The Movies of Mark Rydell

This post arises because we recently re-watched Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973) for about the sixth time (in conjunction with re-reading Chandler’s book) and got curious about the excellent, funny and scary actor who plays the hoodlum Marty Augustine. The actor is so good, and yet (I realized) I didn’t recall him from anything else. It’s because he is mostly a director, and while he is not hugely prolific, he has an excellent track record with critically acclaimed films you likely know well. The gentleman is Mark Rydell (Mortimer Rydell, b. 1929)

Rydell specialized in character driven works, often period pieces, based on novels and plays, the kinds of movie that were much in vogue in the 1970s. And several of them have a show biz angle, which is our particular jam. His first effort, in 1967, was an adaptation of D.H. Lawrence’s The Fox, starring Sandy Dennis, Keir Dullea (soon of 2001: A Space Odyssey), and Anne Heywood, wife of the film’s producer Raymond Stross. The plot concerns a love triangle set on a farm, with the major innovation being a lesbian relationship between the women (a depiction made possible by the recent elimination of the Hollywood production code). This racy aspect, combined with the film’s tasteful craftsmanship, resulted in a minor hit. This was followed up by an adaptation of William Faulkner’s The Reivers (1969) starring Steve McQueen, the hottest Hollywood actor of the time. Then came the John Wayne western The Cowboys (1972), one of my favorite movies as a kid, which I wrote about here. Cinderella Liberty (1973) was a Navy themed drama with James Caan and Marsha Mason, written by Darryl Ponicsan, whose The Last Detail also came out that year. This is a pretty good run already!

Rydell’s next film should be of special interest to those interested in vaudeville. Set in the 1890’s, Harry and Walter Go to New York (1976) stars James Caan and Elliott Gould as a pair of vaudeville performers who get pinched for stealing the personal belongings of audience members. In stir they meet safecracker Michael Caine (as Adam Worth, an actual historical character) who proposes a job for them. Diane Keaton plays their accomplice, a crusading newspaperwoman, who wants stolen loot to feed poor children (foreshadowing her character in Reds). This kind of thing seems calculated for success, right? It’s in the ’70s nostalgia subgenre we wrote about here. It has stuff in common with both the Redford-Newman team-ups: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (which also has robberies and a female accomplice who’s the love interest for each of the partners), as well as the Long Con joyride The Sting. It also reminds me of Michael Critchton’s The Great Train Robbery, released two years later. Unfortunately a film like this requires a light comic touch, and Rydell was, well, a Method guy, so he reportedly removed some of the funner elements from the script in order to justify it dramatically. It was an expensive movie to make, and it didn’t fare well at the box office.

Fortunately, Rydell then rebounded in a huge way, with two critically acclaimed hits, back to back: The Rose (1979), starring Bette Midler in a fictionalized telling of Janis Joplin’s life; and the film adaptation of On Golden Pond (1981), the historic Katharine HepburnHenry FondaJane Fonda team-up. Unfortunately, this was followed by another big budget miscalculation The River (1984) with Sissy Spacek and Mel Gibson. It was intended to shine a light on the farm crisis that was making the news at the time, which also spawned the Farm Aid concert, and the films Country (with Sam Shepard and Jessica Lange) and Places in the Heart (with Sally Field). Gibson was miscast, and the film ended up seeming the also-ran in this sweepstakes, earning back only 2/3 of its budget.

Rydell turned back to acting for a time, appearing in the stand-up comedy yarn Punch Line (1988) with Sally Field and Tom Hanks, and taking the plum (and well cast) role of Meyer Lansky in Sydney Pollack’s Havana (1990) starring Robert Redford. He then returned to the director two of his previous stars James Caan and Bette Midler in For the Boys (1991) a tale of a romance two major entertainers (perhaps loosely inspired by Bob Hope and Martha Raye) as they tour with the USO during World War Two and the Korean War. I remember this one receiving lots of publicity at the time, but somehow it didn’t click with the public and took a bath at the box office.

In 1994 Rydell directed Intersection, a remake of  Les choses de la vie (1970) starring Richard Gere, Sharon Stone, and Lolita Davidovich. This was followed by the HBO film Crime of the Century (1996), about the Lindbergh baby kidnapping, and the 2001 bio-pic James Dean, starring James Franco as the ill-fated star. In 2002 he had a supporting part in Woody Allen’s Hollywood Ending as agent Al Hack. In 2006 he directed his last major project, Even Money, a gambling drama not unlike The Gambler with James Caan or Altman’s California Split. The all-star cast included Kim Basinger, Danny DeVito, Forest Whitaker, Ray Liotta, Kelsey Grammer, and Tim Roth. As long ago as that was, Rydell was pushing 80 by that point!

Trained at Neighborhood Playhouse, Rydell broke into the business as an actor on soap operas. After leaving As the World Turns in 1962 he directed an episode of The Virginian, which led to jobs directing for Gunsmoke, The Wild Wild West, I Spy, and other shows before The Fox came along.

For more on vaudeville, the milieu of “Harry and Walter Go to New York”, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous.