Film

Lone Adventurer: George Roy Hill

Jonathan Kiefer

What the cinema will really miss, though, is his charisma, his voice.

There's a great story about how George Roy Hill used to spook fatuous Hollywood studio executives by buzzing their office tower with his antique open-cockpit biplane. He would come in low, blending with the skyline at first, then, with a crescendo of engine roar and a beeline swoop, plunge straight at the conference-room windows, turning sharply up and away just in the nick of time -- or, to really push the envelope, just a split second after the nick of time. The executives might not necessarily accede to Hill's creative demands from then on, but they would possibly wet themselves.

The story implies a spirited, bravely black-humored, possibly dangerous, but ultimately appealing lone adventurer (read: a George Roy Hill protagonist). It was told by Stephen Geller, who wrote the screen adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five for Hill to direct, and it sounds like a tall tale -- Geller is a peerless raconteur -- until you consider the recorded manifestations of Hill's personality.

Take, for instance, what is widely viewed as Hill's most cherished film project, The Great Waldo Pepper (1975), with Robert Redford as a flying stuntman who tends to articulate his more dramatic sentiments aerially. Or the great, ridiculous scene in Hill's movie of John Irving's The World According to Garp (1982), in which a sputtering small plane emerges from the nether-regions of suburbia to crash into the protagonist's first house just as he's about to buy it. "We'll take the house," Garp cheerfully replies. "It's been pre-disastered!"

Perhaps it goes without saying that this scene is not in the book, but it should be mentioned that the pilot in the movie is Hill himself, who, after wrecking the house, politely asks if everyone is all right and then asks to use the telephone. The moment seems to expose the director's creative attitude toward life in this world, and it's a relief to say that even after September 11, it's still very moving and funny.

George Roy Hill died recently, just after his 81st birthday, from complications of Parkinson's disease. Low-flier that he was, his passing evaded a few radar screens, but his contribution is worth remembering.

Born in Minneapolis, Hill studied music at Yale, then served as a Marine transport pilot in the South Pacific during World War II. The G.I. Bill allowed him to further his studies of music and literature at Trinity College in Dublin, where he began acting, with Cyril Cusack's company at the Abbey Theatre. There, Hill promptly made a successful move into directing, and then brought that success to Broadway. After more military service during the Korean War, he began writing, producing, and directing for American television during its mid-fifties golden age. His first theatrical feature film was an adaptation of Tennessee Williams' Period of Adjustment, which Hill had directed on Broadway.

Hill didn't start making films until the age of 40, and he stopped at 66, with 14 singular, award-winning, and influential works to his credit. He is most famous for originating the screen team of Paul Newman and Robert Redford, without which, it is safe to say, American cinema would be significantly blander. The team only convened for two films, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) and The Sting (1973), but their mark on future generations of on-screen con men, lovable bandits, and other basically good bad guys is indelible. (There is also the matter of Redford's moviemaking sub-empire, gratefully named for the role that made him a star.)

Hill's oeuvre is more varied than these huge hits might let on. Slap Shot (1977), with Newman on a raffish minor league hockey team, taught movies how to swear. The film took a few critical hip-checks at first, but later earned cult appreciation, not to mention veneration from Sports Illustrated and ESPN, as a sports-movie top ten hall-of-famer. It takes real range for the maker of such a film to seem as comfortable limning the nuances of adolescent infatuation, as he did in A Little Romance (1979), and earlier in the Peter Sellers classic, The World of Henry Orient (1964); or the Norman Rockwell-meets-Nikolai Gogol absurdity of Funny Farm (1988), with Chevy Chase as a writer resettling in a small New England town that proves to be a drastically uncooperative idyll.

There was also a Roaring '20s musical, Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967), and of course, Hill didn't shy from delving into the rich tapestries of novels as ambitious and varied as James A. Michener's huge Hawaii (1966), Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five (1972), long considered unfilmable, Irving's Garp, and John le Carré's Little Drummer Girl (1984). Hill's purview was uniquely and demonstrably cosmopolitan.

Some of his flights of fancy, perhaps predictably, crashed and burned. But the majority of Hill's films are smartly entertaining and richly quirky. For a while, he was the only director in history to have made two of the top 10 moneymakers (the Redford-Newman films), a real feat for someone who, rather unlike the cookie-cutter moviemakers enjoying similar -- and useless -- accolades now, did such truly personal work and still made it popular. Bear in mind that Hill, during his television days, was responsible for A Night to Remember, the original Titanic movie, and the first version of Judgment at Nuremberg, the original Holocaust confrontation movie.

What the cinema will really miss, though, is his charisma, his voice. What Roger Ebert wrote of Funny Farm, the last, is true of many George Roy Hill pictures: the director "enlists our sympathies with the characters even while cheerfully exploiting their faults." Hill did make his characters suffer -- dramatically and comically. It wasn't schadenfreude, but rather something close to the opposite, a tough and tender kind of empathy, and the resolve to laugh, hard, at affliction.

For all the delight he took in vindicating the heady schemers of The Sting, Hill seemed to feel most deeply for the humiliations suffered by Garp, or the passive, put-upon Billy Pilgrim of Vonnegut's novel. Butch and Sundance were ultimately doomed, themselves "pre-disastered," but that fact never impeded their symbiotic sense of humor.

William Goldman, who wrote Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and won an Oscar for it, finds the movie especially vindicating, and Vonnegut and Geller are both rightly proud of Slaughterhouse Five. That too is a major feat for any film director who dares adapt any book. John Irving was less pleased, but one look at his sodden The Cider House Rules suggests he should count his blessings.

Because you must go somewhere after the funny farm, Hill returned to teach at Yale. He didn't talk to the press much (he never had), so he was periodically characterized as a "recluse." A lone adventurer, perhaps, but not a recluse. At least his colleagues didn't seem to see him that way. But perhaps they were ducking under their desks.



Music


Books


Film


Television


Recent
Books

A Fresh Look at Free Will and Determinism in Terry Gilliam's '12 Monkeys'

Prof. Susanne Kord gets to the heart of the philosophical issues in Terry Gilliam's 1995 time-travel dystopia, 12 Monkeys.

Music

The Devonns' Debut Is a Love Letter to Chicago Soul

Chicago's the Devonns pay tribute the soul heritage of their city with enough personality to not sound just like a replica.

Music

Jaye Jayle's 'Prisyn' Is a Dark Ride Into Electric Night

Jaye Jayle salvage the best materials from Iggy Pop and David Bowie's Berlin-era on Prisyn to construct a powerful and impressive engine all their own.

Music

Kathleen Edwards Finds 'Total Freedom'

Kathleen Edwards is back making music after a five-year break, and it was worth the wait. The songs on Total Freedom are lyrically delightful and melodically charming.

Television

HBO's 'Lovecraft Country' Is Heady, Poetic, and Mangled

Laying the everyday experience of Black life in 1950s America against Cthulhuian nightmares, Misha Green and Jordan Peele's Lovecraft Country suggests intriguing parallels that are often lost in its narrative dead-ends.

Music

Jaga Jazzist's 'Pyramid' Is an Earthy, Complex, Jazz-Fusion Throwback

On their first album in five years, Norway's Jaga Jazzist create a smooth but intricate pastiche of styles with Pyramid.

Music

Finding the Light: An Interview with Kathy Sledge

With a timeless voice that's made her the "Queen of Club Quarantine", Grammy-nominated vocalist Kathy Sledge opens up her "Family Room" and delivers new grooves with Horse Meat Disco.

Books

'Bigger Than History: Why Archaeology Matters'

On everything from climate change to gender identity, archaeologists offer vital insight into contemporary issues.

Film

'Avengers: Endgame' Culminates 2010's Pop Culture Phenomenon

Avengers: Endgame features all the expected trappings of a superhero blockbuster alongside surprisingly rich character resolutions to become the most crowd-pleasing finalés to a long-running pop culture series ever made.

Music

Max Richter's 'VOICES' Is an Awe-Inspiring and Heartfelt Soundscape

Choral singing, piano, synths, and an "upside-down" orchestra complement crowd-sourced voices from across the globe on Max Richter's VOICES. It rewards deep listening, and acts as a global rebuke against bigotry, extremism and authoritarianism.

Music

DYLYN Dares to "Find Myself" by Facing Fears and Life's Dark Forces (premiere + interview)

Shifting gears from aspiring electropop princess to rock 'n' rule dream queen, Toronto's DYLYN is re-examining her life while searching for truth with a new song and a very scary-good music video.

Music

JOBS Make Bizarre and Exhilarating Noise with 'endless birthdays'

Brooklyn experimental quartet JOBS don't have a conventional musical bone in their body, resulting in a thrilling, typically off-kilter new album, endless birthdays.

Music

​Nnamdï' Creates a Lively Home for Himself in His Mind on 'BRAT'

Nnamdï's BRAT is a labyrinth detailing the insular journey of a young, eclectic DIY artist who takes on the weighty responsibility of reaching a point where he can do what he loves for a living.

Music

Monte Warden and the Dangerous Few Play It Cool​

Austin's Monte Warden and the Dangerous Few perform sophisticatedly unsophisticated jazz/Americana that's perfect for these times

Music

Eleanor Underhill Takes Us to the 'Land of the Living' (album stream)

Eleanor Underhill's Land of the Living is a diverse album drawing on folk, pop, R&B, and Americana. It's an emotionally powerful collection that inspires repeated listens.

Music

How Hawkwind's First Voyage Helped Spearhead Space Rock 50 Years Ago

Hawkwind's 1970 debut opened the door to rock's collective sonic possibilities, something that connected them tenuously to punk, dance, metal, and noise.

Books

Graphic Novel 'Cuisine Chinoise' Is a Feast for the Eyes and the Mind

Lush art and dark, cryptic fables permeate Zao Dao's stunning graphic novel, Cuisine Chinoise.

Music

Alanis Morissette's 'Such Pretty Forks in the Road' Is a Quest for Validation

Alanis Morissette's Such Pretty Forks in the Road is an exposition of dolorous truths, revelatory in its unmasking of imperfection.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.