Guy Green fell in love with the cinema as a youngster growing up in England. He would sit in the darkened theater watching silent movies -- especially westerns -- over and over to the point that his mother would have to fetch him home.
He entered the movie industry at age 20 and became, along with Freddie Young and Jack Cardiff, a superstar cinematographer in post-World War II England. Green collaborated with a longtime friend, director David Lean, on several classics, becoming the first British director of photography to win an Oscar for his memorable black-and-white cinematography on Lean's 1946 version of "Great Expectations." By the mid-'50s, he had turned to directing, receiving acclaim for such dramatic fare as "The Angry Silence," "The Mark" and "A Patch of Blue."
On Wednesday, Green celebrates his 90th birthday. And this evening, the American Cinematheque at the Egyptian Theatre is throwing the veteran filmmaker a birthday party with a screening of 1965's "A Patch of Blue." Green will also participate in a pre-screening discussion.
Joined by Josephine Green, his wife of 55 years -- they met while she was handling publicity for Lean's "Oliver Twist," which Green shot -- the director is sitting in a family room of the picturesque Beverly Hills house they bought about 20 years ago from the late Lee Remick. Although hip problems require him to use a walker, Green is strong in spirit and mind.
"A Patch of Blue" is probably Green's most famous film as a director and one of the few he also wrote. "It's very much a personal picture," he says. "Jo found the story."
Based on a novel by Elizabeth Kata, "A Patch of Blue" is about an uneducated blind girl (Oscar-nominated Elizabeth Hartman) with a bigoted, slovenly harpy for a mother (Shelley Winters, in an Oscar-winning performance), who spends her days making beaded necklaces in the park. She's befriended one day by a decent, well-spoken young man (Sidney Poitier). The two become quick friends as the man tries to educate and enrich her beleaguered life, but she has no idea he is African American.
"A Patch of Blue" was one of Hollywood's first attempts at examining the relationship between a white woman and a black man.
The low-budget movie ended up receiving five Oscar nominations, with only Winters winning.
Green says he and his little film were an "irritation" to MGM, which financed and released it. "They had a lot of money invested in 'Doctor Zhivago,' and when we wound up with five nominations ...," he said the studio was less than thrilled.
"Zhivago" also happened to have been directed by Lean. "He wasn't talking to me then, not really. He was very tied up in 'Zhivago,' and it was really a big thing in his life."
Green found Hartman "out of the blue," he says. "She just walked into my office with her agent one day." He and producer Pandro S. Berman had "discarded a lot of suggestions" for the lead, opting to cast a newcomer. "I didn't want a name in the part because I had, I hoped, Sidney Poitier and Shelley Winters. I wanted someone who was quite unknown, so there weren't any expectations. She turned out to be a really natural actress."
Hartman made only a handful of other films and committed suicide in the late 1980s. "I was very disappointed that she came to such a bad end," Green says.
"I know he adored doing 'Patch of Blue,' " says a friend, British director Ken Annakin ("Swiss Family Robinson"). "He did a great job.... All the members of the cast respect him very much for that picture."
Although Green was not considered an "auteur" director, his films often dealt with people on the outside of society. "The Angry Silence," the 1960 drama that put him on the map as a director, focused on a man who refused to take part in a wildcat strike. And in 1961's "The Mark," for which Stuart Whitman received a best actor Oscar nomination, Green told the tale of a sex offender who was trying to start a new life. Green says he was drawn to these stories because of their dramatic possibilities. A possibility of another sort presented itself while he was making "The Mark" in Ireland. Producer Sam Spiegel called to say he was about to start a film called "Lawrence of Arabia."
"David [Lean] wants you to photograph it," Green recalls. "I told him I was in the middle of directing. And he said, 'Never mind about that. We can get you free of that. David wants you.' I said, 'I'm sorry, but I am not going to abandon the film.' "
Turning down "Lawrence," he says, drove a wedge between the two that lasted for some time.
Entering the film industry in 1933, Green worked his way up from clapper boy to camera operator on such high-profile films as 1942's "One of Our Aircraft Is Missing." The Michael Powell-directed film was the first time Green worked with Lean, who was its editor. The two worked together again on 1942's "In Which We Serve." In 1944, Lean recommended Green to director Carol Reed to be the cinematographer on "The Way Ahead."
Green also did the cinematography for such films as "Blanche Fury," "Captain Horatio Hornblower," "The Beggar's Opera" and "I Am a Camera." He, Young and Cardiff also founded the British Society of Cinematographers.
Annakin collaborated with Green on a 1952 Technicolor Disney film, "The Story of Robin Hood and His Merrie Men."
"Guy would decide how he wanted to light," says Annakin, and because Green didn't want to have shadows in any direction, lighting the vast Sherwood Forest set could take up to a day.
"It was a new experience for me," Annakin says. "I hadn't had a cameraman of that standard before. I can remember even on a smallish set, Guy taking most of the morning to light. Suddenly, lunchtime came and he said, 'Very sorry, Ken, it doesn't work. I'll start in the afternoon.' Of course, you couldn't [take that time] today, but that is how it was done in those days."
As for Green's decision to become a director, "It was after doing all the pictures he did with David Lean, that he decided he would follow the same path," Annakin says. "When I heard he wanted to switch over, I introduced him to the great English producer Sydney Box. I think he gave him his first picture as a director."
"They gave me a chance to do B pictures in 17 days," Green says. To make ends meet, however, he also continued working as a cinematographer. "I Am a Camera," in 1955, was his last as director of photography.
After directing such features as "The Magus," "A Walk in the Spring Rain," "Once Is Not Enough" and "Luther," Green segued into television movies, making his last film, "Strong Medicine," in 1986.
When asked why he quit working, Green smiled, replying matter-of-factly, "They stopped asking me."
Guy Green celebration
Where: Egyptian Theatre, 6712 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood
When: Tonight, 7
Price: $9 general admission; $8 for seniors and students with valid I.D.; $6 for Cinematheque members
Contact: (323) 466-3456 or www.egyptiantheatre.com