Frears' varied palette will guide jury choices


Stephen Frears has brought two films to the Festival de Cannes for Competition -- the Joe Orton biopic "Prick Up Your Ears" in 1987 and the Roddy Doyle adaptation "The Van" 10 years later -- there's a certain amount of irony in the fact that he has been chosen to preside over this year's Competition jury.

In a festival known for championing a rotating cast of auteurs, each with a signature style that carries over from one film to the next, Frears stands out for his relative invisibility behind the camera. Throughout a career that's spanned more than three decades, Frears' chief asset has been his versatility, a gift for slipping nimbly between genres and time periods with intelligence and wit -- and without a dash of pretension.

Born in Leicester, England, Frears tutored under the "new wave" of British realists such as Lindsay Anderson and Karel Reisz, and there are signs of their influence in his simple, uninflected style, which always services the material instead of calling attention to itself. Frears cut his teeth directing for regional TV shows and modestly budgeted TV movies, and even after making his feature debut with 1972's acclaimed "Gumshoe," he went back to television for a full decade before returning to features.

Frears' connections with Channel 4, the BBC and other small-screen resources allowed him to take baby steps into film, and the TV world has served as a crucial bedrock for him ever since, all the way up to his most recent triumph, 2006's "The Queen," which was intended for television before its prospects were wisely upgraded.

Unlike many acclaimed directors, Frears never writes his own scripts. While that might seem like a liability, he has been able to turn it into an asset, showing impeccable taste in material and a chameleon's knack for adapting to his surroundings. From the start, he has demonstrated a particular aptitude for working with actors. His breakthrough films, 1986's "My Beautiful Laundrette" and the following year's "Ears," were launching pads for Daniel Day-Lewis and Gary Oldman, respectively, two of the most explosive talents of their generation.

Since arriving in Hollywood with "Dangerous Liaisons" in 1988, Frears has directed six actresses to Academy Award nominations, including Glenn Close and Michelle Pfeiffer in "Liaisons," Anjelica Huston and Annette Bening in 1990's "The Grifters," Judi Dench in 2005's "Mrs. Henderson Presents" and Helen Mirren, who took home the Oscar statuette for "Queen."

Working as a director in America, Frears has encountered mixed success, from the critical and boxoffice triumphs of "Liaisons," "Grifters" and 2000's "High Fidelity" to more troubled productions such as 1992's "Hero," 1996's "Mary Reilly" and 1998's "The Hi-Lo Country." But rather than tie himself to the whims of the studio system, Frears always has sought out smaller, independent projects and TV movies that often have resuscitated his reputation.

His two Roddy Doyle adaptations, "Van" and 1993's "The Snapper," proved an ideal union of sensibilities, with Doyle's quirky working-class characters fitting squarely into Frears' modestly scaled, performance-driven productions. Recent works such as "Mrs. Henderson" and 2003's "Dirty Pretty Things" have benefited from Frears' ability to evoke vastly different settings in all their particulars, from the the city's war-ravaged West End theater district in the former to the seedy, contemporary London underground of the latter.

If there's a knock on Frears as a filmmaker, it's that it's hard to tell what a Stephen Frears movie looks like, which is not true of the other directors whose work he'll be surveying on the Croisette. Outside certain general tendencies -- small, intimate productions, a special talent for working with actors and a predisposition toward stories about immigrants and the working class -- Frears doesn't leave a particularly distinct "signature" on his movies, which explains why his films tend to be singled out for everything but their direction.

In that sense, he might be his generation's John Huston, a workmanlike filmmaker who possesses an astonishingly varied palette and can be counted on to bring intelligence, tastefulness and integrity to everything he does. As jury president, those qualities will no doubt serve the process well.