Zieff (1927-2009) emerged as a filmmaker of some promise in 1973, just
as the exciting New Wave in American filmmaking was hitting its peak, an exciting movement that started in the late 1960s with such titles as "Bonnie and Clyde," "Medium Cool," "The Graduate," "Midnight Cowboy" and "Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice."
he became something of a footnote to the movement, unjustly forgotten
when critics rhapsodize about the movies of the late 1960s and early
One could speculate, I guess, that the neglect
he experienced had something to do with his age. He was 46 when he
made his first film in 1973 - the new-style caper-comedy, "Slither" -
while Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas were all in their late 20s
when they officially advanced the movement with such films as "The Rain People" (1969), "The Sugarland Express"
(1974) and "American Graffiti" (1973). Of course, all three would inevitably abandon the cutting-edge of the New Wave for the glories (and financial security) of
And I should hasten to note
that Zieff wasn't the only middle-ager making movies directed at the youth market. Robert Altman (age 45), Arthur Penn (also 45), Hal Ashby (41) and Paul
Mazursky (39) are just three Zieff peers who were no longer ambitious puppies of the movie business when they each hit it big (at the ages given here), making vital films.
more likely that Zieff's history
was problematic with the influence
peddlers. He made his feature debut after an incredibly successful
career in advertising, specifically making memorable TV commercials for
such products as Alka-Seltzer and Hertz. But it was exactly the
elements that he learned from making commercials - a feeling for speed,
brevity and short-hand - that make his handful of movies so
in point: "Slither," a scattered, free-form lark that plays like a
Godard film shot in the most unlikely California locations. (Anyone
game for visiting Susanville?) James Caan and Sally Kellerman as Dick
Kanipsia and Kitty Kopetzky, reluctant traveling companions, are like a
weirdly zoned-out Bogart and Bacall, and they keep bumping into an
assortment of eccentric characters, gamely played by Peter Boyle, Louise
Lasser, Alex Rocco, Allen Garfield and Richard B. Shull.
It always amazed me that Zieff managed to make a film as shaggy and as studio-unfriendly as "Slither" for James Aubrey during his tumulative reign at MGM.
Zieff made only nine films over a 20 year period and each one is a gem of comic economy.
The title that followed "Slither" two years later is, arguably, his
smoothest and most refined - "Hearts of the West," which played the 1975
New York Film Festival and became an instant critics' darling. It appealed to obsessed cinéphiles, too. A love
letter to early filmmaking, "Hearts of the West" is something of a
companion piece to Peter Bogdanovich's "Nickelodeon," which curiously
came a year later.
Bridges plays the hayseed author of dime novels about the old west
who finds himself a reluctant star of movies about the old west ("reluctant" seems to be a word that fits Zieff films and characters)
and the actor inhabits the role completely - as does Andy Griffith as
his (reluctant) mentor. Blythe Danner is the winsome female lead and
there's nice work here by Alan Arkin, Herb Edelman and, from"Slither,"
Rocco and Shull.
Following "House Calls" (1978), a
mature rom-com with Glenda Jackson and Walter Matthau (with a script to
which Max Shulman and Julius J. Epstein, no less, contributed), and "The
Main Event" (1979) which offered a terrifically appealing reteaming of
Barbra Streisand and Ryan O'Neal, Zieff enjoyed his biggest commercial
hit in 1980 - the inspired feminist romp, "Private Benjamin," with
Goldie Hawn in her most emblematic film performance as a Jewish American
Princess who is swayed by disreputable recruiter Harry Dean Stanton
(yes!) to join the United States Army.
Hawn is delirious
fun as the clueless Judy Benjamin who does her Army maneuvers with limp
wrists and no coordination whatsoever and who, with a straight face,
asks her drill sergeant (a perfect Eileen Brennan) exactly where are all
the beach condos that Stanton promised in his pitch.
was absent for about four years before he did his 1984 remake of the
1948 Rex Harrison film, "Unfaithfully Yours," with Dudley Moore in the
reimagined Harrison role and Nastassja Kinski filling in for Linda
Darnell. And then came the Michael Keaton comedy in 1989, "The Dream
Team," the least of all his films. But the endearing "My Girl" (1991)
A winning film about coming of age - in this case, a rare one about the coming of age of a girl
- "My Girl" is a warm but also alert and rather eccentric look at family and
friends and the passing of time and ... life. Thanks to Zieff's adroit
touch, the film is as comfortable as an all-embracing, overstuffed
chair (with an ottoman, natch) - and that's probably the exact kind of
place you'd want to sit while watching it.
The movie introduced the remarkable Anna
Chlumsky, a little girl with a huge face, as the young heroine, a
motherless kid named Vada who lives in a funeral parlor with her father
(Dan Aykroyd) and uncle (Richard Mazur) and who finds a fleeting
soulmate in Macauley Culkin and a soul sister in the beautician (Jamie
Lee Curtis) hired to make the corpses look, well, lifelike. His last film was the unnecessary '94 sequel, "My
The crucial eccentricity (by now a Zieff trademark) of "My Girl" is underlined by Chlumsky's unusual name, Vada, and also by the film's original (and more
singular) moniker, "Born Jaundiced," a title which Vada explains in a voiceover.
The film's producer Brian Grazer reportedly came up with the banal "My
Girl" (with its convenient music tie-in) and I've a hunch that the change was
made much to its director's chagrin. I mean, how could Howard Zieff, of all people, not prefer "Born
Zieff was 67 when he decided to retire. He died,
at age 82, some 15 years later in 2009 - of Parkinson's disease - and his vision is much missed.