Saturday, October 14, 2017

small screen, big screen

There have been a lot of trends - some fleeting, some that have become fixed - during the course of movie history, but one that has never been recognized (to the best of my knowledge) is the transition of television personalities to feature-film directing that occurred during the 1980s.

While a handful of them had experience in producing and directing series, the most productive were actors who appeared in those series, mostly sitcoms. They directed some of the most popular and, in many cases, critically-acclaimed films of the 80s, but for reasons that I cannot exactly pinpoint, the directing careers of many of them were curiously short-lived.

With the exception of one (maybe two), they all faded out along with the '80s themselves. So, today, I intend to pay tribute these filmmakers who, based on their output, have every right to be called auteurs.

Ron Howard. Howard made his official directorial debut for Roger Corman  with 1977's "Grand Theft Auto," but his new career really kicked into gear with "Night Shift" (1982) and particularly Tom Hanks' "Splash" (1984). Working in tandem with producer Brian Grazer, he created a string of companionable hits ("Cocoon," "Parenthood," "Cinderella Man," "Frost/Nixon" and "Rush") and is in his 40th year (as difficult as that is to believe) as a director. Howard won an Oscar for directing "A Beautiful Mind" in 2001 and remains incredibly active compared to his TV peers. 

Rob Reiner. Reiner, of course, zoomed out of the gate with the seminal mockumentary, "This Is Spinal Tap," in 1984 and then, a year later, gave us John Cusack and Daphne Zuniga (remember her?) in the enchanting "The Sure Thing." This was followed by - now hold on - "Stand By Me," "The Princess Bride," "When Harry Met Sally...," "Misery," "A Few Good Men" and "The American President," all in a space of 10 years. Like Howard, his career as a filmmaker has lasted beyond the '80s. Reiner still makes films but his focus has clearly switched to politics and activism. Good move.
Frank Oz. Ok, he's known largely as the voice of Miss Piggy and as a Muppeteer, but he started a most satisfying directing career 1982. Here goes: "Little Shop of Horrors," "In & Out," "Bowfinger," "HouseSitter," "What About Bob?," "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels" and "The Dark Crystal." Say no more. 

Garry Marshall. Marshall, who died in 2016 at age 91, directed his final film, "Mother's Day," that year - one of those all-star omnibus movies in which he came to specialize. He made his first film, "Young Doctors in Love," in 1982, and then did the pleasurable "The Flamingo Kid,"  "Beaches" and "Nothing in Common," with Jackie Gleason and Tom Hanks. There was "Frankie and Johnny" (based on a Terrence McNally play) and "The Princess Diaries," but he will forever be known for "Pretty Woman." Personally, in terms of a Roberts-Gere pairing, I prefer "Runaway Bride."

Danny DeVito. My personal favorite of the TV-bred directors. DeVito made a sensational debut directing the very original Hitchcock takeoff, "Throw Momma from the Train," in 1987. Since then, he's directed only five features - all good.  "The War of the Roses" and "Hoffa" (with Jack Nicholson in the title role) are easily his most accomplished films, but I equally admire the misunderstood "Death to Smoochy" and the offbeat charmer, "Duplex," barely released by Miramax. Lately, DeVito has directed a string of shorts and seems to have gone back to acting, although he has a completed feature, "St. Sebastian" (with William Fitchner and Constance Zimmer), his first in 14 years.
Penny Marshall. Marshall, not surprisingly the only woman in the bunch, made her debut with the very entertaining Whoopi Goldberg comedy, "Jumpin' Jack Flash" (1986). But then came something much bigger - "Big" (again with Hanks) in 1988. After that, she directed a movie every two years, with the excellent "Awakenings" and the feminist crossover hit, "A League of Their Own"  (Hanks!), being the standouts - followed by "Renaissance Man," "The Preacher's Wife" and her last (in 2001), "Riding in the Cars with Boys."

 Leonard Nimoy. Nimoy had a ten-year career directing feature films, starting (naturally) with two "Star Trek" titles - "Star Trek III: The Search for Spock" in 1984 and "Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home" in 1986. He had a huge hit with "Three Men and a Baby," Disney's 1987 remake of a French comedy, and challenged himself with the difficult Diane Keaton-Liam Neeson drama, "The Good Mother." There were only two more films after that - "Holy Matrimony" and the Gene Wilder comedy, "Funny about Love," from which Farrah Fawcett's entire performance was famously deleted. Nimoy died in 2015 at age 83.

Alan Alda. After writing the screenplay for Jerry Schatzberg's "The Seduction of Joe Tynan," Alda spent the '80s directing four films and then called it quits. They were "The Four Seasons" in 1981, followed by the very good "Sweet Liberty," "A New Life" and "Betsy's Wedding."

James L. Brooks. Brooks, the sitcom king, hit the big screen big time with that piece of Oscar bait, the irresistible "Terms of Endearment," in 1983. Three years later, there was the much-admired "Broadcast News" (also Oscar-worthy), followed by the notorious "I'll Do Anything," a film that started life as a musical but was released as a straight dramedy, and the enormously popular "As Good as It Gets." In 2004, he directed my personal favorite Brooks film, "Spanglish." His last film, in 2010, was Reese Witherspoon's badly-titled "How Do You Know?"
Worth noting are those TV hands who failed to make an impression on the big screen. James Burrows, who has helmed scores of sitcoms (mot notably "Friends"), directed only one film to date - 1982's "Partners," a cop comedy with Ryan O'Neal and John Hurt (as his gay partner). Also one-timers are Jay Sandrich and Terry Hughes who directed "Seems Like Old Times" (1980) and "The Butcher's Wife" (1991) respectively -  two very appealing comedies.

Sandrich was the chief director of "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and Hughes, a British director, oversaw "Third Rock from the Sun," as well as two filmed-on-stage Sondheim pieces, "Sunday in the Park with George" and "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street."

Finally, there's the estimable John Rich, who was behind "All in the Family" and "The Dick Van Dyke Show." Rich, who died at 86 in 2012, directed five features in the 1960s - the Tony Curtis-Jerry Lewis comedy, "Boeing, Boeing," "Wives and Lovers," "The New Interns" and two Elvis titles, "Roustabout" (with Barbara Stanwyck) and "Easy Come, Easy Go."
* * * * *
~auteurs from the small screen
(from top)

~Frank Oz directing Nicole Kidman in "The Stepford Wives"
 ~photography: Paramount/DreamWorks 2004©

~Ron Howard
~Rob Reiner
~Danny DeVito
~Penny Marshall
~Leonard Nimoy
~Alan Alda


Michael J. Fitzgerald said...

Excellent piece! Loved it... Posted it on Facebook, too...

joe baltake said...

Thanks, Michael!

m.h. said...

Thanks, Joe. I would love to see AGAIN most of the films mentioned in your posting. -M.H.

Mike Schlesinger said...

IIRC, didn't Henry Winkler direct a couple of features as well?

joe baltake said...

Mike- Winkler has worked largely in TV as a director. However, he did do two features - "The Memory of Me," a 1988 Billy Crystal film that Crystal co-wrote (with Eric Roth), and the 1993 Burt Reynolds comedy, "Cop & 1/2," both largely forgotten. His career as a movie director was fairly brief. -J

Mike Schlesinger said...

But wasn't that the actual point of this piece?

joe baltake said...

Not really, Mike. The point was to comment on those TV personalities who made a sizable dent on the big screen. Winkler's contribution was a mere scratch. -J