Best Director Home Stretch: Frank Perry for David and Lisa

FRANK PERRY FOR DAVID AND LISA (1962)

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The competition (Cliff: 5 for 5!)

David Lean for Lawrence of Arabia

Pietro Germi for Divorce, Italian Style

Robert Mulligan for To Kill a Mockingbird

Arthur Penn for The Miracle Worker

NOTE: dark blue text denotes individuals who won Oscars for the film being discussed, while light blue indicates those who were nominated.

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The sensitive character drama David and Lisa was shot in Philadelphia on a shoestring budget and went on to become a sleeper hit. That would be a commendable if unexceptional feat in the 1970s (note the Rocky parallel), but Frank Perry mustered the resources to make this film in 1962, just as American indie cinema was properly taking root. The movement that would later earn nominations for Cassavetes, Nava, and Soderbergh got its first major Academy recognition with this modest tale of mental illness. It was odd indeed to watch the film, initially bounded by the conventions of the psychotherapy melodrama, gradually transition into a character-driven story of a salutary friendship between two patients. Of course, many of its tactics would later harden into conventions of a new kind of movie, the “Sundance film,” but even if Perry’s debut film is no longer as fresh a piece of filmmaking or timely in its take on mental illness, the film still holds up for its thoughtful, character-driven take on the subject.

The beginning of the film set up low expectations. The story begins on familiar ground, with the familiar arrival at a mental treatment home of a young man—mostly normal, but with a simple trigger that unleashes a fierce psychosis. Keir Dullea’s mannered performance combined with Perry’s overwrought directing set me up for a dated, exploitative drama. The rest of the movie, though, bucked my expectations, as it stepped away from its initial fixation on David’s affliction to patiently flesh out his character, in particular his budding friendship with the compulsively rhyming schizophrenic Lisa. Eleanor Perry, the director’s first wife, specifically constructs the screenplay adaptation of Theodore Rubin’s novel (originally “Lisa and Davis”) from David’s point of view, through a string of episodes partitioned by quick fades to black. His intermittent progress, sparked first by his unguarded interactions with Lisa and then reinforced by analysis sessions with Dr. Swinborn that finally kick into gear, presents a gradual improvement in his condition that stands in refreshing contrast to the “eureka” diagnoses of typical entries in the genre (The Three Faces of Eve, The Snake Pit).

Perry’s directing effectively captures the paradoxical comfort and uneasiness of the mental treatment center. The film provides one of the last contemporary looks at the era of the mental institution (which Frederick Wiseman would soon excoriate in the documentary Titicut Follies), a paradox of comfort and unease.  The interior of the institution is depicted as inviting and even liberating (in the case of the art studio), but it surrounded by a gray and pitiless outside world, reflected best in the oppressive tangle of barren tree branches that encircle the building. However, Perry’s real strength is that old trump card of indie films, the ability to direct fantastic performances. Veteran character actor Howard Da Silva’s quietly reassuring Dr. Swinborn and newcomer Janet Margolin as the guileless Lisa are quite strong, but I must single out Keir Dullea, whose slow expansion from supercilious neurotic to centered and vulnerable young man drove my reassessment of the film as I watched. What I initially mistook for inadequacy in Dullea’s performance turned out to be the falseness of David’s façade, a mask of arrogant rationality that cracks and ultimately disappears through his interactions with Lisa and the doctor. The sensitive, exposed performance that remained by the film’s end (on the iconic Rocky steps) stands in polar contrast to the stiflingly small emotional range of his most famous role in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Kubrick supposedly cast the actor for his inherent blankness, but it’s to Perry’s credit that he could elicit such a complex performance from the young man. Even if it’s the curse of any story about mental illness to be trapped in the attitudes and assumptions of its moment, both Frank and Eleanor Perry deserve credit for their joint creation of an unexpectedly powerful character study.

 

THE VOTE

For the most part, the Directors Branch went small in 1962. On the one hand, they gave David Lean a fifth nomination and second win for that paragon of widescreen epics, Lawrence of Arabia. On the other hand, the four first-timers matched against him got there for more modest productions than the Best Picture-nominated studio extravaganzas The Longest Day, Mutiny on the Bounty, and The Music Man. Robert Mulligan represented the only other BP nominee for his able adaptation of newly minted American classic To Kill a Mockingbird. Among the other nominees, for a second year straight the Directors broke their longstanding blockade of foreign language films, nominating a second consecutive Italian film—and Marcello Mastroianni vehicle—rewarding Pietro Germi for his pleasingly acerbic social satire Divorce, Italian Style (also the inspiration for a thousand title knockoffs over the next decade). Rounding out the field was a generous endorsement of Perry’s directorial debut, as well as Arthur Penn’s surprisingly resonant The Miracle Worker (a surprising Best Picture snub, given its success on every other front). It’s a worthy field, with Mulligan deserving of special mention, but of course this race belongs to Lean. I still prefer his smaller literary adaptations of the 1940s, but this rapturously beautiful and penetrating look at British Imperialism remains one of the unimpeachable triumphs in Oscar history. It was also the third of four nominations Lean would receive for consecutive films (matched only by Stanley Kubrick to date), a fitting achievement for a director at the height of his powers.

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One thought on “Best Director Home Stretch: Frank Perry for David and Lisa

  1. Jerome says:

    Hard to say no to Lean. L of A is an iconic work. BUT… To Kill A M’bird didn’t direct itself. from the Saul Bass opening which is strikingly beautiful the movie SCREAMS lyricism as well as grit. It’s a soft and wonderful touch. I don’t know if Lean shows as subtle a hand as Mulligan. I think that Peter o’T’s performance is so resounding that almost anyone could have “moved the elephants.”
    Dullea is a better actor than most realize – he has a haunting face, crazy eyes, and I think that might impede the public: there’s something not right yet fascinating about his screen presence. ANd Miracle Worker doesn’t feel have as old-fashioined as Lof Arabia.
    Tough call. better you than me having to make it.

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