Director George Roy Hill: The Lone Adventurer

Some of George Roy Hill’s flights of fancy crashed and burned. But the majority of his films are smartly entertaining and richly quirky.

There’s a great story about how director 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 ten 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.