by Mark Schumann, Father of Three
He may be best remembered, today, as the Motion Picture Academy President with the flowing silver hair. Arthur Hiller – who died Aug. 17 – served as Oscar’s leader for six years in the 1990s and directed a number of well-remembered movies. Here are a few of my favorites.
The Americanization of Emily (1964)
Looking back, this powerful anti-war comedy is a film of firsts. For Hiller, it was his first big break on the big screen after a successful career as a television director. For star Julie Andrews, Emily was her first non-singing role, sandwiched between her iconic musical performances in Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music. And, for James Garner, this was the first film to reveal the potential depth of his acting. Paddy Chayefsky’s brilliant screenplay asks fundamental questions about heroism in a piercing account of military excess during World War II. And Hiller proves what a director he can be in a film that was quite ahead of its time.
The Out-of-Towners (1970)
For anyone who loves New York City, this valentine to the quirks of the Big Apple still stands as a most delightful urban comedy. Jack Lemmon and Sandy Dennis – working from a strong script by Broadway legend Neil Simon – soak every laugh out of the tale of a middle-aged couple from Ohio who discover how welcoming (and not) the city can be. When everything that can go wrong does go wrong – from diverted airplanes to garbage on the sidewalk to cancelled hotel rooms to chases through Central Park – Hiller keeps the laughs coming and the comedy grounded by creating an authentic relationship between Lemmon and Dennis. This one is a joy.
Love Story (1970)
Today it’s hard to believe what a sensation this movie caused. Back in the cynical movie year of 1970 – when audiences seemed to lash out at any film that tried to convey sentiment – Hiller dared to make a movie about two people who discover love, put that love through many tests, and ultimately discover how even the strongest love can’t always survive. While Ali MacGraw and Ryan O’Neal may be too old to be credible as college students, their natural charisma and chemistry make the pairing work. And the Oscar-winning music score by Frances Lai is icing on the movie cake. Years later, the wizards at Paramount decided to make a sequel called Oliver’s Story, that, fortunately, few ever saw. The original, though, is a classic.
The Hospital (1971)
A year after winning an Oscar for Patton – but refusing to accept the award – George C. Scott again found himself a Best Actor nominee for this blistering account of the world of medicine written by Paddy Chayefsky. Once again, Hiller and Chayefsky make their mutual interest in cynical cinema work on screen in a tale of indulgence, greed and misinformation in a big-city hospital that tries to provide quality care. Or not. Scott shines in the complex role of a physician who wants to do much more to help people get well. But, as he learns, some sickness runs too deep for even the best medicine.
Plaza Suite (1971)
Working again with a screenplay by Neil Simon – based on his hit Broadway play – Hiller has a great time at the movies with an all-star cast. While the same actors played all the leading roles on stage, Walter Matthau plays opposite three actresses in each of three segments on film. In the first episode, Maureen Stapleton scores as a lonely woman who suspects her husband is unfaithful; in the second, Barbara Harris shines as another lonely woman who comes to the city to find love in the afternoon; and, in the third, Lee Grant delights as an overbearing mother who wants her about-to-be-married daughter to be happy. Through it all, Hiller keeps the timing fresh, while Oscar winner Matthau has a comic field day.
Thank you, Arthur Hiller, for making memorable movies that stand the test of time. To read more about the late director’s other films, check out The Reel Dad at arts.hersamacorn.com.
The Reel Dad Salutes Arthur Hiller (continued)
Not all of Arthur Hiller’s movies work. As with any director, some projects seem charmed from the start while others carry a sense of doom. For Hiller, though, the ones that didn’t succeed be as interesting as those he’s remembered for making. Here are a few I have to admit I like to watch.
Man of La Mancha (1972)
On stage, this musical version of the story of Don Quixote won the Tony and scored a big hit for its 11 o’clock number, The Impossible Dream. But such a big song requires a big voice. And, while Peter O’Toole may be known for many things, musicals are not his genre. Still the actor brings the character of Cervantes to life on screen as Hiller tries to “open up” the stage version by traveling across the landscape of Spain. While O’Toole relies on Simon Gilbert to sing his vocals offscreen, Sophia Loren – cast as a local wench in saloon – manages to be quite effective as she sings her sons. Ultimately, the piece is better suited for the stage. But Hiller makes sure the movie is well worth watching.
Silver Streak (1976)
When Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor were at the top of comic fame – and Jill Clayburgh was a new face in movies – Hiller brought them together to recreate the fun of the 1930s screwball comedies in a would-be thriller about a train ride across the United States. As inspiring as the classic Twentieth Century may have been to the director, Hiller struggles to recreate the lunacy that screwball comedy requires. Colin Higgins, who earlier wrote 9 to 5 for the movies, tries to balance narrative and character to replicate the effortless qualities of the earlier classics. Only when Pryor, one of the most natural comedians to appear on screen, goes off into his comic bits does the movie reach its potential. Otherwise it’s an entertaining miss.
W.C. Fields and Me (1976)
Some movies look better on paper than they ultimately project onto the screen. Certainly it must have sounded good, back in the 1970s, to make a biopic of the great W.C. Fields starring Oscar-winning actor Rod Steiger. But the actor won for a drama – In the Heat of the Night – and was never known for his comic timing or his facial expressions, two key ingredients in the Fields approach to comedy. But Hiller must have thought he could make it work and, in certain sequences, Steiger and costar Valerie Perrine (fresh from her triumph in Lenny) create engaging chemistry. But the movie is slow, and Steiger so wrong, that it limps to the final credits despite the director’s visual efforts. Hiller never has a chance to tell the story.
Author! Author! (1982)
Most movie people thought, in the early 1980s, that Al Pacino could not make a wrong move. After all, in the 1970s, he scored on screen in The Godfather films as well as Dog Day Afternoon and Serpico, and starred on Broadway in The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel. But Author! Author! was challenged from the start. Israel Horovitz wrote a soggy story about a Broadway playwright dealing with family issues while trying to finish and open a show. And, while Dyan Cannon can be a strong comic actress, she doesn’t look sure of how to connect with the intense Pacino. In one of the first missteps of his career, the actor lets us see that, perhaps, he can’t play every part. But he sure can entertain as he tries.
Romantic Comedy (1983)
Some stage plays work better as movies than others. For Bernard Slade, Romantic Comedy was his third hit stage show, after Same Time, Next Year and Tribute, to get the Hollywood treatment. While those plays worked well as films – with Oscar nominations for Ellen Burstyn and Jack Lemmon – this story of writing partners who try to balance professional and personal interests never makes the leap to the big screen. While Mia Farrow and Anthony Perkins created an appealing rhythm on stage, Mary Steenburgen and Dudley Moore seem to have arrived on the set to make different films. She is touching but he appears disconnected. Despite Hiller’s efforts, and a delightful script, the film only suggests the magic that the stage version effortlessly creates.
No matter these disappointments, Arthur Hiller keeps his place in our movie memory for the films that still look effortless. Rest in peace, Mr. Hiller, and thank you.