I doubt anyone’s ever developed bated breath anticipating a Ted Kotcheff film. Then again, I doubt anyone hasn’t left one surprisingly impressed.
It was Pauline Kael, the make-or-break film critic of the Bulgarian-Canadian director’s heyday, who maintained that his style was “often crude but it has electricity.” It was enough to make her a staunch defender, after fellow New Yorker critic Penelope Gilliatt summarily dismissed Kotcheff’s best film, 1974’s The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz. Kael, who could be as virtuous as she was vitriolic, volunteered, in fact, to print a second, more positive review, helping that comi-tragic character study find an audience beyond metropolitan Canada.
It’s an assessment that can be applied just as well to Kotcheff’s freshly released autobiography, Director’s Cut (co-written with Josh Young.) It too promises agreeably little – a workmanlike industry confessional – but delightfully, upsets the flatline with periodic spikes of rich anecdote, sincere humanity, and age-defying fire (the still vibrant Kotcheff is 86.) We don’t expect to remember it but in the end, we do – the same way we ended holding dear such semi-promising fare as Kravitz, the social satire Fun with Dick and Jane, and the spirited football exposé North Dallas Forty.
Not that Kotcheff hasn’t had his box office successes: there was First Blood, which launched the Rambo series, and Weekend at Bernie’s, the sleeper one-joke comedy. But he made scant from each, and refused, much to his credit, to helm any of the sequels. Better a maverick who can hold his head high than a sell-out best beloved by bankers. As a result, Kotcheff’s endured a rat’s nest of a career; its only consistency is a 12-year twilight stint as producer of TV’s Law and Order: SVU, a return to his small screen roots.
Those roots first took hold in England, where, back in the stodgy 50’s, many a Canadian with artistic leanings found himself (much of the book is devoted to his close ex-pat pal of that era, Mordecai Richler, with whom, of course, he collaborated on Kravitz and an era later, Joshua Then and Now.) There, doleful-faced, crazy-haired Kotcheff parlayed the chops he developed at the CBC into a solid stint as a director of top TV dramas. It was the talent pool from which, a few years later, Swinging London handpicked its cinematic spokespeople. When Kotcheff’s number came up, he went to Australia, to craft the fascinating Wake in Fright (a.k.a. Outback,) a cult classic on Aussie-macho culture championed then and now by Martin Scorsese. That recently rediscovered and restored film (a long, fascinating story, well told in the book) established the prototypical Kotcheffian hero: the self-made braggart at war with his respective culture. He wins the war but only after suffering a considerable bruising.
One can’t help but trace the leitmotif’s lineage to Kotcheff’s itchy immigrant father, a bossy ne’er do well who finally made good in the restaurant trade. A man of volatile energy (though his wife characterized him as “weak,”) Kotcheff père may have rescued his family from the abject poverty of Toronto’s Cabbagetown but he could not foster a happy home, ultimately alienating his poetry-loving son.
Formative as it was, problems with the paterfamilias wouldn’t be the only war Kotcheff would end up fighting: there was a tussle with King-era Canada, unsympathetic to foreigners…a prolonged battle with the U.S., which banned him from entry on the basis of the flimsiest of communist associations…and that ubiquitous beef of the late Sixties, the Vietnam war, against which he was a vocal opponent.
The place he seemed most at ease was on a film set, though the scramble for major directorial opportunities took up more of his career than did the directing (Kravitz alone was a 15-year pitch.) As proof of his welcome presence, Kotcheff unabashedly offers the loving appraisals of many of the performers with whom he worked, from the old school – James Mason, Ingrid Bergman, Gregory Peck – to the newer – Gene Hackman, Nick Nolte, Sylvester Stallone. Each sincerely praises Kotcheff’s ability to get the most out of them – and indeed, who else got such good work out of such hermetically difficult personalities as the aforementioned Stallone and the equally stand-offish Nick Nolte, or out of such rank amateurs as Mack Davis and Ed MacMahon?
The loudest hallelujah, though, is sung by Mariska Hargitay. She can’t say enough about Kotcheff’s God-like presence over SVU. She writes the book’s loving intro and he, in kind, awards her one of its few photographs (a collection in which, repeatedly, vintage talk show host Mike Douglas is identified as Merv Griffin, his one-time competitor!) It’s a tad thick, as is Kotcheff’s plain-voiced poetry, with which he insists on disrupting the proceedings.
Nevertheless, Hargitay’s huzzahs serve as a contemporary testament to Kotcheff as a well-rounded talent appreciated across mediums and generations.
You’ll appreciate him, too, I suspect, should you chance Director’s Cut. Another Kotcheff production, you’ll meet it with middling expectations then find yourself hooked.