Oscar 2004: Best Director Nomination for Taylor Hackford

If the dictionaries are accurate, Taylor Hackford, the director of the acclaimed biopicture “Ray,” will soon celebrate his 60th birthday. It may or may not be a coincidence that “Ray” represents Hackford’s best work to date. An enjoyable and accomplished film, which is a rare combination for a Hollywood picture, “Ray” avoids many of the pitfalls of that dubious genre, the biopicture of “the artist with a problem.” Hackford’s career has seen many ups and downs, but his work on “Ray” truly deserves a Best Director Oscar nomination.

“Ray,” already a commercial hit, will make Jamie Foxx a major star, and the expected Best Actor nomination will certify Foxx’s talent as a leading man who can carry a movie on his broad shoulders. The other elements of “Ray” that get a lot of attention are the long and hard years (about 17) that Taylor has been fighting to make a movie about Ray Charles, his many meetings with the legendary musician over the years, his commitment to the project, his struggle to securing funds, and, finally, his determination to make “Ray” without the safety of having theatrical distribution.

“Ray” is justifiably described as a labor of love, which is a good thing, but Im concerned that, with all the hype, it might detract attention from Hackford’s skillful work as the film’s co-writer and director. Hence my wish to single out Hackford’s invaluable contribution to the overall impact of “Ray,” and to the pleasure it’s bound to give millions of viewers worldwide over the next several months. If all goes well, “Ray” will have long legs, perhaps even cross the magical $100 million mark, domestically.

In the current movie scene, Hackford is an anomaly, an unabashedly old-fashioned director with strong and grounded instincts for unpretentious commercial entertainment. Though he’s only a few years younger than Scorsese, and a few years older than Spielberg, Hackford seems to belong to another era–to classic Hollywood cinema and the studio’s golden age era. I have no doubt that Hackford would have benefited immensely had he been a long-term contract director at MGM, or another studio.

Like Spielberg and Lucas, Hackford attended USC but he didn’t study film, instead getting a degree in international relations. His interest in politics continued when he served two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in Bolivia. Politics, in both the specific and broader sense of the term, also features in the text and subtext of several of Hackford’s films, like “White Nights” and “Proof of Life.”

Back in LA, Hackford began his career with a TV station, and later started his own production company, New Visions. In the 1980s, Hackford veered toward a producer’s role, merging his company with New Century Entertainment to form New Century/New Visions. However, in 1990, after a flurry of production activity, he dissolved his business and devoted himself entirely to directing.

Talent and technical skills were never an issue with Hackford, who won an Oscar for his live-action short, “Teenage Father,” in 1978. Indeed, he proved himself a capable director with his very first feature, “The Idolmaker,” in 1980. However, Hackford’s breakthrough film, which enhanced his visibility and power in Hollywood, was the 1982 blockbuster “An Officer and a Gentleman.” A schmaltzy but extremely enjoyable melodrama, this picture solidified Richard Gere’s position as a movie star, and put Debra Winger on the map as a viable screen presence and leading lady of the first rank.

“Officer and a Gentleman” seems to have come out of a time warp. It was the kind of slick, well-acted variant of a picture made regularly in the 1930s and 1940s. Indeed, thematically, there was nothing new about the film’s “flawed hero,” a selfish, arrogant fellow with a chip on his shoulder who joins the military and in the process learns the meaning of camaraderie and becomes a better human being.

Despite garnering 6 Oscar nominations, including Best Actress, Original Screenplay, Score, and Editing, the movie failed to confer a directing nod on Hackford from the Academy. “Officer and s Gentleman” went on to win two Oscars: Supporting Actor to Louis Gossett Jr., and Song, “Up Where We Belong,” with music by Jack Nitzche and Buffy Sainte-Marie and lyrics by Will Jennings. The snub by the Directors’ Branch raised eyebrows. Who, if not Hackford, was responsible for orchestrating the accomplishments of “Officer and a Gentleman”

Music and films about musicians are obviously close to Hackford’s heart. The central character of Hackford’s feature debut, “The Idolmaker,” was a young songwriter from the Bronx, Vinney (Ray Sharkey), searching for a singer with “the right look” for the bobby-soxers. Realizing that looks are more important than voice, Vinney uses his brashness and energy, and takes a dissolute, baby-faced saxophone player from a juke joint, turning him into a rock idol. Edward Di Lorenzo’s script was inspired by the life of the rock impresario Bob Marucci.

In 1987, he co-produced “La Bamba,” which was directed by Luis Valdez. It was a solid biopicture of Ritchie Valens, a poor Mexican-American who became a rock n” roll sensation as an adolescent. In the same year, Hackford directed another music film, the concert documentary, “Chuck Berry: Hail! Hail! Rock n’ Roll,” which was also well-received.

With the exception of the heavily-spiced melodrama, “Dolores Claiborne,” in 1995, most of Hackford’s work in the 1990s was disappointing, including “The Devil’s Advocate” and “Proof of Life,” another film that got more publicity for the steamy on-set affair of Russell Crow and Meg Ryan than for its on location shooting and great look.

Critics were often harsh on Hackford’s neglect of narrative logic, of favoring well-executed entertainment over stronger stories and sharp characterization. Hence, reviewing “The Idolmaker,” Pauline Kael wrote that the film was of no special importance and had a rickety script, but she also found it to be “likable, with verve and snap.”

David Denby once described Hackford as a director who comes from “the squeezed-washcloth school of cinema, evidently thinking that characters prove their humanity only by breaking down and crying.” Denby resented the cheesiness of Jeff Bridges’ drenched shirt, in “Against All Odds,” and the silliness of the tear-stained patriotic melodrama, “White Nights.” But even Denby acknowledged that the film’s “overwrought nonsense has been crafted with undeniable entertainment savvy.”

A guilty pleasure, the noir in color “Against All Odds,” contained steamy, torrid sex between Bridges and Rachel Ward. However, there was no way for that remake to be judged on its own terms, and, as expected, it suffered from inevitable comparisons with its source material, the cultish 1940s noir, “Out of the Past.”

Hackford has always been wonderful with actors, the way the late vet filmmaker, George Cukor. Like Cukor, Hackford has been particularly good with women, though I will not describe him as a woman’s director. Even so, Jessica Lange was splendid in “Everybody’s All-American,” and Kathy Bates, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Judy Parfitt delivered powerhouse performances in “Dolores Claiborne,” the kind of weepy (a truly woman’s picture) that Cukor, Minnelli, or Douglas Sirk would have directed in the 1940s and 1950s with the likes of Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, and Jane Wyman.

Unlike several of his contemporaries, Hackford is a uniquely American director, one who’s particularly concerned with the lives and careers of gifted individuals, be they musicians, singers, or lawyers, torn by conflicting pressures that derive directly from American values. Spanning twenty-five years, “Everybody’s All-American” was a bitter-sweet sage of a college football hero (played by Dennis Quaid) and his homecoming queen (Jessica Lange).

Or take the Faustian morality tale, “Devil’s Advocate,” a film that recalled “Wall Street” and “Rosemary’s Baby.” The story was borderline silly and it would have worked better as a satire than as a straight morality play about Yuppies. Nonetheless, there was no denying that it was seductive, lavish-looking, and cleverly entertaining, with an unexpectedly effective and touching performance from Keanu Reeves.

Many of Hackford’s films are set in the past: “The Idolemaker” was set in 1959, and “La Bamba” also belongs to a bygone era. In scope and goal, “Ray,” which spans decades in Ray Charles’ musical career, is the most ambitious film Hackford has directed. But even when the pictures are not set in the past, they feel as if they were, a combined result of their old-fashioned narrative, conventional arch, polished production values, and broad entertainment values.

After years of waiting and waiting, going into “Ray,” Hackford was determined to make a satisfying picture that would do justice to his rich and problematic subject matter: A chronicle of Ray Charles’ life, from childhood to his late years. To this extent, Hackford has made some important decisions, namely, not to sanitize or glamorize Ray Charles. The selfish womanizer, who led a double life, the man who succumbed to drugs and then beat them, are very much at the center of the tale–without apologies or simplistic Freudian explanations.

Hackford brought to “Ray” his heart, soul, and tremendous skill as an unapologetically commercial director. After initiating the project, Hackford spent time, energy, and discretion in selecting interesting episodes from Charles’ complex and troubled life–while omitting others. With all the criticisms that some of us have about the old-fashioned nature of the text (the rise and fall and rise) and simple structure, we have to acknowledge the excellent choice of music, and the specific and exciting ways in which Charles’ big hits are interspersed in his story. In “Ray,” Hackford shows a gratifyingly light touch in handling tough material, using sharp editing at strategic moments to generate strong emotional response form the audience.

A frontrunner in the Oscar race in the Best Picture, Actor, Supporting Actress, and other categories, “Ray” should also garner an Oscar nomination for Taylor Hackford as Best Director from his colleagues at the Academy’s Directors Branch.