Lord Richard Attenborough,
b. Cambridge, England, 1923
1969: Oh! What a Lovely War. 1972: Yowng
Winston. 1977: A Bridge Too Far. 1978:
Magic. 1982: Gandhi. 1985: A Chorus Line.
1987: Cry Freedom. 1992: Chaplin. 1993:
Attenborough has blithely mapped out the way to success in the British film industry. He began at RAD A, and in 1942 he won the Bancroft Medal there and made his debut as a seaman in In Which We Serve (42, Noel Coward and David Lean), The next year, he had a big success as Pinkie in the stage version of Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock and was in the film Schtveik’s New Adventures (Karel Lamac). After war service with the RAF film unit, he appeared in The Man Within (46, Bernard Knowles), A Matter of Life and Death (46, Michael Powell), the film of Brighton Rock (47, John Boulting), and London Belongx to Me (48, Sidney Gilliat). Although his role as Pinkie was truly frightening it had not detracted from a grubby, baby-facecl vulnerability. This youthful appeal was grotesquely exploited in The Guinea Pig (49, Roy Boulting) when, at age twenty-six, he played a lower-middle-class boy at Winchester half his age—and played it straight. Attenborough was swallowed by the British public as smoothly as margarine and for ten years he took whatever cheerful or heroic nonsense the industry spread him on: Morning Departure (50, Roy Baker); Boys in Brown (50, Montgomery fully); The Gift Horse (52, Compton Bennett); Private’s Progress (55, J. Boulting); Brothers in Law (57, J. Boulting); The Mart Upstairs (58, Don Chaffey); and Dunkirk (58, Leslie Norman).
That was the turning point. In 1959, he produced (with Bryan Forbes) and acted in The Angry Silence (59, Guy Green), a portentous attempt to introduce realism to British features. In fact, the film is vulgar and sentimental- Only the subject matter had changed, but Attenborough has always believed more in content than style, in sincerity rather than intelligence. That film marked a new resolution to take himself seriously. As an actor Attenborough went in for some studied character parts and even ventured into American movies: The League i>f Gentlemen (60, Basil Dearden), which he also produced; Only Two Can Play (61. Sidney Gilliat); The Great Escape (63, John Sturges); Seance on a Wet Afternoon (64, Forbes), which he produced; The Flight of the Phoenix (65, Robert Aldrich); The Sand Pebbles (66, Robert Wise); Dr. Dolitlle (67, Richard Fleischer); David Copperfteld (69, Delbert Mann); Loot (70, Silvio Nariz-zano); A Severed Head (70, Dick Clement); and very good as Christie the murderer in JO Rillington Place (70, Fleischer).
In addition to League of Gentlemen and Seance on a W«r Afternoon, Attenborough produced two other movies directed by Bryan Forbes—Whistle Down the Wind (62) and The L-Shaped Room (64). Such ventures stimulated him and in 1969 he directed and coproduced Oh! What a Lovely War—a gallant failure, helped by the initial ingenuity of using Brighton pier, but without any interest in how to photograph people. It was a commercial success, proving how far his preference for content was a national failing. After that, be delved deeper into patriotism with Young Winston (72), a movie more influenced by that seasoned middlebrow Carl Foreman.
At fifty-five, Attenborough still looked and behaved like head prefect for British films and was rewarded with a knighthood. He acted regularly: Rosebud (74, Otto Pre-minger); And Then There Were None (74, Peter Collinson); in lopsided harness with John Wayne in Brannigan (75, Douglas Hickox); Conduct Unbecoming (75, Michael Anderson); and a manipulating administrator in The Chess Players (77, Satyajit Ray). He also directed Joseph Levine’s Arnhem epic, scattering $26 million like toy parachutes, and handling combat with a cheerful gusto that belied his first film’s indignant horror.
Now seventy, Attenborough is a lord, as if some parties in or around Buckingham Palace had been impressed by Gandhi, a soporific, nonthreatening tribute to nonviolence that allegedly moved millions to tears and to mending their ways. It won best picture and now looms over the real world lite an abandoned space station—eternal, expensive, and forsaken. A Chorus Line set no toes tapping, and Cry Freedom failed to unleash the forces of political liberalism and safe correctness. But then came Chaplin, a disaster of concept and construction such as few people could deny or avoid. Not that Robert Downey Jr. was its flaw: he impersonated Charlie with skill and courage. The blame had to rest with Lord Attenborough, whose proud but unseeing eyes failed to notice what a remarkable little madman Chaplin was. And in all these drab years of making respectable epics, Attenborough the actor has been denied to us— except for The Human Factor (80, Preminger) and Jurassic Part (93, Steven Spielberg),
After Chaplin, Shadowlands was a pleasant relief, a well-crafted weepie for book people, energized by Debra Winger and Anthony Hopkins (for long a favorite of Attenbor-ough’s). It was Hopkins who gave such a hyperactive performance as the haunted ventriloquist in Magic, Attenborough’s best film. Magic also reminds us of the director as an actor: drawn to the creepy, as witness 10 Rillington Place, Seance on a Wet Afternoon, and Brighton Rock.
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