His greatest triumph - Gandhi epic

ACTOR AND DIRECTOR: Attenborough (second from left, in a scene from Jurassic Park), died on Sunday. He won back-to-back Golden Globe Awards for best supporting actor, and his 1982 film Gandhi was an intimate biographical film.


    Aug 26, 2014

    His greatest triumph - Gandhi epic

    RICHARD Attenborough, who died on Sunday aged 90, was until the early 1960s a familiar actor in Britain but little known in the United States.

    In London, he was the original detective in Agatha Christie's play, The Mousetrap. On the British screen, he made an early mark as the sociopath Pinkie Brown in Graham Greene's Brighton Rock (1947).

    But it was not until he appeared with his friend, Steve McQueen, and a sterling ensemble cast in the 1963 war film The Great Escape - his first Hollywood feature - that he found a trans-Atlantic audience.

    That performance established him in Hollywood and paved the way for a series of highly visible roles.

    He won back-to-back Golden Globe Awards for best supporting actor: first in The Sand Pebbles (1966) and then in the whimsical Doctor Dolittle (1967).

    Decades later, Attenborough became known to a new generation of filmgoers as the wealthy head of a genetic engineering company whose cloned dinosaurs run amok in Steven Spielberg's box office hit, Jurassic Park. But for most of Attenborough's later career, his acting was sporadic, while he devoted much of his time to directing.

    His first foray into directing was Oh! What A Lovely War (1969), an offbeat satirical musical about World War I with an all-star cast including Laurence Olivier, Maggie Smith, John Gielgud and Vanessa Redgrave.

    Gandhi (1982), an epic but intimate biographical film, was his greatest triumph.

    With the then little-known Ben Kingsley in the title role, the film traces Mohandas K. Gandhi's life as an Indian lawyer who forsakes his job and possessions, and takes up a walking staff to lead his oppressed country's fight for independence from Britain through a campaign of passive resistance, ending in his assassination.

    Gandhi was nominated for 11 Academy Awards and won eight, including best picture, best director, best cinematography, best original screenplay and best actor (Kingsley).

    Attenborough brought the film to fruition after a 20-year battle to raise money and the interest of often-reluctant Hollywood producers, one of whom predicted that there would be no audience for "a little brown man in a sheet carrying a beanstalk".

    So Attenborough ended up producing it himself. He mortgaged his London home, sold works of art and, as he put it, spent "so much money I couldn't pay the gas bill".

    Few expected it to recoup its US$22 million cost, but it wound up earning 20 times that amount.

    By then, Attenborough had embraced the role of director, or "actor-manager" as he called himself. (He said he understood actors and could help them give confident, truthful performances.)

    He had more success with Cry Freedom! (1987), a stirring look at the friendship between anti-apartheid fighter Steve Biko (Denzel Washington) and a journalist (Kevin Kline) in South Africa in the 1970s.

    Five years later, after a hiatus from directing, Attenborough returned with what was largely considered to be his biggest flop: Chaplin, a long, sprawling biography of the silent film star Charlie Chaplin.

    Despite an admired and Oscar-nominated performance by Robert Downey Jr in the title role and a potent mix of drama and slapstick humour, Chaplin did poorly at the box office.

    Like many of Attenborough's movies, the story of Chaplin, the lowly born clown who defied the odds by achieving world renown, celebrated courage and endeavour.

    It was also an article of faith for him that his films told clear stories and said something significant to wide audiences.

    "All my work questions the establishment, authority, intolerance and prejudice," he said.

    One film he took particular pride in was Shadowlands (1993), an elaborate adaptation of William Nicholson's play about the love affair between C. S. Lewis (Anthony Hopkins) and a divorced American woman (Debra Winger).

    Ironically, despite his desire to champion the underdog, his life was entwined with the establishment. He was made a Commander of the British Empire in 1967. He was knighted in 1976, made a baron in 1993 and given a seat in the House of Lords.

    If his heroes were those who challenged institutions from without, he sought to effect change from within. He was the moving spirit behind a centre offering arts to the disabled in his native Leicester.

    Christopher Hart, writing in The Sunday Times in London, called him "an ennobled champagne socialist of the old school, a mass of good causes and inconsistencies".

    Besides his wife Sheila Sim, he leaves behind a son, Michael, and a daughter, Charlotte. Another daughter, Jane Holland, died in the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 along with her daughter, Lucy.

    In 2008, he published an autobiography, Entirely Up To You, Darling.

    The book chronicles a full and eventful life. But it ends with the death of his daughter and granddaughter in the 2004 tsunami, and his regretting the time he never spent with them.

    "Work", he wrote, "always took precedence."