Fred Zinnemann, the Oscar-winning director of “From Here to Eternity” and “A Man for All Seasons,” died Friday in London. He was 89.
The Austrian emigre director was known for his intelligent films and — like William Wyler, to whom he has sometimes been compared — was applauded for his handling of actors.
He introduced such talents as Montgomery Clift, Marlon Brando, Meryl Streep and Rod Steiger to films and extracted noteworthy performances from them as well as Burt Lancaster, Gary Cooper, Julie Harris, Deborah Kerr, Audrey Hepburn, Robert Mitchum, Jane Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave.
His films, such as “Seasons,” “Eternity” and “Julia,” are intimate epics: wide in scope and theme, yet filled with small, personal details, reflecting Zinnemann’s taste and his background as a documentarian. Zinnemann often dealt with characters’ crises of conscience (“High Noon,” “The Nun’s Story”) or their struggles with limitations imposed on them by themselves or by others (“The Men,” “Member of the Wedding”).
Taking the high road
The pics are almost always tasteful, restrained and literate, which sometimes brought the criticism that they were slow or “intellectual”; and while the films achieved varying levels of success, all are thoughtful and impressive.
He directed a relatively sparse output of 20 films, making his first big impact with “High Noon,” his ninth pic, in 1952; in the next 30 years, he completed only 11 more films.
The bulk of Zinnemann’s feature work was done in the 1950s, when he progressed from gritty, realistic films such as “The Search” and “The Men” to high-budget, high-gloss studio projects like “Oklahoma!” and “The Sundowners.” He claimed that his one goal in life was to please the masses and not himself. And what his films lacked in forward momentum was somewhat compensated for by a high-minded, if somewhat middle-brow appeal.
Zinnemann’s entry into the ranks of major league directors came after almost two decades of paying dues, which again might explain why he embraced commercial filmmaking so fiercely.
Working his way up
He began his career as an assistant cameraman in Paris in 1927, where his parents, Dr. Oskar and Anna Zinnemann (later victims of the Holocaust) sent him to study. Before leaving for Hollywood in 1929 with a letter of introduction to Universal head Carl Laemmle, Zinnemann worked as assistant cameraman on Robert Siodmak’s “Menschen Am Sonntag,” on which Billy Wilder was co-writer.
Zinnemann drifted through Hollywood as an assistant to another Austrian, director Berthold Viertel, and documentarian Robert Flaherty. He spent the next several years directing docus such as “The Wave,” which led to being hired in MGM’s short subjects department, where he worked alongside other future feature directors like Jules Dassin, George Sidney and Jacques Tourneur.
His third short, “That Mothers Might Live,” about the pioneering use of antiseptics in obstetrics, brought him an Academy Award. He earned his feature directing stripes in 1941 and, after a couple of B films like “Kid Glove Killer” and “Eyes in the Night,” MGM handed him a full-fledged A title production in 1944.
“The Seventh Cross” starred Spencer Tracy, Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn. Tracy is said to have been so impressed by his director that he commented, “Watch this young Zinnemann, he’s going places.” But Zinnemann was yanked off his next project, “The Clock,” when its star Judy Garland demanded Vincente Minnelli (who was about to become her husband).
“The Search,” a 1949 gritty postwar drama, brought Montgomery Clift to the screen (he’d already filmed “Red River” but it was held up in litigation) and earned the actor and Zinnemann their first Oscar nominations.
Though the film was criticized for being sentimental, Zinnemann defended the film: “To show things as they really were would have meant that the American audience would have lost any desire to see it.” The quote concisely captures Zinnemann’s priorities as a filmmaker and would guide the rest of his career.
Ironically, after the success of “The Search,” MGM let him go in an economy move. He directed one last film for them, 1949’s “Act of Violence,” and at the behest of his agent Abe Lastfogel, waited for freelance assignments to come his way.
The most tantalizing was the Stanley Kramer production “The Men,” which dealt with paraplegic veterans. Zinnemann tapped “a force of nature” named Marlon Brando, who had been winning acclaim on Broadway for “A Streetcar Named Desire,” to play the lead.
The 1950 pic was not commercially successful, but the film earned Brando his first acting nomination. A year later, Zinnemann won a second Oscar for the documentary short “Benjy.”
Blacklisted screenwriter Carl Foreman had written “High Noon” for Kramer, and Zinnemann brought the psychological Western to life. Though Foreman later denied it, the film was seen as an allegory for Hollywood’s reaction to the Communist witch hunts. The 1952 film ignited Zinnemann’s career and that of the young Grace Kelly. And it revitalized that of the aging Gary Cooper, who picked up his second Oscar in the lead role.
Henceforth Zinnemann’s projects were largely literary adaptations, like Carson McCullers’ “Member of the Wedding” and James Jones’ “From Here to Eternity.” The former starred Ethel Waters, Harris and Brandon de Wilde, all re-creating their Broadway roles, and with the latter two making their film bows.
“Eternity” won eight Oscars, including best pic, supporting actor and actress (Frank Sinatra and Donna Reed), and brought Zinnemann his first feature directing Oscar. Principals Clift, Lancaster and Kerr were also nominated. Lancaster and Kerr, in roles originally envisioned for Robert Mitchum and Joan Crawford, appeared in one of the Production Code period’s most steamy love scenes on the beach at Diamond Head, in a passionate embrace amidst the crashing waves that has been imitated and spoofed endlessly since, but still retains its striking power.
Sinatra was selected only after Eli Wallach had bowed out due to a stage commitment, though history and fiction have re-written the event. In Mario Puzo’s novel “The Godfather” — in which many characters and events were based on real-life counterparts — the writer memorably posits that the Mafia convinced Columbia boss Harry Cohn to use Sinatra in the film by putting a severed horse’s head in his bed. Zinnemann, however, always insisted that no such coercion was used.
The director wanted James Dean for “Oklahoma!” but the 1955 pic instead starred Gordon MacRae. Zinnemann blamed himself for the long, somewhat cumbersome results. “I tried to humanize it. That was my fatal mistake,” he said.
The film was made in the Todd-AO process, which was so new, the decision was made to simultaneously shoot a second negative for protection — meaning every scene was filmed twice. After decades, both versions became available with the advent of laserdisc.
He returned to more controversial subjects with “A Hatful of Rain” (drug addiction). Next came 1959’s successful “The Nun’s Story,” starring Audrey Hepburn in one of her best roles, and 1960’s “The Sundowners,” about Australian sheep farmers, which is regarded as one of his better efforts in large part due to the performances of Kerr and Mitchum.
In the ’60s, Zinnemann made only two more films, the poorly received “Behold a Pale Horse” and 1966’s acclaimed “A Man for All Seasons.” The tasteful adaptation of the Robert Bolt stage play was named best picture and won Zinnemann his second feature directing Oscar.
In the late ’60s, Zinnemann and MGM spent three years and $3.5 million preparing an adaptation of Andre Malraux’s novel “Man’s Fate.” However, as Daily Variety editor-in-chief Peter Bart chronicles in his book “Fade Out,” MGM president James Aubrey in 1969 pulled the plug on the much-ballyhooed, expensive project a few days before the start of shooting.
The move spurred a lawsuit and a wave of anti-MGM feelings from Hollywood filmmakers, who were sympathetic to Zinnemann’s situation.
In his 1992 “Fred Zinnemann: A Life in the Movies,” the director said the style of that move had become common, but in 1969, “Hollywood people were staggered — not so much by what had been done as by how it had been done.
“The fate of ‘Man’s Fate’ 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.”
In 1970, the Directors Guild honored him for his body of work. He directed only three films after that.
In 1973 he directed “The Day of the Jackal” for Universal. When the studio moved forward last year with a new version of the film, Zinnemann and Frederick Forsyth, who wrote the book, protested and Universal agreed to change the name of the new film to “Jackal.”
Four years later came “Julia,” which he took over from Sydney Pollack. The film won Oscars for supporting actors Jason Robards and Vanessa Redgrave and scripter Alvin Sargent.
His last film, the 1983 “Five Days One Summer,” starring Sean Connery, received downbeat notices and Zinnemann was so wounded he vowed never again to direct.
Instead he worked for five years on his autobiography, a heavily pictorial account of his career.
Man for another season
Like his friend David Lean, he sensed that his time had passed in Hollywood and that epic dramas were no longer in demand. The industry had changed, he observed, and he wanted no part of it.
“Those people (old studio bosses) were greedy, ruthless and I felt contempt for the way they used power. But their love for movies — that was one thing you could bring into discussions with them.” The current crop of executives, however, have no love of films, he claimed. “You don’t need to love salami if you’re trying to sell salami.”
An apocryphal story which has become attached to Zinnemann (and sometimes to Wilder) goes as follows: In the early ’80s he was persuaded to meet with a brash young Hollywood executive who asked him, somewhat ingenuously, “Tell me some of the things you’ve done.” To which Zinnemann replied politely, “No, no. You first.”
Zinnemann lived in Britain for the last three decades of his life.
He is survived by the former Renee Bartlett, to whom he had been married since 1936, and his son, producer Tim Zinnemann. Funeral arrangements are pending.
In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be made to either the Artists Rights Foundation, 7920 Sunset Blvd., Suite 260, Los Angeles, CA 90046; or the Jewish National Fund, 6310 San Vicente Blvd., Suite 200, Los Angeles, CA 90048.
(Chris Petrikin contributed to this report.)