Arthur Hiller was never the coolest filmmaker in the room.
He leaves behind a list of films that were genuinely loved by audiences and an ocean of collaborators and friends who speak of him in glowing terms, and honestly, as a storyteller, what more could anyone ask? There”s certainly some cachet in the idea that you”re breaking new ground stylistically or you”re doing things that other people are ripping off or you”re part of some formal movement of deconstructionists. I like plenty of filmmakers who chase cool like it is oxygen, necessary for their entire existence. Arthur Hiller, though, was a meat and potatoes kind of guy, and he made movies that spoke to his optimistic view of who we could be as people, shot through with just a hint of cynicism at times.
My personal favorite of his movies is The In-Laws, which I just rewatched a few weeks ago. Man, that movie holds up. Alan Arkin in The In-Laws is one of my all-time favorite things. His performance is right up there with space travel and caffeine for me. I am floored by just how gifted a comedy performer he is every time I see the movie. There are single expressions of his that are deadly funny, and giving him Peter Falk as a foil is one of the all-time great casting ideas. Hiller did terrific work not only giving these actors room to play off of one another, but also building a credible action film around them.
I also really like Silver Streak, although it”s one of those movies where people remember a fun subplot more than they remember the bulk of the film itself. While it did indeed make canny use of the immediate chemistry between Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor, they don”t spend much time together onscreen. You can”t help but wonder what Hiller would have done if he”d known how much audiences would love those scenes in time to maybe reshoot or reshape things. By the time he worked with them again on See No Evil, Hear No Evil, none of them were working at their creative prime anymore.
The Out of Towners is another terrific comedy of his, with a very good Neil Simon script and great work from Jack Lemmon and Sandy Dennis. When you look at the remakes of both The In-Laws and The Out of Towners, films that are loaded with very talented people, it”s clear that Hiller”s touch was important. He kept the ridiculous at a human scale, allowing the biggest laughs to feel genuinely big and surprising.
Love Story was a tremendous hit for Hiller, and small wonder; it”s a Coca-Cola commercial version of every love story, and while I”m not a fan of it, he made the perfect adaptation of that book for audiences who wanted to see that book. That”s no small feat. Hiller got to work with Paddy Cheyefsky twice, and I quite like both The Americanization of Emily and The Hospital. They both are smart, dense films, with outstanding character work. Hiller was one of those guys who had shot hundreds of hours of TV before he made his first feature, and he knew exactly what he was doing. There was an economy to his work that made it look easy to do what he did. That was an illusion, though. Hiller made it look easy because he was so good at it and because he was such a consummate professional.
Much of the impact Hiller made on the lives of other artists came through his work as the president of the Directors Guild and as president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. A member of the Royal Canadian Air Force when he was young, he flew bombing missions during WWII and lived a full life before he ever even entered college. He made his television debut in Canada, then made the jump to the US quickly. He survived several major evolutions of the industry, and he kept directing through the ’90s.
When he signed on to make Burn Hollywood Burn from a script by Joe Eszterhas, it was a move that probably introduced more unnecessary stress into his life than Hiller ever could have imagined. Ostensibly designed to satirize the way studio filmmaker worked in that era, it is a big leaden paperweight, immobile, uninteresting, and without any real insight into the business. Hiller had his name removed from the film in what honestly has always smacked of a publicity stunt. No matter what his experience on the film, it was savaged, and deservedly so, and it always seemed to be such a weird misstep for Hiller that I wish it hadn”t happened.
I met him once, briefly, when he was testing Taking Care Of Business, which was still called Filofax at that point. That was the original name of the script by a young JJ Abrams and his co-writer Jill Mazursky. The theater that I managed was used almost non-stop by Disney for test screenings, so they came in with that film a few times. Hiller didn”t seem particularly flustered by any of it, and the screenings seemed to go okay. I watched a lot of filmmakers go through that process, and it produced some serious stress for many of them. But not Hiller. When I got a chance to speak with him, he was approachable and seemed game for a question about any of his work. That was my first summer in Los Angeles, and kindness made a big impression on me. Arthur Hiller seemed kind, and not just in person. It is in his work as well, and it is one of the things that will linger as people rediscover his films for decades to come.
Arthur Hiller was 92 years old.