Ronald Neame dies at 99; prominent British filmmaker
Ronald Neame, a prominent figure in the British film industry whose long and varied career included producing the 1940s classics “Great Expectations” and “Oliver Twist” and directing films such as “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie” and “The Poseidon Adventure,” has died. He was 99.
Neame, who also directed Judy Garland’s final film, “I Could Go on Singing,” died Wednesday at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, said his wife, Donna. He was injured in a fall May 6 and had two operations on his leg, but his health kept declining after the second operation, she said.
“He was such a talented man and very good at making huge and bold decisions,” Shirley MacLaine, who starred with Michael Caine in the 1966 Neame-directed movie “Gambit,” told The Times on Friday. “I’d see him every few years at different functions; one of my favorites. Ninety-nine: a good goal for all of us.”
Lawrence Turman, who produced “I Could Go on Singing,” described Neame in an interview with The Times last year as “a real long-lived, old-timey pro who came up the hard way doing everything. A lovely man, by the way — very gentle, never somehow raised his voice or got angry.”
Neame, whose career lasted more than six decades and included a job as an assistant cameraman on England’s first sound film — Alfred Hitchcock’s 1929 crime thriller “Blackmail” — when he was 17, rose through the ranks to become a director of photography at 24.
He went on to photograph films such as director Gabriel Pascal’s version of the George Bernard Shaw comedy “Major Barbara” (1941), the David Lean- and Noel Coward-directed patriotic wartime drama “In Which We Serve” (1942) and the Lean-directed adaptation of the Coward play “Blithe Spirit” (1945).
As a cinematographer, Neame shared an Academy Award nomination with sound designer C.C. Stevens for special effects in 1943 for the World War II drama “One of Our Aircraft Is Missing.”
In 1944, Neame joined Lean and producer Anthony Havelock-Allan to form a production company, Cineguild.
Over the next several years, Neame was a producer on the Lean-directed “Brief Encounter,” “Great Expectations,” “Oliver Twist” and “The Passionate Friends.” He also produced the John Boulting-directed biographical drama “The Magic Box.”
As a screenwriter, Neame shared Oscar nominations with Lean and Havelock-Allan for their screenplays for “Brief Encounter” and “Great Expectations.”
For their 1946 screen adaptation of Charles Dickens’ “Great Expectations,” Neame recalled in a 2003 interview with The Times, he and Lean “wrote the basic screenplay in two weeks in a little hotel room 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.’ ”
Their efforts in bringing the Dickens classic to the screen resulted in a best picture Oscar nomination.
In 1947, Neame launched his career as a director with the murder mystery “Take My Life.”
He went on to direct two dozen more films over the next four decades, including “The Horse’s Mouth,” “Tunes of Glory,” “The Man Who Never Was,” “The Chalk Garden,” “Gambit,” “Prudence and the Pill,” " Scrooge,” “The Odessa File,” “Meteor,” “Hopscotch” and “First Monday in October.”
Along the way, Neame also directed Maggie Smith’s Oscar-winning performance in “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie” (1969).
Neame was born in London on April 23, 1911. His father, Elwin, was a well-known London photographer who had photographed the finalists of a newspaper-sponsored world beauty contest and wound up marrying the young winner, Ivy Close, who became an instant celebrity.
“Well, of course, my mother immediately got offers to act on the screen,” Neame recalled in a 1978 interview with The Times. “My father at that time thought he would like to make films — and they made a few films together.”
Neame’s mother went on to star in numerous silent films, including a dozen comedies for the famed Kalem Company in the United States.
Neame was 12 when his father was killed in a motorcycle accident in 1923, the same year his mother starred in French director Abel Gance’s drama “La Roue.”
By the time Neame was 16, his mother was no longer a screen star and his family was nearly destitute. To help out, he got a job as a messenger boy at Elstree Studios.
Neame was still an assistant cameraman when he received his big break: The cinematographer on the 1935 biopic “Drake of England” collapsed and was taken to the hospital, and Neame was asked to take over.
“What I didn’t know about lighting then would have filled volumes,” he said in a 2004 interview with the academic journal Post Script. “However, you know, fools step in; the confidence of youth and everything. So I took over, and I came through all right.”
Of all the different jobs he had during his long career, he found directing the most pleasurable.
“I think it’s the most creative discipline,” he told United Press International in 2001, “and in some respects the most difficult.”
One of his most difficult directing assignments was working with Garland in “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,’ ” he told The Times in 2003. “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 for her husband,” director Vincente Minnelli.
As a director, Neame may be best remembered for “The Poseidon Adventure,” the 1972 blockbuster hit about an ocean liner capsized by a massive wave.
“I call ‘Poseidon’ my upside-down cliffhanger,” he said in a 1978 interview with The Times. “But what it did do, it made a great deal of money and I did have 5% — and that gave me a great deal of financial security.”
In his 2003 interview with The Times, Neame said of “The Poseidon Adventure”: “I know it’s not something that should go down in history, but the weird thing is, it has gone down in history.”
Neame, who was named a Commander of the British Empire in 1996 for his contributions to the film industry, published his autobiography, “Straight From the Horse’s Mouth,” written with Barbara Roisman Cooper, in 2003.
In addition to his wife, Donna, Neame is survived by Christopher, his son from his previous marriage to Beryl Heanly; three grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.
At Neame’s request, there will be no funeral service.
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