Category: Archive

The quiet director

February 17, 2011

By Staff Reporter

Still amazed by the impact the six-time Oscar-winner has had on generations of filmmakers, Bogdanovich (“Paper Moon,” “The Last Picture Show”) has re-worked his 1971 documentary, “Directed by John Ford,” to reflect how the brilliant, unpredictable and often cantankerous son of Irish immigrants is still relevant today, decades after he died of stomach cancer at the age of 79.
Set to premiere Nov. 7 on the Turner Classic Movies channel, the updated version of the documentary features new interviews with actor Harry Carey Jr. (“Rio Grande,” “She Wore A Yellow Ribbon”) and acclaimed filmmakers Martin Scorsese (“Gangs of New York,” “The Departed,”) Clint Eastwood (“Million Dollar Baby,” “Mystic River”) and Steven Spielberg (“Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “Schindler’s List.”) The new offering contains scenes from “The Wings of Eagles” and “How Green Was My Valley,” which were not included in the earlier documentary, while it also explores Ford’s vision of family, rituals and spirituality in his work.
Bogdanovich’s original interviews with screen legends and frequent Ford collaborators John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart and Henry Fonda, as well as the narration of Ford’s ardent disciple, Orson Welles, are woven into the new version, although these elements have been re-edited and re-arranged to render a portrait of the filmmaker and the man.
Also taken from the earlier documentary is footage of Bogdanovich trying to discuss with the man himself his magnificent use of visuals; his knack for turning unexpected happenings during filming into distinctive features; the evolution of the themes and tone of his westerns and his secret for coaxing extraordinary performances from his actors. Bogdanovich’s efforts elicit mainly terse replies from the cigar-chomping Ford, but that comes as little surprise since the filmmaker once famously declared, “I love making pictures, but I don’t like talking about them.” According to several of his actors, Ford didn’t like to chat too much about character and plot with them either and even cut lines of dialogue out of his movies when he thought there was too much “talk.”
Describing him as “the granddaddy of all directors,” Eastwood says in the documentary that Ford has influenced almost every American filmmaker in the past half a century.
“Ford will live forever because his films will live forever,” agreed Spielberg, who recalls how Ford taught him the importance of shooting the horizon in a movie when he was just a teenager, who stopped by Ford’s office uninvited in the 1960s. “His work is there to inspire and influence this whole new generation of filmmakers … He was a great painter; it just took him 100 crew members to paint the canvas.”
“He is the essence of classical American cinema and any serious person making films today, whether they know it or not, is affected by Ford,” remarked Scorsese, adding that he was never aware of any filmmaker’s name or directing style before he discovered Ford.
“He could make you laugh and he could make you cry and he could get you there very quickly from one to the other,” added “Last Man Standing” and “Wild Bill” director Walter Hill. “He understood people very well.”
Ford’s ability to understand people very well didn’t always make for pleasant work environments for his actors, however. Several of his favorite stars, speaking to Bogdanovich in 1969, recall being manipulated and berated by Ford. Wayne talks of how Ford often pitted him against his fellow actors, while Stewart says Ford’s sets were fraught with tension and someone was always at the bottom of the moody filmmaker’s “list.”
Carey Jr. also tells a great story about how Ford lobbed a rock at his head on the set of “Three Godfathers.” The actor says he ducked, causing the stone to hit his co-star, Pedro Armendariz, instead.
“It was one of those bad days,” he related. “Ford laughed … It got him out of his bad mood.”
Carey Jr., whose father also starred in 26 films for Ford, says Ford had warned him right from the start that he could be a bit prickly.
“He told me, ‘You’re going to hate me when this movie is over, but you’re going to give a good performance,'” Carey Jr. remembers with a little chuckle. “Well, I hated him after the first day.”
Admitting Ford was a bit of an “abusive father” to the stock company he considered family, Spielberg pointed out, “But they loved him.”
“He has a way of picking on actors when they are not too important a part of the scene in order to get them on their toes so they’re ready to come in when they really have something to do,” Wayne explained. “Then he handles you like a baby.”
“We know he was angry a lot on the set. Some of it was an act, but some of it, I think, was the inner tension of trying to express different things in different ways and knowing that both are true,” Hill observed. “Ambiguity is the home of the great artist. Ford seemed like a rough-hewn and simple fellow and he wasn’t and his films seemed rough-hewn and simple and straight-forward and they’re not. They are very complicated.”

“Directed by John Ford” is set to air on TCM on Nov. 7.

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