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Dead at 86: Director Bryan Forbes

Bryan ForbesBryan Forbes dies at 86: Directed Katharine Hepburn, Leslie Caron, the original The Stepford Wives

Director Bryan Forbes, whose films include the then-daring The L-Shaped Room, the all-star The Madwoman of Chaillot, and the original The Stepford Wives, has died "after a long illness" at his home in Virginia Water, Surrey, England. Forbes was 86.

Born John Theobald Clarke on July 22, 1926, in London, Bryan Forbes began his film career as an actor in supporting roles in British productions of the late 1940s, e.g., Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Small Back Room / Hour of Glory and Thornton Freeland’s Dear Mr. Prohack. Another twenty or so movie roles followed in the ’50s, including those in Ronald Neame’s The Million Pound Note / Man with a Million (1954), supporting Gregory Peck, and Carol Reed’s The Key (1958), supporting Sophia Loren and William Holden.

Bryan Forbes director

Despite his relatively prolific output in the previous decade, including several screenplays (The Captain’s Table, I Was Monty’s Double, the Oscar-nominated and British Academy Award-winning The Angry Silence), Bryan Forbes’ film career really took off — in terms of prestige and international recognition — following his directorial debut with the well-received Whistle Down the Wind (1961), in which a trio of rural children believe a fugitive murderer (Alan Bates) is Jesus Christ reincarnated. Whistle Down the Wind was nominated for four British Academy Awards: Best Film, Best British Film, Best British Screenplay (Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall), and Best British Actress (Hayley Mills).

As a director, Forbes’ output was modest — 14 big-screen features over the course of a quarter of a century — but memorable, as he often tackled "difficult" social and psychological themes, invariably from a humanistic standpoint.

Bryan Forbes directed only eight movies in the ’60s, three of which earned their leading ladies Best Actress Academy Award nominations: Leslie Caron, as a single-mother-to-be who befriends a black man and an old lesbian (beautifully played by veteran Cicely Courtneidge) in The L-Shaped Room (1963), Kim Stanley in a tour de force as a mentally disturbed medium in Séance on a Wet Afternoon (1964), and New York Film Critics Circle winner Dame Edith Evans as an elderly woman left to fend off for herself in The Whisperers (1967).

Among Forbes’ more commercial — or rather, high-profile — efforts were, The Madwoman of Chaillot (1969), replacing John Huston in this adaptation of Jean Giraudoux’s play starring Katharine Hepburn and featuring cameos by a whole array of stellar supporting players (Giulietta Masina, Richard Chamberlain, Paul Henreid, Margaret Leighton, Yul Brynner, Charles Boyer, Danny Kaye, etc.); the cult sci-fier thriller The Stepford Wives (1975), with Katharine Ross and Paula Prentiss; and International Velvet (1978), a sequel to the 1945 Elizabeth Taylor / Mickey Rooney horse-racing drama, this time featuring Tatum O’Neal and Forbes’ wife Nanette Newman (since 1955). Ironically, none of those commercial efforts was a major hit; in fact, both The Madwoman of Chaillot and International Velvet were critical and box office disappointments.

Bryan Forbes’ movie-making pace slowed down in the ’70s, coming to an abrupt halt with the little-seen 1984 thriller The Naked Face, based on a Sidney Sheldon novel, and starring Roger Moore, Rod Steiger, and Elliott Gould. Forbes’ last directorial job was the 1990 TV movie The Endless Game, a mystery drama starring Albert Finney and George Segal.

Bryan Forbes and Nanette Newman, BAFTA awards

Bryan Forbes and Nanette Newman remained married until his death. The couple had two daughters, TV presenter Emma Forbes and journalist Sarah Standing. In the early ’50s, Forbes was married to Irish-born actress Constance Smith (The Mudlark, Treasure of the Golden Condor).

In 2007, the British Academy of Film and Television Arts handed Forbes a Special Award "for a career of outstanding achievement in filmmaking." Forbes had been nominated for five BAFTAs, winning for his screenplay for The Angry Silence.

Bryan Forbes publicity shot ca. 1955.

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