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Twilight of the Gods: Late Career Films From Some of Our Favorite Directors

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By Matt Singer and Alison Willmore

IFC News

[Photo: “Belle Toujours,” New Yorker Films, 2007]

We here at IFC News doubt we’ll live long enough to see 99 years old in a way that doesn’t involve adult diapers and drool. Yet, the great Portuguese director Manoel de Oliveira will turn 99 this December and he’s still making movies on the cusp of the century club. He had a segment in the anthology “To Each His Own Cinema” at last month’s Cannes Film Festival, and his last feature, “Belle Toujours” comes to American theaters this week. What’s more, de Oliveira’s recent work, in the years since he became the oldest active director on the planet in 2001, has brought him increasing acclaim and attention. His twilight years have been anything but, in terms of critical appreciation and popularity.

De Oliveira’s impressive late career output got us thinking about how other directors fared in the autumn of their years. Here’s a look at some of his peers past, what they did and, in many cases, did not do, keeping in mind we chose to save those aging directors still alive and working (Godard, Rohmer, Lumet, etc.) for a future column.

Robert Altman

Final Film Made: “A Prairie Home Companion” (2006)

When the world mourned Altman’s death late last year, it’s hard to imagine that there weren’t more than a few people who also shrugged and allowed that going out on the high note that was “A Prairie Home Companion” was a pretty sweet way to end a career.

Altman’s hot-blooded heyday was in the 70s, when he made his two most acclaimed films, 1970’s stealthily subversive “M.A.S.H.” and 1975’s uber-Altman effort “Nashville,” along with other critical favorites like “The Long Goodbye” (1973) and “3 Women” (1977). In the 80s he hit a slump of sorts, but Altman was a prolific director who was never out of work — even in the best of times he had a contentious relationship with Hollywood, and when the industry wasn’t working well with him, he just headed back into television, where he got his start and where he later picked up an Emmy for the Gary Trudeau-written miniseries “Tanner ’88.” He leapt back into the film forefront in the 90s with Tinseltown satire “The Player” in 1992 and “Short Cuts” in 1993, his later career high water mark. Well into his 70s, Altman produced the splendid “Gosford Park” and revisited the character Jack Tanner before turning in his last work, the humbly elegiac “A Prairie Home Companion,” based on Garrison Keillor’s beloved radio show.

As warm and fond (and staunchly dry-eyed) as ever a meditation on death there was, “A Prairie Home Companion” is an ideal coda to an uncompromising oeuvre, one that featured Altman’s signature rambling multi-track narratives and overlapping dialogue and that reunited the director with actress Lily Tomlin, who’d starred in two of his most significant films. The film’s setting, at the last performance of a live radio show, may have seemed mournful, but it turned out to be anything but — a reminder that, like those performers, Altman never gave in to pressure to change to suit the times. He remained staunchly himself, which may be why the biggest regret one should feel while watching the film is that he never had a chance to work on his next planned project, which sounds like it would have suited him perfectly: a narrative adaptation of the documentary “Hands on a Hard Body.”

Luis Buñuel

Final Film Made: “That Obscure Object of Desire” (1977)

It’s no wonder Luis Buñuel is such an important director: he had three careers, any of which taken by itself would have been significant. In his early Spanish days he followed up his groundbreaking and still shocking Dalí-collaboration “Un Chien Andalou” (1929) with the even more scandalous “L’Âge d’Or” (1930), and then managed to pioneer the mockumentary before there were much by way of documentaries with 1933’s “Las Hurdes: Tierra Sin Pan.” Exiled from Spain, he headed to Mexico to turn out “Los Olvidados” (1950), “The Exterminating Angel” (1962) and others. And then, in the mid 60s, he headed to France, where he produced his best-known films: “Belle de jour” (1967), “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie” (1972) and “That Obscure Object of Desire,” his final project, in 1977.

Buñuel retired from filmmaking after “That Obscure Object of Desire,” but the film feels in no way like a final one other than that it returns to the field of sexual politics that Buñuel frequently explored throughout his career, and that it finds the old Surrealist choosing, fittingly, to go out in a ball of flame. “That Obscure Object of Desire” follows Mathieu (Fernando Rey), a wealthy, older French businessman, as he pursues the object of his lust, an 18-year-old Spanish girl named Conchita, famously played by two actresses, Carole Bouquet and Ángela Molina. The film is a wise and cuttingly funny battle between the two that combines Buñuel’s wry, Surrealist eye — the constant bombings that plague the cities don’t seem to register with Mathieu any more than the fact that the woman he’s chasing is in fact two — with the narrative facility the director learned over his career, and that’s best put to use in his later work.

Samuel Fuller

Last Film Made: “Street of No Return” (1989)

Though he’d had a long and busy career as a writer, director and producer of war pictures (“Fixed Bayonets”), westerns (“Forty Guns”) and crime thrillers (“Pickup on South Street”), Samuel Fuller couldn’t catch many breaks when it came to filmmaking, particularly in his later years. His directorial career was pretty much kaput by the late-1960s, when he made schlock like the Burt Reynolds programmer “Shark!” He barely worked at all for a dozen years.

Fuller had dreamed of documenting his experiences in World War II as part of the United States’ Army’s First Infantry Division, and he finally got the chance when a new independent production company named Lorimar Pictures gave him a miniscule $4 million to make his WWII epic. He shot it guerilla style in a couple weeks in Israel with Lee Marvin, Mark Hamill and Robert Carradine, but the studio didn’t exactly go ga-ga over his four-and-a-half hour director’s cut.

Though “The Big Red One” was hacked down to just 113 minutes, this version got a release and even played the Cannes Film Festival in 1980. Things went far worse for Fuller’s next project, “White Dog” the story of a German Shepherd who has been trained to attack African-Americans, and the man who tries to cure him. After protests from the NAACP, Paramount Pictures shelved the film completely. No one saw the movie for a decade. Fuller was devastated. In his autobiography, “A Third Face,” Fuller described the experience of losing his film. “It’s like someone putting your newborn baby in a goddamned maximum-security prison forever,” he wrote.

Reeling from the creative defeat, Fuller accepted an offer to work in Europe and pretty much left the country for good. He made a few films in Europe, including his last theatrical feature, “Street of No Return” in 1989, and kept busy making TV movies and writing “A Third Face.” After his death in 1997, Fuller’s work returned to the spotlight. In 2004, film critic Richard Schickel oversaw a restoration of “The Big Red One” that included over a half-hour of new footage, and came, in Schieckel’s words, as close to recapturing Fuller’s original vision as was humanly possible. “The Big Red One” played Cannes again, to even greater acclaim.

Alfred Hitchcock

Final Film Made: “Family Plot” (1976)

Alfred Hitchcock wasn’t exactly a spring chicken when he made “Psycho” in 1960. He was 60 himself, and he was finishing a dizzying run as one of the most beloved and acclaimed popular filmmakers in movie history. But the remaining 20 years of Hitchcock’s life would prove spotty, notable as much for their failures and missteps as for their smashes.

Despite his ever-growing fame and success Hitchcock found his hands increasingly tied: by audiences’ one-dimensional expectations of what a “Hitchcock movie” entailed; by the studio’s increasing reliance on smaller pictures in styles that didn’t suit his talents; by a world that didn’t provide simple, colorful villains like Nazis to inspire his work. François Truffaut’s book-length interview with Hitchcock concludes with an epilogue that features excerpts from letters Hitch wrote the author, and they paint a sad portrait of a man trapped by his own success. “I am looking for a film project,” he wrote Truffaut, “but it is very difficult… I can only make what is expected of me; that is, a thriller, or a suspense story, and that I find hard to do… In the film industry here, there are so many taboos: we have to avoid elderly persons and limit ourselves to youthful characters; a film must contain some anti-establishment elements; no picture can cost more than two or three million dollars.”

Those final 20 years showcase a few highlights: the terrifying “The Birds” (1962) and the eternally debated “Marnie” (1964). But they also feature some of the most poorly regarded films of his career: the mediocre-at-best “Torn Curtain” (1966) and the roundly despised “Topaz,” which Hitchcock didn’t even really want to make. But Hitch rebounded, and proved his versatility and vitality with his penultimate film “Frenzy” (1972), an underappreciated classic about a serial killer and the man accused of his crimes that also serves as Hitchcock’s most complete valedictory on his own career.

He finished “Family Plot” in 1976 and lived another four years but he never directed again. Before he finally resigned himself to retirement, Hitchcock prepared one last project called “The Short Night,” a reworking of “Notorious” about an American spy who falls in love with the wife of his intended target. The screenplay was never fully completed and no one has attempted to make the film “as he would have wanted” in the years since.

Stanley Kubrick

Final Film Made: “Eyes Wide Shut” (1999)

As Stanley Kubrick grew older, the spaces between his films grew greater and greater. Never the most forthcoming of directors, he all but dropped off the Hollywood radar for almost a decade after his 1987 Vietnam saga “Full Metal Jacket.” Rumors had him attached to various projects during the time, most prominently “A.I.,” which went to Steven Spielberg after Kubrick’s death in 1999. When he did resurface, it was with a film that featured an extraordinarily loaded high-profile pairing: the then-married and not yet tabloid-targeted superstar couple Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman.

“Eyes Wide Shut” was greeted with mixed reviews, as was much of Kubrick’s work, but the film itself was almost obscured from view by its own baggage. Kubrick presented it to Warner Brothers only a few days before his death; it was presumably finished, though plenty insisted that he would have made further changes had he been able to. It featured Cruise and Kidman, who would separate a year after its premiere, engaging in the kind of flesh-baring eroticism and soul-baring raw interactions neither had really attempted before. And it was tampered with to secure an R rating, the central orgy scenes digitally altered to obscure the most explicit action.

Looking at “Eyes Wide Shut” a few years past all the fervor of its initial opening, the film seems ever more a moodily appropriate capper to a strikingly innovative career. After all, the biggest complaint lodged against Kubrick, particularly by one of his main detractors, critic Pauline Kael, was his supposed coldness; in “Eyes Wide Shut” he ventures with aplomb into the battlefields of the bedroom, territory that would be inaccessible to any truly unempathic filmmaker. The film, despite it welcomingly Christmas colored interiors, is no genial experience, but rather runs as vividly hot and cold as any vital relationship, and has, tucked away inside, glancing references to “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “Fear and Desire,” “Full Metal Jacket” and other Kubrick works. It’s not a retrospective, but then, who would want that? As Sydney Pollack’s character Victor Ziegler observes, “Life goes on. It always does, until it doesn’t.”

Orson Welles

Final Film Completed: “Filming ‘Othello'” (1978)

The only thing Orson Welles was better at than making movies was starting movies and never finishing them. Welles never stopped acting in Hollywood movies, but after his second go-round directing American movies (when he made “Touch of Evil”), Welles generally worked outside of the studio system. He adapted Kafka’s “The Trial” and the Shakespearian “Chimes at Midnight” on his own. But the financial foundations upon which many of Welles’ projects were based were so shaky, often films went months or years without being completed, if at all.

The Criterion Collection DVD for “F For Fake” (1974), Welles’ last great completed picture, includes a feature length documentary called “Orson Welles: One Man Band,” by Vassili Silovic and Welles’ partner Oja Kodar, that explores all of the projects the restless and impoverished genius began and never completed. The Holy Grail of these is “The Other Side of the Wind,” which Welles actually shot before “F For Fake” but never edited or released. The film stars John Huston as an aging director with a flagging career; no doubt, a fascinating quasiautobiographical work. Sadly for Welles, the movie had been funded with money from the brother-in-law of the Shah of Iran, who was later deposed. The rights to the material were litigated for decades and are only now getting a final sorting out. Peter Bogdanovich, Welles’ biographer and friend, and a star of “The Other Side of the Wind,” is supposedly editing the film for a potential release next year.

If it happens, it wouldn’t be the first time that someone carried on in Welles’ place after his death. Welles’ unfinished South American documentary “It’s All True” and his version of “Don Quijote” were both compiled and released posthumously by other filmmakers. And “Touch of Evil,” the straw that broke the camel’s back in the first place, was eventually restored and re-released in a version more in line with Welles’ tastes, based on a 58-page memo Welles had written after seeing the studio’s cut.

After the unequivocal triumph of “Citizen Kane,” not much in Welles’ career went according to plan. He had very little creative control over his work and limited authority over final cuts. But according to Kodar in “One Man Band” he wasn’t terrible upset about his failures and he didn’t dwell on the past. “He had enormous courage,” she says, “Nothing was going to stop him from making movies.” Nothing did; well, nothing did from starting them, at least.

[Additional images: “Prairie Home Companion,” Picturehouse, 2006; “That Obscure Object of Desire,” First Artists, 1977; “Street of No Return,” Jacques Brel, 1989; “Family Plot,” Universal Pictures, 1976; “Eyes Wide Shut,” Warner Bros, 1999; “Filming ‘Othello’,” Independent Images, 1979]

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Lane 27: Broken Windows

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