Renowned for guiding actors to the Oscars and, as Robert Redford put it, bringing "sensitivity and intellect to seemingly intractable subjects," Alan J. Pakula built a successful career that was cut short by his death in a car accident in 1998. With his restrained, thoughtful filmmaking style, Pakula weathered industry upheavals and audience tastes that often preferred anything but intelligent subtlety, leaving a legacy that includes All the President's Men (1976).
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Born and raised in New York, Pakula dabbled in high school theater, but he didn't consider a show business career until he took a summer job at Leland Hayward's talent agency. Pakula majored in drama at Yale, graduating in 1948. While working at Warner Bros. in 1949, Pakula directed a Los Angeles stage production of Antigone that caught producer Don Hartman's eye. Hartman got Pakula a job reading scripts at MGM in 1950, and took Pakula with him to Paramount in 1951, where Pakula eventually got to produce his first film, Fear Strikes Out (1957). A docudrama about a baseball player's mental illness, Fear Strikes Out was a critical success for Pakula and his novice movie director Robert Mulligan. The two native New Yorkers formed Pakula-Mulligan Productions and scored a substantial hit with their next film together, the adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird (1962). Starring Oscar winner Gregory Peck as noble lawyer Atticus Finch, To Kill a Mockingbird earned kudos for its smartly engaging examination of Depression-era racism and morality, and garnered Oscar nominations for Pakula and Mulligan. The pair's follow-up, Love With the Proper Stranger (1963), mixed humor with drama in a then-dicey story about premarital sex and abortion, earning star Natalie Wood a Best Actress Oscar nod.
Though not as distinguished as their first films, Pakula and Mulligan's subsequent collaborations continued to delve into socially conscious subjects, including an ex-convict's struggles with freedom in Baby the Rain Must Fall (1964), and the trials of public school students and teachers in Up the Down Staircase (1967). Ready to try film directing, Pakula parted ways with Mulligan and helmed The Sterile Cuckoo (1969). A touching comedy about young love between misfits, The Sterile Cuckoo turned Hollywood offspring Liza Minnelli into a movie star, complete with her first Oscar nomination. Pakula definitively established his way with actors and his talent for expressively nuanced visuals (shot by frequent Pakula D.P. Gordon Willis) with his second film, Klute (1971). With Donald Sutherland's melancholic rural cop and Jane Fonda's defiant yet terrified New York call girl encased in claustrophobic interiors, Klute was as much a character study of isolation as a murder mystery. Embraced by the early-'70s audience, Klute became Pakula's second hit and won the controversial Fonda her first Best Actress Oscar.
Suffering his first directorial flop with Love and Pain and the Whole Damn Thing (1973), Pakula returned to contemporary America's dark side with the political thriller The Parallax View (1974). Though it was shot with great style by Willis, featured an excellent performance from Warren Beatty, and presciently evoked Watergate skullduggery as well as Kennedy conspiracy theories, The Parallax View's downbeat story of corporately trained assassins proved too dark even for 1974 audiences. In later years, however, The Parallax View came to be considered an artistically worthy entry in Pakula's "paranoia trilogy" alongside Klute and Pakula's next film, All the President's Men. Taking on journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein's account of their investigation into the 1972 Watergate break-in, Pakula, Willis, writer William Goldman, and stars Redford and Dustin Hoffman managed to turn old news into a compelling detective story. Contrasting the bright, deep focus Washington Post newsroom set with shadowy late-night meetings with witnesses and Deep Throat, All the President's Men became a search for truth amid early-'70s murk, punctuated by the final teletype rapping out President Nixon's fate. An enormous hit, All the President's Men won numerous critics' prizes, and earned eight Oscar nominations including Best Picture and Pakula's sole Best Director nod. Its Oscar wins included Best Supporting Actor for Jason Robards.
Despite Pakula's stumbling with the Western Comes a Horseman (1978) -- though stuntman-turned-actor Richard Farnsworth snagged an Oscar nomination -- he managed to successfully tap the zeitgeist again with Starting Over (1979). A comedy about divorce and commitment-phobia featuring a charmingly low-key Burt Reynolds, Starting Over earned still more acting Oscar nods, this time for Jill Clayburgh and a rejuvenated Candice Bergen. After the ill-conceived Rollover (1981), Pakula turned to adapting and directing William Styron's novel about a haunted concentration camp survivor, Sophie's Choice (1982). Anchored by Meryl Streep's exceptional multilingual performance, Sophie's Choice took a measured yet moving approach to its harrowing subject, earning nods from the Academy for Pakula's screenplay and Nestor Almendros' lush photography and winning Streep her Best Actress Oscar.
With increasingly blockbuster-happy audiences less amenable to Pakula's penchant for character study and psychology, his subsequent 1980s features were box-office failures. Pakula's tastes and pop culture auspiciously merged again, however, with his adaptation of Scott Turow's bestseller Presumed Innocent (1990). Starring Harrison Ford as the accused and Bonnie Bedelia as his betrayed wife, Pakula's version solidly hit all of the novel's twists, while the superb cast helped suggest more complex moral questions underlying the central crime. After his skillful adaptation of John Grisham's legal thriller The Pelican Brief (1993), it became his highest-grossing film and fully revived his Hollywood career. His final film, The Devil's Own (1997), fell prey to production problems and difficulties with stars Ford and Brad Pitt, however, and failed to be either a politically complex story or an effective action thriller. Before he finished writing his adaptation of the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt White House history No Ordinary Time, Pakula was killed on the Long Island Expressway when his car hit a pipe kicked up by a truck.
Pakula's marriage to Hope Lange ended in divorce; he was survived by his writer widow, Hannah Pakula, and several stepchildren. ~ Lucia Bozzola, Rovi