Saul Zaentz’s Oscar-gilded career makes the case for selectivity

I had a busy weekend, and in the rush of it, somehow missed the news that producer Saul Zaentz passed away at the age of 92. As well as being an accomplished producer and industry figure, Zaentz is a name familiar to seasoned Oscar-watchers, having won the Best Picture award on three occasions: for “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” (1975), “Amadeus” (1984) and “The English Patient” (1996).

No one has produced more winners of the Academy’s top honor. Zaentz shares the record with Golden Age legends Darryl F. Zanuck (“How Green Was My Valley,” “Gentleman’s Agreement,” “All About Eve”) and Sam Spiegel (“On the Waterfront,” “The Bridge on the River Kwai,” “Lawrence of Arabia”) — individual, autonomous mainstream producers of the type that, as avenues of production and finance splinter ever more in the modern era, are less likely to be industry (or indeed Academy) fixtures.

Like Zanuck and Spiegel, Zaentz was also further honored by the Academy with their honorary Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award — presented to him, in what one might term a case of gilding the lily, on the very night “The English Patient” won nine Oscars in March 1997. The non-annual award (it’s only been presented five times since) is, in the Academy’s words, reserved for “creative producers, whose bodies of work reflect a consistently high quality of motion picture production.”

Zaentz certainly fits the bill on the basis of his Best Picture wins alone, all of which hold up reasonably well to the cruel glare of 20/20 Oscar hindsight. “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” (which he co-produced with Michael Douglas) remains a beloved generational touchstone — and, I would argue, only the least adventurous option in the greatest Best Picture roster of all time. (It beat “Barry Lyndon,” “Nashville,” “Jaws” and “Dog Day Afternoon.”) “Amadeus” is widely regarded as a literate and artistic bright spot in the category’s most vanilla decade. “The English Patient” may still be the butt of Elaine Benes-originated jokes, but it’s a far more darkly poetic, structurally daring take on “classic” Hollywood romanticism than many choose to remember. (People forget, too, its significance as the flagbearer in what was dubbed the Oscars’ groundbreaking “Year of the Independents.”)

But the “consistent” part of the equation only really registered for me when I read the various Zaentz obituaries, and discovered that his filmography was even smaller and more selective than I had somehow believed. I knew Zaentz had a reputation for discernment, and that he had come to film production in middle age — having initially made his name in the music industry as the head of record label Fantasy Records. (Yes, the man who produced “Amadeus” was also responsible for signing Creedence Clearwater Revival.) Yet the economy and focus of his film career still surprises.

As it is, Zaentz has just 10 films to his name, beginning with the low-key country music drama “Payday” in 1972, and finishing with the 2005 quasi-biopic “Goya’s Ghosts” — his third film with director Milos Forman, who of course helmed those first two Best Picture winners. It’s not an unblemished CV, if we’re being honest: “Goya’s Ghosts,” for starters, was a turgid Europudding of a sign-off; 1991’s “At Play in the Fields of the Lord” an artsy all-star flop. Both, however, fall squarely into the “noble misfire” column, the former an attempt at tangling with ornate biographical fantasy — as “Amadeus” so successfully did — and the latter a three-hour adaptation of a dense theological novel that had widely been assigned the dread word “unfilmable.”

It’s clearly not a word Zaentz — an avid reader himself — believed in. People said much the same about “The English Patient,” but the producer pursued it purposefully — fending off studio suggestions to make it more palatably mainstream. (If they’d had their way, Demi Moore would have played Kristin Scott Thomas’s role, for starters.) And he dipped into the ‘difficult novel’ well twice in the 1980s, assisting (as executive producer) Peter Weir’s still-undervalued version of Paul Theroux’s “The Mosquito Coast,” and spearheading an entirely stunning (and suitably acclaimed) realization of Milan Kundera’s “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” two years later. (Philip Kaufman’s opalescent erotic drama may not have scored Zaentz on Oscar — nor even a nomination — but it might stand as the best film on his résumé.)

Meanwhile, years before Peter Jackson’s team gave it the bells-and-whistles treatment, Zaentz was the first producer to take on the beast that is J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings”: Ralph Bakshi’s 1978 animated adaptation was a vast, incomplete undertaking that may have met with mixed success (and was never followed with a sequel), but could hardly be challenged on grounds of ambition or sheer gumption.

Zaentz produced these films for the best reason one might create or enable anything: because he believed in them. Not one of his projects was churned out carelessly or disingenuously, targeting audiences or awards voters undiscriminating enough to fall for that. Outward commercial potential isn’t a distinguishing characteristic of his films, yet some of them — those Best Picture winners, for starters — made improbably large sums of money anyway. Zaentz didn’t work, in other words, on a “one for them, one for me” basis; when he was lucky, his passion projects pleased him and them alike.