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New book looks at career of director Avildsen

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The Films of John G. Avildsen

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The Films of John G. Avildsen by Larry Powell and Tom Garrett is a fascinating, informative look at one of American cinema's most interesting directors. Avildsen''s best films concentrate on underdogs and outcasts, people who either strive to succeed within the confines of their immediate world, or who are stepping back and having trouble understanding their surroundings.

The most attention is given Avildsen's strongest, most timeless work, including the powerful "Joe" (1969); a seminal work filmed on a very low budget. Peter Boyle is cast completely against type as a hard-nosed right-wing zealot whose complete inability to comprehend the progressiveness of the prevailing culture at any level becomes personal when a friend's daughter (Susan Sarandon, in her feature film debut) becomes a hippie runaway. Boyle was a liberal in real life (John Lennon would be best man at his 1977 wedding), but understood the title character well. Paid only $3000 for four weeks work in a film he felt few would likely see, Boyle held nothing back, and Joe's racism and zealotry propel the narrative to a violent and unhappy conclusion. This low budget movie became a sensation, remains one of the most effective independent films of its era, and earned fledgling screenwriter Norman Wexler and Oscar nomination.

While the character of Joe was supposed to be a World War Two vet in his mid forties, Peter Boyle was only in his 30s at the time of filming. While Boyle was quite effective, Avildsen chose 48 year old Jack Lemmon for "Save The Tiger" (1973), offering another perspective of the same age group. Lemmon is a businessman forced to engage in unscrupulous activity, and his disillusionment with the modern era is borne from his nostalgia for an era gone by. Marvin Hamlisch's use of Bunny Berigan's mourning "I Can't Get Started" on the soundtrack to punctuate the narrative is highly effective, while Avildsen's direction allowed Lemmon to essay the character unlike any other he'd played before. It resulted in an Oscar for Lemmon, who took the role due to having been impressed with "Joe."

Perhaps Avildsen's most noted features are "Rocky" and "The Karate Kid," both exhibiting different aspects of the underdog who triumphs in the end; something of a departure from the tragic characters of Joe and Harry Stoner (Lemmon) in "Save The Tiger."

The book recounts other Avildsen films, both good and bad, including the sequels to "Karate Kid" and "Rocky" that he helmed, showing that his artistic vision was sometimes thwarted by circumstances, while other times his ideas resulted in some strong movies that might not have achieved the same recognition as the aforementioned works. Avildsen's dealings with Brando on "The Formula" make for quite an interesting chapter.

The book offers a great deal of information about the process of Avildsen's creative vision as a director and recounts the making of his films with clarity and an interesting writing style. Recommended.

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