Review: ‘Alan J. Pakula: His Films And His Life’

Jared Brown's "Alan J. Pakula: His Films and His Life," reads like an obituary -- in no small part because of Pakula's death in a freak car accident in 1998. But there is an unfortunate, perhaps unavoidable side effect: Every aspect of the esteemed, often undervalued director's life carries a kind of weight that feels unnecessary at best and inappropriate at worst.

The latest entry in director’s biographies, Jared Brown’s “Alan J. Pakula: His Films and His Life,” reads like an obituary — in no small part because of Pakula’s death in a freak car accident in 1998. But there is an unfortunate, perhaps unavoidable side effect: Every aspect of the esteemed, often undervalued director’s life — from his interest in psychology to his habitual lateness — carries a kind of weight that feels unnecessary at best and inappropriate at worst.

Perhaps a book about the director of movies such as “Sophie’s Choice” and “All the President’s Men” should be serious — but not so solemn.

Brown, also the author of a bio of actor Zero Mostel, fills this volume with so many posthumous comments from agents, collaborators and stars, from Robert Redford to Jane Fonda to Harrison Ford (who wrote the forward), that it takes on a bloated air. With countless quotes, interviews, and anecdotes culled from seemingly endless sources, the resulting read is more exhausting than exhaustive.

No detail is left uncovered. Pakula was born in the Bronx, the son of a printer. His father, Paul, desperately wanted him to take over the family business, but there was no dissuading the thoughtful young Alan from his burgeoning interest in the arts. Eventually his hard-working but affable father not only acquiesced to his son’s wishes, but helped pay the bills in his lean early times, when Pakula’s career nonetheless showed promise.

It could be argued that the most important element of any showbiz biography is that turning point where the ordinary fellow nudges his way through Hollywood’s door, and it is here that the density of the book pays off. We get a rich, full glimpse of how the enterprising Pakula secured a summer internship at a literary agency before going on to Yale, where he sneaked scripts home to read before delivering them the next day.

And we see how he was able to call on a family friend who worked in Warner Bros.’ animation department — during the classic Bugs Bunny era, no less — and land an early influential assistant job, which not only opened doors but also shed light on the basics of storytelling. It’s a fascinating story, especially for today’s aspiring directors, whose idea of a pipe dream might be to sit in on a writers’ meeting for “The Simpsons.”

Pakula moved on to directing theater, and then landed a job as an assistant to producer-director Don Hartman, who shortly thereafter became head of production for Paramount Pictures. Pakula’s early intensive years in development paid off with the sheer exposure to material and the rigors of transforming a piece of written material into a moving picture.

As Pakula gained a reputation at the studio, he was granted the power to seek out talent, including a young director, Robert Mulligan, with whom he began his first true creative partnership, leading to “To Kill a Mockingbird,” of which Pakula was producer at age 33.

But it is here that Brown’s book bogs down, ironically, as the narrative becomes focused on what was surely a wealth of material on that classic film. Quotes from Gregory Peck about acting opposite Brock Peters, while interesting in their own right, don’t contribute to Pakula’s story. The book begins to seem like a college term paper that is simply too long.

As Pakula’s career progresses, the random qualities of Hollywood producing and directing come through. Pakula and Mulligan both preceded the auteur era of ’60s and ’70s movie brats, and as they mulled over projects, they sought out material that would pay the bills as much as anything else. It wasn’t until Pakula’s second directing effort, the thriller “Klute,” with its Oscar-nominated perf by Jane Fonda, that a consistent tone would begin to emerge, culminating in what would eventually be known as the “paranoia trilogy,” with “The Parallax View” and “All the President’s Men.”

The Watergate masterpiece, in which Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford made frumpy journalism sexy, and Holocaust drama “Sophie’s Choice” are given two lengthy chapters each, which is fitting. But the depth of the information, such as Pakula’s boosting the loudness for sound effects of typewriters and pencil scratches in “All the President’s Men,” gets bogged down in an excess of quotes, from so many sources that it is almost impossible to tell whether they were made at the time or years later. For example, there is mention of an easing of the tension between Pakula and Redford, but it’s the first we’ve heard of any friction in the first place.

Later chapters on “Presumed Innocent,” “The Pelican Brief” (for which Pakula also received writing credit) and finally “The Devil’s Own,” his last film, paint a sobering picture of Hollywood careers and the movie business in general.

The smart, sophisticated dramas and political thrillers that focused on character rather than spectacle, at which Pakula excelled, seemed to have almost slipped out of the modern moviegoing experience. With very few exceptions, they’re now the stuff of prestige releases in a handful of theaters, or on cable.

Pakula’s death was the result of a freak accident: A metal pipe that fell from a truck was struck by his car on the Long Island Expressway, killing him instantly. References to the terrible mishap bookend Brown’s work and provide an uneasy urgency to this thoughtful man’s life, at once productive and unfulfilled.

Like many artists and thinkers, Pakula perhaps had too many interests, so many things he wanted to do that there is no way he could have done them all. He was in the stages of planning another project, which he envisioned to be big but probably not his last — an epic biography of Theodore Roosevelt.

Having already written 50 pages, his ambitions were such that he was prepared to mount the story as either a cable miniseries or even two theatrical films; hence the title of the last chapter of the book, “A Life Cut Short.”

He was 70 years old.

Alan J. Pakula: His Films And His Life

Watson-Guptill Publications; 367 Pgs.; $29.95


By Jared Brown
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