Against the wall

John Frankenheimer could have disappeared, but he refused to go away

Once, a very long time ago, John Frankenheimer was scared of things. He was scared of being fired from his job directing live television dramas during the 1950s; scared of missing a shot, of trying something daring and failing so spectacularly that he would never work again. Once, in the early 1960s, he was scared of driving up Coldwater Canyon in Los Angeles to visit with Frank Sinatra; he was so sure the man would tell him he didn't want to act in his picture. A couple of decades later, Frankenheimer was scared he had grown too old, too forgotten. He would keep that fear nearly all his life, if only so he could always have something to surmount. That might well be his greatest reward: conquering terror and emerging, one more damned time, victorious.

"The fear dissipates when you're really working, when you're doing something that you believe in and that you honestly are artistically convinced that's it -- you believe," Frankenheimer says. "But when you're floundering..." He sits on a sofa, takes a deep breath, then begins talking about one of the most reviled films of the 1990s, one for which he was partly responsible.

"Take something like The Island of Dr. Moreau," he begins. "The fear is really with you all the time. I thought, 'God, if I can only get through this alive.' It was so hard. And it really was the heart of darkness for me, going up the river. I was afraid before I started working with Sinatra on The Manchurian Candidate. I was afraid of his reputation. But I was able to get through it."

John Frankenheimer, the director of Reindeer Games, turned 70 last week.
John Frankenheimer, the director of Reindeer Games, turned 70 last week.

Details

Starring Ben Affleck, Charlize Theron, Gary Sinise, and Clarence Williams III

Release Date:
February 25

Official site

Reviewed

Screenplay by Ehren Kruger

John Frankenheimer turned 70 last Saturday -- 70, for God's sake. And no, sitting in a sprawling suite in Dallas' Adolphus Hotel decked out in a lime-green sweater and khakis, he certainly doesn't look it, especially when one considers how turbulent the last two decades of his life have been. Not long ago, the director who once made a movie called Grand Prix so he could express his love for racecar driving was speeding down what he calls "the road to obscurity." Yes, he made bad pictures, but that's all they offered him. No one cared how good he had been -- no one less so than Frankenheimer. The Manchurian Candidate, Birdman of Alcatraz, Seven Days in May, The Train, French Connection II, Seconds -- all that was in the rearview mirror, fading fast from sight.

Yet here he is today, on a brutal winter's day in the year 2000, still out on the road to plug his movies. On Friday, he will open his 30th big-screen picture, Reindeer Games, a frothy thriller starring Ben Affleck and Charlize Theron as two people among many in the film who aren't at all who they seem (a theme that recurs throughout the director's best movies). It's a work of which Frankenheimer is especially proud. After all, it recalls some of his finest and best-known films -- recalls, meaning it contains those elements that once made Frankenheimer an indispensable director. It's taut, full of twists, crowded with double meanings and, yes, even the briefest whiff of incest, perhaps to placate those for whom Manchurian remains Frankenheimer's defining work.

That Frankenheimer still works today, nearly five decades after directing the likes of Paul Newman and James Dean and Cliff Robertson and John Gielgud during the heyday of live television, is almost astonishing. So many of his peers have retired, disappeared, died. That he continues to make films -- with bankable stars, with powerbrokers writing the checks (Miramax's Weinstein brothers, in this case), with complete control -- astonishes no one more than him.

"It's kind of like getting off a landing craft and running up a beach," Frankenheimer says of moviemaking, especially at his age. "The dunes are over there, and they're shooting at you, and people are falling to your right and falling to your left. I'm still running. They haven't hit me yet. They got a few glancing blows, but they haven't killed me. But they're still shooting. Don't think they're not."

Frankenheimer was once convinced that in Hollywood, he was nothing but a memory -- a vestige cut loose and thrown away. But that was before filmmakers began ripping him off, before Andrew Davis stole whole scenes from 1964's exhilarating The Train for his own The Fugitive. That was before The Manchurian Candidate was rereleased and hailed by the American Film Institute as one of the greatest 100 films. That was before film schools began screening his works, before students began plucking at the taut wires that held together his best movies. That was before the advent of DVD, before the fetishist could watch Seven Days in May with Frankenheimer as the invisible cohort offering his prescient director's commentary.

Yes, he was a legend in the 1960s, and some of his best work would come in the 1970s: French Connection II, which featured a strung-out Popeye Doyle stumbling through familiar terrain; Black Sunday, in which Bruce Dern exudes enough nuttiness to fill the Orange Bowl; and his epic yet intimate version of The Iceman Cometh. But, save for 52 Pick-Up in 1986, the 1980s found Frankenheimer struggling to stand upright as a filmmaker. Frankenheimer fell prey to the director's worst disease: an inability to overcome shoddy material.

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.'"

If the system doesn't quite know where he fits in, then neither does he. As of now, he has no project in the works. He bides his time, hoping only that Reindeer Games does enough box-office to catapult him once more to the top of the directors' scrap heap. If not...

"I don't know what studios think of me," Frankenheimer says. "I think they're confused. They thought of me eight years ago as someone who has been and is no more. Then, they were very intrigued and encouraged by the resurgence of the cable movies. Ronin got incredible attention, and I think school is out. They wanna wait and see what happens with this, as far as getting back on the super A list -- the top six. I don't think I'm there yet. I was there in the '60s, but I don't think I'm there now. I'm on that list just below the top eight. But now, I have to be very careful who I am doing these pictures for. I mean, who am I getting into this ship with, and what is their past history? I ask around a lot. I find out. At this point, the fucking you get isn't worth the fucking you get."

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