallax View" and "All the President's Men"--Pakula has gotten almost consistently high marks as a film maker. In a business of boy wonders, is it better to bloom late?
"If enough people tell you you're drunk, you lie down," explained Pakula, sitting shoeless one recent afternoon in his West Side office. (As Candice Bergen once explained, "Alan takes his shoes off when working or relaxing. On a movie set, he gives his keys and wallet to the script girl. It's a good sign.")
In fact, Pakula was a boy wonder, but not of the directing branch. "I started in Hollywood as an assistant in the front office, which is not where I wanted to start," he remembered. "But it may have been the best training of all. Surely money is a big part of directing, and I'm good about that. Taste is about being ready to expose taste. But I don't know why it took me so long to direct . . . maybe I was better at finding ways to postpone."
Pakula, a seeming 50/50 mix of aggression and passivity, paused and then rethought what he'd just said: "I might have been an equally good director at 20 as I was at 40. But I was lucky even at 40 to have an actress, Liza Minnelli, who was then totally alive only when she was working. But I'm not saying, 'Learn from me, and wait.' "
One could certainly learn a thing or two here. Pakula, first-generation American and former Yalie, wanted once to be a psychoanalyst. That he wound up using those skills with movie stars, in mass-audience pictures, doesn't seem uncharacteristic. As Norman Mailer put it, if an artist isn't as knowing as a shrink, he's lost.
Pakula's office has a kind of knowing--and well-maintained--privacy. It's a room where secrets can be shared. It's here that he works on screenplays, several at once with writers and by himself. "I believe in closed doors," said the writer-director who bears a startling resemblance to Jack Lemmon. The line was offhand, but it reminded one of the well-known "visual claustrophobia" in some Pakula films: Jane Fonda's Bree Daniel listening to the murder tapes in "Klute," Robert Redford playing back reporters' tapes in "All the President's Men."
In person, Pakula continued the imagery. "In the shower this morning I was thinking about what influences my taste, and I discovered a thread running through all my films. The father-son conflict is how I'd phrase it. The first film I produced, "Fear Strikes Out," was about a father controlling a son--into mental illness. The son had to rise above ambivalent feelings for a parent. 'To Kill a Mockingbird' was about an intellectual father figure." A Chinese family struggle dominates "Spring Moon," the Bette Bao Lord novel that will probably become Pakula's next project.
The director's own father, a successful Polish immigrant who wanted his son in the family printing business, was the pivot for Pakula. The father staked the son to two years in Hollywood, and three months before time was up, the son was ready to come back home. The father said no; the son could come back only when he succeeded in his chosen field.
"Obsession and dedication are probably as important to a director as taste," stressed Pakula, who admits to an obsession to succeed. But do one's own father-son demons get exorcised by making a film, or a dozen films? "No. A theme stays with you. So do demons. What changes are style and milieu and character."
Finally, Pakula says he's "concerned with the loss of innocence." Not that he thinks the American public is all that interested, at the moment. "Pop art kind of rules right now. Luxury is what we see an awful lot of, furs and cars and nighttime soap operas. People are interested in what happens next, not what really counts . There's no character complexity. Of course the popular arts have always been a cheat. They've always been about fantasy, be it romantic penny novels or adventures or whatever."
Pakula listened carefully to a line one hears all over New York these days: "Hasn't it been a terrible year, culturally?" He shook his head in disagreement. "I hear that every year. The other night there was a tribute downtown for Horton Foote, and I saw more brainy young actors at work, more wit than I can remember. . . . The comic mainstream is funnier than ever. People who muse about the good old days of Broadway are downright naive. It's just that now we're in the business of making images--and audiences are more impatient. But there are major talents at work. Robin Williams and Steve Martin and Lily Tomlin would be extraordinary in any era."
Stars. It's the subject that Pakula is inevitably asked about. Jane Fonda and Liza Minnelli were at their best under Pakula. In "Starting Over," Burt Reynolds gave his first good performance, and Candy Bergen became an actress. Meryl Streep in "Sophie's Choice" took every major acting award that year.
"But I never did a film because it was a star vehicle," insisted Pakula. "I wanted Meryl for 'Sophie,' but I would have made it with somebody else. I screen-tested a brilliant young Czech actress, whom I would have been equally happy with. But there was no money for her. On 'President's Men,' I was stumped at first. I said to Bob (Redford), 'You and Dustin (Hoffman) are bigger stars than Richard Nixon. How will people believe you as untried young reporters? The key there was Jason (Robards) as Ben Bradlee--another of my father figures. But it took a while to figure that out. Believe me, I don't have any magic. Sometimes taste is just being able to look and listen."