9/10/07

TOAST ROBERT WISE ON HIS 93rd BIRTHDAY!

robertwise

The great director, Robert Wise, was born this day in 1914 and passed from this world two years ago, age ninety-one. I was privleged to know him for much of my life--when I was barely a teenager he directed the film "Audrey Rose" which was based on a novel by my father, Frank De Felitta. I was on the set for much of the shoot at the old MGM (now Sony) studios and learned how to make a film by watching Bob shoot that movie. Almost thirty years later, my wife and I introduced our one year old son to him just weeks before his death.

There can never be a career like his again, because the world that he came up in and personified is, alas, gone forever. That is the studio world--the Hollywood of the twenties, thirties, forties and fifties--which was, in essence, a factory town where an ambitious outsider could climb the ladder and, if talented, industrious and focused could--courtesy of a couple of breaks--make it big in show-biz. Yet there was nothing 'show biz' about Bob; he was a sober, gentle mid-westerner who came to Hollywood during the depression and literally started in the projection rooms at RKO, gradually working his way up the rung as an editor, eventually cutting "CItizen Kane" and being handed the ultimate reward of a b-movie of his own to direct. I won't tell his life story here--suffice it to say that he invested in the system and the system paid him back handsomely--in his later years he was old Hollywood's official statesmen, the head of the DGA, AMPAS, all kinds of committees. Unlike others, though, who might have retreated bitterly from activity and simply used these honorary posts as filler, Bob fervently believed in his service to all of these institutions and was devoted to helping start up film education programs--as he saw it (and without a trace of irony) the movies had been nothing but good to him, so why not spread the wealth? Such genuine and uncomplicated feelings toward the movie business are awfully rare to come by. At my most despondant (and there are days) I try to channel his optimism and belief that making pictures is actually worth the struggle.

As a director, he was best when matched with emotionally intense material--'I Want To Live", "The Set-Up", "West Side Story'" --which may seem something of an anomoly given his calm and almost passive nature. Yet I think that his strongest attribute was persistance--and so perhaps its not so odd that he rose to those occasions with the fervor that he displayed. He loved getting his teeth into something and really working it hard. (Other excellent but less well known intense Bob films to check out: "Run Silent, Run Deep", "Odds Against Tomorrow", "Captive City".) He was endlessly patient and thorough in his shooting methods, enjoyed painstakingly working out the set-ups for complicated sequences, and never wavered in his determination to get something right. Nothing and nobody intimidated him either--he was unmoved by worried executives as he knew that later they would thank him when they saw the finished product (he went rather famously overbudget and schedule on "West Side Story"--but not in a "nutty director" way. Instead, he simply kept explaining to the Mirischs why the movie required the time and money that it did. It worked!). And except for his occasionally fractious relationship with Steve McQueen on "Sand Pebbles" (a very fine, very underrated picture) he had actors in the grip of his calm and persuasive palm. So raise a glass (preferably a dry Martini--Bombay Gin I believe was his preferred) to a great craftsman and a genuinely peaceful, lovely individual. Happy Birthday, Bob. I hope by now you and Orson Welles have made it up to each other over "Ambersons."

Below are two clips. First a short (one minute) piece of "The Set Up"--one of the best boxing movies ever made (the fine cinematography is by Milton Krasner). And the thrilling (and meticulously staged and covered) "America" from "West Side Story."



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