Posted in: by Richard T. Jameson, Contributors, Directors, Essays

Richard Lester

[Written in 1996 as part of a cine-bio project that never saw the light of day.]

Richard Lester, just like he was before he was

Richard Lester
aka Dick Lester
Birth:  January 19, 1932; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Education:  University of Pennsylvania (clinical psychology)

My whole metabolism is that I’m inclined to do the sum at the end and then realize that I’ve left out one of the parts I’m adding up…. I like a feeling of rough excitement in films. I like to shoot rehearsals rather than actual performances…. A director to me is a highly paid dustman. —Richard Lester, quoted by biographer Andrew Yule

Physical descriptions are rarely key to directorial bios, yet one cannot ignore George Melly’s word-portrait of Richard Lester: “an amiable space creature, very thin, with a great domed bald head, tiny childlike features, and large, kind eyes.” How else would you want to picture the force behind some of the most prodigiously pixilated and breathlessly inventive films of the Sixties? For a brief span of two, maybe three years in the middle of that anarchic film decade, Lester reigned as the master spirit, combining the freewheeling legacy of the French New Wave, the daft Goon Show line in British drollery, and intuitions of an absurdist bleakness whose exemplars were Beckett and Buster Keaton. Then he dropped off the map till the mid-Seventies, when he returned to make several of his finest films in as brief a period … then winked away again.

He was born an American, and still claims on his passport to be one. His father was a failed playwright, onetime title-writer for silent movies, and a Philadelphia schoolteacher his life long. A child prodigy, young Richard scored 186 on his first IQ test—“high genius.” He entered school early and consequently grew up as a perennial outsider, three years younger than his peers. He taught himself to play the piano, then the clarinet, then a host of other instruments. Enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania at age 15 to study clinical psychology, he devoted more of his energies to writing music and forming a vocal group (who called themselves Vocal Group—is this a Richard Lester movie waiting to happen, or what?). They performed at a local television station and were almost immediately invited not to return. Lester, however, stayed on, and worked his way up to directing within a year.

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Barely into his 20s, he gave up steady employment to bum around Europe. Eventually making his way to England, with hopes of selling some of his songs, Lester was offered more TV work instead. He specialized in music shows, which he could throw together and produce almost as quickly as they could be televised. One improv effort was seen by Peter Sellers, who decided that Dick Lester was the man to bring radio’s The Goon Show to television. Lester did that, and also midwifed such loopy series as Idiot Weekly, A Show Called Fred, and Son of Fred. Additionally, in the theater he directed an English production of the Broadway hit Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? and a comedy revue, Don’t Shoot, We’re English.

In 1958 Peter Sellers bought a 16mm movie camera and decided to shoot a short, silent film in Goon mode. The project stalled and Lester was invited out the next weekend to take charge. The result, The Running, Jumping and Standing Still Film (1959), was shown at Edinburgh’s film festival, then at San Francisco’s, and astonished its makers by being nominated for an Oscar as best live-action short subject. Meanwhile, Lester had signed on to direct TV commercials, in the process polishing his skills as a visual stylist and a superefficient distiller of narrative situations. In 1962 he was tapped to direct a quickie musical consisting mostly of jazz and rock acts strung together on the flimsiest of storylines. It’s Trad, Dad (U.S. title: Ring-a-Ding Rhythm) won no raves, but it did demonstrate resourcefulness and also hinted, albeit fleetingly, at a unique touch. The following year, Lester was assigned to helm a sequel to the hit comedy The Mouse That Roared, and delivered Mouse on the Moon in record time—including shooting all the scenes involving the ailing Margaret Rutherford in two days. The modest film was a hit.

In 1964, Mouse producer Walter Shenson was approached by United Artists’ London music office to put together a film showcasing the mop-topped quartet The Beatles. Speed was of the essence; the film had to be in theaters and its soundtrack in stores before the bottom dropped out of Beatlemania. Lester agreed to direct, and A Hard Day’s Night (the title was taken from a throwaway wisecrack by drummer Ringo Starr) went from unscripted concept to finished cut within three months. In addition to cleaning up at the box office, it was hailed as the freshest musical and the freshest comedy in years, with the Marx Brothers being frequently cited as touchstone. The film had been assembled around the notion of the Fab Four’s life on the road, ever besieged by hysterical fans, coping with managers and hangers-on and nitwit TV directors, and maintaining their cheeky sense of humor. While John Lennon sneered that a true account of their offstage life would play more like Fellini Satyricon than A Hard Day’s Night, Lester’s on-the-fly, documentary-style shooting and nimble improvisation put the charade over.

Four lads in 'Help!,' which in these precincts is loved even more than 'A Hard Day's Night'

Suddenly, Lester was a hot director. While waiting for an inevitable Beatles followup to come together, he shot The Knack, and How to Get It (1965). Based on a play, the minor anecdote about the love lives of several young people was opened up to include a free-ranging survey of “Swinging London” street life, with frequent glimpses of and grumbled commentary from disapproving adult onlookers (Lester among them, mouthing the oft-heard refrain “Mods and rockers!”). Filled with fresh air and lyric improvisation, and shot by David Watkin in a glowing black-and-white style he and Lester had stumbled upon by accident, The Knack became the modern film of the moment and won the Palme d’Ôr at the Cannes Film Festival. By then Lester had Help! (1965), the second Beatles movie, in the can. A screwball comedy involving the lads with a sacred ring, a Hindu murder cult, and a nutty professor, Help! was three times as frenetic as A Hard Day’s Night and perhaps twice as funny (a minority opinion, that—but the movie was another huge hit). With no end of witty camera angles, ingenious editing, and even moments of throat-catching beauty—notably, the “Ticket to Ride” sequence in the Swiss Alps—it confirmed Lester as a filmmaker of extraordinary imagination and dexterity.

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum was received in 1966 as a considerable setback, but in retrospect this zany, clockwork-tight filming of the Stephen Sondheim musical comedy stands up as a lavish entertainment, with a rogues’ gallery of classic comedians—Zero Mostel, Phil Silvers, Buster Keaton, Michael Hordern—and nonstop cinematic invention. Lester regarded his next film, How I Won the War (1967), as his first artistically meaningful effort; it was also the first project he himself originated. With the Vietnam war protest era heating up, Lester took the brave step of making an antiwar movie set during the “good” war, World War II. Its subject was, more particularly, W.W. II movies and the sorts of ethical and historical distortion they entail. This bitter, Brechtian effort won respect but unsurprisingly did not claim a place on the director’s hit parade.

He followed it with the film many consider his best: Petulia (1968), an offbeat comedy of alienation and short-circuited romance in contemporary San Francisco. In his first film set in his native land, Lester realized a virtual time capsule of America on the verge of radical transformation—all without enlarging the storyline beyond the intimate focus of a handful of lives. Although brilliantly shot (by Nicolas Roeg, soon to make his own directing debut) and acted (by George C. Scott, Julie Christie, Richard Chamberlain, et al.), Petulia was not generally well received at the time (Pauline Kael characterized it as “Lester’s hate letter to America”). Lester’s next, an absurdist, postapocalyptic comedy called The Bed Sitting Room (1969), was so bleak, off-putting, and just plain bewildering that United Artists never released it in America. It disappeared virtually without a trace. And so did Richard Lester.

He didn’t starve; there will always be TV commercials. Then, in 1973, a couple of freebooting producers named Alexander and Ilya Salkind enlisted Lester to direct a two-film adaptation of Alexandre Dumas’s The Three Musketeers. They wanted it quick and dirty—but also lavish, with an all-star international cast. Dirty appealed to Lester; that is, he liked the idea of shooting a period picture not as a series of immaculate tableaux, but as a credible ongoing account of life as lived in a far-from-immaculate time (a penchant already evidenced in A Funny Thing Happened…). Although the (Spanish) locations were difficult and some of the cast members had to be photographed months and miles apart (even when theoretically acting in the same scene), Lester again brought in a complicated production on time and under budget. Completed together, the two films were released in the United States during consecutive summers: The Three Musketeers: The Queen’s Diamonds (1974) and The Four Musketeers: The Revenge of Milady (1975). This was generally held to be a triumphant return to form, with the director’s realistic approach to swashbuckling and his keen sense of absurdity reinforcing each other.

In short order he made two more excellent films: Juggernaut (1974), a suspense film set on a cruiseship targeted by a mad bomber, and Robin and Marian (1976), a rich character piece focused on a Robin Hood well advanced into middle age. Juggernaut performed weakly at the box office; the appetite for disaster films was waning just as someone had finally made a masterpiece in the genre. But Robin and Marian, boasting superb performances by Sean Connery and Audrey Hepburn (in her first film in nine years) did well. A beautifully autumnal, elegiac film, it marked the full flowering of the darker tone that had come to the fore in the final passages of The Four Musketeers.

Then it was as though Lester’s talent and judgment both deserted him. Royal Flash (1975), a long-cherished project greenlighted in the wake of the Musketeers, had already proved to be a grim fiasco. The Ritz (1976) was a proficient but charmless filming of a gay-themed stage comedy. Butch and Sundance: The Early Days (1979) occasioned the coining of the term “prequel,” but, despite a few absurdist Old West touches, this attempt to supply the backstory for the 1969 hit Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid had no real reason to be made. Cuba (1979), an attempt to catch the mood of disintegration and collapse just before the Castro revolution, was ill conceived and only made worse by constant revision.

In 1977 Lester was approached by the Salkinds to come aboard another multifilm production, Superman/Superman II, and act as a producer supervising the various units involved in the complicated shoot. He did so after making it clear that he would brook no interference with the director, Richard Donner. Superman (1978) was released to great popular acclaim and a generally friendly press; it carried no credit for Lester, by his own choosing. When Superman II emerged two years later, Lester was credited: unlike The Three/Four Musketeers, the Superman diptych had been left uncompleted till Part One’s success was assured, and Lester then stepped in as director. (Gene Hackman’s sequences had been shot already by Richard Donner, but Lester eventually reedited them and dubbed new dialogue.) SupeII performed near the levels of the first film, but quality and box office both dropped with the 1983 Superman III, also directed by Lester. Thereafter, he directed Finders Keepers (1984), a fitfully amusing but misfired screwball comedy, and The Return of the Musketeers (1987), sadly bereft of any of the wit, pace, and excitement of the earlier films. In 1991, as a favor to Paul McCartney, Lester conceived and directed a round-the-world film record of McCartney’s Get Back concert tour. But the two-stage juggernaut of the mid-Sixties and mid-Seventies had long ceased rolling.

[For a fascinating look at Lester, and look back at his career, see Steven Soderbergh’s 1999 book for Faber & Faber, Getting Way With It: Or, Further Adventures of the Luckiest Bastard You Ever Saw. The titular lucky bastard is Soderbergh, but the greater part of the document is drawn from a running conversation between him and Richard Lester.]