MOVIES : A Lion in His Winter : At 85, Fred Zinnemann looks back on a life in film; his anecdote-rich autobiography earns the rave reviews his last movie didn’t
For almost a decade now, veteran director Fred Zinnemann, whose signature is on a handful of the most memorable films in Hollywood history, has been in voluntary retirement--driven out of the industry by the venom of reviews of his last film, “Five Days One Summer.”
His age--he is 85--and some health problems have played a part in the decision, but those notices for the 1983 film, a May-December romance set in the French Alps and starring Sean Connery, left Zinnemann feeling dispirited.
“I’m not saying it was a good picture,” he says. “But there was a degree of viciousness in the reviews. The pleasure some people took in tearing down the film really hurt.”
He had seen his friend, the late David Lean, go through the same experience. Lean was depressed by the hostility to his “Ryan’s Daughter” in 1970. After that, Lean made only one more movie, “A Passage to India,” released in 1984, though he was working on Joseph Conrad’s “Nostromo” at the time of his death last year.
“Five Days One Summer” will be Zinnemann’s swan song on film. But the bitterness remains. “You feel that if nothing else, you’re entitled to some measure of respect,” he says. “No more than that.”
Zinnemann’s curriculum vitae would be remarkable if it contained only “The Men,” Marlon Brando’s first film from 1950. But Zinnemann went on to direct the classics “High Noon,” “From Here to Eternity,” “A Man for All Seasons” and the Oscar-winning “Julia,” as well as superior films in a number of genres: “The Nun’s Story,” with Audrey Hepburn, the expansive musical “Oklahoma!” and the taut thriller “The Day of the Jackal.”
Zinnemann has not been idle in his retirement. For the last five years, he painstakingly worked on his heavily pictorial autobiography, “Fred Zinnemann: A Life in the Movies,” recently published by Scribners. The reviews have been excellent:
* Frederic Raphael in the London Sunday Times called the volume “fascinating” and described it as “an admirably terse account of a directorial career which coincides with the classic period of Hollywood.”
* “Yet another account of a life in the movies, but somehow a great deal more than that,” said Entertainment Weekly, which awarded it an A, its highest possible praise.
* The Boston Globe praised the book’s “great richness of image as raw material.”
One recent afternoon in his office near Berkeley Square in Mayfair, Zinnemann admitted his five-year endeavor had “been a long dreary road full of pitfalls.”
“One problem was the cost of having so many photos. Publishers didn’t understand why there had to be so many. And one publisher couldn’t afford to proceed with the book, so we went to another.
“But I thought without the pictures it would be worthless. I’m not a writer. To give the book any form, there had to be illustrations. You had to see how (former Columbia boss) Harry Cohn looked to understand how he behaved.”
There are now 440 pictures in Zinnemann’s book, some of them priceless. Here is a scene of a drunk in an empty bar, which was cut from “High Noon,” and a shot of Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly lunching with the crew; there is Brando visiting Zinnemann and Montgomery Clift on the set of “From Here to Eternity.”
The book encompasses Zinnemann’s early years in Vienna, followed by spells at film school in Paris and as a cameraman’s assistant in Berlin. He arrived in the United States in 1929, worked for director Berthold Viertel and learned his trade as an apprentice until his 1942 directing debut, “Kid Glove Killer"--in which Ava Gardner had a two-line bit part.
Zinnemann breaks down his subsequent life into chapters that correspond to his films, and uses his experiences as a springboard for a host of reminiscences.
He still vividly remembers the young Brando, hot from his success in “Streetcar Named Desire” on Broadway, coming in to audition for Zinnemann and producers Stanley Kramer and Carl Foreman for the lead role in “The Men.”
“He had real intensity,” recalled Zinnemann. “He was like a volcano. He wasn’t easy to work with. He was suspicious of Hollywood people, and he kept his own counsel.”
But Brando took the part, playing a paraplegic war veteran in a hospital ward full of paralyzed former GIs. “Kramer and Foreman made the movie independently,” Zinnemann says. “If anyone had gone to a studio with a film on a theme like this one, they’d have got nowhere.”
True to his Method training, Brando lived in a real paraplegic ward for three weeks, by the end of which only doctors and nurses knew he was not truly paralyzed. (Though some actors now routinely prepare for roles with such fastidiousness, this was arguably the first time a film actor had prepared in such depth.)
“He’d conceived a character,” Zinnemann said. “My directing of him was purely to do with the technical part. I don’t come from the theater, and I’m not about to tell actors how to do something. I’ll tell them about character development, what a particular scene requires, and that’s it.”
Clift was another notable actor who appeared in two early Zinnemann films--"The Search” (1948) and “From Here to Eternity” (1953), as the individualistic soldier Private Prewitt, the talented boxer who refuses to be cowed by the regimentation of Army life.
Zinnemann immediately locked horns with Harry Cohn when he insisted he wanted Clift in the lead. “He thought the film was about boxing, and I thought it was about the human spirit,” Zinnemann says.
Cohn wanted another actor who, he said, “is under contract, hasn’t worked for 10 weeks, his salary’s mounting up, he looks like a boxer and the girls like him.” When Zinnemann said he wanted Clift, Cohn retorted that he was “no soldier, no boxer and probably a homosexual.”
As it happened, Cohn was right on all counts, but he underestimated Clift’s ability to psych himself into a role. Zinnemann threatened to walk away from a hefty paycheck if Clift did not get the part. Cohn relented and, says Zinnemann, “by the time Monty was ready for the part, you’d swear he was a top soldier and a good boxer.”
Deborah Kerr was another intriguing casting choice as the captain’s adulterous wife.
“Joan Crawford was ready to do it, and in fact was already complaining about her wardrobe,” Zinnemann says. “But then when Deborah was suggested, we all thought it would be an excellent idea to cast against type. At that time, Deborah was perceived as being almost like the Queen of England, as cold as an iceberg. But it worked out beautifully.”
Kerr and Burt Lancaster went on to shoot one of the most memorable scenes in movie history--a horizontal embrace on the beach as waves crashed over them. Zinnemann notes wryly that tourist buses still stop at Diamond Head (in Hawaii) to point out where the scene was shot: “It is a curious contribution we have made to popular culture.”
“High Noon” remains Zinnemann’s best-known film, and one that yields various interpretations to different people. Zinnemann does not agree with screenwriter Carl Foreman’s assertion that it is an allegory of McCarthyism. “Some people even think it is an allegory on the Korean War,” he adds. “But I see it as a man desperately fighting to save his own life, a man who must make a decision according to his conscience.”
He hugely enjoyed directing the picture and working with Gary Cooper, who played the courageous small town marshal. But Zinnemann says he relished equally the challenge of completing “High Noon” within the allotted 28 days.
This kind of comment has led Zinnemann to be perceived by some critics as a master of logistics rather than a director with a strong vision. Certainly, he admits to having enjoyed the technical problems involved in shooting a musical--"Oklahoma!”
And what he remembers best about “The Day of the Jackal” was “seeing if suspense could be maintained if you knew the ending--that is, that the Jackal failed to kill De Gaulle. That kind of thing fascinated me; it became like a crossword puzzle.”
The best and most widely circulated story about Zinnemann is a good one, even if apocryphal.
Some dozen years ago, in the autumn of his career with all those classic movies under his belt, he was persuaded to take a meeting with a brash, newly installed Hollywood studio executive in his late 20s.
“So,” said the exec, undaunted by his own ignorance, “we’ve never met before. Tell me some of the things you’ve done.” “No, no,” said Zinnemann politely. “You first.”
Is it true? Zinnemann giggles. “I’ve been trying to disown that story for years. It seems to me Billy Wilder told it to me about himself.”
Whether or not the story is true, it fits. Zinnemann, who still has a strong Austrian accent, is mild-mannered and full of old-country Viennese courtesy.
But Zinnemann is impatient with the new Hollywood. Much as he rails about Harry Cohn and that autocratic breed of studio bosses, at least they knew movies.
“That was one area of common ground,” he says. “Those people were greedy, ruthless, and I felt contempt for the way they used power. But their love for the movies--that was one thing you could bring into discussions with them.”
Now, as he sees it, all is different; accountants and lawyers run the show. “If you talk to these guys about a love for the movies, I’m not sure they would know what you were talking about,” he said. “You don’t need to be in love with salami if you’re selling salami.”
The turning point that soured Zinnemann came in 1969, when MGM canceled his version of Andre Malraux’s novel “Man’s Fate,” on which he had been working for three years. The studio pulled the plug on the movie only three days before it was due to start shooting in London.
“Until that point,” says Zinnemann with a sigh, “there was a certain thieves’ honor in the business. But after then, a handshake was no longer a handshake.”
Still, he is a man largely without rancor. His autobiography is quite devoid of personal bitterness; there are no scores being settled with old enemies or malicious gossip. Over the “Man’s Fate” fiasco, Zinnemann refers to an MGM executive to whom he never spoke again--but does not name him in the book. He also refers to a feud with playwright Lillian Hellman, who wrote the short story on which “Julia” was based--but spares us any details.
“I don’t see what purpose it serves to go over that stuff,” he said. “I’m not about to sit in judgment on anyone.”
But he does concede that he saw Hollywood “from a worm’s perspective. I saw people behaving badly, behaving like human beings. I learned a lot about human nature. It may be funny, but it sure ain’t nice. I found the best way was to laugh at it.”
Nor does Zinnemann’s private life intrude much on his book. Renee, his wife of more than 50 years, gets her biggest mention through a small part she played in “The Nun’s Story”; Tim, his son, is referred to only fleetingly throughout. “Well,” said Zinnemann, “there are some things that should remain private. Some of the things people write about their own lives--they’re indecent.”
In his way, Zinnemann swims against the tide--despite critics who have charged that his films are essentially conservative and mainstream. He recalls reading Stendhal’s “Le Rouge et le Noir” when he was a student. “That was about a young man taking chances, swimming upstream all the time, and that influenced my whole attitude.”
And when Zinnemann got the chance to direct his own movies, they tended to be about cutting-edge issues. His post-war films, influenced by Italian neo-realist filmmakers, tackled such themes as the plight of war veterans, foreign war brides and displaced children.
He soon was in demand to direct big-budget movies. “People felt there was a certain kind of story I liked to do,” he remembers. “It had nothing to do with the size of budgets, particularly. But I increasingly wanted to film stories on the locale where they belonged. And that led more and more to Europe.” Zinnemann insists he never formally turned his back on Hollywood, though he has lived in Britain, which he deems a civilized country, for almost 30 years.
However, he does admit to some exasperation with the star system. “It’s a purely personal thing,” he reflected. “Some directors--Billy Wilder, John Huston, William Wyler--were very good with stars; they were witty, they knew how to talk to them and work with them. I found that unless you can strip that element of stardom away from the work, then there are problems. For me, it was easier to work with people who can forget they were stars.
“Not only do stars cost a lot of money, but psychologically the producers, the studio, everybody, feels the star is the central person and should be the story.”
Zinnemann has found that the demands of major stars can have a draining effect on everyone else on a film set. Other actors--he mentions Vanessa Redgrave and Paul Scofield, the lead in “A Man for All Seasons,” whom he describes as “a saint"--are generous and provide sustenance to their colleagues.
He feels he has had fun and been mostly lucky.
He also has a body of work to look back on that mostly stands the test of time. This very day, he had received a card from a friend in Germany with a quote from the philosopher Schopenhauer, which read: “How fortunate one is at the end of one’s life to see that your work has not aged with you.”
Zinnemann permits himself a wry smile. “I’m not crazy about the Germans, but they are very good at quotations. And that’s an awfully good one, don’t you think?”