Director Sir Richard Attenborough believed in dignity and equality for all
By Eleanor Ringel Cater
The bond between Atlanta and the late Sir Richard Attenborough, who recently died at age 90, goes a good deal deeper that most of us know.
In January 1983, the actor/director came here to present a benefit screening of “Gandhi,” his epic film about Mohandas K. Gandhi, the Indian leader whose unshakable adherence to nonviolence ultimately freed his country from colonial rule and inspired Martin Luther King, Jr. in his battle for civil rights.
Like both men, Sir Richard had a belief in the fundamental dignity and equality of all people. And, like both, it took him a while to see his dream fulfilled.
Twenty years, actually. By the early ‘80s, Attenborough had long established himself as one of Great Britain’s pre-eminent actors. But unlike the troika of Olivier, Gielgud and Richardson, while he began in theater, he worked mostly in film, starting with a critically-lauded turn as a panicky young sailor in Noel Coward’s “In Which We Serve” (1942). Post-war, he again enthralled critics and audiences in an about-face turn as a nasty piece of psychopathology in “Brighton Rock.”
It was as an actor he first became known here, most notably as the quietly authoritative leader of the mass POW break in 1963’s “The Great Escape.” Thirty years later, he again imprinted himself on American audiences as the cheerfully eccentric entrepreneur/scientist who dreamed up “Jurassic Park.”
In a sense, Attenborough’s participation in Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster could be seen as a kind of an apology.
“Gandhi” came out the same year (1982) as “E.T.” Attenborough’s human-hearted epic knocked Spielberg’s extraterrestrial and his Reese’s Pieces out of contention at the Oscars, winning 8 awards in all, including Best Picture, Best Director (Attenborough) and Best Actor (Ben Kingsley). Phone home, indeed; phone your agent.
However, as the T-shirt used to say, what he really wanted to do is direct. Attenborough got his feet wet in 1969 with the anti-war musical, “Oh! What a Lovely War.” But even back then, he was dreaming “Gandhi” dreams.
Which brings us to early 1983 and the screening at the old Phipps Plaza Theater (an immense space on the mall’s second floor.) For Attenborough, Gandhi and King were inextricably entwined.
“They were both fighting against prejudice and subjugation,” he told me then (I was the movie critic for the Atlanta Constitution). “And they both had this extraordinary ability to point up injustice. To make it visible and make people question it.
“The concept of nonviolence has changed the world’s attitude to a great extent,” he continued. “I’m a member of an older generation who accepted the fact that if you can’t get your way, you blow somebody’s head off. That that is an acceptable form of conduct. Gandhi and Dr. King are saying that is not acceptable.”
Thus, the sold-out screening, which raised money for both the King Center and UNICEF and was attended by everyone from Mayor Andrew Young and the King family to Danny Kaye and Ted Turner.
The day after, Attenborough was awarded the 1983 Martin Luther King Jr. Nonviolent Peace Prize, which he shared with the much-beloved “Daddy” King (Martin Luther King, Sr.).
He related an anecdote that Young had shared with him earlier: “You know, Mayor Young and the others (Civil Rights activists) were quite bowled over that so many scenes and incidents in the film were totally paralleled by their own experiences.”
He smiled, “(The Mayor) recalled that when they conceived the form in which their protest should be demonstrated, they’d come to certain points where they didn’t know what to do. So they’d go rushing back to Gandhi’s books. Sort of, hmmm, now what did he do under these circumstances?”
Richard Attenborough was one of those rare gentleman-artists who behaved their best under any circumstances — whether it was being knighted (as he was in 1976) or weathering an increasingly adolescent Hollywood where a Kim Kardashian biopic would have an easier time being made than one about Gandhi or Dr. King.
He had the sort of class we see less and less of these days. His respect for movies as a storyteller’s art could make his directorial work seem, perhaps, stately, even stodgy — something he recognized and never felt apologetic about when he was still directing.
It matters not. The very essence of a decent man, he was drawn to stories of other decent men. Like Steve Biko in “Cry Freedom.”
But he also had a healthy respect for geniuses with a rascally side. His “Chaplin” was considered a flop, but if you are a Robert Downey Jr. fan, you simply must see him as “The Little Tramp.” Heck, you should see it if you’re not a fan; you may be persuaded.
I’ll always love Attenborough the actor in “The Great Escape” and —another personal favorite — the original “The Flight of the Phoenix,” co-starring Jimmy Stewart.
As for his work behind the camera, you should see “Gandhi.” But you probably already know that. Here’s one you may not know — and it’s a killer.
Based on the true story of eminent author/theologian C.S. Lewis (as in Narnia) and Joy Gresham, an outspoken New Yorker with whom he became involved late in his life, this achingly effective film earns every last-act tear.
The pen-pal relationship between the emotionally repressed Lewis (Anthony Hopkins) and the brash Gresham (Debra Winger), a divorcee with a small son, ripens into both an unexpected romance and a deeply felt spiritual quest. Set in England in the early ‘50s, the movie shows how Gresham shakes up Lewis’s too-protective world of scholarship and faculty sherries.
True, you’ve heard this story before, but, to paraphrase Lewis, there’s a healing magic here. Just a lovely film, it shows Attenborough at his best.