'Thankful to movies,' Boyle shines


'No Country' takes top Oscar honors
Full Oscar winners list
Backstage at the Oscars
Gold Rush blog
Complete Oscar coverage

An honorary Academy Award was bestowed Sunday on the legendary Robert Boyle, "in recognition of one of cinema's great careers in art direction."

"I'm thankful to movies," said Boyle, 98. "In the nearly 100 years that I've been around, it's been mostly war. It seems the only reasonable thing that happened in my life is that I got into movies. I think we didn't do any harm. We entertained, most of the time with pretty good humor."

Boyle has earned four Academy Award nominations in the art direction category, for his work on "North by Northwest" (1959), "Gaily, Gaily" (1969), "Fiddler on the Roof" (1971) and "The Shootist" (1976).

His nearly 100 credits include Hitchcock's "Saboteur" (1942), "North by Northwest" (1959) and "The Birds" (1963). He also worked on "It Came From Outer Space" (1953), "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying" (1967), "In Cold Blood" (1967), "The Thomas Crown Affair" (1968), "Private Benjamin" (1980) and "Dragnet" (1987).

"Maybe this very moving tribute might remind people that those of us that are responsible for the environment of the film are also providing what we call the backstory," Boyle said.

An art director might place flowers on a table to signal that a holiday had just passed, he said as an example. "Very often a story is being unfolded, but we don't know what went on yesterday, and it is up to the art director, in a way, to provide some indication of that."

It was Boyle who found the cornfield for the famous scene in "North by Northwest" in which Cary Grant runs from an airplane.

"I was looking for a scene that could be limitless," he said. "A place where as Hitch said, 'You could run but you couldn't hide.' ... We needed an absolutely flat place.

"I grew up in the flattest place on earth," he said. "We got in a plane and went out west of Bakersfield. The cornfield scene was shot in the San Joaquin Valley."

Born in 1909 in Los Angeles, Boyle trained as an architect. He made money during the Depression as an extra in movies. "(There) I saw the possibilities of sets," he said.

In 1933 he was hired as a draftsman in the Paramount Studios art department, headed by supervising art director Hans Dreier. Boyle went on to work on a variety of pictures as a sketch artist, draftsman and assistant art director.

He soon moved to Mexico, planning to become a painter. Boyle is a firm believer that many of the things that occur in life are accidental. "The biggest accident of my career," he said, "was I got a call from an art director to come back and take a job at Universal."

He was working at Universal as an assistant when Hitchcock came to the studio.

"I happened to be there; it was an accident," Boyle said. "Hitchcock wanted someone who could draw and do storyboards for him. My first real meeting with him was the Sunday that the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. That was the time marker for me. 'Saboteur' was the first big picture I worked on."

Boyle served in the signal corps as a combat photographer during World War II, and afterward returned to work with Hitchcock. "It was a necessary war," Boyle said. "People refer to it as the good war, but there is no such thing as a good war."

Boyle relates that he learned a lot from Hitchcock. Not only that, Boyle met screenwriter Bess Taffel while working with the director. She would become his wife.

Looking at the business today, Boyle said: "If I have any criticism, it's they do too much. That isn't always the fault of the art director. It's the fault of the whole moviemaking process. If you have access to CG, you can do anything, and unfortunately ... they do too much.

"What I find in today's work is there is no discipline," he added. "It doesn't leave anything for the audience's imagination."

Today, Boyle remains strongly dedicated to his craft and to educating the next generation.

"I used to go (to AFI) for seminars. ... In those days it was a very small organization."

He said it was suggested to add a design course. "And that's how we started. I still go to AFI. That keeps me going, because I enjoy working with the young people.

"I can't think of a better way to spend a life that with movies," he said. "These are all the accidents of my life."