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Right Stuff, Wrong Town

The paradox of being Philip Kaufman — nine of whose 12 feature films are the subject of a retrospective at the American Cinematheque this week — is that you can be considered one of Hollywood’s finest directors, yet find yourself more likely to receive tribute than get hired to make pictures on your own terms.

Born in Chicago in 1936, Kaufman did undergraduate and graduate work in history at the University of Chicago, between which came an aborted stint at Harvard Law School. It was the era before film schools were the vogue, and Kaufman came to movies via a circuitous route that likely informed his insider-outsider perspective. “I was going to write a novel,” Kaufman told me earlier this month, when I visited the cozy San Francisco office that he runs like an old-fashioned family business. (Wife Rose regularly collaborates on his screenplays, while son Peter produces.) “I ended up in Europe, teaching math in Florence. I remember seeing Pasolini’s Accatone and the films of the French New Wave, and being really excited by it all. Then we went and lived outside Amsterdam, where Shirley Clarke’s The Connection was playing, and there was just this sense of jazz and America and wanting to come back. You could see there was life on the streets and that movies were totally different than they’d been when I was growing up in the ’50s.”

Kaufman returned to Chicago and launched into independent filmmaking with Goldstein (1965) and Fearless Frank (1967), pictures that brought him to the attention of Hollywood, where he was hired to make a series of Western-flavored stories that drew as much from the vérité grit of the New Wave as from the picaresque legacy of Huston and Hawks. In particular, The White Dawn (1974), a ravishing, mystical adventure about three Yank whalers stranded in the Canadian Arctic, evinced a knack for capturing the ethos of rogue individuals on the brink of some new (or final) frontier. “For me,” Kaufman says, “the Western, Henry Miller, street gangs [see 1979’s The Wanderers] — all those things meant there was something thrilling about getting up each morning in America.”

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) was less a remake of Don Siegel’s 1956 original than a comic, sensual re-imagining of it, to say nothing of a chilling anticipation of Ronald Reagan’s own “morning in America.” It was Kaufman’s first major hit, and without it, he might never have made his loving yet critical survey of the U.S. space program, The Right Stuff (1983), which seemed to encapsulate, as no movie had before, the American dream of soaring higher and higher until we might touch the very hand of God. Then, having made his way onto the Hollywood A-list — helped in no small measure by his having co-authored the story for a little movie called Raiders of the Lost Ark — Kaufman embarked on a pair of ventures that seemed, to some, a turning of his back not just on Hollywood, but on America itself.

 

Of course, The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988) and Henry & June (1990) had their roots in Kaufman’s own college years and travels abroad, and much of the pleasure of both pictures derived from their romantic attitude toward a bygone Europe. Together, the films depicted men and women motivated by eros in a way most American movies were unwilling or unable to fathom. Henry Miller would have been proud. Three years later, Rising Sun was a slick, fast, reasonably intelligent adaptation of a Michael Crichton thriller, ultimately of no greater consequence than to show that Kaufman could turn out a big-budget mainstream offering as well as — if not all that much better than — the well-paid hacks who do it for a living.

The seven years preceding the clever Marquis-de-Sade-as-free-speech-martyr provocation Quills (2000) suggested how quickly such compromise can turn into stagnation, as Kaufman toiled away on a variety of promising projects that never came to fruition. Some of those stillborn movies — like one based on Caleb Carr’s best-seller The Alienist — haunt Kaufman’s office to this day, lingering about as script drafts or elegantly detailed storyboards. And there are other concepts still in the works, including bio-pics of Liberace and Louis Armstrong and an adaptation of Saul Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King. In the meantime, there has been Twisted, a dreary Ashley Judd thriller that few even noticed Kaufman had his name on, but which critics were quick to point out reflected less poorly on Kaufman than on the industry that had obliged him to make it.

“I’m lucky to have made the movies that I made and unlucky not to have made more movies,” Kaufman tells me, adding that the dynamics of major-studio management have changed significantly in the four decades since he started working. “It used to be a rougher, more intuitive breed of person who was making studio decisions. Now, there’s so many people with great educations — very smart people — who have discovered they can become ‘filmmakers’ by becoming studio executives. And that’s a dangerous thing. Hollywood has lost some of that frontier spirit, where people left the Algonquin and came across the country into this Chaplin-Hearst world. It was the Barbary Coast when I first came out here.”

So Kaufman keeps his nose to the grindstone.

“You try to make something special,” Kaufman notes as our interview comes to a close. “You fight all of God’s battles. In the Bullfinch’s Mythology of directors, you’ve behaved as the director should behave. But Hollywood works off a little whisper in the ear, a moment’s intuition, somebody saying the right thing to the right person at the right time and then — bang! — suddenly a movie gets made.”

“Writer + Director: A Retrospective Tribute to Philip Kaufman” plays Friday–Sunday, April 16 – 18, at the Egyptian Theater; see Film and Video Events in Calendar for program information.