23 May, 2012
Fred Zinnemann was an Austrian-American film director. He won two Academy Awards for directing films (From Here to Eternity and A Man for All Seasons) in many genres, including thrillers, westerns, film noir, and play adaptations. Nineteen actors appearing in Zinnemann's films received Academy Award nominations for their performances: among that number are Frank Sinatra, Audrey Hepburn, Glynis Johns, Paul Scofield, Robert Shaw, Wendy Hiller, Jason Robards, Vanessa Redgrave, Jane Fonda, Gary Cooper and Maximilian Schell.
Life and career
Zinnemann was born to a Jewish family in Vienna, Austria. While growing up in Austria, he wanted to become a musician, but went on to study law. While studying at the University of Vienna, he became drawn to films and eventually became a cameraman. He worked in Germany with several other beginners (Billy Wilder and Robert Siodmak also worked with him on the 1929 feature People on Sunday) before going to America to study film.
Zinnemann's penchant for realism and authenticity is evident in his first feature The Wave (1935), shot on location in Mexico with mostly non-professional actors recruited among the locals, which is one of the earliest examples of realism in narrative film. Earlier in the decade, in fact, Zinnemann had worked with documentarian Robert Flaherty, an association he considered "the most important event of my professional life".
One of Zinnemann's first assignments in Hollywood was when he found work as an extra in All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), although he was discharged from the production for talking back to the director, Lewis Milestone. After some success with short films, he graduated to features in 1942, turning out two crisp B mysteries, Eyes in the Night and Kid Glove Killer before getting his big break with The Seventh Cross (1944), starring Spencer Tracy, which was his first hit. The film was based on Anna Seghers' novel and, while filmed entirely on the MGM backlot, made realistic use of refugee German actors in even the smallest roles. The central character—an escaped prisoner played by Tracy—is seen as comparatively passive and fatalistic. He is, however, the subject of heroic assistance from anti-Nazi Germans. In a sense, the protagonist of the film is not the Tracy character but a humble German worker played by Hume Cronyn, who changes from Nazi sympathizer to active opponent of the regime as he aids Tracy.
After World War II ended, Zinnemann learned that both of his parents had died in the Holocaust. He was further frustrated by his studio contract, which dictated that he did not have a choice in directing films like My Brother Talks to Horses (1947) and Little Mr. Jim (1947) despite his lack of interest in their subject matter. However, his next film, The Search (1948), won an Oscar for screenwriting and secured his position in the Hollywood establishment. Shot in war-ravaged Germany, the film stars Montgomery Clift in his screen debut as a GI who cares for a lost Czech boy traumatised by the war. It was followed by Act of Violence (1948), a gritty film noir starring Van Heflin as a haunted POW, Robert Ryan as his hot-tempered former friend, Janet Leigh as Heflin's wife, and Mary Astor as a sympathetic prostitute. Zinnemann considered Act of Violence the first project in which he "felt comfortable knowing exactly what I wanted and exactly how to get it."
In the critically acclaimed The Men (1950), starring newcomer Marlon Brando as a paraplegic war veteran, Zinnemann filmed many scenes in a California hospital where real patients served as extras. The film is noted for giving Brando his first screen role. It was followed by Teresa (1951), starring Pier Angeli.
Perhaps Zinnemann's best-known work to come out of the 1950's is High Noon (1952), one of the first 25 American films chosen in 1989 for the National Film Registry. With its psychological and moral examinations of its lawman hero Marshall Will Kane, played by Gary Cooper, its allegorical political commentary (on McCarthy-era witch-hunting) and its innovative chronology whereby screen time approximated the 80-minute countdown to the confrontational hour, the film broke the mould of the formulaic shoot-‘em-up western.
For his screen adaptation of the play The Member of the Wedding (1952), Zinnemann chose the 26-year-old Julie Harris as the film's 12-year-old protagonist, although she had created the role on Broadway just as the two other leading actors, Ethel Waters and Brandon deWilde, had.
Zinnemann's next film, From Here to Eternity (1953), based on the novel by James Jones, would go on to win 8 Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director. Zinnemann fought hard with producer Harry Cohn to cast Montgomery Clift as the character of Prewitt, although Frank Sinatra, who was at the lowest point of his popularity, cast himself in the role of "Maggio" against Zinnemann's wishes. Sinatra would later win an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. From Here to Eternity also featured Deborah Kerr, best known for prim and proper roles, as a philandering Army wife. Donna Reed played the role of Alma "Lorene" Burke, a prostitute and mistress of Montgomery Clift's character which earned her an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for 1953.
Oklahoma! (1955), Zinnemann's version of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, is noted for the wide screen format Todd-AO making its debut, as did the film's young star, Shirley Jones. It was followed by A Hatful of Rain (1957), starring Don Murray, Eva Marie Saint and Anthony Franciosa, and based on the play by Michael V. Gazzo.
Zinnemann rounded out the 1950's with The Nun's Story (1959), casting Audrey Hepburn, previously cast in comedic roles, in the role of the anguished Sister Luke.
The Sundowners (1960), starring Robert Mitchum and Deborah Kerr as an Australian outback husband and wife, led to more Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Actress (Kerr) and Best Supporting Actress (Glynis Johns), but won none. Behold A Pale Horse (1964) was a post-Spanish Civil War epic based on the book Killing A Mouse on Sunday by Emeric Pressburger and starred Gregory Peck, Anthony Quinn and Omar Sharif, but was both a critical and commercial flop; Zinnemann would later admit that the film "didn't really come together."
Zinnemann's fortunes changed once again with A Man for All Seasons (1966), scripted by Robert Bolt from his own play and starring Paul Scofield as Sir Thomas More, portraying him as a man driven by conscience to his ultimate fate. The film went on to win six Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actor (Scofield) and Best Director, Zinnemann's second such Oscar to date.
After this, Zinnemann was all set to direct an adaptation of Man's Fate for MGM. However, the project was shut down in 1969, and the studio attempted to hold Zinnemann responsible for at least $1 million of the $3.5 million that had already been spent on pre-production. In protest, Zinnemann filed a lawsuit against the studio, and it would be seven years before he would make his next film.
The cancellation of Man's Fate, according to Zinnemann, "marked the end of an era in picture making and the dawn of a new one, when lawyers and accountants began to replace showmen as head of the studios and when a handshake was a handshake no longer." However, Universal then offered him the chance to direct The Day of the Jackal (1973), based on the best-selling suspense novel by Frederick Forsyth. The film starred Edward Fox as an Englishman who is relentlessly driven to complete his mission to try to kill French president Charles de Gaulle, and Michael Lonsdale as the French detective hired to stop him. Zinnemann was intrigued by the opportunity to direct a film in which the audience would already be able to guess the ending (the Jackal failing his mission), and was pleased when it ultimately became a hit with the public.
The Day of the Jackal was followed four years later by Julia (1977), based on the book Pentimento by Lillian Hellman. The film starred Jane Fonda as Hellman and Vanessa Redgrave as her best friend Julia, a doomed American heiress who forsakes the safety and comfort of great wealth to devote her life to the anti-Nazi cause in Germany. The film was nominated for 11 Academy Awards and won three, for Best Screenplay (Alvin Sargent), Best Supporting Actor (Jason Robards), and Best Supporting Actress for Redgrave, who drew scattered boos on Oscar night for her infamous "Zionist hoodlums" acceptance speech.
Zinnemann's final film was Five Days One Summer (1982), filmed in Switzerland and based on the short story Maiden, Maiden by Kay Boyle. It starred Sean Connery and Betsy Brantley as a "couple" vacationing in the Alps in the 1930's, and a young Lambert Wilson as a mountain-climbing guide who grows heavily suspicious of their relationship. The film was both a critical and commercial flop, although Zinnemann would be told by various critics in later years that they considered it an underrated achievement.
Final years and death
Zinnemann is often regarded as striking a blow against "ageism" in Hollywood. The story (which may be apocryphal) goes that, in the 1980s, during a meeting with a young Hollywood executive, Zinnemann was surprised to find the executive didn't know who he was, despite having won four Academy Awards, and directing many of Hollywood's biggest films. When the young executive callowly asked Zinnemann to list what he had done in his career, Zinnemann delivered an elegant comeback by reportedly answering, "Sure. You first." In Hollywood, the story is known as "You First," and is often alluded to when veteran creators find that upstarts are unfamiliar with their work.
Zinnemann died of a heart attack in London, England on 14 March 1997. He was 89 years old.