Remembering Alan Pakula -- The ''Sophie's Choice'' director knew what made people and performances tick

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Remembering Alan Pakula

He was best known for movies about a hooker, an Auschwitz survivor, and two Washington Post reporters, but director Alan J. Pakula, who died Nov. 19, at 70, in a freak car accident near Melville, N.Y., was forever fascinated by fathers and families. Klute‘s title cop becomes both lover and paternal protector to call girl Bree Daniels; in Sophie’s Choice, two men try to bring peace to a woman whose notion of family has been irrevocably broken by the Nazis. And the casting of stars Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman as low-level reporters in All the President’s Men initially perplexed Pakula, who later said, ”The key there was Jason [Robards] as Ben Bradlee — another of my father figures.”

Pakula came to directing comparatively late. The son of an immigrant Polish Jew, he was expected to take over the family printing business after attending Yale, but instead talked his father into underwriting a Hollywood sojourn. By 1957, Pakula was producing Fear Strikes Out (about baseball player Jimmy Piersall, pushed into madness by his demanding father), the first of seven films with director Robert Mulligan. The duo’s high point was 1962’s To Kill a Mockingbird (which won Gregory Peck an Oscar as godlike dad Atticus Finch), but Pakula later admitted to being depressed whenever filming started and the producer had to leave the set. With 1969’s The Sterile Cuckoo, he finally, at 40, stepped behind the camera, beginning a career remarkable for its gently persistent probing into the ties that bind families and strangers alike. Pakula once considered becoming a psychoanalyst. In a sense, that’s exactly what he grew up to be. The pick of Pakula:

Klute (1971)
Really, it’s the first of the modern serial-killer pics. But where the genre is now rotely sensational, Pakula created a harrowing psychological portrait of a hard-edged prostitute (Oscar winner Jane Fonda) reclaiming her humanity.

The Parallax View (1974)
All our fears about JFK’s death and Nixon’s dirty tricks were brilliantly exploited in this thriller about a reporter (Warren Beatty) uncovering an assassination bureau deep within the government.

All the President’s Men (1976)
How do you film a mystery when the audience already knows the outcome? Focus on how close reporters Woodward and Bernstein came to not connecting the dots that led to Nixon’s fall.

Sophie’s Choice (1982)
Adapting William Styron’s novel himself, Pakula gives us a beautiful Polish refugee (Oscar winner Meryl Streep), her charismatic lover (Kevin Kline), a young writer (Peter MacNicol) bewitched with them both — then leads us back to the hell of Auschwitz.

Presumed Innocent (1990)
A brooding adaptation of the Scott Turow legal thriller that’s better than the book, it’s fascinated with the ways in which guilt bleeds from one person to the next.

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