A roundtable chat with director Stephen Frears of “Tamara Drewe”

Stephen Frears on location for Anyone who thinks that the only interesting directors are the ones with obvious personal styles needs to take a long, hard long at the filmography of Stephen Frears. Something of a contemporary, English throwback to such versatile craftsmen of pre-auteur theory Hollywood as William Wyler, George Stevens, Robert Wise, and Michael Curtiz, the Cambridge-educated Frears began his career neck deep in the English New Wave cinema of the 1960s as an assistant director on Karel Riesz’s “Morgan!,” and Lindsay Anderson’s 1968 surreal youth revolt drama, “If…” Later moving on to directing for the BBC, his second theatrical feature, 1984’s “The Hit,” was mostly ignored despite an all-star cast, but did gain a cult following of which I am a proud member. Frears’ follow up collaboration with writer Hanif Kureishi, a then-bold cross-racial same-sex romance, “My Beautiful Laundrette,” co-starred a young Daniel Day Lewis and got more immediate results. It was a hit in arthouses on both sides of the Atlantic and helped make Lewis a star; it also paved the way for Frears’ smashing mainstream Hollywood debut, 1988’s Oscar-winning “Dangerous Liaisons.”

Since then, Frears has enjoyed success both here in the U.S. and at home in England with numerous BAFTAs and films as diverse as “High Fidelity” and “The Grifters” — for which he was nominated for an Oscar — as well as the ultra-English “The Queen” and “Mrs. Henderson Presents.” He’s dealt with modern-day cowboys (1998’s “The Hi-Lo Country”), English fascism (2000’s “Liam”), the monarchy (2006’s “The Queen”), and the illegal trade of human organs (2002’s “Dirty Pretty Things”). When George Clooney decided he wanted to try a live television remake of “Fail Safe” back in 2000, Frears handled the chore to no shortage of acclaim.

Frear’s latest, “Tamara Drewe,” has fared reasonably well with critics on the whole, though not so much with this particular longtime admirer. An adaptation of a graphic novel originally serialized in England’s The Guardian by cartoonist and children’s book author Posy Simmonds, the tale is a comic, modern-day homage to Thomas Hardy’s tragic 1874 novel, Far From the Madding Crowd starring Gemma Arterton as a formerly large nosed “ugly duckling” whose swannish post-operative return to her family’s estate sparks chaos at a writer’s retreat in ultra-picturesque rural England.

Apparently taking the casualness of California fully to heart, the 69-year-old Frears, who bears some resemblance to the late Rodney Dangerfield, arrived unshaven and in a t-shirt that had seen better days. If the “just rolled out of bed” look was disconcerting, however, we needn’t have worried. Frears was in good spirits and clearly enjoys sharing his views with the press.

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Directors Hall of Fame movie moments #1: The dangerous allure of Roscoe’s Chicken and Waffles

In honor of the new class of fine filmmakers selected by the film writers of our mothership site, we start with a scene from the movie my colleague, Jason Zingale, accurately selected as Quentin Tarantino‘s most underrated.

Be forewarned that, typically enough for Mr. Tarantino, this scene — which features a brief appearance by the late Tony Curtis via TV — contains lots of NSFW language. In particular, Samuel L. Jackson as murderous arms dealer Ordell Robbie uses enough n-words here that some took umbrage — perhaps because it showed he hadn’t been dissuaded when Denzel Washington gave him a talking to about using the word on the set of 1995’s “Crimson Tide.” One difference: in Tarantino’s earlier films, he has low-life white criminals using the word, possibly accurate but definitely on the edge of acceptability in mainstream films, here he has low-life African-American crooks using the word, more or less de rigeur in the nineties.  Personally, I doubt I could justify changing a single word here in any case.

Come to think of it, I don’t think there’s been a single n-word in a Tarantino film since 97’s “Jackie Brown.” Denzel Washington, however, did use the word repeatedly (though with an “a” instead of an “er” on the end) as an unsavory copper, and won an Oscar for it, in 2001’s “Training Day.”

  

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Another Tony Curtis moment

Blake Edwards’ 1965 “The Great Race” is an childhood favorite of mine —  I remember being about six the first time I saw it. I think I liked the cars, the broad slapstick, and the cartoony iconography. I watched it again a couple of years back for the first time in its entirety in probably more than 20 years and found it held up a lot better than I had expected, not least because of a really fine comic performance by Tony Curtis as the absurdly heroic and properly chauvinistic the Great Leslie.

In this scene — briefly interrupted by some very nice Laurel & Hardy-slapstick from villains Jack Lemmon and Peter Falk — good guy Curtis puts various gentlemanly moves on early feminist Natalie Wood, who he had also romanced the prior year in “Sex and the Single Girl.” It’s a very funny send-up of supremely confident romantic movie heroes of old and of Curtis’s own ultra-suave persona. It also features some very nice sword play by Curtis, who was actually knew how to handle a saber.

“The Great Race” airs Sunday night/Monday morning as part of TCM’s 24-hour Tony Curtis marathon tomorrow night at 1:30 a.m. Eastern/10:30 Pacific for you night-owls and DVR owners.

  

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A Tony Curtis moment

A lot of people consider the character of Sidney Falco in “Sweet Smell of Success” to be Tony Curtis’s greatest role, and it’s not hard to see why. You could probably write 100,000 words on the power relationships between him, Burt Lancaster, and the other actors in this scene.

You can watch all of “Sweet Smell” — which I really need to catch again myself — directed by Alexander Mackendrick (“The Man in the White Suit,” “The Lady Killers”) and written by rather amazing pair of Clifford Odets and a young Ernest Lehman at 8:00 Eastern time/5:00 Pacific tomorrow night as part of TCM’s 24 hour Tony Curtis marathon, starting in about eight hours from now.

  

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RIP Tony Curtis

Tony-Curtis-in-1957-006

It’s another one of those weeks and we’ve lost one of the last surviving greats of the tale end of Hollywood’s classic-era. Indeed, Tony Curtis was a kind of a bridge between the more traditionally manly film stars of the earlier classic era — Clark Gable, John Wayne, Bogart, Cagney — and the eternally young and slightly androgynous stars of today. I’d say it’s safe that say that there’s a bit of Tony in Leonardo DiCaprio, Will Smith, and Colin Farrell, among many others.

It’s the nature of the actor to imitate and the nature of the movie star to be imitated. He was doubtlessly imitated by countless young men over the years who borrowed his handsome-man moves for personal use, but he also admitted to borrowing a lot of his movies from Cary Grant back when he was a kid from the Bronx named Bernie Schwartz. With a little help from Billy Wilder, he brought the entire matter full circle and, for once, completely lost his accent in “Some Like It Hot” — for me the best farce ever filmed in no small part because of the then-outrageous pre-post modern conceit of allowing an actor to perform a major part of his role overtly imitating another actor, still very much alive and working at the time. As far as I know, this wasn’t even dared again until Christian Slater spent “Heathers” imitating Jack Nicholson. It was good, but it was no “Some Like It Hot.”

Since I had to wait until later in the day to write this, there’s already a lot of online about Curtis — most of it collated over at Mubi — and there’ll be much more. I trust there’ll be more clips here like the one below over the weekend, and maybe a couple more observations about him here as well over the coming days, as well as the wonderfully inevitable 24 hour tribute to Curtis at TCM.

  

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