If anyone should know the ingredients for an Oscar-winning movie, Fred Zinnemann is that man.
The veteran director, one of film history's most distinguished names, brought 20-odd pictures to the screen in a career spanning 40 years. Marlon Brando's debut film was Zinnemann's "The Men" (1950). Montgomery Clift won an Oscar in Zinnemann's "The Search" (1948), his first major film role. Meryl Streep's screen debut was in Zinnemann's "Julia" (1977). Five Zinnemann films--"The Search," "High Noon" (1952), "From Here to Eternity" (1953), "A Man for All Seasons" (1966) and "Julia"--captured a staggering 25 Academy Awards among them.
Zinnemann, 85, quit filmmaking 10 years ago, but given his astonishing track record, he seems the ideal man to cast an eye over this year's major Oscar contenders.
Zinnemann, who has lived in London for 30 years, still watches films, enthusiastically if selectively. Because he has a hearing problem, it is difficult for him to view films in a crowded theater; instead he watches them on video in his central London office.
At the request of The Times, he saw six films--"The Crying Game," "A Few Good Men," "Howards End," "The Player," "Scent of a Woman" and "Unforgiven"--which are nominated either in the best film or best director categories.
In assessing each, Zinnemann commented on several aspects of movie-making: directing, acting (including supporting roles), casting, cinematography--and in one case, stunts. He started on a note of caution about the tendency of today's movies to be gore-soaked or to dwell on society's psychopaths:
"I've always felt drama at its best should be a mix of terror and pity. Of pictures today, many are long on terror, and either short on pity or without pity at all. Many movies share with TV a hypnotic and addictive element which can rob you gradually of a sense of reality and judgment, and which can actually change the way you think. That is, they can make you follow and accept the ideas and values of other people. I'm sick of sick movies that deal with rage and hatred, of which violence is the daughter."
The Crying Game
"I was tremendously impressed with 'The Crying Game.' Looking at it, you felt both the terror and the pity--not only in the splendid performance of Stephen Rea, which was extraordinary, but also of Forest Whitaker. Rea makes a lot of fancy leading men look one-dimensional and flat. He has great depths of compassion; you feel he is a victim as much as (Whitaker).
"I feel one small negative thing: The film ends in melodrama shortly after the IRA people come back and find Rea. This gets to be very plotty and turns into a kind of contrived ending. Miranda Richardson is marvelous, but she enjoys playing a villain too much and it shows; it makes the situation even less probable.
"I saw Neil Jordan's 'Mona Lisa,' and liked it. This is a man who knows about pain and suffering. There were some fine supporting performances in 'The Crying Game': the bartender (Jim Broadbent) for one, the leading terrorist (Adrian Dunbar) another. The stuntmen were marvelous. The twist in the story cer tainly surprised me.
"The film has something of the spirit of (Irish playwright) Sean O'Casey. It also reminded me of John Ford's film 'The Informer,' because it's about people who are victims of their own characters.
"I'm very high on this movie."
A Few Good Men
" 'A Few Good Men' is one of the few pictures that give me hope that there's still a future for movies and that we are not reduced to a diet of robots, rage and hatred.
"There were two outstanding performances here: an excellent one from Jack Nicholson and a very good one by Wolfgang Bodison (as the young African-American lance corporal defendant). (Bodison) played it from the heart and gut. I've never seen anyone express contempt with just one look the way he does. He was enormously good at conveying complicated emotions without a word. You knew exactly how he felt.
"Tom Cruise is one of the really excellent young stars in movies; he's very promising. I find some of his mannerisms similar to Montgomery Clift, the way he spreads his hands when he makes a point. He's not at Clift's level yet; but perhaps he's young, and hasn't suffered very much!
"It was directed brilliantly by Rob Reiner, just the way a commercially successful picture should be. It was well organized and well told. The production's perfect, but it was not overproduced; you didn't feel they were trying to stun you with effects. It all seemed to blend properly; if you come out of a movie and say, 'Wasn't the music great?' you know that movie's not in balance. This wasn't like those films where you're supposed to be stunned by the money poured into them.
"People have said Demi Moore's role was redundant, but from the audience's point of view it was important to have that emotional conflict, which you don't have without a woman character who is more than just a (cipher). The tension between her and Cruise in the beginning makes the audience respond much more than if it was a straight documentary. He's so glib at first, he's insufferable.
"All the stuff about how great Cruise's father was--that's sophisticated subterfuge. You could pull the story apart, but who wants to? It's a good picture and deserves to be shown. It's not a picture you come out of and feel ashamed to be a member of the human race."
"As for 'Howards End,' unfortunately, there's little good I can say. It's overproduced, and it deals with people who don't seem to be really human in the way they behave. I've seen it twice but couldn't identify with it.
"From the technical point of view, it was brilliant. The trouble was I found myself admiring the set, the set dressing and the costumes--but not the people. It's like some old MGM movies before World War II, which tried to impress you with their tremendous luxury.
"It's terribly dated. Take 'Upstairs Downstairs' (the "Masterpiece Theatre" series on TV), which was of the same period; some of those people were characters you could really respond to. I found it hard to get interested in what Emma Thompson or Helena Bonham Carter were up to. The only emotion was a detached feeling of saying how well made it was.
"With 'The Crying Game,' it was just the opposite. It didn't look as good in terms of costumes, for instance, but that took nothing away from it. 'Howards End' is a rich-looking film, as opposed to one made by people who had to make do with spirit and talent.
"I'm not a fan of Emma Thompson. As for Vanessa Redgrave (an Oscar winner in Zinnemann's "Julia"), I know her well and I know what she's capable of. I don't think she was very good in this. She has wonderful technique, but knowing her the way I do . . . I wanted to believe her and I didn't.
"You win or lose a picture on casting at the end of the day. Either I believe an actor or I don't. I cast Edward Fox in 'The Day of the Jackal' because he was believable. He had to say a ridiculous line--'Nothing is ever a lady's fault.' But you believed him when he said it, and that was good enough. John Huston worked the same way--he felt the right combination of actors is what makes a picture."
"I thought 'The Player' was a brilliant documentary about Hollywood. It's depressing to think how true it is. My wife saw it with me and was extremely depressed too. I didn't find it at all funny! Maybe that was because I don't find any exaggeration in it.
"Robert Altman's a brilliant director; he's an innovator. The script and direction here are first class. Technically it was wonderful. I love the long opening shot. 'Nashville' was a revelation to me at the time, and I think Altman's a great master. It's wonderful how he has kept his independence from the powers that be, creatively speaking.
"In every way it's a first-rate job, and it's wonderful to see it nominated (for best director and in two other categories). It was hard to find pity for most of the characters in the picture, but that's not what it was about."
Scent of a Woman
"I have very little to say about 'Scent of a Woman'; I'm surprised it was nominated. I didn't like it at all, though I thought the boy (Chris O'Donnell) did nice work. I thought Al Pacino was miscast; this was a self-indulgent performance. I simply didn't believe a lieutenant colonel would behave like this character.
"As for the story, I thought it went to great lengths to prove a point, but again, I didn't believe it. This was a movie that didn't know when to stop; it seemed to me there were about four separate endings."
" 'Unforgiven' is a marvelous movie, though it's too long on terror, not long on pity. By terror , of course, I mean violence. It's enough to kick a man in the head twice; you don't need to show him being kicked the whole length of Main Street.
"I admire a lot of things about it: Clint Eastwood's direction, the acting, the whole production. It might have been shorter, but that's not important. It's an excellent, outstanding film which deserved to be nominated. Some things about it are really spectacular. Gene Hackman is wonderful; he has a real feeling for the visual mood of a film.
"Clint has managed to make the Western alive and credible as opposed to some of the phony jobs that have been done. In the best sense of the word it was authentic; people moved and talked in an authentic way.
"I've liked some of Clint's work in the past. As an actor he's not versatile, but what he does he does extremely well. He's a positive part of our profession. Some people, you're embarrassed to be in the same business with them. Some movies belong in psychiatrists' closed conferences rather than movie theaters. They're not entertainment in any way."
Zinnemann, an academy member, would not disclose which way he would cast his votes, though he readily conceded that "Neil Jordan and Rob Reiner are enormous talents."
"I'm amazed and delighted by the success of 'The Crying Game,' which is a classic story of someone running around scratching up money while they're shooting," he added. "That's how some of the best pictures are made. They share a kind of purity; they don't seem influenced by the rules and regulations of corporations. I have particular sympathy because I've tried in my own work to be as independent as I can, though I was influenced by Hollywood in my formative years; it's something you can't get rid of.
"These movies have made me feel optimistic about film, even if I'm pessimistic about attitudes at the top (of the studios). The only important question these days is the bottom line. It doesn't matter if someone eats his own grandmother in the movie. This is an attitude that's terribly destructive.
"All these filmmakers have an uphill battle against that kind of attitude. So many people in movies today have no respect and don't know very much about films. In my day, people were greedy, sure, but they loved movies. You could have a professional respect for them."