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Martin Ritt focused on social issues

He was a large, genial, thoughtful man who was not quite your picture of a big-time Hollywood director. For one thing, he wore a jump suit everywhere he went. He had a closet full of them, in different colors and fabrics, and there was even a black-and-white "formal" jump suit that he wore with a bow tie to the Academy Awards. He said he didn't like to waste time every morning deciding what to wear for the rest of the day. He had better things to think about. Martin Ritt, who died Dec. 8 at 76, had a lot of better things to think about, and more than most directors he wanted us to think about them, too. His films almost always explored social issues close to his heart. He made comedies and thrillers and melodramas, but his surest touch was for movies about little people who went up against the system."Norma Rae" was probably his most representative film, starring Sally Field as a half-literate southern textile worker who was raising a couple of kids and working for the minimum wage in a textile mill, and who surprised herself by becoming a union organizer. Many people remember "Norma Rae," which won Sally Field her first Academy Award, but how many know that it was directed by Martin Ritt? How many, for that matter, would recognize that the same filmmaker was responsible for such films as "Sounder," "Hud," "The Great White Hope," "Edge of the City," "The Long Hot Summer," "Hombre," "Conrack," "The Front," "Cross Creek" and "Murphy's Romance." In an age of auteurs who wore their name above the title, of first-time directors hailed as geniuses, Martin Ritt worked for 34 years to make sound, perceptive pictures about people. Although the official biographies had his age at 70 when he died, the family said he was 76, and that meant he was 42 when he directed his first feature film, the film noir classic "Edge of the City," in 1956. That's old for a Hollywood director to get started, and maybe it explains why he didn't make any mass-market entertainments, designed to open in 1,600 theaters on Friday and be forgotten in six months. He made movies by and about adults. Maybe that was one of the reasons actors liked to work with him so much. He gave them grown-up, intelligent roles to fit their personalities. He was responsible for seeing through Sally Field's goody-goody image and redirecting her entire career with "Norma Rae." And remember also the bone weariness of Richard Burton in "The Spy Who Come in from the Cold," as a disillusioned spy who had to pretend to be even more disillusioned than he was. Or the ferocious populist spirit of the coal miners in "The Molly Maguires," the first major movie to show that Sean Connery had resources beyond those of James Bond. Or recall the simple humanity of James Garner in "Murphy's Romance," as the small-town chemist who thinks love has passed him by, but is wrong. Ritt was the key director in Paul Newman's career, shaping the way we and other directors were to see him, as early as "The Long Hot Summer" (1958). He also directed Newman in "Hud" (1963), which may have been the actor's best movie, and in "The Outrage" (1964), and "Hombre" (1967). Oscars fell thickly to actors, cinematographers and writers who worked with him--especially the husband and wife screenplay team of Harriett Frank, Jr. and Irving Ravetch, who wrote many of his movies--but Ritt himself was nominated only one time, for "Hud." Somehow it did not seem that he made "director's pictures," and he encouraged that view: "As far as 'A Martin Ritt Production' is concerned," he told the film historian Leslie Halliwell, "I wouldn't embarrass myself to take that credit. What about the Ravetches? They wrote it. What about the actors who appeared in it? If I ever write one, direct it and appear in it, then you can call it a Martin Ritt Production." But how many films could have been more personally felt than "Sounder" (1972), a film whose characters seemingly had nothing in common with Ritt? It starred Paul Winfield and Cecily Tyson as poor sharecroppers in Mississippi in 1933, and looked through the eyes their son when the father is taken away to a work camp for stealing a ham to feed his family. The boy runs away to find the camp, and never does, but he does find a schoolteacher who encourages him to come to her school and study, and when both the father and the son return home they have a talk that is one of the great moments in recent movies. He is so happy to be with his father that he never wants to leave home, but his father doesn't want him to stay locked in the same poverty that has trapped him, and explains, "You lose some of the time what you go after, but you lose all of the time what you don't go after." The movie was dismissed in some quarters as "liberal," which has become a two-edged word, implying convictions without action. But to make someone feel is to act upon him, and "Sounder" made millions of people feel in such a way that surely their actions were subtly influenced over the years. That was the point with a Ritt film. He didn't pound you over the head with a lot of political rhetoric. He simply let you know how he felt, in a way that was hard to disagree with. The film that came most directly out of his own experience was possibly "The Front" (1976), starring Woody Allen and Zero Mostel in the story of an insignificant little man who allowed his name to be signed to screenplays written by a blacklisted writer. Ritt, knew the blacklist experience at first hand. Born of immigrant parents on the Lower East Side of New York and got into show business through the Group Theater. He was an actor to begin with, in plays like Clifford Odets' "Golden Boy," and then he directed a lot of live television--much of it involving social issues--before he was blacklisted in 1952 for past association with Communist groups. That lasted five years, while he supported himself as an acting teacher, and then, at 42, be began his life's work with "Edge of the City" (1957), which was based on one of his TV dramas. You may have seen it on the Late Show, the knife-edged melodrama starring Sidney Poitier as a longshoreman, John Cassavetes as an Army deserter, and Jack Warden as a crooked union man. I saw Martin Ritt for the last time last January, at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah. His film "Stanley and Iris," starring Robert De Niro as an illiterate man and Jane Fonda as the woman who falls in love with him and helps him to read, had been selected for the opening night of the festival. Backstage before the event, he looked tired and hemmed in, but when he came onstage to say a few words his personality came booming forth, not in self-praise, but with the hope that everyone would enjoy the picture and maybe think a little about some of the questions it raised. For Marty Ritt, that was a worthy enough ambition to inspire a life's career.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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