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Irvin Kershner
1923 - 2010

Beaks here...

"I like to fill up the frame with the characters' faces. There's nothing more interesting than the human face."

Had the internet existed in the late 1970s, the hiring of Irvin Kershner as the director of THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK would've at the very least occasioned a good deal of confusion. At most, it would've inspired a talkback riot. Kershner was in his mid-fifties at the time, and had generally made a name for himself as a proficient director of standard Hollywood entertainments - some of which weren't half-bad. He was solid. But he had never dabbled in the science-fiction or fantasy genres before, and seemed to represent the kind of old-school filmmaking that guys like George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola were driving out of style. That Kershner, who passed away today at the age of eighty-seven, would turn out to be the perfect choice to breathe life into Lawrence Kasdan's crackling screenplay could've been predicted had people looked to his least STAR WARS-like film, the 1970 midlife crisis dramedy LOVING. It's here that Kershner revealed himself to be, if given the chance, a patient observer of human behavior and a seemingly effortless director of actors. LOVING could've very easily been just another Richard Yates-inspired examination of suburban discontent, but Kershner and screenwriter Don Devlin (Dean's father) weren't interested in scoring taking satirical potshots at well-off white people; though they certainly see the humor in their characters' predicaments, empathy is the order of the day in this deeply underrated film. It's a visually accomplished movie (with moodily shaded cinematography from the great Gordon Willis), but Kershner's triumph is his ability to coax an unmannered performance out of George Segal - who could be grating if allowed to run amok, as he did in Sidney Lumet's BYE BYE BRAVERMAN a few years earlier. Segal's Brooks Wilson remains one of his most sympathetic portraits of a middle-aged man in turmoil (right there with his superlative work opposite Elliott Gould in Robert Altman's classic CALIFORNIA SPLIT), and he's quietly matched by the always-wonderful Eva Marie Saint. There is much to praise in THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, and part of the reason it's become the best-loved STAR WARS film for many is because of Kershner's work with the actors - Mark Hamill, in particular, whose scenes with Yoda gave the franchise its soul. Again, there's lots of credit to go around (Stuart Freeborn and Frank Oz deserve much of it), but if Hamill failed to convincingly interact with a puppet, the Dagobah segment of the film would've been risible. And Hamill is more than convincing. His youthful frustration with the slow-going Jedi training and, most importantly, discouragement at his inability to extract his X-Wing fighter from the swamp (punctuated by Yoda's "That is why you fail") represent some of the most emotionally stirring moments in the series. For the first time, we connect to Luke as more than an archetype. He's now a fully-drawn character. This is Kershner's doing. Kershner's post-EMPIRE career found him making the kinds of big-budget action movies that seemed contrary to his strengths as a director. He remade THUNDERBALL with his A FINE MADNESS star Sean Connery in NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN - which I enjoyed as a kid, so job well done, I suppose. He did what he could with ROBOCOP 2, but the screenplay was a mess of satire and action; at least the final battle is well-staged (with some terrific Phil Tippett f/x). Aside from LOVING and THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, I also enjoyed George C. Scott going broad in THE FLIM-FLAM MAN, as well as the creepily effective serial-killer yarn EYES OF LAURA MARS (co-written by John Carpenter). I've never seen Kershner's 1958 heroin flick, STAKEOUT ON DOPE STREET, and I've heard good things about his TV movie RAID ON ENTEBBE. Perhaps TCM could corral these for a Kershner tribute in the near future. Several years ago, I was fortunate enough to hear Kershner speak after a screening of THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. I wish it was available on YouTube, as it was one of the most insightful and inspiring Q&As I've ever attended. He was a great storyteller and teacher. Here's Kershner talking to students at the Colorado Film School.

I am – Hercules Irvin Kershner, who directed what I believe may be my favorite movie ever, passed away Saturday in Los Angeles. There were so many perfect moments in "The Empire Strikes Back" (some of which, including Han Solo’s last line in that film, were not in Lawrence Kasdan’s wonderful script). “Empire” kept us guessing for three years over the possibility the saintly warrior Obi-wan lied to Luke while the murderous Vader told him the hard truth. It also gave us Yoda, and Yoda’s maniacal laugh. And the cloud city. And the giant snow walkers. And “I thought these smelled bad from the outside!” And “Who’s scruffy looking?” And “I am altering the deal.” And “My hands are dirty too. What are you afraid of?” And “No. There is another.” And our first, fleeting glimpse of Vader's deformed noggin. And Vader’s hilariously brutal management techniques. Love love love love LOVE “The Empire Strikes Back.” And God bless Kershner for standing up to George Lucas, who is said not to have liked Han’s final pre-carbonite dialogue. From Alexandra DuPont’s 2003 appraisal of “Empire”:
As I get older, the other “Star Wars” movies – even “A New Hope,” particularly in the wake of “The Phantom Menace” – just seem sillier and sillier. But “Empire” is pure music. Buoyed by John Williams’ sinister, romantic score [I ask you: Was any film composer trafficking in glorious bombast ever better than John Williams was between 1975 and 1984? “ESB” is my favorite Williams score by an order of magnitude.], the movie itself ebbs and flows like a symphony. Unlike the later “SW” films, which more or less marinate in noise, “Empire” embraces the quiet moments before the storm: a soldier stands above a trench scanning a snowy plain before a brutal ground war; Princess Leia sits in a cockpit pondering a love affair before her ship is attacked by wire-chewing space bats [I know, I know: “Mynocks.”]; Luke silently stalks a catwalk before Darth Vader, exploding out of nowhere, chops off his hand and blows his mind. Even the acting is better: Remember how many times you forgot Mark Hamill (Mark Hamill!) was talking to a puppet?
I want to throw some love also at two of Kershner’s other movies, one terribly underappreciated and another that just isn’t on anybody’s radar. 1) “Never Say Never Again,” Sean Connery’s final movie as James Bond, came out the same year as “Octopussy” and was so much better than the Roger Moore entry it makes my teeth hurt. (It also came out the same year as “Return of the Jedi.") I recently stumbled on the fight scene that Bond wins by throwing something that seems to burn the assassin like acid. It turns out to be Bond’s own precious bodily fluids. Love this movie. 2) Connery also worked with Kershner on a forgotten but shockingly accomplished 1966 romantic comedy titled “A Fine Madness.” It could be Connery’s best movie and why more haven’t embraced it is a bit of head-scratcher. Its logline, admittedly, demonstrates little promise: It’s about a New York poet and lady magnet who finds himself trying to cure his writer’s block with the help of a psychiatrist. Joanne Woodward plays his ex-wife; Jean Seberg plays his hot waitress of a roommate. If something falls out of BNAT 12 and Harry stuck this into the line-up, it would be one of the most buzzed about entries of the fest. LOVE this movie. A great filmmaker was Irvin Kershner, yes.

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