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Off the beaten path, Frears beats the odds

Helmer nabs John Schlesinger Directing Award

LONDON — The conformist young man from Leicester studying law at Cambridge in the early 1960s somehow wound up being Stephen Frears, an outcome imaginable then to no one and especially not to Stephen Frears.

“A sort of tortoise” is how the 2008 Britannia Awards directing honoree summarizes himself, and while that references the measured arc of his early career, it also matches his self-assessment that he never really did think until his mid-20s.

“I didn’t really wake up for a long time,” he says. “You start off being a good boy, and you wind up being a bad boy. You start to realize there’s more to life than just doing what you’re told.”

Fortunately, this “respectful son of professional people” found law boundlessly tedious, found his instructors profoundly incapable of making it otherwise and abandoned it about 15 minutes after leaving Cambridge.

From there, toward an output so varied and authentic that it includes everything from L.A. con artists (“The Grifters”) to Elizabeth Alexandra Mary Windsor (“The Queen”), orgiastic 18th-century French aristocrats (“Dangerous Liaisons”), Chicago breakups (“High Fidelity”), nude wartime London theater (“Mrs. Henderson Presents”) and illegal immigration/organ harvesting (“Dirty Pretty Things”), he found at least two key gateways.

He interviewed for and got apprentice jobs in London theaters, the second of which placed him at the pathfinding Royal Court of the 1960s, among people “just mesmerizing” such as directors Lindsay Anderson and Karel Reisz.

And come his mid-40s in the 1980s, as “the oldest guy on the set” among actor Daniel Day-Lewis (mid-20s), screenwriter Hanif Kureishi (early 30s) and producer Tim Bevan (mid-20s), Frears made “My Beautiful Laundrette” for TV.

By the time that gem roamed into cinemas, won the Evening Standard British Film Award for 1985 and prompted an amazed Frears to tell the Times of London, “I mean, a story about a gay Pakistani laundrette owner?,” it flung Frears onto the radar bigtime and toward two Oscar nominations for directing plus a bushel of other nights being feted, all for a guy who never expected any such.

“I wish I’d read economics,” the former law student says, as it might’ve sped his comprehension of “the relationship of films to money” plus alleviated years of Cambridge boredom. Clearly, though, it’s not so bad being a tortoise.

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