Remembering the great director of Bullitt and Breaking Away — and the movie deal he didn’t close.
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In this Age of Auteur, the Editorial Director of this magazine attributes the chorus of faint praise to Yates’s versatility. Like Hollywood helmers of old (Wellman, Wilder, Wyler) he could do anything. Usually — not always — well. Consider this eclectic filmography: a mixed bag; and all of which reportedly came in On Time/Under Budget:
• Musical? Summer Holiday with Cliff Richard — English Elvis goes Continental.
• True crime? Robbery with Stanley Baker — Pussy Cat wannabe pulls off Crime of Century.
• Comedy? Mother, Jugs & Speed with Raquel Welch — Bill Cosby actually funny for a change.
• Action Adventure? Murphy’s War — Over the Waves (& Hill) Peter O’Toole comes out on top. Again.
• SciFinery? Krull with Lysette Anthony — JAPrincess saved from faith worse than death.
• Horror? The Deep with Jackie Bissett — Bra-less, brainless, British bimbo in wet Tee but “No Esther Williams” (i.e. “Wet She Was Great”).
To make it up to the memory of Peter, it behooves the British Embassy’s current Culture spy to schedule a Yates Festival; perhaps with Telegraph critic (and Yates fan) David Gritten as EmCee. For openers, what about Suspect, Washington oriented but shot in Toronto. Would you believe Cher for the Defense? (U better believe it.) A suitable venue might be Georgetown. If the old Biograph was good enough for John Waters, its NW DC successor is good enough for Peter Yates.
But even a Georgetown art house could not re-create the cheery “birther” who disclosed the actual surname of Breaking Away’s lead whose fondest hope was to pass for Italian. (Dennis “Christopher,” né “Corelli.”)
Nor could it shazam the tongue-in-chic director who urged a Bill Buckley accent upon Robert Vaughn, the Bullitt nemesis of Steve McQueen. (Speaking of: After he made McQueen a star who could demand “director approval,” the newly famous actor never asked for Yates again. But look at it this way: What had he done for him lately?)
The best of “Late Yates” can be summed up in two films. There was The Dresser, an homage to Lear featuring Tom Courtenay and Peter’s old friend Albert Finney as has been actor trying to carry on during the London Blitz. Finally, there was The Run of the Country, an underrated tale of shanty Irish Capulets and Montagus along the Ulster border; and which was to be Yates’s final theatrical release.
My own last suggestion to Peter Yates was a remake of The Ruling Class (the one penned by Peter Barnes — not those by Angelo Codevilla or Lewis Lapham). And I liked Steve Breaking Way screenwriter Tesich’s script idea: a variation on his Four Friends: this one to be set in (what became the former) Yugoslavia; and whose three boyhood friends would be Serb, Croat, and Bosnian. At the time of Steve’s untimely death, I believe that the late Arthur Penn may have been considering it.
As it happened The Moviegoer never got made. Not by me nor anyone else. As for Yates, his last bow was a made-for-TV version of John Knowles’s novel A Separate Peace. Sometime before, ironically, and according to Wilfrid Sheed, Peter told Knowles that his book, fine as it was, was un-filmable.
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