Stephen Frears, the British film director, served his apprenticeship in cinema at a time when London was swinging & homegrown cultural talents were finding an international audience. In 1966, when he was 25, Frears was assistant to director Karel Reisz (“Saturday Night Sunday Morning”, “Who’ll Stop the Rain”) on “Morgan:A Suitable Case for Treatment”, a brash comedy where David Warner’s Marxism switches from Karl to Harpo. He was P.A. to director/star Albert Finney for “Charlie Bubbles” (1967), a return to Manchester for the international star, Liza Minnelli’s film debut, the wonderful Billie Whitelaw & a script by Shelagh (“A Taste of Honey”) Delaney. As straight outta Salford as the Smiths. Frears was also an assistant to Lindsay Anderson for “If…” (1968), the best British film of the decade, a satire on a public school system that was anachronistic then (we all thought/hoped it would really be shot to hell) & still is now. The British Film Industry…remember that ? Blimey !
It was Albert Finney’s company that gave Stephen Frears his break as a director. “Gumshoe” (1971) stars Finney as Liverpudlian bingo caller Eddie Ginley whose Sam Spade/Bogart fantasies lead him up unlikely mean streets. It’s a smart spoof detective story, Ms Whitelaw & an outstanding cast of British character actors add value. The opportunities to make films were fewer & for the next decade Frears became established as a leading director of prestigious, quality one-off dramas made by both (!) TV companies which were as good as TV got in the 1970s. There were memorable collaborations with writer Alan Bennett. “Bloody Kids” (1980), a script by young gun Stephen Poliakoff, explores youth alienation, social discord, voyeurism & surveillance, the dark side of a society taking a wrong turn, it’s brilliant. In 1982 “Walter”, a moving story of a man with learning disabilities & his grim life in a psychiatric institution with a great performance by a young Gandalf, attracted much attention when it was the centrepiece of the opening night of Channel 4, a whole new TV channel.
In 1984 Frears returned to the big screen with “The Hit”. It’s an existential gangster road movie…triple whammy ! Of course I love it. Hit man Braddock (John Hurt) & his apprentice Myron (Tim Roth) are sent to Spain to sort out supergrass Parker (Terence Stamp), that’s quite a cast. Stamp, a major star in the 1960s, had a quiet 1970s (apart from being General Zod in 2 Superman movies). Here he’s not as volatile as he was in Soderbergh’s “The Limey” (1999). He’s accepting of & resigned to his fate & he’s up to something. John Hurt is vicious while Tim Roth, in his film debut as Myron, the YTS assassin (a part offered to Joe Strummer off of the Clash), is perfect as the young Brit abroad. Laura del Sol is a hostage in a very tight dress while the great Fernando Rey follows the trail of blood & bodies. The 1980s saw a revival of the British gangster film (those not featuring members of Spandau Ballet), “The Hit”, tense & tough, is one of the best.
There followed a run of Brit flicks. 1985’s “My Beautiful Laundrette” was a breakthrough role for Daniel Day-Lewis as a gay skinhead. Hanif Kureishi’s South London story of Johnny’s relationship with his childhood friend Omar was sensitively & effectively told & gained an international audience. “Prick Up Your Ears” (1987) is the singular story of Joe Orton, playwright, a working class hero contemporaneous with John Lennon & his tragic relationship with Kenneth Halliwell. Gary Oldman & Alfred Molina are outstanding in the lead roles, Alan Bennett’s script is faultless. It’s my favourite of this phase of Frears’ career & it’s on the Y-tube, watching it again is time well spent. “Sammy & Rosie Get Laid” (1987) is another hook-up with Kureishi, another slice of urban life in Thatcher’s Britain.
These opening credits of “The Grifters” (1990), Los Angeles in black & white, Elmer Bernstein theme, signpost that there’s a film noir ahead. There’s some heavy hitters involved, produced by Scorsese, a screenplay by Donald E Westlake from a novel by pulp great Jim Thompson. Frears had directed the film of Christopher Hampton’s play “Dangerous Liaisons”, a large-scale European production with major Hollywood stars but this was his first American movie. The triangle of confidence persons is well cast. Young Roy Dillon (John Cusack) is still learning, painfully, the small-time scams. Myra (Annette Bening) offers more than the chance to score big while his mother Lilly (Anjelica Huston) has been working the angles longer than both of them. Any unflinching attempt to transfer Thompson’s dark spirit to celluloid would inevitably alienate a mass audience. “The Grifters” is tough & violent while diluting themes of incest & violent misogyny. It’s a glossy modern noir, no-one can be trusted & it’s bound to end badly for Roy. It became Frears’ first Academy Award nomination for best director.
That’s 7 feature films “directed by Stephen Frears” then & it’s not easy to pin him down to any individual style. His films effectively capture the often hermetic world of his characters, a car in Spain, a Vauxhall laundrette, an Islington bed-sit. Certainly his screenplay choices are impeccable & his skill is in delivering that quality to the screen. He is more than a safe pair of hands, able to adroitly blend drama & comedy. In the 1990s he returned from Hollywood to make parts 2 & 3 of Roddy Doyle’s Barrytown trilogy. They lacked the musical attraction of part 1 “The Commitments” but both “The Van” & “The Snapper” certainly retained the sweet soul. “Mary Reilly” (1996), another Hampton script starring Julia Roberts & John Malkovich with a $47 million budget was Frears’ first real stutter.
Like many European directors who make it to Hollywood Frears made his crime movie & then his western. “The Hi-Lo Country” (1998) is set in a post-World War 2 West so cannot be anything but elegiac. Woody H, Billy Crudup & Katy Jurado, a link to the great cowboy films. It’s been a while since I saw it but it has moved to near the top of the list. “High Fidelity” (2000) transposes Nick Hornby’s novel from North London to Chicago. “Fever Pitch” had dealt with the football & Hi-Fi covers those other 2 lynchpins of a boy’s life, music & women. All of us music obsessives have spent just enough time in record shops & too much time compiling Top 5 lists. No-one minded the transatlantic shift because if anyone is going to represent us then let it be John Cusack, by now a film star & he seems to be a nice guy. We don’t, perhaps, have Catherine Zeta Jones, Lisa Bonet or Iben Hjejle in our pasts but we’ve had our moments. Not sure we would contact our exes to ask about a break up, pretty sure we wouldn’t want to hear some of the answers. It’s only a movie & one that gets the tone right from Jack Black’s Monday morning tape to Stevie Wonder’s “I Believe” playing over the credits.
The later films of Stephen Frears have been mostly British or European productions. He has continued to work with talented writers, Steven Knight’s 1st screenplay “Dirty Pretty Things” (2002), Steve Coogan “Philomena” (2013). He has also returned to directing event TV dramas in Britain & the US. I’m not too interested in the Queen so Helen Mirren as “The Queen” (2006) passed me by. There was great interest though, Ms Mirren scored an Oscar & Frears a nomination for best director. This film & “Philomena” made serious money from relatively low budgets, the kind of numbers that will keep a now veteran director in work. His latest film “The Program”, a dramatisation about the delusional, drug cheat bike rider Lance Armstrong, does not match the comprehensive documentaries on the same subject. Any road up, there’s another movie in post-production, Meryl Streep in “Florence Foster Jenkins”, & a body of work, spanning 45 years, of such variety & quality that his reputation as an outstanding director is secure. Oh, I forgot to mention “Mr Jolly Lives Next Door” (1987), the funniest non-Python related thing ever shown on British TV !