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By the late 1980s, he was a monolith turned into a shadow. The man who had once directed Sinatra and Burt Lancaster in their finest films was force-fed by studio executives no-talent troublemakers (Don Johnson in Dead-Bang) and bland nonentities (Andrew McCarthy in 1991's Year of the Gun). The residue of his much-discussed alcoholism during the late '70s lingered in the minds of studio bosses. So he took whatever he could for the money. He had to: Frankenheimer was 61 when Year of the Gun was released, and damned sure Hollywood no longer wanted him.
"Then I got offered this fair script with the horrible actor named Dolph Lundgren attached for a lot of money, and I was thinking about doing it, honest to God," he recalls. "It would have gotten me out of financial hell. But this guy who was representing me at the time said, 'If you do this, this is the final trip down the road to oblivion. There's no chance this picture can succeed.' It was a desperate time for me. It was a time when I was just trying to stay off the road to oblivion. I was trying to keep my head above water. I was not able to get out from under it for one reason or another, and I had lost the position of power that I'd had, which enabled me to make decisions and stick by them."
Perhaps the only reason Frankenheimer is so open about this tumultuous period is that it contains the seed of redemption. Like any good storyteller, he offers narrative and context, always building toward resolution and redemption. And indeed, in 1994 -- after a three-year period of inactivity -- Frankenheimer received a call from HBO asking whether he was interested in helming a film about the 1971 Attica riots. The film, Against the Wall, starred Samuel Jackson and Kyle MacLachlan and won Frankenheimer an Emmy for directing, 38 years after his first nomination for CBS-TV's Climax! He would make another film for HBO (1994's The Burning Season, starring Raul Julia as slain rain-forest warrior Chico Mendes) and one for Ted Turner's TNT (1996's Civil War epic Andersonville). Each would win him another directorial Emmy.
For the first time in decades, Frankenheimer felt confident: It was the 1960s again, with a young John Frankenheimer commanding the troops as though not a second has passed. He says now he could feel it return; it was a palpable sensation, as though his blood was once more warm. But he was still broke, with no more than a few hundred bucks in the bank. So when he was offered the chance to replace Joel Schumacher as director of The Island of Dr. Moreau, Frankenheimer accepted. He did so knowing there was no way to salvage the picture, which found a fey, pasty Marlon Brando running amok amongst the homunculi.
"The rest of it is history," Frankenheimer says of the film he usually prefers not to speak of at all. "I did it. I did it for the money. I did it for the idea of working with Marlon Brando. And I'm glad I did, because I got through it." He pauses, then begins again in a proud, defiant tone. "I got through it. And I came out of it a much stronger human being."
Once more, he found solace working for the small screen, helming TNT's George Wallace, starring Reindeer Games' Gary Sinise as the pitiable Alabama governor. The director received yet another Emmy, while the production was honored with myriad accolades, and at last, Frankenheimer was redeemed. For his troubles, he was rewarded with an honest-to-God movie starring Robert De Niro. The production was not without its difficulties: The original script was such a wreck that David Mamet was brought in for a rewrite, one for which he did not receive credit when the original screenwriter insisted his name be left on, though the movie didn't at all resemble the original script.
Yet even after Ronin and Reindeer Games, Frankenheimer remains in the director's Phantom Zone -- caught somewhere between being in demand and being completely forgotten. He uses the words "icon" and "relic" as synonyms; he likes being taught in film schools, yet abhors the notion that his best work remains well behind him. But such is the fate of the filmmaker burdened by a legacy: Should he stumble just once, the director will be trampled to death by all his better yesterdays.
"But you can't be burdened by your legacy," he says, pronouncing the last word as though it's a pejorative. "No, I feel I am helped by it. I call it my past. The thing I know now that I never knew before I did Against the Wall is no matter what, I'm gonna get out of this. I'm gonna find a way out of this jungle, out of this problem. So fuckin' what if something I make isn't as good as something I made? So I will do the best I can. People say, 'You'll never do a movie as good as Manchurian Candidate.' I say, 'I probably won't, but you know what? I'm just gonna keep on trudging along.' But the answer in my own heart is, 'I think I will.'"
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