It’s been 17 years since director John Schlesinger made “Sunday, Bloody Sunday.” But when Peter Finch kissed Murray Head on the screen here Wednesday night, there was a perceptible gasp from the audience.
That ability to shock audiences, to challenge public mores, even today, is a characteristic common to the three directors--Schlesinger, Stanley Kramer and Louis Malle--whom the American Film Institute chose to honor this week at the Cinetex film conference, organized by Massachusetts businessman Sheldon Adelson. Interviews with these directors and retrospectives of their work, all part of AFI’s nightly tributes, were highlights of a weeklong conference ending Friday that was notable mostly for its low attendance.
UC Berkeley film professor Albert Johnson opened his introduction of Malle on Monday night by telling the audience, “I can’t see you, but I know you’re there.” It’s a good thing, too, that Johnson and the other speakers were blinded by the lights: The theater at the Aladdin Hotel was less than half full for the directors’ tributes, with the audiences dwindling even further as bored groups of tourists--originally lured in by Cinetex advertisements--wandered out.
But for those who stayed, AFI’s tributes to the three directors were stark reminders of how, in many ways, cinema was more daring 20 years ago than it is today. Moreover, showing these directors’ boldest scenes--each screened out of context from the full film--provided an inadvertent lesson on which of this country’s social values had evolved in the last two decades, and which hadn’t. While Finch’s kiss with another man caused squirming, Spencer Tracy’s speech to his future black son-in-law, Sidney Poitier, in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” appeared to bring tears of understanding.
“Peter Finch’s wife screamed at the first screening of ‘Sunday, Bloody Sunday’ at the Venice Film Festival,” the British-born Schlesinger recalled about his 1971 film. Finch, he added, said simply of the scene, “ ‘I just thought of England and did it.’ ”
The showing of the incest scene from Malle’s “Murmur of the Heart,” also released in 1971, provoked a similar reaction from the 1988 audience. “It was a big scandal,” said Malle, who launched his career on a less controversial note--filming fish for Jacques Cousteau. “Everyone rushed to see it. . . . I was not trying to advocate incest. But this was a way to look at it that was disturbing and provoking.”
Kramer recalled the fundamentalist protest--like the one now dogging Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ,” he said--that was sparked by Spencer Tracy’s line in “Inherit the Wind.” “The Bible is a book,” says Tracy’s Clarence Darrow in the 1960 portrayal of the Scopes trial. “‘It’s a good book, but it’s not the only book.”
But Kramer noted that his films were not controversial once they “made a dollar.” Unlike his daring works on race relations (“The Defiant Ones” and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”), “Inherit the Wind” was not a box-office success. The reviews for “Inherit the Wind,” Kramer said wistfully, “I could have written myself. But no one came to see it.”
Kramer, who turned 75 last week, said his career was “filled with terrible bruises” because of his films that were critically acclaimed but didn’t appeal to a mass audience. “There is something wrong when you don’t reach your audience,” he said. “Something falls short.”
His last film, the 1979 “The Runner Stumbles,” was both a critical and commercial failure and he moved to Seattle shortly afterwards. For several years, he taught film courses at the University of Washington and Bellevue Community College and wrote a weekly column for a local newspaper.
Kramer returned to Hollywood last year and worked briefly on a Columbia Pictures project based on the Chernobyl disaster (it was cancelled when Columbia chairman David Puttnam resigned). He is now at work on “Polonnaise,” a film based on the personal story of Polish Solidarity leader Lech Walesa, particularly his relationship with his wife, a younger woman with big dreams who acts as Walesa’s “bubble pricker,” as Kramer put it. Last year, Kramer visited Poland to spend time with the couple.
During the evening tributes, the three directors also shared entertaining tales about their work with film stars. Kramer recalled the first day of shooting “Inherit the Wind,” when he asked Tracy to reshoot a scene because of technical problems.
“ ‘Mr. Kramer,’ ” Tracy responded, “it has taken me some 45 years to learn to read a line in exactly that way.” But after putting Kramer in his place, Tracy reshot the scene, and never questioned the director’s authority again.
Malle recalled his trying times with Brigitte Bardot. “The problem with Bardot,” said the French director, “was that she hated being a movie star, she hated shooting, hated the camera. She was always late.” Her decision to retire, he added, was a courageous one.
Apparently realizing how unflattering that portrayal was, Malle hastily attempted, unsuccessfully, to beat a complimentary retreat. “I had a great time working with her,” he said. “She was always . . . she was always late.”
In addition to tributes to these three directors, AFI during the week honored three actors for their work: Telly Savalas, Whoopi Goldberg and Gene Hackman.