Monday, November 26, 2018

Nicolas Roeg and William Goldman: Hail and Farewell

It’s sad how quickly we’re losing members of the greater Hollywood community.  We can’t call them men who died before their time: each lived to a ripe old age, and enjoyed honors and accolades galore. Still, the film industry will long feel their loss.

Nicolas Roeg, born in 1928, is said to have decided  on filmmaking as a career mostly because he lived across the road from a British movie studio. He started as a tea-boy (a job that doesn’t exactly exist in America), and moved up to be a clapper-loader, which is the lowliest of cinematography jobs. Eventually he was hired as second-unit cinematographer on David Lean’s classic Lawrence of Arabia, but the relationship with Lean went south when he was fired from Lean’s equally monumental follow-up, Dr. Zhivago. He served as cinematographer, though, on films by such greats as François Truffaut (Fahrenheit 451), John Schlesinger (Far From the Madding Crowd), and Richard Lester (Petulia).

But for me Roeg’s most meaningful cinematography credit was on Roger Corman’s The Masque of the Red Death. By the time my former boss shot Masque in 1964, he had already made a name for himself by way of several features based on the eerie tales of Edgar Allan Poe. Starting with House of Usher in 1960, Corman directed and produced such chillers as Pit and the Pendulum, Premature Burial, and The Tomb of Ligeia.. But I’m not the only Corman fan who’s convinced that Masque of the Red Death is the very best of Corman’s horror epics, and part of the reason is that Roeg’s camerawork perfectly captures the kaleidoscopic yet somber mood.

Roeg of course moved beyond cinematography to put his directorial stamp on a particular kind of  otherworldly feature. His films are bleak: even the one intended for children (an adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The Witches) has nightmarish implications. Roeg fully exploited the dark charisma of Mick Jagger in Performance as well as the unearthly quality of David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth. Don’t Look Now (1973) was once notorious for its fairly explicit sex scene between Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie, but at its heart this is a film about vain hope, as played out by grieving parents.

William Goldman, who died on November 16 at the age of 87, left us a body of work that was less exotic and more down-to-earth. What stands out is his versatility: he was a novelist, a playwright, and a screenwriter, responsible for such major hits as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Princess Bride (a family favorite adapted from his own novel), Misery (based on the work of Stephen King), and the historically important All The President’s Men. (As a young writer, he bypassed a golden opportunity when he declined to work on the screen version of The Graduate.) Whole generations of screenwriters have learned from Goldman’s Adventures in the Screen Trade, with its sage insistence that in the film biz “nobody knows anything.”

Goldman sometimes went far afield from Hollywood, as when he published The Season (1969), a candid assessment of the state of Broadway in the years 1967-68. I personally treasure his 1990 memoir, Hype and Glory, about the year he judged both the Cannes Film Festival and the Miss America Pageant. Here’s one characteristically pragmatic except: “Narrative is only a piece of string and it’s where you choose to cut it that’s essential. Where you choose to cut it. I might pick a piece further along, or earlier. No one is right. There is no right way to tell a story, only your way.

Since I wrote this post, I’ve learned of the deaths of film director Bernardo Bertolucci and actor/magician Ricky Jay. And so it goes.

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