Frears tribute not accidental

Fest to honor English helmer

LONDON — “I’ve been working so hard, I haven’t quite taken it in,” says Stephen Frears, thinking ahead — or not, as the case may be — to the soiree in his honor at the Toronto Intl. Film Festival.

On Sept. 9 at Roy Thomson Hall, the 59-year-old English helmer will be the subject of the event’s first such full-scale gala in 15 years.

High time, too, for a Cambridge-educated director marinated in the theater and then TV who directed his first feature — the larky “Gumshoe,” with Albert Finney — in 1971. Since then, his movies have spanned poshly costumed period dramas (“Dangerous Liaisons”) and gritty slices of contemporary London life (“Bloody Kids”), star vehicles (“Mary Reilly,” with Julia Roberts) and ensemble pieces (“The Snapper”).

“I’m a tart,” says Frears by way of droll self-assessment. “I like the business of getting hired. I’m just sent a script and then I decide whether that would be interesting to do.”

“It’s all over the place,” says an admiring Mike Figgis of his colleague and friend’s career. (The two Brits had adjacent editing rooms in Hollywood in the early ’90s when Frears was finishing up “Accidental Hero.”) “Clearly, Stephen has no desire either to be typecast or to go from one kind of film to the same kind of film. I adore him.”

So does Toronto, where Frears has scored repeated triumphs. His revelatory crime thriller “The Hit” — Frears’ second feature — was screened at the fest in 1984, while the 1985 showing of “My Beautiful Laundrette” prompted a theater release for a project originally intended for TV. “Sammy and Rosie Get Laid” was a fest offering in 1987, followed by the world preem of “The Grifters” in 1990 and then audience favorite, “The Snapper,” in 1993.

“It all sounds very impressive,” says a gently self-deprecating Frears of his Toronto roll call. “I can see for Europeans that (the fest) is a sort of gateway, and I guess I was one of the people who went through the gate. It’s always been incredibly nice to me.”

This year’s tribute is especially well timed given the annus mirabilis that Frears seems to be enjoying. In the spring, he nabbed rave reviews reprising a bygone era of live TV drama as director of “Fail Safe,” starring George Clooney. The CBS telefilm was shot live April 9, after five weeks of rehearsal.

“It really was like an event,” says Frears. “I take my hat off to George for having the courage to do it.”

Musical chairs

Around the same time came the American preem of Frears’ film of the Nick Hornby novel, “High Fidelity.” The John Cusack starrer proved not only that English material can be successfully transposed across the Atlantic, with Chicago standing in for Hornby’s beloved North London, but that confusion can be a noble screen condition, if treated with Frears’ unerringly affectionate touch.

Says Frears: “It was as if you could take a Jane Austen novel and simply do it in America and not tell anyone and yet have it remain absolutely true to the spirit of Jane Austen.”

Next up is “Liam,” a BBC venture currently doing the fest circuit (first Venice, then Toronto) with its cinematic fate as yet undecided. Frears intended Jimmy McGovern’s semiautobiographical script for TV only, as he did with “Laundrette” and “Snapper.” Both of those, however, went on to prosperous cinematic runs.

“They were always rather jolly,” says Frears, contrasting those two films with “the very, very sad story” that, he says, is “Liam.” “It’s absolutely inappropriate for the commercial cinema, but it’s the kind of film I grew up making for the BBC” — where Frears has worked over time with David Hare, Christopher Hampton, and Tom Stoppard, among numerous other scribes.

“I thought if I don’t do it this year,” he says of “Liam,” “it will never get done. And then, of course, ‘High Fidelity’ over-ran and George Clooney rang up. Anyway, it’s all over now.”

What next, then, for the director, who is speaking to Variety from the Dorset countryside, several hours south of the Notting Hill house that has been his long-standing London home?

“Nothing,” he says, though a reteaming with Hampton remains a very real prospect for 2001, this time on an original period script set in Renaissance Florence, Italy. “I’ve done too much work in the last 18 months. I’ve stopped working; I don’t want to do anything else.”

Until, one assumes, he is sent the next good script.

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