Born 96 years ago today, the discerning director George Roy Hill (1921-2002) commanded his greatest fame for three films suffused in male bravado and bromance: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), his Academy Award®-winning The Sting (1973) and Slap Shot (1977), with the dice weighed somewhat heavily in a testosterone-tinged direction by having Paul Newman headlining all three, alongside Robert Redford in the first two. However, in our current climate of fairer-sex empowerment and topical enlightenment, it’s also worth noting that he’s also worked on cinematic stories that pivot tellingly and touchingly on a female perspective, particularly in reaction to the fallible and even destructive behavior of the men in their orbit.
Of course, The World of Henry Orient (1964), based on Nora Johnson’s 1956 novel and adapted for the screen by the credited Nora and her venerable screenwriter dad Nunnally Johnson with and uncredited Hill doing rewrites, is justly remembered as a blithe comic lark about two spirited and dreamy young girls, both from affluent but divorce-marked Manhattan-based families, who become infatuated with a concert pianist of limited talent but limitless libido (played by the great Peter Sellers, then at the peak of his popularity) and follow him around the Big Apple as gobstruck groupies, disrupting his would-be romantic liaisons with love-starved married women (early on, Paula Prentiss, and later, Angela Lansbury) and ensnarling him in comic complications triggered by the fantasy-flavored antics of these daughters of absentee dads. As The Films of George Roy Hill author Andrew Horton sees it, “Henry Orient becomes the father-substitute for their free-floating need, and so they track down and trail him with relentless enthusiasm. Their need for a father is best expressed in a scene in which they take an oath to dedicate themselves to Henry Orient. Gil [Merrie Spaeth] notes that they are no longer children. ‘We’re both practically adolescents,’ she states, as they make a blood pact and swear an oath. Part of the freshness of the scene and of the film is that Hill captures these girls before they became aware of their sexuality. It is not that Hill avoids sex in this film and, later, in A Little Romance , but that he wants to emphasize what is so often lost in contemporary life: a sense of childhood. ‘Love is so hard to explain,’ says Hill, ‘and love is so often involved with ‘lust,’ which I am not concerned with in these films.’ And yet, particularly as viewed today, we are aware of the sexual currents underlying their fantasies, and the way Hill films them. Val [Tippy Walker], shortly before the oath, falls backward on Gil’s bed, legs spread, clutching one of Orient’s two records to her stomach, wondering in a wispy voice, ‘My Oriental Henry…. How can I prove to you that I’m yours?’ Later in the film, when they retrieve one of his cigarettes and discover that it is an unfiltered brand, they exclaim, ‘he’s not scared.’ The lines and their actions are innocent to them, but to us, part of the nostalgia in watching the film is being aware of the duality of their behavior. Hill does not overemphasize these passing gestures, remarks, moments; but the subtext is definitely there, pointing toward the young women they are soon to become.”
Two years later, the screen translation of another highly regarded book into a big-budget roadshow entertainment represented a stepping-out for Hill into new areas of historical recreation and then-topical reverberations. “Hawaii [1966, adapted from James Michener’s bestseller by Dalton Trumbo and Daniel Taradash],” Horton observes, “seemed ready made to fit the tried-and-true Hollywood formula of adapting a blockbuster novel into a popular film. What’s more, it contains in its chronicle of the rise and fall of Hawaii, enough war, love, passion, conflict, and storms at sea to rival earlier Hollywood successes, Gone with the Wind in particular. Yet from the beginning Hill saw more than mere entertainment in the project. Made at the time that Vietnam was just becoming a major issue, Hawaii as Hill presents it becomes not merely a tale of missionaries in a pagan land, but by extension a metaphor for Vietnam and the ‘rape’ of any culture by another. According to Hill: ‘What I wanted to do was to present the dangers of exporting a culture and way of life into a totally alien society on the assumption that our way of life was better than theirs.’ As a film about the corruption of Hawaii [with Max von Sydow’s New England preacher Abner Hale as its central character], Hill’s project is devastating. But also as a parable applicable to other situations such as Vietnam, the message is contemporary and pertinent. Hawaii shows missionaries who went to save souls and become landowners and businessmen instead.” The telling influence of women and the powerful conscience of the 19th-century-period film are felt in two powerful key characterizations. As the island ruler, “Jocelyne LaGarde may easily be the most sympathetic and ‘complete’ woman in Hill’s films,” Horton asserts. “She had no acting experience, but from the moment she enters the film, lowered on board the missionary’s ship in a sling, she commands attention as a robust yet sweet woman with royal blood. Mahama tries her best to make sense of the white man’s morality, more to keep peace on the island than out of any personal belief. But as Hale becomes more demanding in his morality, the Queen becomes upset. ‘Too much law make people sick,’ she says. When asked to divorce her husband because he is her brother, she asks Hale if this means that previously happy natives should ban all 23 kinds of incest. She is an Earthmother, a presence – and her death of a broken heart toward the end affects us even more than the death of Hale’s wife, Jerusha.” Horton continues: “Julie Andrews is well cast as Jerusha. In Hawaii Andrews is given a dramatic range well beyond the ‘sweet’ performances she had given in Mary Poppins (1964) and The Sound of Music (1965). She conveys a sense of New England upbringing, yet there is enough spark and sensuality to her characterization to make us feel how much she has given up (including her sailor boyfriend [Richard Harris] who reappears on Hawaii) to follow Hale. Jerusha’s life is that of quiet acceptance of Hale and a warm friendship with the Queen and her native Hawaiian traditions. The women, therefore, come off much better than the men as mediators able and willing to live in a multicultural environment in friendship.” There would be other complex and distinctive female characters as well as topical, ripped-from-the-cultural zeitgeist situations in future Hill efforts (think 1982’s The World According to Garp and 1984’s The Little Drummer Girl). Twilight Time’s hi-def Blu-rays of birthday celebrant Hill’s fondly remembered The World of Henry Orient and Hawaii (the latter exclusively available here: http://screenarchives.com/title_detail.cfm/ID/30728/HAWAII-1966/), both blessed with memorable Elmer Bernstein scores, serve as a great starting point for examinations of Hill’s feminine side.