Director Ronald Neame, who started as a cinematographer, wrote Oscar nommed screenplays and went on to direct “The Poseidon Adventure and “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie,” died Wednesday in Los Angeles of complications from a fall in May. He was 99.
Neame considered 1972’s “Poseidon” an ordinary actioner. “‘Poseidon’ was an astonishing success, and I still don’t really know why,” he told the BBC. Still, he garnered 5% of the 20th Century Fox pic’s backend and that made him quite wealthy.
The Brit filmmaker was born to an actress and silent film director, who died when Neame was 12. His mother got him a job quite young as a messenger and hand-cranked projection reel operator for Elstree Studios. He became an assistant cameraman for Alfred Hitchcock on 1929’s “Blackmail,” the first Brit pic to include sound. When the chief cameraman was rushed to the hospital, Neame took over shooting 1935’s “Drake of England.”
After a few years lensing low-budget quickies, he segued to Ealing Studios, where he worked on comedies with George Formby and then on to higher profile films such as 1938’s “Pygmalion” and “Major Barbara.”
Neame earned an Oscar nom for the aerial photography on 1942’s “One of Our Aircraft Is Missing.”
He collaborated with helmers David Lean and Noel Coward on films such as “Great Expectations” and “Oliver Twist” and “In Which We Serve.” He also co-produced both Charles Dickens’ adaptations.
Neame was also a scribe, earning Oscar noms with Lean and Anthony Havelock-Allen for “Brief Encounter” and “Great Expectations.” On his own, he also penned “Golden Salamander” and “The Magic Balloon.”
He started directing with 1947’s “Take My Life,” although he first drew attention with 1952 laffer “The Card.” His direction of Maggie Smith in “Jean Brodie” earned her the lead actress Oscar.
“I’m just a reasonably good director,” he told Variety in 2001. “I’m a bloody sight better than many making pictures today. But that doesn’t make me a Billy Wilder or a David Lean.”
He directed some of the top stars of the day including Alec Guiness and John Mills in “Tunes of Glory,” Eleanor Parker in “The Seventh Sin” plus the Dirk Bogarde-Judy Garland starrer “I Could Go on Singing.”
It was Guinness who told Neame that actors liked to be lavished with praise, something he remembered for the rest of his career.
After the “Poseidon Adventure” he got a raft of offers to do similar disaster pics, but he opted for the adaptation of Frederick Forsyth thriller “The Odessa File,” starring Jon Voight.
Although he retired to a villa in Italy, offers contined to come in and in 1979 he returned to disaster pics with “Meteor,” which he called a “true disaster.” Auds and crix tended to agree. Other disappointments included 1986’s “Foreign Body,” starring Victor Banerjee as a bus conductor posing as a doctor. However, he followed that up with a pair of Walter Mathau comedies, “Hopscotch” and “The First Monday in October,” which fared better.
He told the BBC’s Peter Bowes, “The sad thing is that I will be remembered for having directed ‘The Poseidon Adventure’ and I think that’s a great pity because there are four other films that I much preferred.”
His favorites were “Tunes of Glory,” “The Horse’s Mouth,” “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie” and “Scrooge,” he told Bowes.
Along with Alexander Korda and other bizzers, Neame helped found the British Academy of Film and TV in 1949. He was quite active with BAFTA/LA, which honored him with a Britannia Award in 2005. In 2001 the org threw a bash to celebrate his 90th birthday.
“He really is a living legend in the true sense of the word,” then-BAFTA/LA chairman Gary Dartnall said. “His work spans the history of British cinema.”
Survivors include his wife, Donna; a son, producer Christopher; three grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren.
(Dirk Mathison contributed to this report.)