Critic's Notebook: Arthur Hiller, Hollywood Utility Player

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Arthur Hiller

Though he was never a critic's darling, the director of 'Love Story' and 'The Out of Towners' was a flexible craftsman, bringing out the best in writers and actors he collaborated with.

Arthur Hiller, who died Wednesday at the age of 92, was certainly one of the elder statesmen of Hollywood. A past president of the Directors Guild of America as well as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, he was perhaps better known for his diplomatic skills than for a distinctive directorial vision. But that diplomacy served him well when working with several strong-willed actors and writers; he was always willing to subordinate his own personality to the talents of his collaborators. Never a critic’s darling, Hiller sustained a very long career with a number of surprising highlights.

Canadian born, Hiller did a great deal of work in television in the 1950s and '60s before making his feature film debut in 1963. He showed promise as the director of 1964's The Americanization of Emily, a biting anti-war comedy written by Paddy Chayefsky (from a novel by William Bradford Huie) and starring James Garner and Julie Andrews (in her first non-musical movie). The film, which took a sardonic look at the Normandy invasion of 1944, was mainly notable for Chayefsky’s irreverent script, but Hiller interpreted it gracefully.

He worked with Chayefsky again on the scathing 1971 medical satire The Hospital, which earned an Academy Award for the screenplay as well as an Oscar nomination for George C. Scott, a year after he turned down his Oscar for Patton. (Scott was punished for his bad Hollywood manners and was never nominated again.) In 1980, Chayefsky took his name off Altered States because he was displeased with director Ken Russell’s rendering of his script. The opinionated screenwriter clearly had no such problem with Hiller.

The director also had a rapport with Neil Simon; he directed two successful Simon comedies, The Out of Towners and Plaza Suite. And writer Erich Segal trusted Hiller to helm Love Story, which became the first blockbuster of Hiller’s career. The Ryan O’Neal-Ali MacGraw tearjerker was by no means a guaranteed success. It was actually going against the grain of angry, counterculture movies when it opened at the end of 1970 (the year of M*A*S*H and Five Easy Pieces), but it reassured nervous Hollywood executives that there could also be a huge audience for square and sappy romances. 

The contrasting natures of Love Story and The Hospital demonstrated that Hiller could interpret many writers’ disparate visions. But he may have been at his best directing comedy, scoring two enormous successes in the '70s with Silver Streak and The In-Laws. In both of those cases, he showed himself adept at shepherding comic duos — Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor in Silver Streak, Alan Arkin and Peter Falk in The In-Laws. When he reteamed Wilder and Pryor in See No Evil, Hear No Evil a decade later, the results were less salutary, partly because the script was not in the same league. Hiller even took a stab at a female buddy movie when he directed Bette Midler and Shelley Long in 1987’s Outrageous Fortune, and although the movie scored at the box office, it suffered from a strained script by Leslie Dixon that Hiller could not really redeem.

Hiller clearly had a rapport with Arkin, for he directed one of the actor’s most touching performances in 1969’s Popi. Hiller also drew winning performances from both Rod Steiger and Valerie Perrine in W.C. Fields and Me, an uneven but often affecting look at the life of the misanthropic comedian.

Hiller also proved to be a sensitive director of Barry Sandler’s groundbreaking script for Making Love, one of the first Hollywood studio movies to take a nonjudgmental look at gay relationships and the strain on a marriage when a tortured young doctor (Michael Ontkean) begins to recognize his true sexual impulses. The film may have been a little too timid in championing gay love, but it was 1982, when homosexuality was still illegal in several states and the closet door was just beginning to inch open.

That same year, Hiller directed one of his most appealing and underrated movies, Author! Author! It came from an affectionate, witty script by playwright Israel Horovitz and was obviously inspired by the author’s own history in the theater. In one of his sharpest and most understated performances, Al Pacino starred as a playwright struggling with both personal and professional challenges as he prepares to open a new play on Broadway. Tuesday Weld and Dyan Cannon also delivered spot-on performances as the women in his life.

Hiller was not adept at every genre. Man of La Mancha was one of the films that helped to kill off the movie musical in the 1970s, and Nightwing, his horror film about killer bats, is also best forgotten. But when he worked inside his comfort zone, Hiller could provide low-key yet satisfying entertainment. And he thrived in an era when modest craftsmen could turn out a movie or even two movies every year. As the years went on, he seemed less at ease, but from the 1960s to the 1980s, Hiller proved to be a sympathetic creative partner to many talented writers and performers. Not a bad legacy.