American-born Richard Lester became a director in England and went on to make some of the most iconic British films of the sixties. He worked with — and immortalized on film — many of Britain’s pop cultural luminaries, from the Beatles to Peter Sellers, Julie Christie and Anthony Hopkins, proving to be a versatile filmmaker able to work in a variety of genres. He was equally comfortable with solid action flicks (“Jaggernaut”) and experimental, surreal comedies (“The Bed Sitting Room”). The quirky nature of his films also applies to his career, which was full of unexpected turns, impossible to pigeonhole and all the more interesting to discover for that. With Lester receiving a thorough retrospective at New York’s Film Society of Lincoln Center, this week, here’s a rundown of reasons why this distinctive filmmaker is worth a second look.
He invented the rock movie.
Before MTV, YouTube and iTunes, music was a far more rarified experience. Records used to be printed on vinyl and played on less than portable devices. The chance to see the people behind those records was not always readily available and mainly came in the form of live performances. Richard Lester offered one step towards changing that when, in 1964, he filmed the Beatles on their way to a concert and global stardom. More than a simple rockumentary, “A Hard Day’s Night” captured the bandmembers as true characters of their own pop cultural invention. In essence, Lester provided the framework for immortalizing the Beatles’ legacy.
Sometimes, he went against the grain.
The last thing one would associate with San Francisco circa 1967 — aka the Summer of Love — would be a clautrophobic relationship drama set in the well-to-do strata of American society. Though featuring live performances from the Grateful Dead and Janis Joplin, “Petulia” is very much unlike your average flower power sixties flick. Lensed through the trademark psychedelic eyes of the time, one of Lester’s most famous films has nothing to do with the rampant notions of free love percolating at the time. Instead, it focuses on the invisible barriers that often trap couples into dead ends. “Petulia” illustrates Lester’s nonconformist take on the zeitgeist.
His most daring film nearly ended his career.
Having immortalized the Beatles on celluloid and captured London’s hip scene elsewhere with “The Knack” and “How to Get It,” Lester took an ambitious turn: A sort of post-apocalyptic surreal comedy highly indebted to the genius of Samuel Becket, “The Bed Sitting Room” is a wacky gem of sixties cinema. Starring Peter Cook, the film is set three or four years after an imaginary World War III, which only lasted two minutes and 28 seconds but turned the British capital into a wasteland of rubble populated by surreal characters. This hypothetical comedy was a critical and commercial failure but holds up well today. It took another four years for Lester to get behind a camera again.
He made a fairly progressive gay-themed film…in the seventies.
The depiction of gay men in mainstream cinema in the seventies was bound to stereotypes and often inflected with a heavy dose of homophobic irony. In “The Ritz,” Lester still entertains some stereotypical notions of homosexuality (promiscuity, for instance) but the film is definitely a welcome inversion compared to the era’s trends. Gaetano (Jack Weston), an Italian-American married man on the run, takes refuge in a gay hotel/spa in an attempt to hide from his brother-in-law Carmine (Jerry Stiller), who has just uncovered Gaetano’s sexual preferences. Determined to hunt him down, Carmine hires a private eye to infiltrate the hotel, a feat that only serves to expose his bigotry.
Superman didn’t save his career.
After having directed 16 feature films and having dealt successfully with a variety of genres, from the costume comedy to the western, sci-fi surrealism to political thriller, Lester’s career hit a snag with a big-budget franchise. “Superman II” and “Superman III” were among Lester’s final films, joined only by “The Return of the Musketeers” in 1989. He hasn’t made a feature since. The general belief is that Lester grew frustrated with the film industry and decided to step aside, but last year he appeared at the Cinema Ritrovato for Bologna’s annual film festival to recount his career — which may have slowed down, but is certainly overdue for a second visit.