The director's cut

Times Staff Writer

"I mean this very genuinely," Ronald Neame says, and the look on his face tells you he really does. "It's astonishing to me that five of my films will be running on Hollywood Boulevard -- and one of them is 50 years old. I've made some good, bad and indifferent films, and some absolute stinkers, but I've never thought of myself as other than a reasonably competent director."

If you listen to the British-born Neame, the kind of truly self-effacing man who means it when he says "please cut me off if I'm talking too much," you might believe that the American Cinematheque lost control of its senses by scheduling a three-day tribute that starts with a Friday night screening of "The Poseidon Adventure," of which the director confidentially says, "I know it's not something that should go down in history, but the weird thing is, it has gone down in history."

Yes, he's just published a charming memoir, "Straight From the Horse's Mouth" (which he will be signing at the Cinematheque at 4 p.m. Saturday), but Neame all but waves his hand when he says in his resonant voice, still pleasantly accented despite living and working in L.A. for 30 years, "It's not really great literature."

But if you do talk to Neame long enough, admiring the Coldwater Canyon view from his cozy study ("My wife and I pride ourselves," he says, "on looking slightly down on $10-million houses, but only slightly"), listening to the fire quietly crackling and the mantel clock gently chiming, a somewhat different story emerges.

It's not just, though this is remarkable enough, that Neame, celebrating his 92nd birthday today, has personally experienced more of the movie business than anyone else still alive and lucid. His mother, Ivy Close, was an early British silent star who made her first film in 1912 (directed by Neame's father, Elwin) and went on to work for France's Abel Gance and America's slapstick Kalem Company. And Neame himself at 18 was the assistant cameraman on Alfred Hitchcock's landmark 1929 "Blackmail," the director's first sound film.

From then on, Neame, whom everyone calls Ronnie, was a central player in perhaps the greatest period of British cinema. As a cinematographer, he teamed with director David Lean and writer Noel Coward on such films as "Blithe Spirit" and "In Which We Serve." As a writer, he got the first of an eventual three Oscar nominations for his work on "Brief Encounter." As a producer he gave Alec Guinness his first major role in Lean's "Great Expectations" and went on to direct four of the actor's films, including the one that gives Neame's book its title.

Later, Neame directed Maggie Smith's Oscar-winning performance in "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie," guided a temperamental Judy Garland through "I Could Go On Singing," her last film, and produced "The Magic Box," a feature on early film, which "Martin Scorsese saw when he was 11 or 12 and says was responsible for him entering the film industry."

With his wonderfully calming voice, a genial and open face and manners that date from another era, Neame could have been telling the truth when he informed guests at his 90th birthday party, "I'm really 60, the 6 just got turned around."

A possible key to Neame's graceful longevity is what he admits is "an even temperament for the most part. I've learned to look at things from the other person's point of view, which is important for directing. I'm forgiving by nature. I don't bear malice."

If that doesn't sound like what directors prize today, Neame would have to agree. "When I talk to young people, they say 'I'm going to direct' even though so many of them haven't learned how to rehearse, how to put a sequence together. You've got to learn the craft, and it is a craft. It wasn't till I was in the business for 15 or 20 years that I thought I could become a director."

More than that, Neame is proud of having been "brought up in the school where we didn't feature the camera, we did everything we could to disguise the fact that a camera was there. Today, 'no camera' has become 'I am a camera.' Directors are so clever with their setups, they want to star in their films."

'A you-name-it boy'

This was very far from the case when Neame, forced to work early because of his father's death in a motorcycle accident, began in the business at age 16 as "a messenger boy, a tea boy, a callboy, a you-name-it boy." Two years later came the assignment to work as assistant cameraman for Hitchcock on "Blackmail."

"He was the boy genius without any doubt, even then," remembers Neame, who can still hand-crank a camera at the silent speed of 16 frames per second. "He had the same personality he always did: He was plump, wicked and loved playing practical jokes on people, though he didn't like anybody to do it to him. He was a sadistic character in some ways. I don't know why, but he took a liking to me."

The change from silent to sound film came as "Blackmail" was shooting. "The transition was a horrendous experience; there was terrible feuding between sound and camera," Neame recalls. "A lot of people thought it was just a flash in the pan, that film was for visuals the way the stage was for dialogue. But when sound came in, Hitchcock used it immediately and more brilliantly than anyone did for years. We were all in awe of him."

Neame also had a strong relationship with writer and actor Coward, beginning with his work as cinematographer on Coward's World War II patriotic drama "In Which We Serve," which he and Lean also had a hand in writing.

"We'd go up to Noel, and he'd say, 'Which of my two little darlings wrote this brilliant Coward dialogue? Now get out your little pencils ...' and out would come diamonds. Noel in my opinion has been tremendously underestimated. People think of him as this matinee idol with ornate dressing gowns and a cigarette holder, and that isn't Noel at all, that's the facade. "Underneath was tremendous humility. The real Noel cared desperately about his talent. When we talked, he'd say, 'I haven't yet done anything I really think will last. And I'm terrified I might one day wake up and find I don't have a talent anymore.' "

The classic 1946 version of Charles Dickens' "Great Expectations," on which Neame had his first credit as a producer and shared an Oscar nomination for best screenplay, began because "David Lean and I had become very close chums. We wrote the basic screenplay in two weeks in a little hotel bedroom in Cornwall whilst our wives walked along the beach or went shopping. We were absolutely brutal with the book. We'd drop wonderful characters and look up and say, 'Oh, Charlie, we hope you don't mind.' "

But though Lean had valued Neame behind the camera, that regard didn't necessarily hold once he changed jobs. "David always loved his cameraman, he meant everything to him, but he didn't care about anyone else on the film. He knew he had to have actors, but he didn't really like them; he tolerated them. And he hated producers even more than he hated actors. So I became in kind of a way an enemy, like, 'What's he doing on the set? What's he here for?' "

Neame had quite different relations with Guinness, an actor he admires almost more than he can easily put into words. "After 'Great Expectations,' everyone said to us, 'Why put him under contract? He's a character actor. He'll always be there.' But he was completely individual. There was never going to be another Alec Guinness."

After the actor did Fagin in "Oliver Twist," Neame says, "we knew that whatever Alec said he could play, he could play. You'd send him books and he'd say, 'I'm immensely sorry, Ronnie, but I've done this. I don't want to come out of the same hole. I have to come out of a different hole.' "

Directing Guinness in "The Horse's Mouth" became a lesson for Neame in dealing with actors. After a week's shooting, Guinness called him into his dressing room and complained that "I hadn't given him any praise. It was astonishing to me, I never thought of saying, 'You're great, Alec,' it was we who wanted his approval, we who were never sure we were good enough to match him. But Alec said that with actors, the part of their mind that wants to act is never older than 14. 'That's how I need to be treated,' he said. 'No matter how much more intelligent, sensitive, better read and better educated than you I am -- and I am -- I need to be praised.' "

Guinness' convictions about acting put him into inevitable conflict with Lean. As Neame explains it, "there are three kinds of directors. Hitchcock felt actors should be treated like cattle, like puppets on his string.

"At the absolute other end was Carol Reed, who thought actors were wonderful. 'They're like race horses, Ronnie,' he would say. 'You have to treat them very gently, pat them and stroke them and they'll run for you. But if you pull too hard, they'll rear up.'

"Then there was David, who got great performances out of actors who were secure. He wanted in the end to have actors do it his way. Since Alec wanted to do it his way, there was always a battle. Alec would say, 'I cannot put up with this anymore,' but since their films were always such a success, they came promptly together again."

Still, nothing prepared Neame for the experience of working with Garland in 1962's "I Could Go On Singing." "Two-thirds of the time, she was highly professional, she knew all her lines and was a joy to work with. She even called me 'Pussycat,' " Neame says, instinctively accentuating the positive. "On the other side, she was utterly impossible, horrendous, phone calls at 3 a.m., not coming in, trying to fire me. But then she tried to fire every director she worked for, except possibly her husband," Vincent Minnelli.

It was a combination of Neame's natural solicitude and great craft that resulted in one of the most memorable scenes in Garland's career. It was an emotional situation with her character and a former lover played by Dirk Bogarde; the dialogue powerfully connected with the actress' psychological state, so much so that Neame, who'd planned to shoot it over the course of a day, ended up doing it in a single three-minute take.

"I realized something was happening," Neame recounts in his book. "Something not planned. Something I'd never get anything like again. The room was filled with such emotional intensity that the unit became caught up in the moment....Judy became so personally involved that the words took on a special meaning for her far beyond the character as written. Tears were streaming down her face, her nose was running; her voice was choked with feeling....When I finally said 'cut,' everyone on the set was visibly affected. The crew, who had little reason to like Judy, found themselves in tears."

"It was an extraordinary thing. I had no idea this was going to happen," Neame says, still moved today. "When you've got that, you don't mess about, you don't try to be clever."

Ever polite as the interview closes, Neame walks his guest to the front door and stops at posters from three of his favorite films -- "Great Expectations," "Tunes of Glory" and "Straight From the Horse's Mouth" -- hung diagonally on the wall next to the staircase.

"They're all dead and I'm nearly dead," he says, smiling and suddenly reflective. "I'm not scared about anything about dying. But I'd like to see what's going to happen here in 20 years' time. I am curious, oh, yes."

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

The Neame filmography

Here are some of the movies

that made Ronald Neame's

long career as a filmmaker

so exceptional.

As a cinematographer:

Blithe Spirit (1945)

This Happy Breed (1944)

In Which We Serve (1942)

One of Our Aircraft Is Missing (1942)

Major Barbara (1941)

As a director:

First Monday in October (1981)

Hopscotch (1980)

Meteor (1979)

The Odessa File (1974)

The Poseidon Adventure (1972)

Scrooge (1970)

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969)

Gambit (1966)

The Chalk Garden (1964)

I Could Go On Singing (1963)

Tunes of Glory (1960)

The Horse's Mouth (1958)

As a producer:

The Magic Box (1951)

Oliver Twist (1948)

Great Expectations (1946)

Brief Encounter (1946)

*

Neame tribute

Where: Egyptian Theater, 6712 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood

When: "The Poseidon Adventure," Friday, 8 p.m.; "The Horse's Mouth," Saturday, 5 p.m.; "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie" and "Scrooge," Saturday, 7:45 p.m.; "The Card (a.k.a. The Promoter)" and "Tunes of Glory," Sunday, 5 p.m.

Price: $6 to $9

Contact: (323) 466-FI

For The Record Los Angeles Times Thursday April 24, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 43 words Type of Material: Correction Neame profile -- Director Vincente Minnelli's first name was misspelled as Vincent in an article in Wednesday's Calendar about filmmaker Ronald Neame. The Neame profile also neglected to mention that his autobiography, "Straight From the Horse's Mouth," was written with Barbara Roisman Cooper.
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