Filmmaker Ulu Grossbard (1929 – 2012)

You could say that I owed my friendship with Ulu Grosbard (who died in March at the age of 83) to Quentin Tarantino’s immune system. In the summer of 2007, I agreed on short notice to fill in as moderator for a discussion with Grosbard and much of the cast and crew of his 1978 film Straight Time following a special screening in the Los Angeles Film Festival. Tarantino, an avowed Grosbard fan who first encountered the director when Reservoir Dogs was a Sundance lab project and Grosbard one of the advisors, had been scheduled to host the evening, but had come down with a bad cold and had to bow out. It was, I would later learn, the first time Grosbard and the film’s star, Dustin Hoffman, had appeared onstage together—and only the second time they’d been in the same room together—since making the film three decades earlier. And as we gathered that night in the green room of the UCLA Film and Television Archive’s Billy Wilder Theater, the air was noticeably tense, with Grosbard and Hoffman keeping their distance, surrounded by their respective cadres of family and friends.

Straight Time was supposed to have been Hoffman’s own directorial debut, made as part of the short-lived First Artists production pact by which Hoffman and fellow A-listers Barbra Streisand, Steve McQueen, Paul Newman and Sidney Poitier pledged to make a series of modestly budgeted films for Warner Brothers in exchange for full creative control and 25 percent of the gross. The source material was No Beast So Fierce, the 1973 roman à clef by jailhouse poet laureate Eddie Bunker (whom Tarantino would later cast as Mr. Blue in Reservoir Dogs), with Hoffman playing the role of Bunker surrogate Max Dembo, a recently paroled thief whose tries to go straight but soon finds himself drawn back into his former lifestyle. At the time, Hoffman was at the peak of his powers, fresh off Lenny, All the Presdient’s Men and Marathon Man. But the challenge of acting and directing at the same time quickly proved too much for him, and after three days of shooting, he called his old friend Ulu to bail him out.

Indeed, without Ulu Grosbard there might never have been a Dustin Hoffman, who was working a series of odd jobs and trying to break into acting around the same time that Grosbard’s career as a theater director was taking off. He hired Hoffman to be his stage manager and assistant director on such acclaimed productions as The Subject Was Roses (for which Grosbard earned a Tony nomination) and the 1964 Off-Broadway revival of A View From the Bridge. And the year before The Graduate (1967), it was Ulu who cast Hoffman in the role of Bernard for an LP recording of Death of a Salesman with the original Broadway leads, Lee J. Cobb and Mildred Dunnock. (Two decades later, Hoffman would himself take on Willy Loman on Broadway.) Before making Straight Time together, they also teamed for another film, Who Is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me? (1971), one of those gloriously oddball experiments that could only have been made amidst the burgeoning “new” Hollywood cinema of the 1970s. In it, Hoffman is a songwriter in the throes of an existential crisis. The songs for the film were written by Shel Silverstein.

Dustin Hoffman in Straight Time (1978). Image courtesy of WARNER BROS / THE KOBAL COLLECTION.

So Grosbard agreed to take over Straight Time, on the condition that he could temporarily halt production to take a long, hard look at the shooting script. Bunker’s novel had been adapted for the screen by Alvin Sargent, who delivered a 180-page draft that was subsequently worked on by a revolving door of rewriters, including Oscar-winner Nancy Dowd (Coming Home) and a young TV creator fresh from the successful Vega$ series: Michael Mann. And while Grosbard and producer Gail Mutrux both claimed that little if any of Mann’s work ended up in the finished film, they agreed that Bunker’s novel made a huge impression on him—one that can clearly be seen in Mann’s own subsequent The Jericho Mile and Thief.

Grosbard threw out most of the rewrites and returned to Sargent’s draft, whittling it down bit by bit with the help of yet another writer, Jefrey Boam. Often, the actors wouldn’t have the next day’s script pages until the night before shooting. When filming finally wrapped… well, that’s when the real trouble began. Hoffman offered his mentor his services in the editing room, to which Grosbard said thanks but no thanks. By the time the movie was released—barely, by a studio trying to distance itself from a “troubled” production—they were no longer on speaking terms.

And yet, Straight Time ranks among the finest work both men ever did for the cinema—one of the great, lost films of the 1970s. Like Bunker’s novel, the movie plunks us down in the desperate world of small-time hoods subsisting from score to score, stealing not for the thrill of it, but because it is what they do best, because they can not confirm to the rules of civilized society. It is a milieu rendered so authentically that we never question it (Grosbard hired real-life thieves as technical advisors, and supporting players), nor the beautifully lived-in performances that inhabit it—not just Hoffman, but Harry Dean Stanton as his weary partner, the young Kathy Bates as Stanton’s wife, and Theresa Russell as the employment agency clerk who finds herself gradually sucked into Hoffman’s world.

Russell joined Hoffman and Grosbard (along with Stanton, producer Tim Zinneman and the great cinematographer Owen Roizman) at that Los Angeles Film Festival screening. At one point in the Q&A, a woman in the audience asked Hoffman how, upon seeing the film again, he judged his performance. The next part I remember as though it were yesterday: Hoffman glanced at Grosbard, then replied, “I thought that I can do no better.” And in that moment, the pupil and the mentor seemed, for one night anyway, to have set aside their differences.

Robert De Niro in True Confessions (1981). Image courtesy of UNITED ARTISTS / THE KOBAL COLLECTION.

After that heady night, I stayed in touch with Ulu (as I’ll refer to him from here), whose own life read like the plot of a movie. Born in Belgium in 1929, he and his family fled the Nazis and emigrated first to Cuba, where Ulu worked as a diamond cutter (the family business), before moving on to the U.S., where studied English at the University of Chicago and drama at Yale. He directed his first Off-Broadway show in 1962, and in those same years maintained a parallel career as an assistant director on Hollywood movies, including The Hustler (1961), Splendor in the Grass (1961) and The Miracle Worker (1962)—all of it good practice for his own debut feature, the film version of The Subject Was Roses (1968), featuring the wonderful Patricia Neal in her first major role following a debilitating stroke. It is a brilliant performance, in which Neal’s physical frailty only adds to the poignancy of an overprotective mother who deludes herself into seeing her deeply troubled family in a honeyed light. Neal deservedly won the Best Actress Oscar for her work, and was one of four performers Ulu directed to nominations.

In total, Ulu directed only seven films, with long, Kubrickian gaps in between. He was known to be choosy—in the New York Times obituary, Robert Duvall, Ulu’s longtime friend and star (with Robert De Niro) of his excellent True Confessions (1981), spoke of repeatedly trying to work with the director again (including on Tender Mercies) to no avail. During some of those hiatuses, Ulu returned to the stage, where his credits included the original production of David Mamet’s American Buffalo. Then, in 1995, he returned to movies after an 11-year break with Georgia, a searing family drama set in the music world which earned an Oscar nomination for Mare Winningham (playing a successful folk singer) and should have earned one for Jennifer Jason Leigh, too (cast as Winningham’s self-destructive, forever-in-the-shadows sister). Leigh has one genuinely show-stopping scene in which she performs a tortured, soul-baring interpretation of Van Morrison’s “Take Me Back,” but it is Winningham, in the less flashy role of the well-adjusted, collaterally damaged sibling, who gives the movie its tender soul.

In recent years, there was talk of another project with Duvall, which brought Ulu to L.A. on a few occasions, where we never failed to see each other. And upon my arrival at the Film Society in 2010, he was among the first people I called upon, inviting him to appear at a screening I had programmed of The Subject Was Roses, as part of a series of Oscar-winning films set in New York. So we shared the stage once more, joined this time by the author of the original play and screenplay, Frank Gilroy (father of Tony), and afterwards segued to a memorable diner where we were joined by the other guests of that series: William Friedkin, his wife Sherry Lansing, and the producer Stanley Jaffe (Kramer Vs. Kramer). When I think back on that evening, I remember Ulu’s passionate endorsement of an off-Broadway play then running at Lincoln Center, When the Rain Stops Falling, which he claimed was the best thing he’d seen on a stage in years. And when Ulu offered such praise, you took note, for he was among the toughest of critics—of his own work and that of others.

When he died, I realized it had been almost a year since we last spoke, and I immediately wished there had been more dinners, more impassioned discussions, and of course, more films.

The Film Society presents In Memorium: Ulu Grosbard, featuring a double-feature screening of True Confessions and Georgia on Thursday, June 7.