b. January 19, 1932, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA

Richard Lester

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Looking back on the career of Richard Lester is a little like receiving the rarest of glimpses of an all but unimaginable period in Hollywood history. Lester is a director who functioned fully within the mainstream of studio filmmaking. Though he rarely worked in America, preferring Europe as a home base, he made his films with studio money and received studio distribution—his career was screeching to an end just as the independent film movement as we know it today was taking hold. And yet Lester’s cinema stood for everything Hollywood traditionally does not. His work and mode of working involved challenging the status quo, questioning authority and accepted truths and feigning the canonical for the subversive, the disreputable. But there was a time when his interests and Hollywood’s pocketbook dovetailed and it was a marriage that resulted in some of the boldest and most gloriously discourteous films of the 1960s, ’70s and into the ’80s. There is a quotation attributed to another master of this era—Robert Altman—in Peter Biskind’s spurious history of the era, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, which nonetheless sums up this thought: “Suddenly there was a moment when it seemed as if the pictures you wanted to make, they wanted to make.” (1)

But like Michael Ritchie, another American-born satirist who found a viable creative outlet in 1970s Hollywood, Lester’s career is more than often overlooked. He’s about ten years too old to fit in with the movie brat crowd—Lester is now 71 and made his first film in 1959—though I doubt he’d have any interest in joining. He claims his primary stylistic influence is Buster Keaton (though the early films of Jacques Tati were just as important in the development of his formal sensibility, in my estimation) and, indeed, Keaton can be felt in Lester’s comic mise-en-scène. Yet there is nothing in Lester’s body of work to suggest that movies vie for his attention as much as life does, or that he finds art as amusing as people.

Butch and Sundance: The Early Days

His work is marked by a profound aversion to sentimentality and nostalgia, an aversion which manifests itself in his treatment of the most diverse of subjects: whether the Western (Butch and Sundance: The Early Days [1979]) or the comic book movie (Superman 2 [1980]; Superman 3 [1983]), the swashbuckling tales of Alexander Dumas (The Three Musketeers [1973]; The Four Musketeers [1974]) or the mythologized past of Robin Hood (Robin and Marian [1976].) He doesn’t challenge the rules of these genres—as Robert Altman might—but rather shows his hand in what he chooses to exclude in his treatment of them: unadulterated romance has no place in Lester’s world (though it does emerge in contingent varieties, as I discuss below), even when it seems part and parcel of the stories he is telling. And that is what it comes down to: the elemental stories and forms and modes Lester is working in are usually familiar, but their success depends on our willingness to follow them down the unfamiliar paths Lester sows.

Lester—a highly intelligent individual who seems extremely conscious of what he is doing in his films—sums up his vision about as well as anyone:

I’m certainly not a romantic, but I’m not anti-romantic. What I am is desperately anti-sentimental, anti-nostalgic for the past, for one’s childhood, for anything. I’m talking about that false nostalgia which dictates that everything was wonderful in the past. If someone talks to me about the good old days, I positively rush to find out what was horrible–kids with no shoes, working down the pits, all of that, in an attempt to find balance. Then there’s the patronizing nostalgia, typified in the movie Genevieve, where it’s easy to get your laughs at people driving around in funny old cars that were actually the cutting edge of the day. (2)

Petulia

Born in Philadelphia in 1932, Lester arrived in Britain in 1954 and has spent most of his time since then there or in and around Europe. This fact can, perhaps, help to account for the searing honesty and distance with which he sees his home country in Petulia (1968), arguably his masterpiece and the only major film of the period to acknowledge that the beacons of hope of the era—namely, the hippie movement—was itself becoming corrupt and complacent.

It was in Britain that he first began to make his mark as a creative energy. Several years of directing live television led rather fortuitously to “The Dick Lester Show”, a variety show that lasted exactly one episode. Among the presumably few viewers on whom it made an even moderately favorable impression was Peter Sellers, who called Lester the next day and told him, “I watched your program last night and it was either one of the worst shows I’ve ever seen, or you are on to something.” The next day the two had lunch, during which Sellers pitched Lester his idea for a television version of his famous BBC radio program, “The Goon Show”.

“Idiot Weekly” was the resultant program and it was an instant success, the true point of origin of both Lester’s career and his comic sensibility (one which many have argued prefigured Monty Python). It was here that a lifelong association was forged with Spike Milligan, co-star of both “The Goon Show” and “Idiot Weekly”; an afternoon in the country with the chaps produced a highly inventive short film called The Running, Jumping, and Standing Still Film (1959). It is Richard Lester’s first credit as a film director and won him an Academy Award.

Lester’s association with “Swinging London” is well documented, though perhaps overplayed. On the basis of his films from the period, he wasn’t as complicit in that movement as his reputation may suggest. Apart from his Beatles films, only once did he apply his perspective to that scene—1965′s The Knack—and he saw a world as suavely decadent and perfidious as Michelangelo Antonioni did a year later in Blow-Up. As nostalgia for the period has grown in recent years—summarized in the fondness for the clothes and trinkets of the era in the depoliticized romantic vision of the Austin Powers series—it is important to remember that Lester’s work is vehemently anti-nostalgia. The Beatles films are the closest we get to a fully optimistic vision—the group, expectedly, triumphs over the assorted numbskulls, dolts, and squares they encounter—but is there a sadder conclusion to a more life-affirming film that the Beatles’ helicopter lifting up in the final shot of A Hard Day’s Night (1964)?

Petulia would represent the last gasp of Lester’s explicit engagement with present day life. After it would come the masterful apocalyptic satire of The Bed Sitting Room (1969), which today looks symptomatic of a trend Pauline Kael identified in the mid-’70s:

At a certain point in their careers–generally right after an enormous popular success–most great movie directors go mad on the potentialities of movies. They leap over their previous work into a dimension beyond the well-crafted dramatic narrative; they make a huge, visionary epic in which they attempt to alter the perceptions of people around the world. (3)

Kael wrote this in a review of Bertolucci’s 1900 (1976)—characteristic of this tendency if any film ever was—and goes on to site works such as Griffith’s Intolerance (1916) and Gance’s Napoleon (1927). If the Lester film seems impossibly slight by comparison, I still think there is a good case to be made that it is his most plainly ambitious film and that its ambition was made possible by Lester having been emboldened by his previous string of critical and commercial successes. The film was, however, a massive failure on every level but an artistic one and, not unlike the directors of other magnificent follies, he was punished for it; a full four years would go by before he directed a feature film again.

The Knack

When he got work again, everything that was to follow would either be set in the past or fantasy-based, with The Ritz (1976)—a contemporary farce based on Terrence McNally’s play—constituting the sole divergence, a gently comic ode of mistaken identity and sexual confusion set in 1970s New York. It also managed to be a précis of his style, both thematic—the work is an updated classical farce set in a gay bathhouse—and formal—Lester’s visual comic timing is so well developed by this point as to seem practically effortless. Preferring master shots, Lester utilizes medium shots or close-ups primarily as comic punctuation, cutting into them at key moments—visual punchlines, if you will. His perfectly worked out visual and editorial strategies thus make cinematic McNally’s play without resorting to that old Hollywood chestnut of “opening it up”.

Incidentally, Lester’s reputation for having foreshadowed the MTV era with his supposed quick cutting and “frenetic” camera angles is largely unfounded for the simple reason that only a handful of his films might be said to bear this “style”. While the Beatles films and The Knack are indeed heavy with cuts, it is crucial to remember that the cutting pattern in these pictures is integrated into a fully conscious vision—one that allows for long shots when necessary (particularly when there is physical comedy or sight gags involved, as there often are with Lester)—a mentality completely contrary to the current editorial fads and, in fact, most music videos. Petulia stretched this form to its limits: the film is a certifiable collage which describes through its editing, in the words of Dave Kehr, “…a world fatally fragmented into rich and poor, past and present, compassion and indifference.” Located at the center of this chaotic universe were several imperfect human beings—George C. Scott’s divorced surgeon and Julie Christie’s flighty partygirl among them—and their situation is made that much more resonant by the specificity with which the fragmented world they inhabit is portrayed.

While Lester’s films after Petulia settle into a relaxed, relatively simple visual and editorial style, he was forever associated with a cinematic grammar that he, in truth, wasn’t a particularly avid practitioner of. As Lester himself said:

If you look at most of my films very analytically, there is practically no camera movement, practically no zooms, practically no camera work at all. If you look at The Three Musketeers, I think the camera moves three times in the whole film, yet they say, ‘Ah, yes. It’s that Running, Jumping, and Standing Still Film style of camerawork.’ It isn’t true. But there is something, I suppose, in the way that I frame shots, or put them together, that makes people think it is true. (4)

While it’s regrettable that Lester never again addressed contemporary life in a serious context, his backward glancing scepticism manages to become relevant through the rigor of his vision. His work remained intensely political. His two Musketeers movies are wonderful entertainment, packed with a rowdy sense of slapstick humor, deeply felt adventure, and all-around joyous carousing. But they are also subtly brilliant portraits of the aristocracy and of the grit and grime of 17th century life; I can think of few films that so pointedly contrast high and low society simply through set, costume, and locale. Cuba (1979) is his most explicitly political late work, though it too is set in the past: the Batista era Cuba on the verge of revolution. Much like Petulia, it frames a love story between two troubled people (Sean Connery’s English mercenary and Brooke Adams, the now-married Cuban woman who he once fell in love with when she was a teenager) against a time of political, social, and karmic turmoil and upheaval. Connery’s Robert Dapes is a prototypical Lester protagonist, in love with the memory of Adams’ Alexandra Pullido more than the woman herself.

Robin and Marian

Robin and Marian, made shortly after the Musketeers films, represents a sort of culmination of this vision. Indeed, it may be the most naked of Lester’s films, the one in which the outlook which finds its way into all of his films dominates, presented with as little pretense as imaginable. Sean Connery stars as an aged Robin Hood. The film opens years after the victories and conquests which made him stuff of legend. Returning from the Crusades, he finds himself an outdated relic, his beloved Maid Marian (Audrey Hepburn, in one of a trio of wonderful roles Hepburn was given late in her career; the other two are in Peter Bogdanovich’s They All Laughed [1981] and Steven Spielberg’s Always [1989]) a nun, and the Sherrif of Nottingham (Robert Shaw) as the sole voice of reason. The film might as well say to us, ‘This is what happens to heroes and it isn’t what we might have hoped.’ And yet while Lester maintains a thoroughly comic tone through which to view Robin’s childlike, regressive love of chivalry, he is never meanspirited. Robin and Marian come to find that the only thing which has remained the same in those years is their love, but that may be, in the end, enough.

Bearing in mind the major and minor virtues of any number of late works which I haven’t discussed at length—from Royal Flash (1975) to Butch and Sundance: The Early Days—today, Superman 2 seems like his final masterpiece, an impossibly unlikely summary work given the elements it is composed of. Hired to direct the film after the dismissal of Richard Donner, roughly twenty per cent of the final film remains Donner’s, albeit reedited and mixed by Lester. (5) Though Lester had relative freedom to do what he liked with the rest of the film, he nonetheless felt constrained by the scale of the production, the largest he ever had to manage. He was troubled with the abundance of special effects work, a side of moviemaking with which he had virtually no prior experience, to such an extent that he built into the script a structure which would allow him to alternate the big effects sequences with more intimate, manageable scenes of character interaction and the offhand satire which is his trademark.

And yet what emerges from this hodgepodge is so distinctively Lester’s vision that it might as well stand as a textbook example of the auteur theory, the school of thought which places primacy in the director’s role in shaping a film’s material. In fact, auteurism receives one of its most vigorous defences in the collected films of Richard Lester. Here was a director who managed to invest as much personal sensibility into his films as any writer-director, yet there is but one screenplay credit in his whole oeuvre (and it is for The Running, Jumping, Standing Still Film of all things!).

Juggernaut

Ironically enough, here Lester finds affinity with the great directors of Hollywood’s Golden Era generation whose myths Lester was mainly hostile to—who asserted their authorship through a consistent expression of thematic interests and, just as importantly, through their command of the formal elements of film (the manipulation of space and composition within the frame, use of editing, selection of music, etc.) They also were apt to work with a core group of screenwriters again and again—as Lester has with Charles Wood, George MacDonald Fraser, and David and Leslie Newman. But the question should be posed, how much of a film like Juggernaut (1974)—in inception, as routine and generic as The Poseidon Adventure (Ronald Neame & Irwin Allen, 1972)—is “made” Lester’s own through his choices in sound and image, through his tendency to place his camera at a remove from the action and to emphasize aural jokes and throwaway lines on the soundtrack? Just as surely as an action professional like John Frankenheimer or William Friedkin would accentuate the literal spine of the story, Lester de-emphasizes the suspense of the narrative with his tiny asides and supremely human perspective.

Superman 2 may be the most explicitly romantic of Lester’s movies, constituting the culmination a tendency which usually remains submerged but exerts itself quite clearly in a handful of films: A Hard Day’s Night and its wistful sense of the optimism of youth; Robin and Marian and its doomed, though never-questioned romance; even Petulia at its core is a story of two damaged people who have somehow found a way to connect, however briefly, in a manic universe. I don’t regard this tendency as being in conflict with Lester’s self avowed inclinations against nostalgia and sentimentality; indeed, all of his films are invested with enough perspective—enough of a sense of the realities of the world—that when true love is found in his work, it’s always within leveraged circumstances. This mixture of qualities lend a tragic dimension to Lester’s romantic vision. It is this sense of the realities of the outside world that lends a lost, even tragic dimension to Lester’s romantic vision. In Superman 2, Superman and Lois share a passionate love affair that is cut short when his obligations to the world prove more important than personal happiness. The final scene of Clark kissing Lois to erase her memory of their affair while he was Superman is wrenching in its loss.

The absence of such romanticism couldn’t be more present in a work like Superman 3, which presents a world in which even the potential for heroism—unquestioned, ultimately, in Superman 2—is found to be in doubt. The film finds summation in its bravura opening sequence—a series of comic disasters which befall an unsuspecting downtown Metropolis one spring morning—and the rest of the film acts as a restatement of the ideas present at the film’s start. The film is predicated on the notion that the goodness of Superman is essentially incompatible with human beings. The plot involves a strain of Kryptonite that, instead of killing Superman, makes him “human”—his powers remain, but his virtue is replaced by greed, lust, indifference. Heady stuff for a superhero movie.

In the years following Superman 3, Lester found it increasingly difficult to get movies made at all—let alone ones he cared about. There was Finders Keepers (1984), a minor comedy set inexplicably during the Vietnam era. It contains some exceptionally realized sequences of slapstick, but pales next to the projects he was planning but was unable to realize during this period: a Harold Pinter scripted adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s “Victory”; a contemporary political satire written by Garry Trudeau called “Zoo Plane”; and, most tantalizingly, an adaptation by Charles Wood of Donald Barthleme’s “The King”. Unable to find financing for any of these projects, years went by between films, something Lester hadn’t experienced since The Bed Sitting Room made him unfashionable to employ on a motion picture for roughly four years.

Petulia

It can’t be merely coincidental that Lester regained his stride after The Bed Sitting Room at the very moment when Hollywood was most open to working with iconoclasts and that he lost it again in the years after Heaven’s Gate (Michael Cimino, 1980) and the blow to the confidence studios had in directors that it represented. Ironically, the huge success of the two Superman pictures didn’t help him at all—if the studios were going to hire him, they wanted him to helm a blockbuster because that was the business he was in now: even if he remained a subversive on those pictures, would the content of a Superman movie actually impact its opening weekend gross? Lester could be contained on a picture like Superman 2. While a maverick like Altman was able to burrow underground for a few years and occupy himself on European productions and low-budget adaptations of plays until the climate changed, Lester had always worked with the system—there was no alternative for him even when he found himself adrift within it—and it could be argued that his work had become dependent on the conflict and tension it offered an iconoclast such as himself.

The sequel had always been an ideal form for Lester’s concerns. Sequels possess a built-in dialogue with the film or films which precede them, thus allowing Lester an easy opportunity to modify or challenge our sense of those previous films in his usual manner. His final Musketeers movie, The Return of the Musketeers (1989), however, lacks the rigor of Lester’s other film sequels. From almost the outset, it seems to have been tainted with a lack of belief in or involvement with the material, something which can be partly attributable to the sudden death of one of Lester’s most valued stock players, Roy Kinnear, midway through the shoot. As with Finders Keepers, there are fine moments, but the tiredness and sadness that permeates the production seems for once entirely unintentional even if, ironically, those qualities are consistent with the vision of his life’s work.

A rather routine Paul McCartney concert film, Get Back (1990), followed The Return of the Musketeers and then…nothing. Lester is apparently quite content in retirement, leading as he does a full life away from movies. Admittedly, however, the tragic circumstances surrounding Musketeers made the decision to slip quietly into retirement even easier. The usual accolades have followed—retrospectives, lifetime achievement awards, and all the rest, as though Lester were being honored for keeping quiet. Steven Soderbergh paid him perhaps the highest possible tribute when he solicited Lester to participate in a book long series of interviews, covering his entire career while acknowledging the debt it has had on Soderbergh’s.

Yet when most people think of Lester’s cinema today, I fear it is usually only—or mainly—for the Beatles films and the stunning cultural moment they represent. While Lester seems content with this fate, it seems oddly unbecoming that his public legacy should be restricted to A Hard Day’s Night or Help! (1965), for to value those movies a priori over the darker truths his later movies mined in a more upfront fashion—that heroes are seldom who we expect them to be and things are rarely as good as we wish to recall them—is to miss the lesson of Richard Lester’s cinema: optimism and the potential for joy are only fully possible when the realities of life are acknowledged.

Lester (right) on the set of A Hard Day's Night

Filmography

The Running, Jumping, and Standing Still Film (1959) 11 min.

It’s Trad, Dad (1962) 73 min.

Mouse on the Moon (1963) 85 min.

A Hard Day’s Night (1964) 85 min.

The Knack and How to Get It (1965) 84 min.

Help! (1965) 92 min.

A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum (1966) 98 min.

How I Won the War (1967) 110 min.

Petulia (1968) 105 min.

The Bed Sitting Room (1969) 91 min.

The Three Musketeers (1973) 107 min.

Juggernaut (1974) 110 min.

The Four Musketeers (1974) 103 min.

Royal Flash (1975) 118 min.

Robin and Marian (1976) 107 min.

The Ritz (1976) 91 min.

Butch and Sundance: The Early Days (1979) 112 min,

Cuba (1979) 122 min.

Superman 2 (1980) 127 min.

Superman 3 (1983) 125 min.

Finders Keepers (1984) 96 min.

The Return of the Musketeers (1989) 101 min.

Get Back (1990) 89 min.

Bibliography

Steven Soderbergh, Getting Away With It: Or The Further Adventures of the Luckiest Bastard You Ever Saw, New York, Faber & Faber, 2000

Andrew Yule, The Man Who “Framed” The Beatles: A Biography of Richard Lester, New York, Donald I. Fine, Inc., 1994

Web Resources

Richard Lester interviewed by Steven Soderbergh

Richard Lester: A Hard Day’s Life
Profile of the director.

Richard Lester resources
Exhaustive listing of Lester links on the web.

The Superman Films of Richard Lester
The author analyses Lester’s Superman films and how they fit into the director’s body of work.

Click here to search for Richard Lester DVDs, videos and books at

Endnotes

  1. Peter Biskind, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock’n'Roll Generation Saved Hollywood, New York, Simon & Schuster 1998, p. 81
  2. Quoted in Andrew Yule, The Man Who Framed The Beatles: A Biography of Richard Lester, New York, Donald I. Fine, Inc., 1994, p. 352
  3. Pauline Kael, For Keeps: 30 Years at the Movies, New York, Penguin, 1996, p. 743
  4. Quoted in Yule, pp. 251–252
  5. For a breakdown of the footage Donner and Lester shot in Superman 2 see Yule, pp. 306–308