Obituary: James Bridges

David Shipman
Tuesday 08 June 1993 00:02 BST

James Bridges, film director and screenwriter: born Paris, Arkansas 3 February 1936; died Los Angeles 6 June 1993.

JAMES BRIDGES was an improbable, chameleon-like figure, almost unique in Hollywood history, He did almost everything, both well and badly, and you would have to go back to the 1920s and early 1930s to find anyone comparable - perhaps Lowell Sherman or Harry d'Abbadie d'Arrast, and their cvs could not match this, taken from the Motion Picture Almanack (1991):

Appeared as an actor in 50 TV shows and five feature films. Has written 16 plays and is published in New Theatre for Now, 18 hour (Alfred) Hitchcock Shows and one Great Adventure, Go Down Moses. Worked as writer on 14 features. As director, worked in New York, Edinburgh Festival, Mark Taper and Ahmanson in Los Angeles.

Bridges wrote his first screenplay in 1966, with the experienced Roland Kibbee, The Appaloosa, a Western starring Marlon Brando. He followed that with The Forbin Project (1969), a Cold War thriller about a computer which malfunctions, directed by Joseph Sargent. In 1970 the veteran producer-director Robert Wise liked Bridges' script for The Baby-Maker and agreed to produce it.

It is an exploitative film, hoping to appeal to preppies and hippies alike, made worse by Graduate-type songs on the soundtrack. At the same time, it makes genuine appeal to those with sexual fantasies: a terribly square middle-class couple have everything but a baby so they get together with another couple (Barbara Hershey, Scott Glen) deeply into drugs and sex - and unlike themselves as possible, And what do you know? Nice respectable hubbie is turned off by his wife and lusts after the dippy hippie.

Bridges collaborated with Joan Micklin Silver (who directed her first feature, Hester Street, three years later) on Limbo (1972), a study of three women brought together because their husbands were serving in Vietnam. It was well-meaning, but passed almost unnoticed - not a major credit for the director Mark Robson. Returning to direction, again with his own scripts (from John Jay Osborn Jnr's novel), Bridges made The Paper Chase, a sober, searching look at the problems of those swotting at Harvard Law School. As the central couple, Timothy Bottoms and Lindsay Wagner resembled real people and not movie characters, while John Houseman won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor as the strict professor (which he subsequently played in the television series).

Bridges then did September 30 1955 (1978), a semi-autobiographical piece about an Arkansas student affected by the death of James Dean. It was another of his films to be ignored, but by this time Michael Douglas wanted him for The China Syndrome (1979). Mike Gray had written a screenplay concerning operating defects and deficiencies at a nuclear power plant, which are known to the authorities but which they wish to cover up. Gray brought it to Douglas because he had had a great success as producer of One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest but, despite that, no studio would touch it - even when Jane Fonda and Jack Lemmon became attached to the project.

It was clear that if the film was made Gray would not be allowed to direct. Douglas thought of Bridges because the script was criticised as being too verbose and he considered that Bridges had managed to get a lot of tension into The Paper Chase, which was also very 'talky'.

With Douglas and Fonda co-producing, Columbia agreed to distribute; Bridges had also worked on Gray's script, which was credited to them and to TS Cook. The result was a spine-chilling thriller which, because of its subject, towered over most of its contemporaries. Bridges seemed certain to become a leading director, but he faltered with Urban Cowboy (1980) and Perfect (1985). He wrote both with Aaron Latham, on whose satirical magazine articles they were based.

Both starred John Travolta; but their targets - the macho men of Texas and California health clubs, and journalistic ethics - were hit less by an arrow than peppered by a blunderbuss.

As an observer of modern American life, Bridges was served better by Bright Lights, Big City, from Jay McInerney's novel, about the perils awaiting an innocent - played by Michael J. Fox - from the Mid-West, working in the fact-checking department of a thinly disguised New Yorker magazine, who succumbs to the drugs being handed around in the night dens of New York. Bridges' last credit was White Hunter, Black Heart (1990), co-written with Burt Kennedy and Peter Viertel - on whose novel it was based, and which in turn was based on his experiences working with John Huston on The African Queen. Clint Eastwood directed, and played the Huston role.

(Photograph omitted)

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