British director, producer, and screenwriter Lewis Gilbert has died at the age of 97, on February 23, 2018, in Monaco. A Golden Globe nominee, Gilbert was the most prolific U.K. director, having directed 42 films in a career that spanned seven decades, 1944 to 2002.
His most influential movie was arguably Alfie (1966) - it captured the zeitgeist like no other film during the swinging 1960s in London. It brought Gilbert his Golden Globe nomination, as well as Academy, BAFTA, DGA, and Cannes' Palme d'Or nominations. Alfie was a lucky accident. Gilbert was set to shoot a historical drama set in Africa, with Laurence Olivier and Burt Lancaster. But a revolution in Sudan killed the project. When Paramount asked if he had anything else, Gilbert offered to film a play by Bill Naughton he had optioned. That was Alfie, which he'd seen in London's West End - the story of a cold-hearted, swaggering, cynical cockney Lothario. "My understanding of women goes only as far as the pleasures", Alfie says. " When it comes to the pain, I'm like every other bloke. I don't want to know".An episodic story, it follows the eponymous Alfie as he seduces and discards several women until a fling with a married woman leads to an abortion clinic - a highly controversial subject matter at the time. Alfie finally meets his match in an older, American woman, who dumps him for a younger lover.
British cinema in the mid-1960s produced and sent to the US a crop of movies set in Swinging London that shook the American Puritan culture: Blow Up, Morgan!, Georgy Girl and, of course, Alfie. They challenged the moralistic Production Code with their frank and bold- for the time- treatment of moral and sexual issues.Alfie made an international star of Michael Caine- another happy accident. It is hard to imagine Alfie without Caine in the lead, but Gilbert's first choice was Terence Stamp, Caine's roommate at the time.In his autobiography, What's It All About? (a line taken from Alfie's theme song ) Caine writes that when Gilbert offered the role to Stamp, "...to my astonishment, Terry turned it down, and I actually spent three whole hours trying to talk him into accepting it. I still wake up screaming in the middle of the night as Terry takes my advice and accepts the role... Stamp had played Alfie on Broadway and it flopped there, so he now wanted nothing more to do with it". Other British actors also turned it down because of the abortion scene, fearing it would ruin their image.
Gilbert's budget was only $500,000, "the sort of money they spend in Hollywood on executive cigars" as he later quipped. Gilbert, who had started as a documentarian, worked quickly and efficiently, mostly on location, moving on after one take. As Caine wrote:”… not because we were particularly brilliant, but because we had very little money and thus very little time".
The American producers were afraid of a commercial flop, between the back-alley abortion and a leading man with a thick cockney accent. One producer even asked Gilbert to dub Caine’s voice with that of Tony Curtis. Code objections were overcome with a 'mature audiences' rating and some minor cuts.To everybody's surprise and delight, the $500,000 production grossed $19 million in the US, garnered seven Golden Globes nominations, and won a Globe in the Best English Language Foreign Film category. Caine's nomination is one of his 11 Globe nominations (and three wins) so far. Shelly Winters, Vivien Merchant, Bill Naughton and the music and lyrics partners Burt Bachrach and Hal Davis were also nominated. The title song became a pop success.Impressed, Paramount offered Gilbert the movie adaptation of Mario Puzo's bestseller The Godfather, the Italian American crime family saga. “In the end, of course, they got (Francis Ford) Coppola to come in and do it,” Gilbert later told Variety magazine. “Very sensible to get an Italian and not some half-arsed Britisher.”
An offer he could not refuse was to direct the fifth film in the Bond series, You Only Live Twice (1967). At first, Gilbert turned it down, saying “I would be like Elizabeth Taylor’s fifth husband. I would know what to do, but I wouldn’t know how to make it any different.” He ended up directing it to great acclaim, followed by and two other Bond pictures, The Spy Who Loved Me (1977, two Globe nominations) and the outer-space set Moonraker (1979).
Gilbert's last movies were intimate, woman-oriented stories, again adapted from stage plays: Educating Rita (1983, four Golden Globe nominations and two wins) and Shirley Valentine (1989, three Golden Globe nominations).