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The Most Underrated Director of the 20th Century Is Now Largely Forgotten


The Most Underrated Director of the 20th Century Is Now Largely Forgotten


Summary

  • George Roy Hill, despite being criminally underrated, crafted timeless classics like
    Butch Cassidy
    and
    The Sting
    .
  • Hill’s ability to blend comedy and action helped launch stars like Robert Redford, showcasing his unique directorial talent.
  • Hill’s refusal to conform to Hollywood led to his eventual departure, but his legacy remains intact through his iconic films.



While many of the 20th Century’s most revered directors achieved their fame during the director-driven New Hollywood Era of the ’60s and ’70s, a few of that period’s greatest talents never achieved the same level of name recognition. Filmmakers like Arthur Penn and Hal Ashby didn’t become household names like the generation directly after them, nameably the ‘Movie Brats’ like Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, and George Lucas. The most criminally underrated director of that era, however, was George Roy Hill.

Hill grew up in an affluent Midwestern family, receiving a prestigious education at The Blake School and later Yale University, but his personal interests and the subjects of his films strayed far from his privileged pedigree. Hill’s most famous films, like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Sting, and Slap Shot, would be included in pretty much any Top-10 list of their respective genres. Yet, Hill is never mentioned in the same breath as other innovative contemporaries like Sidney Lumet and Stanley Kubrick.


While directors like Spielberg and Lucas rose to fame only shortly after Hill did, when the ’80s dawned, and the Movie Brats came to dominate Hollywood, Hill slowly faded into obscurity. In retrospect, however, Hill had an unmatched ability for star-making, a penchant for combining comedy and action like few directors ever have, and a life story that saw him witness history as a World War II and Korean War flyboy and later a daring hobby pilot.


Hill Shunned a Wealthy Upbringing to Fight in WWII


Hill was born to a wealthy Roman Catholic family of Irish background, who owned the Minneapolis Tribune and was educated at a private school, followed by graduate studies in music at Yale. Hill was an academic of the highest standard, presiding over the Yale Drama Club and a member of many of the Ivy League university’s most prestigious organizations. After Yale, Hill was swept into military service, becoming a transport pilot for the Marine Corps during World War II and seeing major action in the Pacific Theater. Hill was later recalled to service as a night fighter pilot during the Korean War, rising to the rank of major and again braving harrowing battles in the sky.

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Between the two wars, Hill studied drama in Dublin, building his chops in the theater as a stage actor. After Korea, he divided his time between writing and directing anthology TV series and directing plays on and off Broadway. Then came his breakthrough into cinema with the Jane Fonda film Period of Adjustment, which caught the rising young actress climbing the ladder of fame. But Hill was still experiencing growing pains as a Hollywood director, and three subsequent films underperformed critically and financially.

After Hitting Some Speed Bumps, Hill Found Success With Butch and Sundance

butch cassidy and the sundance kid

George Roy Hill hit his prime in the late-’60s, not by developing a signature style or genre, but by ranging between them – with successful musicals like Thoroughly Modern Millie, adapted dramas like Slaughterhouse-Five, and action films like The Great Waldo Pepper. Few directors of the period could move as effortlessly between genres, and Hill’s most famous film, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, released in 1969, combined action, comedy, and Western filmmaking into a movie that made Robert Redford an A-List star and returned Paul Newman to prominence.


With Butch, Hill was at the peak of his powers, utilizing 20th Century Fox’s enormous resources, a script from generation-defining screenwriter William Goldman, and music by the then-hugely-popular Burt Bacharach. The film became a smash hit, earning over $100 million (nearly $900 million adjusted for inflation). Hill was nominated for Best Director and the film for Best Picture but lost on both counts to the more controversial, X-rated film Midnight Cowboy.

After Becoming an Oscars Bridesmaid, Hill Won Big


Butch still managed to secure 4 Oscar wins, but Hill was known to shun publicity, and the hullaballoo around Midnight Cowboy proved irresistible to Academy voters. The Newman/Redford pairing was a bit like Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt joining forces in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Four years later, Hill would get his Oscar revenge by pairing the two superstar actors again in his lone heist film, The Sting.

After reinvigorating the entire Western genre with one fell swoop, Hill again moved into new territory in 1973 with The Sting. Hill, known for his stubbornness and military precision, had fought the studio to cast Newman and Redford in Butch rather than more popular actors like Steve McQueen and Warren Beatty. When that gamble paid off in spades, Universal again paired the Newman/Redford duo in The Sting – with Hill at the helm.

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While Butch was more audience-friendly and classically entertaining, The Sting crafted a more engaging plot set around a Depression Era caper. During the awards season, Hill got his comeuppance, winning the Academy Award for Best Picture and securing his first and only Best Director Oscar.

Hill Redefined Sports Comedy With Slap Shot

After his Oscars haul, Hill used his passion for flying to make another Redford film, The Great Waldo Pepper. Despite Hill’s expertise in aerial cinematography and Redford’s star power, the film couldn’t match the success of Hill’s prior two films starring the actor. Despite securing a handsome 5-year deal with Universal, the studios were beginning to wrest control back from directors. Never a fan of the studio system, Hill opted to go smaller, making a broad comedy, the minor league hockey movie Slap Shot.


Newman starred in the film as Reggie Dunlop, the aging captain of the Charlestown Chiefs, a team struggling to stay afloat as the town’s local steel mill is shut down. Hill placed his faith in a script by Nancy Dowd, a screenwriter who was often forced to use a nom de plume of the male variety just to get her scripts optioned in a male-dominant movie business. Hill crafted what is regarded by many film critics as one of the greatest sports comedies ever made, creating a Steel Belt universe of beer joints and sleazy motels where any escapist would be comfortable. Again, Hill renewed Newman’s career, as the actor was beginning to play his age and do more comedy.

After Commercially Lackluster Films, Hill Tired of Hollywood


Despite again using his deft touch to conjure a surprising hit film, Hill didn’t return to big-budget films, instead making another small comedy in 1982, The World According to Garp – based on the best-selling John Irving novel. Hill cast Robin Williams in the often-dramatic role, an enormous risk given William’s recent flop, Popeye, and the fact that the Mork and Mindy funnyman hadn’t yet acted in a film with dramatic beats. The film was somewhat profitable and secured John Lithgow an Oscar nom for his humanistic portrayal of the trans character, Roberta Muldoon – but critics didn’t understand it and thought it paled against Irving’s novel.

Hollywood was moving in a different direction, with studio-friendly directors like Lucas and Spielberg getting the first crack at the best scripts. George Roy Hill found himself the odd man out and didn’t help his commercial cause as a director who cared little about name recognition and rarely gave interviews. Hill would make only two more films, which, unfortunately, both disappointed.


Two Final Flops Saw Hill Kiss Hollywood Goodbye

The first, The Little Drummer Girl, showed his love of literature, history, and geopolitics by adapting a John le Carré novel. The Middle East drama bombed at the gate despite rave reviews from critics. Viewed today, the film seems incredibly prescient, especially through the prism of the present Israel-Hamas War, but at the time, it fell on deaf ears. Audiences had largely moved away from topical films in the ’80s. Hill’s last film, the Chevy Chase comedy Funny Farm, proved to be a lame duck, as well.


The director was disillusioned by the movie business and left Hollywood in the late ’80s to teach drama at his alma mater, Yale. He kept up his love of flying, purchasing a Waco biplane with an open cockpit to get his thrills, but never attempted to develop another film. After a battle with Parkinson’s Disease, Hill passed away in 2002. It’s hard to explain why he’s rarely mentioned among the great directors of the 20th Century, but when you consider his distaste for publicity and self-promotion, it makes more sense.

He could have sought a bigger career, but he was content with artistic integrity. Fittingly, he was once quoted as saying, “People watch luck go by them, and they’re blind – they never reach out and grab it.” Hill certainly did and likely wouldn’t care about his lack of acclaim were he alive today. Stream Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid on History Vault and rent The Sting on AppleTV.


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