Obituary: Alan Pakula

Click to follow
A MASTER at creating a world of corporate malevolence and oppressive paranoia, the director and writer Alan Pakula flourished in the post-Vietnam and Watergate atmosphere of disillusionment and conspiracy theories.

The Seventies were his best decade, in which he made three outstanding thrillers, Klute, The Parallax View, a definitive film in the "paranoia" genre, and All the President's Men (which was actually about Watergate). These films were all distinguished by Pakula's strongly defined mise-en- scene and a gallery of exceptional performances.

Two actresses, Jane Fonda and Meryl Streep, won Oscars under Pakula's direction, and he became known for getting exceptional performances from his actors. Harrison Ford, who starred in his last film, The Devil's Own (1997), called him "a natural guide to inner realms. As a writer and director, he was always concerned with evolving emotionally." The psychology and motivations of his characters were always to the fore in a Pakula movie, and many of his works concerned difficult relationships between disparate people.

Of Polish-Jewish origin, Pakula was born in 1928 in the Bronx, New York, his father the co-owner of a printing business. It was the months between high school and college that altered his life - he worked at the Leland Hayward Theatrical Agency and fell in love with show business.

He both wrote and acted in college plays, and after graduating from Yale Drama School joined Warner Bros cartoon department as an assistant animator, in 1949. He moved to MGM in 1950 as an apprentice, and while there worked with the writer-director Don Hartman on the musical Mr Imperium. The following year, when Hartman was made head of production at Paramount, he took Pakula with him as an assistant.

Pakula became a producer in 1957 with a harrowing biographical film about the baseball player Jimmy Piersall's battle with manic depression, Fear Strikes Out. Starring Anthony Perkins in his first leading role, the film was directed by Robert Mulligan and began a long collaboration between him and Pakula.

The pair formed their own production company, and among the films produced by Pakula and directed by Mulligan were the Oscar-nominated To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), starring Gregory Peck, the Steve McQueen-Natalie Wood romance Love with the Proper Stranger (1963), Inside Daisy Clover (1965) and Up the Down Staircase (1967).

Pakula became a director himself in 1969 with The Sterile Cuckoo, an offbeat teenage love story which won an Oscar nomination for its star Liza Minnelli in her first top-billed role. Pakula also produced the film and his next, the one which established him as a major director, Klute (1971), the story of an uneasy alliance between a private detective and a prostitute helping him to solve a murder. With a brilliant central performance by Jane Fonda, and a sexual frankness that startled at the time (few will forget the moment when Fonda as a call-girl, busy with a client, coolly checks her watch while faking an orgasm), the film dazzled with its penetrating atmosphere of corruption and perversion. It was strongest in its evocation of Bree, the call-girl, strong-willed, and delighted in the power she has over her customers, while frightened by the dangers and limited future inherent in her profession.

A hit with both critics and customers, the film made over $6m and won Fonda the New York Film Critics Award as Best Actress as well as the Oscar. She worked with Pakula twice more, in Comes a Horseman (1978), with James Caan and Jason Robards, and Rollover (1981), a complicated tale of financial wheeling and dealing that was one of Pakula's failures.

Maggie Smith starred in Love and Pain and the Whole Damn Thing (1972), another study of an offbeat attraction, this time between two introverts who meet on a tour of Spain. The Parallax View (1974) was a gripping tale of a reporter (Warren Beatty) investigating a political assassination, too pessimistic perhaps to be a big commercial hit but totally engrossing, exquisitely photographed and designed by the team who would work on Pakula's subsequent film and greatest success, All the President's Men (1976).

Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman gave sterling performances as the reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, who achieved the biggest newspaper scoop of the decade when they uncovered the Watergate scandal that was to destroy the Nixon administration. Pakula crafted a riveting story of detection and perseverance, using aerial shots, tracing movements and cut-aways to enhance the tempo, and increasing exhilaration as the pair uncover more and more evidence of incredible revelations. He received the New York Film Critics Award as Best Director for his work on the film, plus an Oscar nomination. "I was called the paranoid's director," said Pakula. "Funnily enough, I never expected to direct those kinds of films, although I was always interested in the body politic."

Though it was many years before he had another major commercial success, Sophie's Choice (1982) won him an Oscar for his screenplay as well as Meryl Streep's award, and Orphans (1987) showcased terrific performances by its three leads, Albert Finney, Kevin Anderson and Matthew Modine. The tall, bearded and somewhat professorial Pakula was, not without cause, frequently referred to as an "actor's director".

"He was incredibly supportive and would give you the courage you needed," said Candice Bergen, who starred in Pakula's 1979 comedy Starting Over. "He made it safe for me to make a total fool of myself." Pakula himself confessed his interest in psychology. "A man who is in control, and inside there is a frightened child - that interests me. Why? You can draw your own conclusions."

Pakula's first wife was the actress Hope Lange, whom he married in 1963 and divorced in 1969. In 1973 he married a writer of historical novels, Hannah Cohn Boorstin. His film See You in the Morning (1979), which he also wrote and co-produced, is considered partly autobiographical, concerning a divorced man who marries a widow with several children. Boorstin had five children by her first husband when she married Pakula.

The director achieved a return to mainstream success with his 1990 legal thriller Presumed Innocent, starring Harrison Ford as a prosecutor who finds himself charged with the murder he is investigating, though Pakula had also to take the blame for the film's ponderous pacing. The Pelican Brief (1993), another conspiracy-theory tale about a law student (Julia Roberts) who uncovers the truth about the murder of two Supreme Court judges, found the director occasionally allowing the pace to slacken but otherwise back on form. Roberts was another performer who had praise for Pakula: "He would allow you your time and the freedom to find things in the material."

Pakula himself said: "I think, when you do a film, there's a part of you in each character, or vice versa." At the time of his death in a freak car accident, he was working on the screenplay for his next film, No Ordinary Time, about the Roosevelt administration.

Alan Jay Pakula, film director, producer, writer: born New York 7 April 1928; married 1963 Hope Lange (marriage dissolved 1969), 1973 Hannah Cohn Boorstin; died Melville, New York 19 November 1998.