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Karie (site owner) Written by Karie (site owner)
Mar. 31, 2011 | 11:49 AM

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Tough as Nails: The Life and Films of Richard Brooks

Writer and historian Douglass K. Daniel has recently written “Tough as Nails: The Life and Films of Richard Brooks”.  It is an excellent read and an illuminating look at one of the more overlooked directors of Hollywood’s Golden Age. 

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How did you first become interested in film?

I’ve been a moviegoer at least as far back as “101 Dalmatians” (my grandmother let us stay and see it again). Going to the movies was a major activity for my family when I was growing up in the 1960s and ‘70s. Both my mom and my dad liked movies, as did my brothers and sister. We can sit around talking about when we saw this or that at a particular theater and remember some funny thing that happened before or after (sometimes during) the show.

A journalist since college, at Kansas State University, I later studied film at Ohio University’s School of Film. It was my “minor” area in my doctoral program in mass communication. While I learned a lot about film theory and criticism, I didn’t lose the pure enjoyment that comes with watching a movie.

What led you to Richard Brooks?

I’m a writer and editor for the Associated Press bureau in Washington, D.C. Having written a biography of the CBS News correspondent Harry Reasoner, in 2004, I was interested in tackling a film subject.

I poked around archives online to see what was out there. I hoped to find a subject I could connect to primary materials, such as studio memos and personal correspondence. At the Herrick Library, operated by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. I came across a listing for the Richard Brooks Papers. I thought, hey, has there been a biography of Richard Brooks? There hadn’t, and I eventually decided that he would make a good subject.

How long did it take you to write the book?

From the day I got the idea and started looking into it to the day I turned in the completed manuscript—2 ? years. (Not bad for a guy with a full-time job.) Add to that a year for editing, production and publication.

Was it difficult to get any of his friends or collaborators to speak with you?

Easy in some cases, difficult in others. People must be interested enough in the subject at hand to want to give an hour or so of their time. Some were not interested; others were simply too busy; and others were just difficult to reach.

Fortunately, about three dozen people took time to speak with me; they were willing to help me tell Richard’s story in an honest and open way. One was his former wife and “Elmer Gantry” star, Jean Simmons. A sweet person. Not only did she chat with me about Richard, she asked a key person (I won’t say who) to speak with me who wouldn’t have otherwise.

Two other generous people among many: Sidney Poitier and Paul Mazursky. Both worked with Richard on “Blackboard Jungle” early in their careers and remained friends with him. I think they spoke to me as a favor of sorts to Richard—a person they admired and one who had been supportive of them. Many people I interviewed felt that way about Richard.

Brooks had a reputation as being supremely difficult. Did you find facts that contradicted that?

No, everything I found supported the notion that Richard Brooks was a tough, argumentative, assertive guy, as a writer, as a director, and as a person. I also found that he could be supportive of others’ ambitions, a loyal friend, and an honest man who did what he said he would do. His sentimental side came in a hard shell, as someone told me.

Richard was willful from the start. As a young man he quit college rather than see his parents go into debt to pay his tuition. In New York, he quit a theater group over a dispute in which he was willing to sacrifice money to keep their end of an agreement (his partners were not). He became so annoyed with the junk he was writing at Universal Studios that he quit and joined the Marines. I think that, in his mind, he wasn’t a quitter; he was a person who was willing to compromise his beliefs only so far.

Compromise, though, was a requirement for working in a collaborative art when others supplied the money to make the movies. Richard worked for 10 years at MGM to become successful enough to do what he wanted with little interference. The success of “Blackboard Jungle” and “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” led to the independence he sought.

How did his difficulty impact his work?

I found that Richard had many admirers, even among those who had found him difficult to work with. He was respected, as one person told me, but not necessarily liked. Those who worked with him had a memorable experience, though in some cases a negative one. I can’t say that I found that anyone refused to work with him.

Richard was particularly tough on crews, I’m told. One person told me that he thought the crew took the brunt of Richard’s wrath because Richard understood that coming down hard on an actor could damage an actor’s confidence. So, he shouted at the crew in the rafters. This wasn’t always the case; one actor told me he shouted at him—a lot.

Keep in mind, though, that his reputation was a help in a key way: People tended not to mess with Richard. They left him alone. He got what he wanted. So, I think he cultivated that reputation to a great extent, but it also came naturally to him.

What were his relationships like with actors?

He was awfully hard on some actors, particularly young actors like Debbie Reynolds and Shirley Jones and Scott Wilson. Big stars got much less of that, from what I’m told, but Richard was always in charge on the set.

I think Richard expected actors to find the characters in the scripts he wrote. I see little evidence of him giving a lot of direction beyond that. He tended to work with pros and probably didn’t feel like he needed to guide them too much.

Look at his films, at the casts; you realize he worked with top-flight talent all the way. When all the shouting was all over, the experience usually proved worthwhile for them. For example, when they made “Something of Value,” Brooks was rough on Rock Hudson. Yet Hudson later said he got a lot from Brooks and would work with him again.

Who were Richard Brooks’ major influences?

He admired John Ford and Alfred Hitchcock, from what I’ve read, and he saw Hitchcock as a master of the medium. But four people, to my mind, were critical to Richard’s career in Hollywood.

First, Mark Hellinger. He was the independent producer who brought Richard back into the movies after his stint in the Marine Corps. He also met Hellinger’s buddies Humphrey Bogart and John Huston, who became his close friends, and Hellinger’s first big star, Burt Lancaster.

John Huston probably had the biggest influence on Richard as a filmmaker. Co-writing “Key Largo” with Huston taught Richard a lot about writing for the movies. He also watched Huston direct, the first time he’d been allowed on a set as a writer.

Third, producer Arthur Freed. He was impressed enough with Richard to bring him to MGM with the goal of having Richard direct. Those 10 years as a contract writer-director at MGM gave him the skills he would need to make his best movies.

Finally, I would say Mike Frankovich, the head of production at Columbia, was important to Richard’s career. He gave Richard the chance to make Richard’s dream project “Lord Jim.” More important, in the wake of that film’s box-office failure, Frankovich stayed with Richard and allowed him to make “The Professionals” and “In Cold Blood,” two films on which his legacy rests (both were box-office successes for Columbia).

Why do you think his films are not as commonly screened and revived like those of his peers?

For one thing, Richard Brooks didn’t work in one particular genre; he’s not easy to pigeonhole that way. His style of filmmaking was traditional, for the most part, and visually he didn’t break new ground. That means there isn’t a Richard Brooks Film like there is a Hitchcock Film or a John Ford Film or a Stanley Kubrick Film.

His movies will continue to be shown, though, because he worked with so many excellent actors. “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” is a good example. I think “In Cold Blood” holds up well as a true-crime noir that was part of the mature Hollywood film that was born in the mid-1960s.

Why do you think it has taken so long for a book to be written about him?

He’s not a name in the same way as are Hitchcock, Lean, Wyler, Huston, Wilder, DeMille, and others. He didn’t achieve the same level of box-office success as did many other classic Hollywood directors. Thus, his career is not a commercial topic of interest to a mainstream publisher. Thank goodness we have nonprofit university presses that exist to publish books about significant subjects that might not be commercial.

Why didn’t Richard write his own book, a memoir of Hollywood? People close to him say he would have viewed that as hubris. (The closest he came to writing about his experience was his novel “The Producer,” which was inspired by Hellinger.)

What did you take away from the experience of writing this book?

I came away with newfound respect for actors, writer, directors, producers and others who work in film, a collaborative art. They endure difficult projects (and difficult people) with the hope that, together, they will achieve something great. I wish we were more supportive, financially and otherwise, of our artists.

I also learned, as most biographers do, to love archives and the people who contribute to them and the people who work there. I hope more filmmakers give their papers, production files, and other materials to archives so they can enrich film history down the road.

What is your most favorite Richard Brooks film?

I can watch “The Professionals” again and again. It’s a good story with a great cast. “Elmer Gantry” is enjoyable to watch because of the energy of Burt Lancaster. I think “In Cold Blood” is Richard’s masterpiece; it’s a difficult subject but a fine film with excellent performances by Robert Blake and Scott Wilson. Visually, it may be Richard’s most accomplished work. (Kudos to dp Conrad Hall.)

For me, “In Cold Blood” is at the top for other reasons. I grew up in Garden City, Kansas, the town next to Holcomb, where the Clutter family lived. Garden City is my mother’s hometown, and my grandmother was friends with the Clutters. (I moved there as a teen in 1970, three years after the movie was filmed.) “In Cold Blood” shows Garden City the way I remember it. And, if you know where to look, you can see my grandmother’s beauty salon.

What do you think that Brooks’ legacy is?

I think Richard Brooks is part of that rare breed that existed in the classic period of Hollywood: the writer-director. He sacrificed financial success—he turned down lots of big projects—to do things that interested him and to write and direct movies his way. That spirit of independence was unusual then and, I think, became the goal of the modern filmmaker.

What is your next project?

I’m back to poking around archives again, looking for inspiration and hoping to find a subject as compelling as Richard Brooks.

The UCLA Film & TV Archive will be having a Richard Brooks Retrospective from April 1st - May 25th, 2011.

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