The well-liked, much-respected British actor-director Richard Attenborough has passed at the age of 90. Condolences to fans, family and friends but…well, it’s not like a tree fell on him at age 37. Attenborough lived on a long, industrious and apparently happy life. Accomplished, celebrated. We should all be so fortunate. I did a phoner with Attenborough in the ’90s, and he was almost all mirth, giggles and enthusiasm. Quite impossible to dislike, an excellent politician, almost joyful to a fault.
But I have to say (yes, here we go) that while he was obviously a talented actor who hit his marks and did the job every time, some of his performances drove me nuts. I know Attenborough’s “Big X” in The Great Escape was supposed to be the stalwart leader, but I found him a pill. (This may sound a bit harsh but there was a part of me that didn’t entirely mind when he got shot to death at the end.) I thought he was too emotionally pained and on-the-nose as “Frenchy” in The Sand Pebbles. And I’m sorry but I despised him in Jurassic Park…that glowing pink face and white beard, that look of ecstasy when discussing his dinosaurs, every emotion telegraphed, etc.
Attenborough certainly proved his mettle as the dominant milquetoast director of big-studio prestige films in the ’80s and early ’90s with his helming of 1982’s Gandhi (for which he won a Best Director Oscar (!!!) along with the film taking the Best Picture prize), A Chorus Line (’85), Cry Freedom (’87) and Chaplin (’92). I’ve never seen Young Winston (’72), but his direction of A Bridge Too Far (’77) was…well, it’s been a while but I vaguely recall that it was considered a fine but unexceptional ho-hummer. I’m having trouble even remembering Shadowlands (’93), although it was generally respected. I never saw his last directed film, Closing the Ring, a World War II romantic tale set in Belfast.
Who gives a damn about Gandhi? It won Best Picture because of the inspirational pacifist message but it’s all but forgotten now. The other four 1982 Best Picture nominees (The Verdict, Tootsie, E.T., Missing) are far more respected, and three are considered classics.
Here’s an excerpt from David Thomson‘s appreciation of Attenborough in the most recent edition of his “Biographical Dictionary of Film“: