Lord Richard Attenborough was an Oscar winner. In fact he had two Oscars for both producing and directing 1982’s elegant epic biopic, Gandhi. But considering the breadth of his career not only in those capacities, but particularly as an actor, it is astounding to me that the Gandhi wins represented his only nominations in a six-decade career that memorably started with the British World War II classic In Which We Serve in 1942. As an actor, Attenborough deserved far better than he got from the Academy.
It’s almost criminal, for instance, that he was overlooked in 1964 for his creepy performance in Seance on a Wet Afternoon as Billy, the weak, complicit husband who gets involved in a kidnapping so his wife, played by the great Kim Stanley, could become famous as a psychic.
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Stanley got a richly deserved Best Actress nomination that year but Attenborough, who also produced the film, did not. I think it may have been his best performance. It’s definitely a film that holds up even 50 years later. In fact, so much of his work on screen remains memorable.
That same year as Seance, Attenborough was also memorable as Sergeant Major in the underrated Guns At Batasi. He did win a BAFTA award, the organization he would later head, as Best British Actor in 1964 for those two films.
Just a year earlier he stood out in a superb ensemble as Roger Bartlett, the mastermind behind The Great Escape. His expression as he realizes he is about to be killed is still haunting more than 50 years later. It’s sad to think virtually the entire key cast of that 1963 WWII classic are now gone, with James Garner’s passing earlier this summer.
Another memorable turn in uniform came in 1966’s The Sand Pebbles, where he was enormously engaging as Frenchy, a Navy shipmate of Steve McQueen’s on a gun boat patrolling the Yangtze River in 1926 China.
Attenborough, an RAF veteran, actually did numerous films donning uniforms in the course of his career. He won the Supporting Actor Golden Globe for Sand Pebbles and even repeated the feat the next year for his larger -than-life turn in 1967’s musical Doctor Dolittle. An Oscar nod might not have realistically been in the cards for the latter film, but instead of an Attenborough nod for Sand Pebbles, that distinction went instead to his unknown co-star Mako. Attenborough was every bit as good, if not better.
The Boulting Brothers films Private’s Progress and I’m All Right Jack were vintage British comedies and allowed Attenborough to show other sides of his talent. And he was excellent in director Guy Green’s drama The Angry Silence as a factory worker, for which he got another BAFTA nomination and which was his debut as a producer.
And I will forever be grateful for his emergence as a producer, if only to bring the brilliant 1961 drama Whistle Down The Wind into the world. Hayley Mills starred in the British classic, where kids befriend a bearded man they believe to be Jesus Christ. It was later turned into a musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber and remains one of the greatest films ever about childhood. That and other early films he produced like 1963’s The L Shaped Room proved without a doubt this was an actor who also had great taste as a filmmaker.
Considering his penchant for appearing in war movies, it was somehow appropriate that his filmmaking career would take another major turn in his directorial debut for another, albeit wildly different kind of war film, 1969’s anti-war musical adaptation, Oh! What A Lovely War. The WWI set tale was full of witty numbers and arresting images, none more poignant than a never-ending shot of white crosses in a military cemetery. It packed a powerful punch and remains, I think, Attenborough’s best work behind the camera. And yes, I am including Gandhi in that assessment.
No question that Oscar champion was a great movie of its type and gave Sir Ben Kingsley the role of a lifetime but I think the reason it won those eight Oscars was that it was also perfect Academy fodder, just the kind of epic tale Academy voters loved then, and still do to this day.
It came out at Christmas 1982 and just swept through the awards season on an inevitable march to Oscar, overrunning the film many still argue today should have won Best Picture: Steven Spielberg‘s E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, which had been released in June and was in a genre not favored by most Oscar voters.
Spielberg was a good sport about it, though, and even brought Attenborough back in front of the cameras for another memorable big screen turn in Jurassic Park ten years after their battle for Oscar. (Read the statements about Attenborough from Kingsley and Spielberg in Deadline’s obituary here)
A new generation discovered Attenborough’s acting gift in that movie, and then a year later as Kris Kringle in the remake of Miracle On 34th Street. That role won an Oscar for Edmund Gwenn in the 1947 original but it didn’t do the same for Attenborough. Nevertheless it was nice to have him back in front of the cameras.
As for his other directorial work, it almost all was, like Gandhi, based on real people and situations, including 1992’s Chaplin, for which Robert Downey Jr. was deservedly Oscar nominated and probably should have won for his uncanny portrayal of Charlie Chaplin.
There was the powerful Steve Biko story, Cry Freedom , which brought Denzel Washington his first Oscar nod, Young Winston (1972), a rather dry biopic of the young Winston Churchill, and his final great work as a director, 1993’s Shadowlands, which starred Anthony Hopkins as writer and professor C.S. Lewis.
He tried his hand at another musical, the ill-fated movie adapation of the Broadway classic, A Chorus Line, but it flopped. A better effort outside of the biopic arena was 1978’s creepy and compelling Magic, with a superb performance from Hopkins.
Attenborough also brought all of that experience he had in WWII movies to bear in his all-star 1977 war flick, A Bridge Too Far. As combat epics go, it was a pretty decent one.
In fact as film careers go — in front of and behind the camera — Richard Attenborough’s career was more than pretty decent. He was a giant.
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