Influential Filmmakers of the 1970s: Alan J. Pakula


Alan J. Pakula was a prolific film director in the 1970s known for his dark conspiracy thrillers, including his “paranoia trilogy.” In particular, Pakula was interested in exploring man’s psyches when faced with fear. He also had a reputation for being an actor’s director who directed Jane Fonda, Jason Robards and Meryl Streep in Oscar winning performances. He also directed Liza Minnelli, Jane Alexander, Richard Farnsworth, Jill Clayburgh and Candice Bergen in Oscar nominated roles.

Alan J. Pakula on set

Pakula began his career working as an assistant to the head of the cartoon department at Warner Brothers. He later became an assistant producer at MGM before moving to Paramount Pictures. By the 1960s, Alan J. Pakula was a well-established film producer who was nominated for an Oscar for producing Best Picture nominee To Kill a Mockingbird (1962).

He made his directorial debut with The Sterile Cuckoo (1969), which was nominated for two Oscars for Best Actress (Liza Minnelli) and Best Original Song (Come Saturday Morning). Minnelli was also nominated for a Best Actress – Drama Golden Globe. The movie tells the story of a love affair between two inexperienced college freshmen, a neurotic young woman (Minnelli) and a reserved young man (Wendell Burton).

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Pakula then directed the first of his three 1970s conspiracy thrillers Klute (1971). The movie was nominated for two Oscars with Jane Fonda winning her first Best Actress Oscar. The film was also nominated for a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar. Fonda also won the Best Actress – Drama Golden Globe. In addition, the film was nominated for a Best Screenplay Golden Globe. Klute was also nominated for a Writers Guild of America Award for Best Drama Written Directly for the Screen. The film’s story focuses on a private detective (Donald Sutherland) who is investigating a missing person case and becomes involved with a high-priced prostitute (Fonda) being stalked by a killer.

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Pakula next directed a romantic dramady Love and Pain and the Whole Damn Thing (1973). The movie follows the story of a young American (Timothy Bottoms) on a bicycle tour of Europe who meets and falls in love with an older English woman (Maggie Smith).

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He followed this movie with directing the second of his conspiracy thrillers The Parallax View (1974). The film was nominated for a Writers Guild of America Award for Best Drama Adapted from Another Medium. The film is about a news reporter (Warren Beatty) who is investigating a conspiracy connected to the assassination of a senator and the shady dealings of a multinational corporation.

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Pakula received his only Best Director Oscar nomination for his next project, which was the third of his 1970s conspiracy thrillers All the President’s Men (1976). He also received a Directors Guild of America and a Best Director Golden Globe nomination for the movie. The film was a commercial and critical success. It was nominated for a total of eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Supporting Actress (Jane Alexander) and Film Editing. It won four Oscars for Best Supporting Actor (Jason Robards), Adapted Screenplay, Art Direction and Sound. The movie also received a Writers Guild of America nomination for Best Drama Adapted from Another Medium. In addition, it received four Golden Globe nominations, including Best Picture, Supporting Actor (Robards) and Screenplay.  Based on a best-selling novel, the movie tells the true story of investigative journalists Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) and Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) as they uncover the illegal activities surrounding the Watergate scandal, ending the presidency of Richard Nixon.

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Pakula moved away from the thriller genre with his next film Comes a Horseman (1978). The movie is a western about a 1940’s struggling rancher woman (Jane Fonda) who refuses to sell her family’s land to a ruthless land owner (Jason Robards) buying up her neighbours’ properties in the quest for oil. The movie resulted in Richard Farnsworth receiving his first Oscar nomination (in this instance for Best Supporting Actor Oscar). Farnsworth was a former movie stunt man who transitioned in later life to a successful career as an acclaimed film actor.

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Pakula’s last movie in the 1970s was the romantic comedy Starting Over (1979). The film was nominated for two Oscars with Jill Clayburgh receiving her second Best Actress Oscar nomination and Candice Bergen received her first Best Supporting Actress nomination. The movie was also nominated for four Golden Globes, including Best Actor – Comedy (Burt Reynolds), Best Actress – Comedy (Clayburgh), Best Supporting Actress (Bergan) and Best Original Song (Better Than Ever). In addition, the movie received a Writers Guild of America nomination for Best Comedy Adapted from Another Medium. The movie follows a newly separated man (Reynolds) as he tries to create a new life for himself while juggling relationships with an independent school teacher (Clayburgh) and his cheating songwriter wife (Bergan).

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Pakula continued to direct motion pictures in the 1980s. His most notable achievement during this time period was Sophie’s Choice (1982), for which Pakula received his last Oscar nomination (in this instance for Best Adapted screenplay). The movie was nominated for a total of five Oscars with Meryl Streep receiving her first Best Actress Oscar for the movie.  

In the 1990s, Pakula directed a number of notable films. These movies included the thrillers Presumed Innocent (1990) with Harrison Ford and Raul Julia, and The Pelican Brief (1993) with Julia Roberts and Denzel Washington. Pakula’s last movie was The Devil’s Own (1997) with Harrison Ford and Brad Pitt.

In his personal life, Pakula was married twice. His first marriage was to actress Hope Lange who was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Peyton Place (1958). She was best known for her two-time Emmy winning Best Actress in a Comedy role in The Ghost & Mrs. Muir (1968-1970), which was highly popular in syndication.

Alan J. Pakula died on November 19, 1998 at age 70 following a freak motor vehicle accident. Another car struck a metal pipe on the roadway sending the pipe through Pakula’s windshield and hitting him in the head. He then smashed his car into a fence. Upon arrival at the hospital, Pakula was pronounced dead.

Pakula’s influence on the filmmaking continues to be recognized today with his films All the President’s Men and To Kill a Mockingbird both being selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”

~Terry Gale

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