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Ulu Grosbard, 1929 - 2012

The director of Straight Time and True Confessions was 83.
The DailyStraight Time / Ulu Grosbard

"Ulu Grosbard, a director whose affinity for naturalistic drama shaped critical successes like the original Broadway production of David Mamet's American Buffalo and the film version of John Gregory Dunne's novel True Confessions, has died in Manhattan," reports Bruce Weber in the New York Times. He was 83. "Mr Grosbard's work was divided evenly between the theater and the movies, and though he had a long career, stretching across nearly half a century, he was highly selective in his projects. Known for his skill in cajoling substantive performances from actors and his unhurried, perfectionist's approach to polishing a script and staging a scene, he worked with distinguished playwrights on Broadway, including Arthur Miller (The Price), Beth Henley (The Wake of Jamey Foster) and Woody Allen (The Floating Light Bulb) and cultivated relationships with revered stars, including Dustin Hoffman, Robert De Niro and Robert Duvall."

Kristin McMurran profiled Grosbard and his wife, Rose Gregorio, for People in 1981: "'Directing is an odd occupation,' Ulu muses. 'Wanting to do it came out of my fascination with why people's lives take certain directions. Destiny is an interesting subject. You are here now—but how easily you could have ended up somewhere else.' His life is a case in point. Born in the Belgian port of Antwerp in 1929, the son of a Jewish diamond merchant, Ulu was a 'lousy student' as a child. In 1943, when he was 14, his parents fled the Nazi occupation and began a tortuous exodus through France into Spain and finally to Cuba by a refugee boat. 'I grew up fast,' he recalls. 'It was a scary time — the anxiety of not knowing how it was going to end. And the stakes were one's life.' Ulu cut diamonds in Havana for five years while waiting for a visa to the US. He finally got there in 1948, and promptly entered the University of Chicago, where he earned a BA and an MA in English…. His first break came in 1961, when he became assistant to director Elia Kazan on Splendor in the Grass. His Broadway directing debut, The Subject Was Roses, was an instant smash. The following year he married Rose, who had been through Lee Strasberg's Actors' Studio and starred in Ulu's first off-Broadway production, a successful 1962 drama called The Days and Nights of Beebee Fenstermaker. 'They were married in front of a crackling fire in my living room by a justice of the peace who looked like he'd been sent from Central Casting,' recalls playwright Frank Gilroy. 'After the ceremony Rose turned and said, "My God, the actress has just married the director at the playwright's country home — it's like a movie from the 1930s."'"

Jonathan Rosenbaum's found Straight Time (1978) to be "a surprisingly strong picture about a convict [Dustin Hoffman] on parole in LA learning what the supposedly 'normal' world is all about." Hoffman had originally intended to direct, but during the shoot, called on Grosbard to take over. The DVD Journal: "Because the film has fallen under the radar, it's rediscovery on DVD is something of a revelation — it's one of Hoffman's greatest performances in a rather good movie that comes pretty close to being a masterwork." It's also "a fine showcase for some very special actors," writes Glenn Erickson. "Harry Dean Stanton is as his best, along with the always-mysterious Theresa Russell and the almost unrecognizable Kathy Bates. It's also an early opportunity to appreciate M Emmett Walsh before he became so memorable in Joel and Ethan Coen's films."

Update, 3/24: "It could be argued, with some justification, that the greatest achievement of the film and stage director Ulu Grosbard… was to have helped launch the acting careers of Dustin Hoffman, Robert Duvall and Jon Voight," writes Ronald Bergan in the Guardian:

It was Grosbard who had the prescience to see a special talent in them that had escaped others, and who gave them the chance to exploit it.

All three future stars were involved in Grosbard's production of Arthur Miller's A View from the Bridge at the Sheridan Square Playhouse in New York in January 1965, for which both Duvall and Grosbard won Obie awards. Duvall played the lead as longshoreman Eddie Carbone, the part which he described as "the catalyst of my career", while Voight was Rodolpho. Hoffman, then a struggling actor, was stage manager.

One day, during rehearsals, Grosbard took Miller aside and told him that Hoffman would in a few years be perfect as Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman. Miller wrote in his 1987 autobiography Timebends: "My estimate of Grosbard all but collapsed as, observing Dustin Hoffman's awkwardness and his big nose that never seemed to get unstuffed, I wondered how the poor fellow imagined himself a candidate for any kind of acting career."

Having given him some of his earliest acting jobs off-Broadway, Grosbard was to become friend, associate and eventual foe in Hoffman's life. His association with Duvall continued when he directed the actor in the original production of David Mamet's American Buffalo on Broadway in 1977, and in the film True Confessions (1981). He gave Voight his first big break in That Summer, That Fall (1967).

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Ulu Grosbard was one of the most underrated directors and it was probably because he only directed 7 films in 30 years. However, each of his films has strong moments that one can tell are directed by a very sure hand. He got terrific performances out of many actors. Yet for some reason his films just slipped under the radar. I recommend seeking out anything he did. I particularly like Georgia with Jennifer Jason Leigh [very raw but effective] and Straight Time with Dustin Hoffmann – who gives an uncharacteristic performance.
Unbelievably talented… Sraight Time The Subject was Roses True Confessions Georgia GREAT MOVIES!

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