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'The Poseidon Director' Director Ronald Neame Dead at 99

Shelley Winters, Jack Albertson, The Poseidon Adventure
Jack Albertson, Shelley Winters, Red Buttons in Ronald Neame's The Poseidon Adventure

Ronald Neame, best-known for the 1972 blockbuster The Poseidon Adventure, died on Wednesday, June 16, '10, at a hospital in Los Angeles. Neame, who never recovered after suffering a fall, was 99.

In the grandiose and technically impressive (but slow-moving) disaster flick, Gene Hackman led an all-star cast through the bowels of a capsized liner. Leslie Nielsen is lucky, as he drowns near the beginning of the film, but Ernest Borgnine, Stella Stevens, Jack Albertson, Carol Lynley, Eric Shea, and Oscar-nominated Shelley Winters, among others, have to (quite literally) suffer through hell and high water while delivering some utterly absurd lines of dialogue.

The London-born (April 23, 1911) filmmaker did much superior work during his period collaborating with David Lean, and later on directing several classy British productions of the '50s and '60s.

Neame began his film career in the '20s. “Well, they say Judy Garland was born in a trunk. So I was really born in a film studio, because my mother [Ivy Close] was … a very famous silent film star,” Neame told Matthew Sweet in 2003. “She was making a film up to six weeks before I was born, and everything had to be shot in close-up of her, which was very nice for her, because I was due to arrive. She took me on the set when I was just two or three months old, rather proudly.”

Following a stint as an assistant cameraman (including Alfred Hitchcock's 1929 thriller Blackmail, the first British talkie), Lean was promoted to cinematographer in the '30s, shooting a series of “quota quickies.” (British cinemas had to play an x number of homemade films per year.) Neame also shot vehicles for popular comedian George Formby, such as Feather in Your Nest (1937) and I See Ice (1939).

Things changed in 1940, when Neame worked as Gabriel Pascal's cinematographer in the prestigious Major Barbara, which starred Rex Harrison and Wendy Hiller. His association with Lean began two years later with the Oscar-nominated, flag-waving war drama In Which We Serve (co-directed by Noel Coward).

Celia Johnson, Trevor Howard, Brief EncounterNeame then did excellent color work for Lean in both This Happy Breed (1944) and Blithe Spirit (1945), and was one of the screenwriters of two of Lean's most renowned efforts: Brief Encounter (1945, right, with Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard) and Great Expectations (1946), which Neame also produced.

Neame's directorial career began with the black-and-white thriller Take My Life (1947), with Hugh Williams and Greta Gynt. But his more prestigious efforts, all shot in color and usually anchored on one or more tour-de-force performance(s), would come only a decade later.

Judy Garland, I Could Go on Singing
Judy Garland in Ronald Neame's I Could Go on Singing

The Horse's Mouth (1958) starred Venice Film Festival Best Actor winner Alec Guinness as an eccentric painter; the British Academy's Best British Film nominee Tunes of Glory (1960), with Guinness and John Mills in a not-very-flattering look at the British military; and the melodrama I Could Go on Singing (1963), pairing Dirk Bogarde with Judy Garland, who delivers one of her strongest performances in what turned out to be her last film.

“Judy Garland… talk about a love-hate relationship! I was so excited when I was asked to direct her,” Neame told Matthew Street. “I thought, you know, what a wonderful opportunity, to direct Judy Garland. I heard all kinds of things about how she ate directors for breakfast, and if she didn't eat them, she fired them. I was told how difficult it would be, and I thought, oh well, I'll turn on my British charm, and I'll be all right. I'll win through. And she was absolutely charming through all the preparation of the production, and during the first number. Then the problems started.”

The Chalk Garden, Deborah Kerr, Hayley Mills, Ronald NeameDeborah Kerr is excellent as a mysterious governess in the psychological coming-of-age drama The Chalk Garden (1964), which earned Dame Edith Evans a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination, while Maggie Smith (“a consummate actress,” according to Lean) earned a Best Actress Oscar for her Mussolini-inspired teacher in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969).

Hello-Goodbye (1970) was a disaster for all concerned – Ronald Neame himself was fired an replaced by fellow veteran Jean Negulesco – while Scrooge (1970) was a plodding musical. And then came The Poseidon Adventure, Lean's favorite film simply because “it gave me 'F.U.' money!"

Unfortunately for Neame, he got the money but not much of consequence happened after the biggest financial success of his career. The Odessa File (1974) was a middling spy thriller with Jon Voight (1974); Meteor (1979), starring Natalie Wood and Sean Connery, was to have been a major “disaster movie” but ended up instead as a major critical and box office catastrophe; and the Walter Matthau vehicles Hopscotch (1980), with Glenda Jackson, and First Monday in October (1981), with Jill Clayburgh, were both disappointments.

Neame's last feature film was the little-seen Foreign Body (1986), starring Victor Banerjee, the leading man in David Lean's A Passage to India (1984).

Ronald Neame was nominated for four Academy Awards: One of Aircraft Is Missing (1942, Best Visual Effects, with C. C. Stevens), Brief Encounter (1946, Best Writing - Screenplay, with Lean and Anthony Havelock-Allan), Great Expectations (1947, Best Picture; Best Writing - Screenplay, with Lean and Anthony Havelock-Allan).

He was awarded the title of Commander of the British Empire in 1996. His autobiography, Straight from the Horse's Mouth, was published by Scarecrow Press in 2003.

Lean's q&a with Matthew Sweet is a must-read. It can be found here.

Photos: Ronald Neame (British Film Institute), I Could Go on Singing (United Artists); Brief Encounter (Universal Pictures); The Poseidon Adventure (20th Century Fox)


         
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2 Comments to 'The Poseidon Director' Director Ronald Neame Dead at 99

  1. Oscar Delgado

    Mi comentario lo hago en español, pienso que èsta pelìcula constituyò un hito en el desarrollo de la cinematografìa mundial, no solo por su reparto de grandes estrellas, sino, por la excelencia con la cual fue llevada a cabo…..serà siempre un importante referente de los clàsicos momentos de gloria en la historia del cine Hollywoodense. Felicidades a todos sus realizadores en especial al SR: NEAME y a su extraordinario equipo de actores. Oscar Delgado Pineda

  2. Marianne

    I had no idea that Ronald Neame had directed The Poseidon Adventure. It seems so odd.