I took a directing workshop with Neame in the 1980s and was so impressed, I later videotaped another workshop. It became Ronald Neame: On the Director, which I produced with Carol Dickman. In the video, Neame mesmerized his audience with tales of such legends as Judy Garland, Alex Guinness and Noel Coward. His charm, grace and class shinned through in the best British way.
Neame represented an era of filmmaking where craft and skill with directing actors really mattered. The video at the end, where Neame discusses directing the very difficult Judy Garland in her last film, I Could Go On Singing, demonstrates his deft hand a working with actors of all kinds. A favorite phrase of Neame was using some kind of action "to take the weight off the lines."Neame was born 15 years after the first motion picture show in Paris. His mother was a silent film star, his father was an early director, and he himself went to work at a famous British studio, Elstree, at 16. A leading cinematographer by 30, he teamed up with Noel Coward and the director David Lean to make well-regarded pictures like Blithe Spirit in 1945.
As a writer, Neame received one of his three Oscar nominations for Brief Encounter in 1945, again working with Lean and Coward as well as Anthony Havelock-Allan, and another for Great Expectations in 1946, by the same team.As a producer for the independent production company he formed with Lean and Havelock-Allan, he oversaw the much-admired adaptation of the Dickens masterpiece Oliver Twist in 1948, which featured Alec Guinness’ masterly performance as the arch-thug, Fagin.
As a director for more than 45 years, he pioneered Technicolor and built a reputation for coaxing sterling performances from stars like Maggie Smith, Shelley Winters, Michael Caine, Judy Garland and, especially, his close friend, Guinness.
Neame was known for trying out stunts himself before asking an actor to attempt them. In the filming of Poseidon, for example, he climbed a Christmas tree before asking Shelley Winters to try it.In 2003, the British Film Institute called Neame “a living embodiment” of cinema, “a sort of one-man world heritage site.”
Neame’s focus shifted to the United States in the mid-1940s when J. Arthur Rank, the British entertainment mogul, asked him to go to Hollywood to study American film production methods. Neame then began directing pictures for Rank.
One of his earlier successes was The Card in 1952, a vibrant comedy starring Guinness. That led to another comedy for the Rank studio, The Million Pound Note in 1953, starring Gregory Peck. Neame left Rank in 1957, saying he felt stifled artistically. He soon directed two highly regarded films starring Guinness, The Horse’s Mouth in 1958 and Tunes of Glory in 1960. Forbes magazine called the latter movie a “psychological masterpiece.”
During the ensuing decade, Neame, who had moved to Beverly Hills, directed The Odessa File, Hopscotch and First Monday in October. Maggie Smith won an Oscar for best actress for his The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie in 1969. The Poseidon Adventure, for which Shelley Winters won a best supporting actress Oscar, made him a rich man.
I remember riding through Beverly Hills in Neame’s Rolls Royce, with him telling me it was paid for by The Poseidon Adventure. He liked to say the money came in so fast for that movie that the studio didn’t have time to create a second set of books.
Neame didn’t want to direct Poseidon, and therefore got a very sweet deal, one that took care of him for life. It gave him, he said, his "fuck you" money.
Neame believed his success with actors often resulted from simply getting out of their way. Without direction, Judy Garland in I Could Go On Singing in 1963 reached so deep into herself in one scene that her raw emotions caused the crew to break down in tears. Neame had planned to spend a day on the critical scene and Garland performed it perfectly in three minutes.