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THE DIRECTOR WHO WANTED JAMES DEAN TO SING 'SURREY WITH THE FRINGE ON TOP'

I expected Fred Zinnemann, a director whose career had been both lengthy and distinguished, to be a solemn, imperious figure. So I was agreeably surprised to find him warm and even a little bit gossipy when I interviewed him for the New York Times in 1977. It was a fun time. --GUY FLATLEY

 

"Jane is a brilliant girl, with a very sure instinct and colossal technique, but she’s not the easiest person to work with. On the other hand, Montgomery Clift wasn’t very easy either,” recalled Fred Zinnemann, who directed Clift in “The Search” and “From Here to Eternity” and who recently helped shape Jane Fonda’s portrait of the young Lillian Hellman in “Julia.”

“But that’s all right – you don’t have to marry your actors. My inclination is to see what they will bring to a scene on their own, to see how it moves me, and then to take it from there and work with them. From the beginning, Jane had strong ideas, most of them quite good, so she needed very little help from me. And I didn’t need to talk to Vanessa Redgrave at all. Those two girls just do.”

Precisely how well they do can be judged by the public on Sunday, when “Julia” – based on Lillian Hellman’s moving reflection on her friendship with an intensely idealistic woman who was crippled and eventually murdered by the Nazis – opens at Cinema I. Mr. Zinnemann, a celebrated perfectionist, concedes that he has at least one reservation about “Julia” himself, just as in the past he has suffered regrets about such universally praised films of his as “The Men,” “Teresa,” “High Noon,” “The Nun’s Story” and “A Man for All Seasons.”

He is sorry, for example, that the characters of Dorothy Parker and her husband, Alan Campbell, are drawn with such superficial strokes. “Basically, the Campbells serve to advance the plot in ‘Julia,’ ” said the 70-year-old director the other evening in his suite at the Pierre Hotel. “I would have been very happy if we had been able to do better by them. But it was very difficult: to use direct quotes from Dorothy’s writing would have been obscene in this context, and yet for anyone to try to write Dorothy Parker lines would take real courage. If we had not been lucky enough to get Rosemary Murphy and Hal Holbrook to play the Campbell’s, we would have been in great trouble.”

Sometimes the greatest actors create the greatest problems. “Marlon Brando was terribly insecure when he did ‘The Men’ with me. He had never been before a camera before and he didn’t trust people. He was completely enclosed within himself, so totally identifying with Stanley Kowalski that he approached the part of the paraplegic veteran as Stanley Kowalski. But I had to respect his talent; he knew what he had in mind, and it was my responsibility to set it up visually, so that he could function. For a director to try to control Brando is not feasible. The man is a force of nature.”

Ethel Waters, too, was a law unto herself, and in “The Member of the Wedding” – a personal favorite of Mr. Zinnemann’s – she gave a performance of monumental power and beauty. “Ethel was a wonderful, sad woman,” he recalled. “Between scenes, she’d sit in her dressing room and listen to her old records. But she was also a very headstrong lady. If she took three steps to the right, and I’d asked her to move to the left instead, she’d stand perfectly still, point at me, and say, ‘God is my director!’ ”

Unfortunately, God did not step in and lend a hand with the direction of “Oklahoma!” “I tried to humanize ‘Oklahoma!’ and that was my fatal mistake. I thought Rod Steiger could bring a lot of compassion to the role of Jud Fry, and that’s exactly what he did. When Jud died on stage, everyone loved it, because he was conceived as a villain with a moustache. But Rod made him understandable. I realized too late that Jud was a poor bastard, a suffering human being who was treated very shabbily. I had a lovely time making the movie, but I failed to bring ‘Oklahoma!’ to the screen with the kind of purity it had on stage. There’s no use blaming anyone else.”

He certainly can’t blame James Dean. “I wanted Jimmy to play Curly. I was here, in this very hotel, and he was supposed to come up for an interview at 11. Eleven came, and he was not here; 11:30 came, and he still was not here. Then around noon, in comes Jimmy, furious. He was all dressed up like a cowboy, for the part, and since he was an unknown at the time, they threw him out of the hotel. Finally, he came up in the freight elevator. Later, he made a screen test – with the surrey with the fringe on top – and I very much liked it. But Rodgers and Hammerstein had other ideas. Jimmy couldn’t sing, they pointed out, so they didn’t want him. It’s a good thing, because he would have thrown ‘Oklahoma!’ entirely off the tracks.”

Mr. Zinnemann has never been considered on-the-track by the auteur critics, possibly because he is a meticulous craftsman who sidesteps flashy techniques, a director who feels that his private personality is not something to be applied like a bumper sticker, turning every film he makes into a Zinnemann vehicle.

“I don’t worry about stamping my signature on a film. Certainly there are themes that fascinate me, such as the conflict of conscience, and I like to convey the things that concern me emotionally, on a human level. But I do not believe in selling any of my personal beliefs – political, religious or otherwise. That’s not what people come to the movies to see. As a director, my primary function is to entertain the public. If someone is going to pay three bucks for a ticket, he has a right to be entertained.”