Variety asked 10 producers who have helped produce a best picture Oscar winner, or who are in contention this year, to choose their favorite five pictures among all Academy Award best picture winners.
Then, each producer was asked to select the best picture winner that has been most important or significant in his career, or simply great from the standpoint of film history. In the following list, their choice is denoted with all capital letters.
Selecting only five movies out of the 66 winners since the Academy was founded in 1927 was a fun but somewhat excruciating task, but the producers gamely stepped up to the plate.
Only one demurred. Alan Ladd Jr., who has been involved in 11 best picture nominees, either as president of production at Fox or at the Ladd Company, explains his intriguing reasons for his difficulty – a personal theory about what makes a film great – later in this piece.
Although no one was forbidden to choose his own movie, only one producer had the gumption to do it: Irwin Winkler, who picked “Rocky” as one of his five choices.
In addition to veterans like Ladd and Winkler, we polled relatively new producers like Wendy Finerman (“Forrest Gump”) and Lawrence Bender (“Pulp Fiction”).
We also canvassed a film producer from England – Peter Samuelson, whose “Tom & Viv” has garnered acting prizes for cast members Miranda Richardson and Rosemary Harris from the National Board of Review.
Some producers chose movies that inspired them to begin careers as filmmakers.
Others named a movie that influenced the films they’ve chosen to produce. For example, Winkler reported that seeing “On the Waterfront” led to his production of boxing pix “Rocky” and “Raging Bull.” More than anything, though, it is the sheer respect that producers have for a film that determined their choices. Four of the 10 producers we polled named the same movie as their favorite.
Kathleen Kennedy: “LAWRENCE OF ARABIA,” “The Best Years of Our Lives,” “The Bridge on the River Kwai,” “The Godfather,” “The Godfather, Part II.”
Mark Johnson: “LAWRENCE OF ARABIA,” “Annie Hall,” “The Godfather,” “On the Waterfront,” “West Side Story.”
Robert Rehme: “LAWRENCE OF ARABIA,” “The Bridge on the River Kwai,” “How Green Was My Valley,” “Casablanca,” “A Man for All Seasons.”
Mace Neufeld: “THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI,” “Lawrence of Arabia,” “An American in Paris,” “Casablanca,” “The Godfather, Part II.”
Wendy Finerman: “LAWRENCE OF ARABIA,” “Terms of Endearment,” “Schindler’s List,” “Driving Miss Daisy,” “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”
Lee Rich: “THE GODFATHER,” “THE GODFATHER, PART II,” “Lawrence of Arabia,” “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” “Rain Man,” “Terms of Endearment.”
Peter Samuelson: “CHARIOTS OF FIRE,” “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” “The Last Emperor,” “Dances With Wolves,” “Gandhi.”
Irwin Winkler: “ON THE WATERFRONT,” “Gone With the Wind,” “All About Eve,” “Lawrence of Arabia,” “Rocky.”
Lawrence Bender: “ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST,” “All About Eve,” “On the Waterfront,” “The Godfather,” “The Bridge on the River Kwai.”
Kennedy, a producer of 1982 best picture nominee “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial,” says of David Lean’s spectacular “Lawrence of Arabia”: “On so many fronts, it’s perhaps one of the finest movies ever made. It’s looked at over and over by filmmakers – the craft is so fine. There’s a realization that movies can no longer be made like that; the amount of time, that process, don’t exist anymore.”
Kennedy, a co-founder of Amblin Entertainment with Steven Spielberg and her husband Frank Marshall, also executive produced last year’s best picture Oscar winner, “Schindler’s List.”
Now, Kennedy and Marshall have their own firm, the Kennedy-Marshall Co. With a production deal at Paramount, Kennedy is producing “Congo.” Marshall directs. Perhaps not coincidentally, she hired “Lawrence of Arabia’s” Oscar-winning film editor Anne V. Coates to edit “Congo.”
“Nowadays,” Kennedy lamented from beside a rushing river on the set of “Congo,” “you’re rushing release dates; it’s all become a part of this big moneymaking machine.”
Of the nine months Kennedy says Lean used to shoot his epic, “David used the time so exquisitely; now, even if you gave someone nine months, they wouldn’t come back with ‘Lawrence of Arabia.'”
In 1988, the winner of the best picture Oscar was “Rain Man,” starring Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman. A Guber-Peters Production, “Rain Man” was produced by Johnson. Since then, Johnson has set up shop at Warner Bros., where he has wrapped “The Little Princess,” a children’s story based upon a book by Frances Hodgson Burnett, the writer of “The Secret Garden.” Pic was directed by Mexican helmer Alfonso Cuaron.
Johnson recalls being a teenager living in Spain when “Lawrence of Arabia” first came out. “It was a seminal movie for me,” he says. “‘Lawrence of Arabia’ is the reason I’m in the movie business. I was very impressionable. I’d never seen a performance as riveting as Peter O’Toole’s. For the first time, I understood there’s a force telling the story in a movie, like a book. Clearly, I was in the presence of a master storyteller.”
The Oscar-nominated screenplay for “Lawrence of Arabia” was penned by Robert Bolt, who also wrote Lean’s “The Bridge on the River Kwai,” a best picture winner, and “Doctor Zhivago,” a best picture nominee. The script was loosely based upon T.E. Lawrence’s memoir, “Seven Pillars of Wisdom.”
What many people don’t realize is that O’Toole’s magnificent performance was given by a novice movie actor who wasn’t the first or even the second choice of the filmmakers: Lean tried for and failed to get Richard Burton for this daunting role.
Many wags are predicting a best picture statuette this year for the hugely popular “Forrest Gump,” which since its preem last July has become a pop cultural juggernaut, begging comparisons of its star Tom Hanks with actor Jimmy Stewart, and prompting the marketability of “Gumpisms.” Finerman, the producer of the movie, diligently pursued the project for eight years, finally finding a home for “Gump” at Paramount.
Finerman is another devotee of “Lawrence of Arabia,” calling the four-hour pic “an adventure, an experience, storytelling at its greatest. It’s a movie I can watch again and again and find something new every time. I respect it because its accomplishment for its time was amazing.”
Finerman notes that Lean’s film, produced by Sam Spiegel, “is not conventional, not in any genre. Just one man, one actor, Peter O’Toole, carries that whole movie. The canvas takes you to another world, transplants you into an adventure.”
Rehme, who with Mace Neufeld produced “Clear and Present Danger” for Paramount – the most successful of the Tom Clancy novel adaptations – agrees with the assessment of Lean’s masterpiece.
“‘Lawrence of Arabia’ is the finest picture ever made, in terms of its scope, size and the masterful way it was told. Every craft represented, from cinematography to production design, is the absolute best,” says Rehme. In fact, Fred Young’s breathtaking cinematography won him an Academy Award.
Rehme, who also produced “Patriot Games” with Neufeld, and exec produced Ted Turner ‘s “Gettysburg,” knows whereof he speaks when it comes to war-themed pix. “There is nothing else to match the attack on Akaba or the march on Damascus. Also, in terms of the history of the Middle East, it’s fascinating.”
Neufeld is another Lean fan. But for his top choice, the producer opted for “The Bridge on the River Kwai,” winner of a best picture Oscar in 1957. “It’s a film that is timeless – I saw it recently and it doesn’t age at all. What it achieves is, it gets an audience rooting for an unsympathetic character played by Alec Guinness, who attempts unsuccessfully to prevent the blowing up of a bridge built by the enemy. This film is a demonstration of the best of what David Lean was capable of, visually and dramatically.”
The timeless quality of “The Bridge on the River Kwai” points up the problem Ladd had with choosing best best pictures in the first place. The former president of production at Fox, who has been involved with such best picture nominees as “Chariots of Fire,” “Star Wars” and “The Right Stuff,” divides great movies into two categories: those that age well, and those that don’t.
“Some movies are very wonderful but they don’t hold up,” says Ladd. “‘Gone With the Wind’ was the most important, because it broke all barriers in its time and place. The color was magnificent, the costumes extraordinary and it’s still amazing many years later.
‘Annie Hall’ was great at the time, but it doesn’t hold up. ‘West Side Story,’ though very innovative when it came out, doesn’t hold up either.”
“‘On the Waterfront’ is a flawless movie,” the producer adds. “‘The Best Years of Our Lives’ is a remarkable film, but if I showed it to my kids, what would they say? Would they get it? ‘The Lost Weekend’ dealt with a taboo subject: When it came out, everybody was saying how daring it was. Billy (Wilder, who co-wrote and directed the film) did it brilliantly. It captured the essence of an alcoholic. But there are better films that have been made on the subject since then.” Ladd’s latest production is the upcoming “Brave Heart,” starring and directed by Mel Gibson.
For Rich, studio head at MGM/UA in 1988 when “Rain Man” won the Oscar for best picture, “The true test is how many times you look at a movie, and how much you still get excited by it.”
For Rich, who is prepping “Just Cause” for a February release and “The Little Panda” for the summer, the best picture ever made is “The Godfather.”
“I see ‘The Godfather I & II as a whole picture: That’s how it’s released in video. Forget ‘Godfather III.’ In my time,” Rich observes, “‘The Godfather’ had performances, it had a look, it was entrancing.”
Significantly, the overwhelming majority of the producers’ choices were films released during their moviegoing years.
For Samuelson, who produced “Tom & Viv,” all five of his choices – “Chariots of Fire,” “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” “The Last Emperor,” “Dances With Wolves” and “Gandhi” – were released during the past 20 years.
“The common thread between them,” says Samuelson, “is that I believe it’s possible to deliver a magnificent and meaningful film through the independent way of filmmaking. That’s what we do, and I hope one day we can bring as much honor to an independent film as those producers brought to those five films.”
Another producer to rise up through the indie ranks is Bender, producer of Quentin Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs” and “Pulp Fiction.”
The much-salivated-over “Pulp Fiction” enjoys the rare distinction of having both won the Palme d’Or at Cannes and having kicked off its run Stateside with a top-grossing opening weekend.
Currently, Bender has two films in simultaneous production: “White Man’s Burden,” starring John Travolta and Harry Belafonte; and “Four Rooms,” a director’s anthology with interconnected shorts by Tarantino, Allison Anders, Robert Rodriguez and Alexandre Rockwell.
Bender’s all-time fave best picture is “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” directed by Milos Forman and produced by a young Michael Douglas. “It’s about being an individual, finding your own self-worth and having hope,” Bender says.
For Winkler, producer of 1976 best picture winner “Rocky” and nominees “Raging Bull” and “GoodFellas,” the Hollywood blacklist of the 1950s was a defining experience.
Winkler’s 1990 directorial debut, “Guilty By Suspicion,” was an examination of that period. Winkler also directed the forthcoming “The Net.” For Winkler, “On the Waterfront” was the film that influenced him the most. “It was Elia Kazan and Budd Schulberg’s (who adapted the script from his own play) great defense of their own position on the Hollywood blacklist,” says Winkler, “and a brilliant portrayal. The politics are very subtle if you didn’t know about the blacklist – it’s a rationalization.”
“‘I could have been a contender’ became the classic line of the 1950s,” muses Winkler. “I liked the grittiness of it, which led to
‘Rocky,’ ‘Raging Bull’ and ‘GoodFellas.’ Rocky says: I don’t want to be another bum from the neighborhood.’ Jake LaMotta in ‘Raging Bull’ quotes from the same line.”
Though Academy Award nominations are not announced until Feb. 14, bets are fairly safe that Finerman will receive a best picture nomination for “Forrest Gump.” “It’s a surreal experience,” says the first-time producer about the success of her movie. “I’m proud, I’m fulfilled, but most importantly I have something to show my three young children when they’re old enough.”