Alan J Pakula

Pakula was notable for directing his “paranoia trilogy”: Klute (1971), The Parallax View (1974) and All the President’s Men (1976). He directed 8 actors in Oscar-nominated performances.

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Alan Jay Pakula, was born on April 7, 1928, Bronx, New York, U.S.—died November 19, 1998, Melville, New York), as a film director, producer, and screenwriter who is most well-known for evoking exceptional performances from actors and actresses in the 16 films he made, most notably in three dark, foreboding psychological thrillers: Klute (1971), The Parallax View (1974), and All the President’s Men (1976). Pakula examined complex emotions in his films, which often featured themes dealing with fear and the abuse of political power.

Born into a family of Polish Jewish descent, he grew up on Long Island and in New York City, where his father ran a printing business that he hoped his son would one day take over. But after attending the Bronx High School of Science and the Hill School (a prep school in Pottstown, Pennsylvania), Pakula turned to drama at Yale University, graduating in 1948. Moving to Hollywood, he used his father’s connections to land a job in the Warner Brothers cartoon department. Later he served as assistant to Don Hartman, the head of production at Paramount. Concurrently he began producing plays for the New York stage.

The first film Pakula produced was Fear Strikes Out (1957), the psychological biography of baseball player Jimmy Piersall, which starred Anthony Perkins and was directed by Robert Mulligan, with whom Pakula then formed a production company. Pakula then produced and Mulligan directed To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), the adaptation of Harper Lee’s novel of the same name, now widely regarded as a cinematic classic. It earned an Academy Award nomination for best picture and for which Gregory Peck won the award for best actor. Pakula and Mulligan embarked on a highly successful collaboration, Pakula as producer and Mulligan as director, on five films: Love with the Proper Stranger (1963), Baby, the Rain Must Fall (1965), Inside Daisy Clover (1965), Up the Down Staircase (1967), and The Stalking Moon (1968).

In 1969 Pakula directed his first film, The Sterile Cuckoo. Based on a novel by John Nichols, it traced the arc of a relationship between an eccentric coed (Liza Minnelli) and the young man from another college with whom she falls in love (Wendell Burton). Minnelli’s performance earned her an Academy Award nomination for best actress. She was the first of a long line of actors who would find great success under Pakula’s direction. His keen psychological insights into character and motivation won him a growing reputation as an “actor’s director.”

Pakula’s second directorial effort, the thriller Klute (1971), cemented his reputation as an important director and remained one of his most highly regarded films. Jane Fonda won an Academy Award for best actress for her portrayal of a neurotic prostitute who unwillingly becomes emotionally involved with a reserved detective (Donald Sutherland) who is trying to save her from her own self-destructive tendencies as well as from a deranged killer. His next project, Love and Pain and the Whole Damn Thing (1973) was a smaller, less-commercial enterprise, with Maggie Smith and Timothy Bottoms as a couple involved in a September-May romance.

Next came The Parallax View (1974), a paranoiac masterpiece inspired by conspiracy theories associated with the assassination of President Kennedy. Warren Beatty played an investigative reporter who uncovers evidence about a group of political assassins following the killing of a senator. He infiltrates their organization, but their machinations are so sophisticated no one believes they exist, despite a growing number of dead witnesses. As with his previous three films, Pakula produced as well as directed The Parallax View.

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His next effort, All the President’s Men (1976), was an adaptation of the best-selling book by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein (played in the movie by Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, respectively) about the Watergate scandal. Applying the techniques he developed in Klute and The Parallax View to create an atmosphere of mounting dread (those films and this one are often characterized as Pakula’s’ “paranoia” trilogy), Pakula ended up crafting a peerless real-life political thriller. All the President’s Men received an Academy Award nomination for best picture, and Pakula earned his only nomination for best director, while William Goldman won for his screenplay, and Jason Robards captured the best supporting actor award playin Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee.

On the heels of that critical and financial success, Pakula’s Comes a Horseman (1978) came to be regarded by some as a major disappointment. It was a slow, if beautifully photographed, psychological western set in post-World War II Montana. Robards starred as a crusty rancher bent on expanding his spread, and Jane Fonda portrayed his neighbor, who is determined to hold on to her family’s land. Richard Farnsworth was nominated for an Academy Award for his supporting performance. The romantic comedy Starting Over (1979) followed. Adapted from Dan Wakefield’s novel of the same name, it featured Burt Reynolds as a divorced professor who relocates to Boston, where his relationship with a preschool teacher (Jill Clayburgh) is the target of repeated subversion attempts by his ex-wife (Candice Bergen). Clayburgh and Bergen were nominated for Academy Awards for best actress and best supporting actress respectively.

Generally regarded as one of Pakula’s lesser works, Rollover (1981), a high-finance thriller, paired Fonda with Kris Kristofferson. But he returned to form with his next film, Sophie’s Choice (1982) — widely considered one of his best as a director. Adapted from William Styron’s award-winning novel, it featured Meryl Streep’s Academy Award-winning performance as a Holocaust survivor whose postwar life in Brooklyn has been irrevocably damaged by her concentration-camp experiences. Pakula’s screenplay was nominated for an Academy Award.

The psychological thriller Dream Lover (1986) failed at the box office and with most critics. Orphans (1987), an intriguing “small” drama adapted from his own play by Lyle Kessler, centered on a rich drunk (Albert Finney) who is snatched by a pair of orphaned brothers (Matthew Modine and Kevin Anderson) and taken to their home, where he slowly but steadily changes their lives. In the less-than-well-received See You in the Morning (1989), Jeff Bridges and Alice Krige play a recently married couple whose ex-spouses (Farrah Fawcett and David Dukes) and children (Macaulay Culkin and Drew Barrymore) conspire to make their transition a bumpy one.

Presumed Innocent (1990), an adaptation of Scott Turow’s best-selling thriller, was another return to form for Pakula. Harrison Ford starred as an attorney charged with the murder of his former assistant, with whom he had an affair. Pakula (who cowrote the screenplay) allowed the clever plot to unravel effectively and made the most of a strong supporting cast (Bonnie Bedelia, Brian Dennehy, Raul Julia, Greta Scacchi). But Pakula stumbled with his next film, Consenting Adults (1992), which was generally regarded as overly complicated and implausible. He then wrote, directed, and produced The Pelican Brief (1993), which starred Julia Roberts and Denzel Washington. It was a commercial hit but failed to impress the critics.

Pakula’s final directing effort was The Devil’s Own (1997), a well-made thriller starring Ford as a New York City police detective who unwittingly takes in a boarder (Brad Pitt) who turns out to be a fanatical and dangerous Irish terrorist. The film was ample proof that Pakula had not lost his ability to work effectively with major stars in a commercial genre. He was soon afterward killed in a freak auto accident on the Long Island Expressway.

Memorable Quotes by Alan J Pakula

“[on Liza Minnelli] One of the happiest times in my life was during The Sterile Cuckoo (1969), mostly because of Liza. I’ve never seen anybody get more joy out of working and it’s contagious.”

“I am oblique, I think that has to do with my own nature. I like trying to do things which work on many levels, because I think it is terribly important to give an audience a lot of things they might not get as well as those they will, so that finally the film does take on a texture and is not just simplistic communication.”

“[on The Devil’s Own (1997)] In American film there is a good guy and a bad guy. It’s the first thing my grandson always asks: Who’s the good guy and who’s the bad guy? When I say Harrison Ford and Brad Pitt are both good guys, that throws him. What’s interesting to me is what happens when people with two different senses of what is right and what is wrong meet. What’s interesting is the fact that these two men can love and respect each other. It makes it more complicated. Much more interesting and much more human.”

“I’ve hardly had an avant-garde career… If you’re going to make a film, you have to try to make sure it comes out of a childlike passion, as if you’re doing it for the first time.”

“Most of us live in a safe world. We don’t have to fight for our values, we don’t have to fight for our freedom, we don’t have a sense of injustice.”

“Some actors come to the set ready to do their parts a certain way.”

Things You May Not Know About Alan J Pakula

He was killed when a metal pipe smashed through the windshield of his black Volvo station wagon and struck him in the head. The seven-foot-long pipe was already in the roadway when another car gave it a glancing blow, sending it through Pakula’s windshield. Then Pakula’s car swerved across a service road and hit a fence.

He directed 8 actors in Oscar-nominated performances: Jane Fonda, Liza Minnelli, Jason Robards, Jane Alexander, Richard Farnsworth, Jill Clayburgh, Candice Bergen and Meryl Streep. Fonda, Robards and Streep won Oscars for their performances in one of Pakula’s movies.

In 1998, he was slowly preparing to direct a situation comedy he had written entitled “A Tale of Two Strippers”; which told the story of two male exotic dancers in Las Vegas who find themselves trying to evade a hit man after witnessing an arranged murder when they get an address mixed up and arrive to the wrong location to perform a private gig. He died in an automobile accident before anything could start so the project was immediately canceled. Had it gone through it would’ve marked the film debuts of actors Josh Duhamel and Ashton Kutcher whom he hired to star in the lead roles.

According to his family on a New York Times interview at the time of his death, Pakula next project was a screenplay named ”No Ordinary Time”, focusing on the White House during the time of Franklin Roosevelt.


Alan J Pakula’s directing credits include…


Year Movie
1969 The Sterile Cuckoo
1971 Klute
1973 Love and Pain and the Whole Damn Thing
1974 The Parallax View
1976 All the President’s Men
1978 Comes A Horseman
1979 Starting Over
1981 Roll Over
1982 Sophie’s Choice
1986 Dream Lover
1987 Orphans
1989 See You In The Morning
1990 Presumed Innocent
1992 Consenting Adults
1993 The Pelican Brief
1997 The Devil’s Own
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