Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Cool Hand Rosenberg

You can only work with what they give you.

In Hollywood, I’m sure there’s countless actors, writer, directors and other creative people who stayed lost in obscurity because they never found that special, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Sometimes hard work, talent, luck, and a confluence of events will work: What happens to the rest of Jack Nicholson’s career if Rip Torn didn’t turn down Easy Rider? Would Chevy Chase have won a Oscar for Best Actor playing Lester Burnham in American Beauty if he accepted the role his agent dropped on his desk?

Sometimes it never happens.

And sometimes it only happens once.

Cool Hand Luke happened to Stuart Rosenberg.

Rosenberg wasn’t no big-time movie director. He wasn’t in the class of John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock, Preston Sturges, or Billy Wilder. He was a meat-and-potatoes, B-movie director who never had a lot of money to work with, but always got it done on time and when he had a good script, good actors, and a good producer (which wasn’t often), he made very good movies. My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys, his last film, was a good movie. So was The Laughing Policeman and The Pope of Greenwich Village.

And sometimes he did junk so bad he hid behind the “Alan Smithee” pseudonym.

But then he got Cool Hand Luke and made a great movie. Adapted from Donn Pearce’s novel and starring Paul Newman as an anti-hero who refuses to conform, it’s a prison drama set in the deep South that can also be defined as a political allegory, a comedy, a love story, or a existentialist thriller. It’s a funny, poignant, vigorous, passionate film that also, of course, has one of the most quoted lines in cinematic history.

Cool Hand Luke was a successful, Oscar-winning film that should have propelled Rosenberg to the next level but it didn’t, and he went back to the hit-or-miss career he had before. Sometimes it happens that way.

Stuart Rosenberg did his best with what they gave him. Not a bad way to go.