Here’s how to raise hackles on Stephen Frears within seconds of meeting him: Suggest that he will best be remembered as a European filmmaker. Frears is in town to promote his new film, Liam, one of those modestly budgeted homages to British working-class life for which he is justly celebrated. He‘s also here to get a couple of American projects, one with Richard Gere in the lead, off the ground. So it doesn’t help that I kick off by quoting a mostly laudatory summation of his work by film biographer David Thomson, who wrote — pre–High Fidelity — that Frears would have done himself a favor had he given Hollywood a wide berth. With Hero, Mary Reilly and The Hi-Lo Country in the deficit column, Thomson arguably has a case.
“Complete drivel,” says Frears flatly. The engagingly rumpled 60-year-old director wears the distracted air of a schoolboy so engrossed in his science project he‘s forgotten to tie his shoelaces. Yet Frears’ chattiness flares into prickly irritability when he senses criticism on the radar. “I can describe the point where I went into waters that I shouldn‘t have gone into. It wasn’t to do with coming to America, but with making very expensive studio films. I came to America to make Dangerous Liaisons, which I think is a wonderful film, and The Grifters, which I think is a wonderful film. I then went on — because that‘s what you’re supposed to do — and made expensive films, and I discovered that I couldn‘t do it. So I retreated back to making medium-priced films, like The Hi-Lo Country and High Fidelity, both of which I think are terrific.”
We could certainly agree on High Fidelity, a studio movie with the loose, idiosyncratic feel of a small independent film, and disagree usefully about the peculiarly lethargic The Hi-Lo Country. But I, reaching for a consensual interlude to induce rapport, turn to Liam — where I get myself into hotter water still. The movie, a dark tale of an Irish-Catholic family weathering poverty and unemployment in Depression-era Liverpool, and of the father’s disastrous flirtation with fascism, offers a bracing antidote to the slick tales of jolly proles that are paying their way across the Atlantic these days. Still, there‘s a jarring dissonance between Frears’ tender, lyrical direction, with all the lovely accretion of significant detail and saving humor one associates with his best work, and the florid prose of Jimmy McGovern, who wrote the semiautobiographical script. McGovern (who also wrote the horribly manipulative Priest, in which he pronounced himself shocked — shocked! — that the Catholic Church might have a hard time backing an actively gay prelate) stacks the deck of Liam with bullying Catholic functionaries, not to mention three representative Jews who just happen to be a grasping pawnbroker, a recalcitrant landlord and a boss who‘s held responsible for the family’s plight.
When I voice my qualms, Frears assumes the slightly hunted expression of one who‘s been run through this mill before, and takes cover. He says he insisted that all the Jewish characters should be played by Jewish actors. He tells me I should address this question to the writer, not to him. He suggests that art is neither reasonable nor responsible. When I press my case, he says he’s the wrong person to ask, having discovered in his late 20s that his mother was Jewish. This is fascinating news, but hardly relevant to the distance Frears chooses to keep from McGovern‘s rabble-rousing.
Which is odd, given that Frears, along with Ken Loach and Mike Leigh, remains one of Britain’s great interpreters of class and race. “That‘s what the BBC taught me,” he says. “Not deliberately, but it was clear that was the currency.” Like Leigh, Frears grew up north of London, the son of a middle-class doctor with a heavily proletarian practice. He came of age in the early ’60s, against the backdrop of a flowering working-class culture in books, movies and politics. He studied law at Cambridge, got into the BBC (“through the back door, as I do everything”) after apprenticing with Karel Reisz and Lindsay Anderson, and spent years in that left-wing bastion “banging out” wonderful television movies before breaking through with the fabulous My Beautiful Laundrette, as perceptive and fanciful a study in changing British race (and sex) relations as has ever been made before or since. The movie “got hijacked by the cinema,” and Frears was on his way, possibly the only one of his generation of filmmakers to enjoy a successful career at home and become a hot property in Hollywood.
Frears sighs resignedly at being “eternally bracketed” with Loach and Leigh. He speaks of both with respect, but offers the view that for all the vitriol they routinely pour on Hollywood, both men would kill for a bigger slice of the American audience. Of Leigh he says, “He can‘t understand why his films aren’t like the Farrelly brothers‘ films, playing to huge audiences all over America.” Frears acknowledges Loach as a major influence and roars with fond laughter as he dubs the tenacious Marxist a conservative. “I think Ken should make thrillers, personally, but I’m not allowed to say that. I always think his films are rather like Hollywood films, Westerns with a cowboy in a white hat. He finds somebody who is morally unimpeachable — that‘s what they did in Hollywood. I make films about men who have flaws.” He offers a wolfish grin. “I’m much shiftier.”
Hardly. The BBC rarely makes films as unabashedly bleak as Liam anymore. Miserabilism doesn‘t make money in domestic or foreign markets, and it was only through Frears’ clout, and that of McGovern, who wrote the successful television series Cracker, that Liam got made at all. Yet Frears — wisely, it turns out — turned down the much more high-profile Angela‘s Ashes. “I didn’t see how you could get anything for the audience out of it,” he says. It‘s not exactly a light heart that informs Frears’ work — on the evidence of his films, he may be more of a social pessimist than his peers. For all his identification with the underclass, there‘s a larky, off-the-cuff anarchy in Frears’ work that one doesn‘t see either in Leigh’s bitterly resentful black comedy or in Loach‘s high-minded polemics. Who but Frears would think of turning Jim Thompson’s dark novel The Grifters into a saucy romp? Frears has never written his own scripts (“I have no talent for it”), but he‘s made a habit of working with strong, funny, often literary writers, the best and most beloved of whom is Alan Bennett, who wrote Prick Up Your Ears as well as several of Frears’ films for the BBC, and whom he credits for his own irreverent take on class politics. “Unlike Mike and Ken, Alan was working-class. He knew rather more than they did about working-class life. He wasn‘t so much the victim of fashion as was the left-wing ethos at the BBC.”
Like many arty Brits, Frears lacks any self-importance about his work. He notes gleefully that his next English project is a thriller written by one of the inventors of Who Wants To Be a Millionaire and insists that his career has been a sequence of sublime accidents. If an aesthetic adheres to his films, it’s only in retrospect. “There was no time to be stylish,” he says of his television work, which is arguably his finest. “You just had to bang it off.” When I remind him that he showed up at the Los Angeles Film Critics Awards in 1991 to support Anjelica Huston‘s nomination for The Grifters wearing jeans and sneakers that had seen better days, he laughs bemusedly. “Is that right? I was nominated for an Oscar, and — this is how different the world was 10 years ago — the night before the Oscars I was told that The Grifters had won the Independent Spirit Award for best indie film. By then I had agreed to make Hero for Columbia. I said, ’Oh, I see, the prize for making the best independent film is that you get to give up your independence?‘”