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Birthday Tribute: David Lean
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David Lean

Birthday Tribute: David Lean - 3/25 (Daytime)

From the exquisite intimacy of Brief Encounter (1945) to the sweeping adventure of Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Sir David Lean (1908-1991) excelled in many film styles, proving to be that rare director who could draw the best from actors while staging spectacle for maximum impact.

Born into a Quaker family in Croydon, England, Lean was fascinated by the movies from an early age despite the disapproval of his parents, and entered the film industry at Gaumont Studios as a "tea boy" in 1927. After working his way up as clapperboy and messenger, he began editing newsreels in 1930 and feature films four years later. Among the well-known films he edited are Pygmalion (1938), 49th Parallel (1941) and One of Our Aircraft Is Missing (1942).

Lean began his directorial career by co-directing, with playwright Noel Coward, the highly regarded World War II patriotic film In Which We Serve (1942). Lean directed three more screenplays based on Coward's work including This Happy Breed (1944), starring Robert Newton and Celia Johnson as middle-class Londoners trying to get ahead in the world. The Coward/Lean partnership culminated in the bittersweet Brief Encounter, in which Johnson and Trevor Howard deliver impeccably understated performances as a proper English couple who tremble on the brink of an illicit love affair.

Lean then entered his Charles Dickens phase, directing extraordinary adaptations of Great Expectations (1946) and Oliver Twist (1948). These two films began his long association with actor Alec Guinness, who would appear in a half-dozen Lean films. Lean's first independently produced film was the documentary-like Breaking the Sound Barrier (1952), with Ralph Richardson in a memorable performance as an aircraft manufacturer bent on developing a jet that would fly faster than the speed of sound. Lean guided Katharine Hepburn through one of her most appealing performances as the lonely spinster who visits Venice in Summertime (1955).

Lean's first expressed himself on a supersized canvas in The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), the story of prisoners of war in a Japanese camp in Burma in 1943, with Guinness in his Oscar®-winning role as a British colonel who becomes obsessed by the building of a bridge. An even more spectacular production, the historical epic Lawrence of Arabia told of the Allies' Middle-East campaign during World War I and provided Peter O'Toole with his star-making role as enigmatic adventurer T. E. Lawrence. Lean won Academy Awards as Best Director for both films.

Lean's winning blend of history and spectacle continued with Doctor Zhivago (1965), a sumptuously photographed adaptation of Boris Pasternak's novel set during and after the Russian Revolution and starring Omar Sharif and Julie Christie as star-crossed lovers. Lean brought epic sweep to a simple story in Ryan's Daughter (1970), set in Ireland and starring Sarah Miles as the restless young wife of schoolmaster Robert Mitchum. John Mills won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar® for his performance as the village idiot.

Lean was again Oscar®-nominated for directing, adapting, and editing his final film, A Passage to India (1984). E. M. Forster's story, set in colonial India in 1924, concerns a clash of cultures when a sheltered, high-strung British woman (Judy Davis) visits India for the first time. One of eleven performers to be nominated for performances in a Lean film, Peggy Ashcroft was named Best Supporting Actress for her role as Davis' elderly traveling companion.

Lean's six wives included a first cousin, Isabel Lean; and actresses Kay Walsh and Ann Todd. At the time of his death he was at work on pre-production of a film version of the Joseph Conrad novel Nostromo that was to star Marlon Brando. The project was never realized.

by Roger Fristoe

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