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TO HIM, MAKING A MOVIE WAS LIKE FIGHTING A WAR


Lindsay Anderson, the great director who died in 1994 at the age of 71, was a man who never failed to voice his opinion, as he made abundantly clear to me in this 1973 interview for The New York Times. He was both a terror and a delight, and he is truly missed. --GUY FLATLEY

When a hotshot moviemaker from abroad visits Hollywood, he naturally makes it a point to meet the People in Power. So who is it that Lindsay Anderson, the British director of “This Sporting Life” and “If...,” trembles with joy at the thought of meeting? James Aubrey? Joe Levine? Ross Hunter? Rona Barrett?

No. No. No. No.

“If only I could get to see Mary Astor!” sighs Anderson. He’s passing through New York now, presumably to promote “O Lucky Man!,” his savage, stylized comedy about the tons of heartbreak and chutzpah, agony and excrement, it takes to get to the top in our parasitic society. But, for the moment, he seems content to talk of other movies and other times.

“Mary Astor was always my favorite actress,” he says once he has performed the minor miracle of uncorking a bottle of wine on a tricky wall opener and the major miracle of nearly silencing Malcolm MacDowell, the splendidly resilient hero of “O Lucky Man!,” who is off in another room of the sprawling Pierre suite engaged in what sounds strangely like a rugby match with his steady girl.

Anderson beams, cherub-like, at the memory of Mary, the mad concert-pianist, in “The Great Lie.” “When Mary Astor sat down to play the piano,” he says, suddenly lunging forward in his chair and thumping his hands up and down with pianistic passion, “she bloody well played the thing!”

But the cherub turns to churl at the mention of another legendary star. “Ingrid Bergman is a bourgeois cow!” Anderson scowls. “Give me Ann Sheridan any day.”

What? Surely, he was captivated by Bergman in “Casblanca?”

“Hmmmmmmm,” he replies, his eyes narrowing to slits, his lip curling defiantly upward.

You don’t have to stretch your imagination too far to see how Anderson might be a trifle turned off by the sunny Swede who recently presided over the Cannes Festival jury, the same jury which failed to rain down prizes on “O Lucky Man!" After all, Anderson, a 50-year-old firebrand with a celebrated flair for mixing visual poetry, radical politics and “Hellzapoppin” humor, seemed a shoo-in to cop the best picture award for his irreverent “O Lucky Man!,” just as he had done five years ago with “If...,” a blistering, absurdist indictment of the boors and boobs of British society, a film which achieved instant cult status among the young – possibly because it ended with Malcolm McDowell and his lovably rebellious classmates merrily machine-gunning a whole passel of stodgy teachers and pompous parents.

The unkind cut of Cannes is now a sting of the past – particularly since America’s moviegoers and critics have taken “O Lucky Man!” to their hearts. Well, not quite all of America’s critics. The New York Times' Vincent Canby, for example, liked Anderson’s new effort less than he liked “If…,” and a lot less than he liked “This Sporting Life,” the searing but conventionally structured movie about a brawling, pathetically inarticulate rugby player which established Anderson as a major cinematic talent a decade ago.

But Vincent Canby is not the first local critic to have annoyed Anderson. As a matter of fact, Anderson is a lucky man to have had “O Lucky Man!” reviewed in the New Yorker by the passionately favorable Penelope Gilliat, instead of Pauline Kael. “Pauline Kael is such a caricature of the journalistic bitch,” says Anderson, allowing a trace of pique to surface. “Her reputation as a critic of intellectual distinction is totally unmerited, and I’m simply amazed that no one has taken her on in print.”

Anderson – not exactly a shrinking violet – seems more than willing to take on Miss Kael, in or out of print. “When she came to a screening of ‘If…,' I realized for the first time how badly a so-called serious critic can behave. I invited her for a drink afterward, she accepted, and her first remark was, ‘I was on the West Coast when “This Sporting Life” opened, so it wasn’t until I came East that I realized what a failure it was.’ I was astonished that she would say this to me, and I thought, ‘Either I accept this sort of camp fencing, or I speak up.’ So I said, ‘Tell me, why do you make a remark like that? Do you think it’s clever, or are you trying to throw me off my guard?’ Instead of facing up to my question, she phonied and fluttered and said, ‘Oh, I hope you didn’t take offense! I didn’t mean anything by it.’ You see, the more vicious a critic is in print, the more cowardly in person.”

In the beginning, Anderson himself was a critic. The time was shortly after World War II, and Anderson’s eccentric, perhaps excessively imaginative service as a military cryptographer in India were no longer needed – if, indeed, they ever were. So the math-weary veteran marched on to Oxford, where he zeroed in on securing a degree in English, and experimenting with film analysis for Sequence magazine.

“It was one of those vitriolic little magazines people run when they are young. Nobody gets paid, but they have complete charge of things. The reason I became a critic was that I was quite simply mad about films. And one of my early themes was to say that I didn’t think British films were so great – and that ‘Brief Encounter’ was a dreary, bourgeois movie. I was greatly under the influence of John Ford at the time; I had just seen ‘My Darling Clementine,’ the single film that has had the most intoxicating effect on me. Of course, Peter Bogdanovich resents the fact that I dared to write about John Ford; he thinks Ford is his preserve.

“I recently saw Ford’s ‘Grapes of Wrath’ again, and I was overwhelmed by the fantastic power of the humanist feeling in that picture. Every image is so moving; it’s like looking into the Garden of Eden, looking at our own lost innocence. When Ford made that movie, it required an act of courage. But now, we have to make our own acts of courage. I love talking about old movies and seeing old movies, but this permanent nostalgia thing that Bogdanovich is caught up in…I mean, if we can still see ‘Bringing Up Baby,’ why should we bother to remake it? I call that being rather unhealthily in love with one’s youth.”

What about Anderson’s own youth?

“Surely, you don’t want to hear about that? It’s so boring! Well, all right then, let’s see…my father had served with the Army in India, and I suppose you could say I was an upper-class boy who didn’t quite subscribe to the conventions of his class or to the idea of social allegiance.”

Anderson, one of three brothers, was born in Bangalore, South India, but his parents returned to the south of England when he was two years old. One of his brothers is an Air Force pilot today; the other died while serving in the Navy. “He caught an unknown virus at sea. It was one of those tragic events in our family…he was only 26, and much better adjusted than my older brother and I. I suppose that was due to the fact that when we were growing up, our mother and father were not getting along. But my younger brother missed all that, because my parents divorced when I was 10, and Mother married again.”

A five-and-ten Freudian might infer that Anderson’s early glimpse of dismal domesticity influenced his later decision not to marry, and that an emotionally upsetting reality led him to seek solace in make-believe. “As a schoolboy,” he says, smiling, “I formed the idea of becoming an actor, but I received immense and emotional opposition from my parents. I must say, they were completely right about not wanting me to become an actor.”

Since actors are a notoriously insecure species, Anderson was smart to set his sights on becoming a director, something he did soon after his 25th birthday, when a wealthy couple dropped out of heaven and gave him money to make a short movie about the mining machinery they were so busily turning out. That was followed by a string of increasingly effective documentaries, the most acclaimed being “Thursday’s Children,” a compassionate but unsentimental look at the world of deaf children, which Anderson filmed in 1953.

In addition to working in the documentary field, Anderson soon began dabbling in television and, in 1957, he embarked on a sporadic though stimulating association with London’s adventurous Royal Court Theater. It was not until 1963, however, that he directed his first full length dramatic movie – the beautifully abrasive film version of David Storey’s novel, “This Sporting Life.” Richard Harris became an overnight star in the role of the hard-living, hard-headed rugby player, and Anderson planned to cast him next as Heathcliff in a remake of “Wuthering Heights.” The project never got past the planning stage.

“Richard became successful, and he heard that call of ‘Camelot,’ a call that was death to him as an actor. Maybe it’s the Scots in me that disapproves of the Irish in Richard…I don’t know. Underneath it all, Richard is frightened, like Brando. The reason Brando says he doesn’t like acting – and hasn’t been acting seriously in years – is that he is frightened to death of appearing on a stage again.”

Dismissing Brando is one thing, but resisting the temptation to see him in Bernardo Bertolucci's “Last Tango in Paris” – which Pauline Kael says “may turn out to be the most liberating movie ever made” – is quite another.

“I have no intention of seeing ‘Last Tango,’” says Anderson, surprised that anyone could imagine his tastes ran in that direction. “I don’t like Bertolucci’s films. I can’t stand Italian chic.”

Brando may be afraid of the theater, but Anderson is not. In fact, he seems to spend more time backstage than behind the camera, having made only three full-length films in his entire career.

"It’s not true, really, that I work more in the theater than in films. A picture like ‘If...’ took 18 months to make. ‘O Lucky Man!’ took approximately two years. So I’ve actually worked quite a lot in films. It is true, however, that I’m not a career director, going from one movie to the next. I don’t enjoy working in cinema the way I enjoy working in the theater. It’s difficult to relax when you’re making a movie. The challenge is so great, like fighting a war. Some people like fighting wars, but I don’t. I like to feel free, without pressures of money and time. Doing a play is more like a holiday.”

On the other hand, film is said to be the director’s medium. “Yes, cinema – at its best – does belong to the director, whereas a play belongs to the author, and to the actors. But, obviously, I wouldn’t take on a play I didn’t subscribe to. One of the evidences of that is the fact that the last four stage productions I’ve done have all been by the same author.”

That author is David Storey, whose “Home” was brilliantly staged on Broadway by Anderson in 1970. “You see, in a strange way, I do understand and share David’s way of looking at the world. Not altogether, of course, but I do respect David and I can learn from him.”

No doubt the education is a mutual proposition, since Storey has invited Anderson to shed his directorial light on two of his new plays next season. “It looks as if I’ll have to do them; once David has done me the honor of asking me, I can’t say no. The first one, which I’ll do in September, is about family relationships – three daughters and a son. And there is a good chance, too, that I’ll be doing the movie version of ‘The Changing Room.’ ”

If it gets by the censors, it’ll be the nudest movie show in town. “Oh, I don’t think there’ll be a problem with nudity in a film like that, set in a locker room. When I staged it in London, there was no reaction to the nudity at all. I don’t think the audiences even noticed.”

“The Changing Room” may be a champion drama, but it’s also pretty grim stuff. Wouldn’t Anderson like to follow it with some frilly escapist fare? “Sometimes I have this fantasy of making a purely entertaining movie, a thriller or a western, but they’re very difficult to do. Actually, after ‘If…’ I was sent quite a lot of properties, but it’s hard for me to take on a project formulated by someone else. It’s so unlikely to fit in with my preoccupations and feelings.”

Anderson has fierce feelings about the rotten regimes that have twisted the world into its present sad shape, but he has no urge to make his own “State of Siege.” “The only way to be of service as an artist is to find a metaphor. There’s no use making a film that will be dated in two years. You must find a metaphor before the event. ‘If…’ survives, while films made after the student riots – films made to cash in on the riots – do not survive.

“Someone suggested that Costa-Gavras make a film about Watergate, but there is no use making a straight journalistic movie about Watergate. We can’t do any good by making people’s flesh creep. Their flesh is made to creep every time they pick up a newspaper. We have to stimulate them, invigorate them, in some other way – through satire, through comedy. The merely anecdotal level of moviemaking is no longer adequate. Film now has to make a big statement.

“As for Watergate, it’s really what one would expect, isn’t it? I don’t mean that it isn’t a good thing to bring it out in the open and to mock it, but anyone who has had any kind of experience in the ways of living men can’t be all that surprised. Watergates exist everywhere in the world. If everyone had learned the lessons of ‘O Lucky Man!,' Watergate couldn’t have happened. It only happened because people are so naive.

“So you see, ‘O Lucky Man!’ is relevant. Everything in the film is real, a reflection of the real dangers of the world we live in. We have taken poetic liberties, of course, to give the film the element of surprise, so that it will challenge and stimulate and suggest. But it is a film about the very real follies and illusions to which human beings subject themselves. Which is not to say that ‘O Lucky Man!’ isn’t also an entertainment.”

Speaking of entertainment, it now sounds as if Malcolm McDowell is playing rugby with the entire cast of “O Lucky Man!” in the adjoining room, and Anderson seems a bit peeved. “Oh, what the hell,” he finally shrugs. "Might as well let them have a little bit of fun!”

Anderson pours some more wine and a faraway glow spreads over his face. “By the way,” he says rather dreamily, “you wouldn’t happen to have a number for Mary Astor, would you?”