31 July 2014
Ron Howard: A director not afraid to take a risk
Glance at the work of Ron Howard and it's tough to find a common theme. Sure, a large chunk of the twenty two feature films he's directed boast cameos from his little bro Clint (a former child star who somehow, despite now being in his fifties, still looks about twelve). Check out photos of Ron, meanwhile, and whatever the occasion - premiere, interview or on-set - he's nearly always rocking a baseball cap. The guy can't get enough of them. Yet if those are the most familiar aspects of Howard's thirty year output - Clint and caps - it hardly puts him up there with Scorsese does it?
Look a little more closely at the Howard CV however and, like one of those magic eye pictures, a stronger pattern begins to emerge. Here is a director not afraid to take a risk. With financial success and an Oscar on his mantelpiece (for 2001's A Beautiful Mind) he could easily just wallow in the mainstream but Ron still likes to surprise us. The problem is, he rarely gets the credit for it (a turn on homespun Seventies show 'Happy Days' and cute films such as Splash and Willow seem hard to escape). Yet that pursuit of great stories has led to some intriguing gambols.
2008's Frost/Nixon is a case in point. Not only is it a low-budget political drama he chose to make between two hokey Dan Brown blockbusters, it's also based on a play. Its success on the stage was admittedly considerable, shoveling up awards and putting intellectual bums on seats on both sides of the Atlantic but that's by no means a guarantee of a hit movie. For every Closer there's a History Boys, for every Chicago a Run For Your Wife.
What's more, whilst the Watergate scandal that led to Nixon's resignation from the White House in 1972 has inspired many movies, come 2008 Ron Howard was hardly dealing with a zeitgeist issue. The televised interviews between Nixon and broadcasting legend David Frost - on which Peter Morgan based his script - had gripped America in the late Seventies... but that was a long time ago.
Yet Ron Howard is the man who turned the unlikely premise of pensioners discovering a magical swimming pool into a hit (Cocoon). He's the director who made a Western with a female lead, much of it spoken in Apache (The Missing). He's the guy who helped create TV's 'Arrested Development', for crying out loud. For every straightforward epic he's churned out (Apollo 13, Backdraft) the risks have been plentiful too.
Frost/Nixon used its stars from the stage, Michael Sheen and Frank Langella, and arguably lost out at the cash tills because of it. Neither are exactly box-office gold. But in sticking to what made the play so riveting - the rivalry, the mind games, the performances - Howard's gambol at least paid off creatively: it's arguably the most powerful thing he's ever done. Really we should be doffing our hats to him. Or at least our baseball caps.
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