Oscar Directors: Zinnemann, Fred: Centennial (1907-2007)

I will not trade one shot of Orson Welles for the entire oeuvre of Fred Zinnemann–Andrew Sarris

Fred Zinnemann’s centennial is next week: He was born in Vienna April 29, 2007 and died in 1997. But I will not be surprised if the centenary goes completely unremarked (and unnoticed) by critics and cineastes. It’s hard to think of another director who had fallen so quickly out of grace as Zinnemann, despite promising and even brilliant beginnings.

For starters, Zinnemann featured two of Hollywood’s greatest Method actors, Montgomery Clift and Marlon Brando, in their screen debut: “The Search” (1948) and “The Men” (1950), respectively. Six of Zinnemann’s movies were nominated for the Best Picture Oscar, and two won: “From Here to Eternity” (1953), with an all-star cast, and “A Man for All Seasons” (1966), with a towering Oscar performance by Paul Scofield, who repeated his stage role.

Considering the duration of Zinnemann’s career–over half a century–his film oeuvre is rather small: twenty-two features and a number of documentaries. Nonetheless, the number of Oscar-winning performances in Zinnemann’s films has been disproportionately large. (See list below)

I have met Fred Zinnemann twice in the 1980s in New York, around “Five Days One Summer” (1982), which turned out to be his last picture. For a while, we shared the same literary agent, and Zinnemann was interested in finding a writer to help him publish his autobiography, or perhaps even do a biography. A quiet and humorless man, he was hesitant to talk about his personal life, particularly about the Holocaust, which claimed the lives of most of his family.

What Zinnemann had in mind was more of a chronological anthology of his films and work with some famous actors. When I pointed out to him, rather discreetly, that biographies readers expect more personal info about the subject, he turned mum. That experience, plus my aesthetic bias against his work—I was already a committed auteurist scholar after classes with Andrew Sarris at Columbia University–mean that the project was doomed from the start. Zinnemann wrote his own memoir, “A Life in the Movies,” (1992).

Viennese Beginnings

Born in Vienna, as a child, Zinnemann studied violin, hoping to become a musician. Later, inspired by the films of Josef von Stroheim and King Vidor, he abandoned plans for a legal career, after receiving a Master’s Degree from the University of Vienna. Zinnemann began his film career as assistant cameraman in Paris and Berlin. Among the films he worked on was the seminal 1929 documentary, Robert Siodmak’s “Menschen am Sonntag” (“People on Sunday”).

Like other German and Austrian directors, Zinnemann emigrated to the U.S., heading to Hollywood. At first, all he could land was an extra part in “All Quiet on the Western Front,” which won the 1930 Best Picture Oscar. (George Cukor was dialogue coach on that film, before embarking on a distinguished screen career of his own).

Zinnemann managed to obtain some work as a cutter and became an assistant to director Berthold Viertel, and in 1931 an assistant to Robert Flaherty on an aborted documentary project in Russia. Hard to believe, but Zinnemann also assisted Busby Berkeley on the dance numbers of “The Kid from Spain” (1932).

Non-Fiction Work

In 1934, Zinnemann made his debut as co-director on producer-screenwriter Paul Strand’s documentary feature “Redes /Pescados/The Wave,” which he shot on location in Mexico under the most trying conditions. In 1937, he was signed by MGM as a director of shorts, including “Pete Smith Specialties” and the “Crime Does Not Pay” series. He won an Oscar for “That Mothers Might Live,” part of the “Historical Mysteries” series. MGM finally elevated him to a feature director in 1941, but he was given little opportunity to direct until 1948, when he was assigned “The Search,” a moving drama of the friendship between American G.I. (Monty Clift) and a child-refugee in Europe right after WWII.

He subsequently directed other productions noted for their social realism and meticulous if not exciting craftsmanship. In 1952-1953, Zinnemann reached his height with two artistic and commercial hits, the Western “High Noon,” starring Gary Cooper in his second Best Actor Oscar, and “From Here to Eternity,” a mature drama of the military, based on James Jones’s best-selling novel, which was nominated for 13 Oscars, winning 8, including Picture, Director, and the Supporting Acting Oscars (Frank Sinatra and Donna Reed).

Auteurist Condemnation

Andrew Sarris and other auteurist critics have dismissed Zinnemann’s work for being bland, impersonal, and detached–lacking unique signature or personal style.
Zinnemann became a crucial test caseand cause celebre–for the evolving auteurist theory in the 1960s, as Sarris wrote: “I will not trade one shot of Orson Welles for the entire oeuvre of Fred Zinnemann.”

Though not an auteurist, the New Yorker’s noted (and notorious) critic Pauline Kael dropped Zinnemann completely in the late 1950s, singling out his “glossy, middlebrow” approach, and the fact that “he does all the work for you as an audience.” Other film historians and critics, such as David Thomson, have discussed the “disposable qualities” of Zinnemann, “diligence instead of imagination, more care than instinct.” Talk to young and current critics today about Zinnemann’s status as a filmmaker, and you’ll get the following pejorative adjectives, plodding, uninspired, humorless, and emotionally distantif they remember who he is. (My undergrad film students at ASU and UCLA are prime examplesZinnemann who)

Nonetheless, Zinnemann is acknowledged by some older, more conservative critics and viewers as a sincere, conscientious director who had mastered his craft and worked hard at maintaining professional standards.

It comes as no surprise that most of Zinnemann’s films are based on previously published material, prestige literary or theatrical sources. Talking about his credo, he once said: “I don’t have any preconceived idea about film stories except that I know my limitations. I wouldn’t try to do high comedy, because I don’t have the sense of timing, and I don’t believe I should try to do musicals. I just like to do films that are positive in the sense that they deal with the dignity of human beings and have something to say about oppression, not necessarily in the political way but in a human way. No matter the genre, I have to feel that what I’m trying to do is worthwhile.”

With all due respect, Zinnemann was not aware of his limitations, and his screen version of the Broadway musical “Oklahoma!” in 1955, is one of his worst films, though it was popular at the box-office, due to the film’s stage originsand glorious score.

Perfect Oscar Director

Dubious or not, Zinnemann’s contribution to American cinema is in his liberal-humanistic approach to various subjects, done in a retrained, visually unexciting style. His cinema is for the most part middlebrow, middle-class and mainstream. It represented what we scholars define as Classic Hollywood Cinema, the height of which was from 1930s to 1960.

Zinnemann, even more so than William Wyler, was the “perfect” Oscar director. As noted, two of his films won Best Picture: “From Here to Eternity” and “Man for All Seasons,” and four were Oscar-nominated: “High Noon,” “The Nun’s Story,” “The Sundowners,” and “Julia.”

Appearing in a Zinnemann movie meant having a good shot at Oscar nomination. He was considered to be a “dream director” because of his great respect for actors. No less than 18 actors were nominated for work a Zinnemann film. Some more than once, like Monty Clift in “The Search” and “From Here to Eternity,” as yet another misfit American soldier.

Six actors have won Oscars: Gary Cooper (“High Noon”), Frank Sinatra and Donna Reed (“From Here to Eternity”), Paul Scofield (“Man for All Seasons”), and Vanessa Redgrave and Jason Robards (“Julia”). Some thespians had done their best work in his films, Audrey Hepburn in “The Nun’s Story,” Julie Harris and Ethel Waters in “The Member of the Wedding.”

Visualizing Conscience

With their “sensitive” subjects and issues, humanistic orientation, and middlebrow sensibility. Zinnemann’s movies were perfect “Oscar material.” His films display good deal of consistency in their narrative concerns and moral dilemmas. Asked to describe the kinds of stories that attract him, he said: “I just like to do films that are positive in the sense that they deal with the dignity of human beings and have something to say about oppression.” “It is this moral courage,” Zinnemann elaborated, “which has interested me most.” “I look for the universal theme that will allow the audience to identify with the characters.”

What fascinated Zinnemann about “Julia,” his last Oscar-nominated film, was “the story of the friendship of the two women,” and “the fact of conscience.” “I always find questions of conscience very photogenic,” he explains, “that kind of interior drama is to me very, very exciting.”

Zinnemann’s earlier films were produced by Stanley Kramer, who later became a director himself. As producer and helmer, Kramer, too was committed to message films propagating liberal causes, such as racial equality (“Home of the Brave,” “The Defiant Ones”), political justice (“Judgment at Nuremberg”), interracial marriage (“Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”).

Many of Kramer’s films were nominated for Best Picture, despite unimaginative approach, and flat, static direction. “Ship of Fools” was nominated for eight Oscars in l965, including Best Picture, because it was considered to be “important,” dealing with a group of passengers (“Grand Hotel” on water) aboard a ship bound for Germany in 1933. The movie is intellectually pretentious and technically crude yet contains a number of powerful performances and its symbolic message overshadow its weaknesses. The Academy voters proved again the primacy of subject over style and form. Like Zinnemann, Kramer was a “sociological” director, but unlike the vet director, he lacked basic technical skills, let alone visual style.

Zinnemann’s approach to filmmaking had all but disappeared from Hollywood of the past two decades. However, David Puttnam, British producer (“Chariots of Fire, “The Killing Fields”), who was briefly Columbia’s head, said in 1987 that he hoped to reinstate Zinnemann’s kinds of films: “If I had to characterize films that I like in terms of another filmmaker, they’re not unlike Zinnemann’s films. They’re about people finding within themselves resources they didn’t know were there, and coming from the best of them.”