Over the weekend, sad news arrived that Richard Attenborough—feisty British actor, producer and award-winning director—died at age 90 after a long decline stemming from a 2008 stroke. Attenborough had a rich and varied career, spiked by several prominent moments in the public eye, any one of which would have been achievement enough. Time Out New York's Film staff remembers the man: Keith Uhlich reflects on the key performances; Joshua Rothkopf weighs in on his directorial triumphs.
Attenborough's career started on the London stage; his film work began with an uncredited role in Noel Coward and David Lean's wartime drama In Which We Serve (1942). An onscreen breakthrough came with John Boulting's terrific 1947 adaptation of Graham Greene's Brighton Rock, in which Attenborough plays charismatic psycho Pinkie Brown, who marries a waitress in order to keep her quiet about a murder. (That's just one of Pinkie's many misdeeds.) It's an incredible performance, both searing and sympathetic, especially as his world spirals out of control. In 1971, Attenborough played a different kind of loon: introverted butcher John Christie in Richard Fleischer's 10 Rillington Place, based on an actual serial-killer case. Attenborough is far from the alluring Pinkie here: balding, bespectacled (his glasses magnify his dead eyes), socially awkward and pathetic even while strangling his victims. It's a brilliant study of a totally soulless man. Finally, after many years away from acting, Attenborough had a resurgence in Steven Spielberg's megablockbuster Jurassic Park (1993). As John Hammond, billionaire owner of the theme park populated by genetically resurrected dinosaurs, he's part canny impresario, part overgrown man-child (Rupert Murdoch by way of Santa Claus). This is Attenborough in a more entertainingly showy vein—though he does get one sublime scene of pathos, his dream park's ice cream melting around him.—Keith Uhlich
Gandhi (1982) won Attenborough virtually every award available to a filmmaker, including Oscars for directing and producing. It's a movie worth rescuing from the label of prestige-laden "good-taste entertainment," which it accrued but doesn't deserve. Return to it (Gandhi is currently streaming on Netflix) and you'll rediscover a biopic with unexpected grace notes and an earthy career-making turn from Ben Kingsley, far less earnest than you remember. Just as notably, Attenborough tried to get Gandhi off the ground as early as 1962; his persistence over nearly two decades of planning speaks to vision and character. Attenborough's subsequent work occasionally slipped into portentousness, yet 1992's underrated Chaplin is the root of Robert Downey Jr.'s reputation—the brilliant glimmer of hope that earned him a second chance. And 1993's exquisite Shadowlands, based on the real-life romance of Chronicles of Narnia writer C.S. Lewis and American poet Joy Davidman, delivered performances from Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger that merited those actors' lofty reputations. Those are three valuable films, more than most directors can claim. Add to the list 1978's Hopkins-starring Magic (the creepiest ventriloquist thriller ever made) and the career is a substantial one.—Joshua Rothkopf