Herbert Ross: The Invisible Director

It’s an interesting question, what makes an “auteur”. It has to do with a personal voice, a readily identifiable stamp. Despite blockbuster hits and countless awards, Herbert Ross (1927-2001) wasn’t one. It’s interesting in this light to compare him to his colleagues Bob Fosse and Michael Ritchie, who also made the leaps from dancer to choreographer to director. Ross’s films are widely known; Ross isn’t.

I originally knew Ross’s name from ’70s comedies. He directed the one Woody Allen script not personally helmed by Woody once he began making his own pictures, Play It Again, Sam (1972). He is especially associated with Neil Simon, directing The Sunshine Boys (1975), The Goodbye Girl (1977), California Suite (1978), both the stage and screen versions of I Ought to Be in Pictures (1980, 1982), Max Dugan Returns (1983), and the Broadway premiere of Chapter Two (1977). His career was also much intertwined with that of Barbra Streisand, doing the musical staging in her Broadway breakthrough I Can Get It For You Wholesale (1962), choreographing the screen version of Funny Girl (1968), directing the films The Owl and the Pussycat (1970) and Funny Lady (1975), and choreographing the original stage production of On a Clear Day You Can See Forever (1965), the 1970 screen version of which Streisand starred in. He is also associated with Steve Martin, whom he directed in the 1981 big screen version of Pennies from Heaven, and the unrelated My Blue Heaven (1990).

Yet none of those are even Ross’s most notable films. Those would have to be The Turning Point (1977) starring Shirley MacLaine and Anne Bancroft, which was nominated for 11 Oscars; the massive hit Footloose (1984), and the all-star Steel Magnolias (1989), his biggest box office hit of all. Those are some famous movies. Do you think of those pictures and go “Herbert Ross!” ? Ross was one of those invisible, un-self-conscious directors, the kind producers love for their competence and efficiency. Screenwriters must have loved him, too, for his lack of a personal stamp meant that the writer often became more important. For example, to my mind, the best directed Neil Simon script is The Heartbreak Kid (1972) which is Elaine May’s as much as it is Simon’s. But at the peak of his popularity Simon chose to work with Ross on a half dozen occasions, second only to Gene Saks. Simon was a rare Hollywood case of the screenwriter being the auteur.

And while you can certainly group together The Turning Point, Footloose, and some of Ross’s other films like Njinsky (1980) and Dancers (1987) into an obvious category, they constitute a small minority within his body of work. It’s not like dance was the great abiding theme of his body of work, or some obsession he was consumed by. Though, if he had any theme at all, that should have been it. He’d started out as a Broadway dancer in shows like Something for the Boys (1943), Follow the Girls (1944), Olsen and Johnson’s Laffing Room Only (1944), Beggar’s Holiday (1946) and Look, Ma, I’m Dancin’ (1948). In 1950 he choreographed for the American Ballet Theatre, a skill which he brought back to Broadway in the musical version of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1951). For a time he choregraphed for TV variety programs like The All Star Revue, and the shows of Milton Berle, Martha Raye, Steve Allen, and Jerry Lewis. In 1954 he choreographed the Broadway musical House of Flowers, and the film of Carmen Jones. In 1960 he directed and choreographed the Broadway revival of Finian’s Rainbow (1960). While he continued working on Broadway throught the ’60s (including the short-lived run of Stephen Sondheim’s Anyone Can Whistle) his work in film and television reached wider audiences. He choreographed TV productions of Meet Me in St. Louis (1959), The Bacchantes (1961), Summer Holiday (1963) and The Fantasticks (1964) as well as the musical film Doctor Doolittle (1967) among other things.

Ross’s first film as director was the 1969 musical version of Goodbye, Mr. Chips, which was nominated for two Oscars. Other movies, beyond those already mentioned, include T.R. Baskin (1971) starring Candice Bergen, The Last of Sheila (1973), The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (1976), and Protocol (1984) starring Goldie Hawn. He was executive producer of Soapdish (1991). His last film was Boys on the Side (1995), starring Whoopi Goldberg, Mary-Louise Parker and Drew Barrymore.

For more on show biz history, including television variety shows and Broadway, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous,