Versatile film director Alan Parker dies, aged 76

Alan Parker directed a number of other well-regarded films, working in a range of styles and genres. PHOTO: REUTERS

LONDON (NYTIMES) - Alan Parker, who was nominated for the best-director Oscar for the 1978 film "Midnight Express" and again 10 years later for "Mississippi Burning," died Friday (July 31) in South London.

He was 76.

His death followed a long, unspecified illness, a spokesman for the British Film Institute said.

Parker directed a number of other well-regarded films, working in a range of styles and genres.

"Fame" (1980) was a musical about a performing arts high school in New York.

"Birdy" (1984) was based on a William Wharton novel about a boy who had an erotic fascination with avian life.

"Angel Heart" (1987) was a sexy noir that flirted with an X rating but ended up with an R.

"Angela's Ashes" (1999) was based on Frank McCourt's popular autobiography.

Music underpinned some of Parker's best-known work.

His first feature film was the gangster satire "Bugsy Malone" in 1976, in which adolescents played the gangsters and Paul Williams songs punctuated the action.

Two years after "Fame," he directed "Pink Floyd: The Wall," an imagery-filled story about a British rock star that was written by Roger Waters of the band Pink Floyd and based on the band's album of the same name.

In 1991 came "The Commitments," a lighthearted tale about a band in Dublin.

In 1996 he directed the film version of the stage musical "Evita," with Madonna in the role of Eva Peron.

Madonna, he told The Mirror in 1996, wasn't the easiest person to work with, but he found a way to get the best out of her.

"My secret was to let her moan to my assistants to get it out of her system so that by the time she stepped in front of the camera she was all complained out," he said.

The performance won her a Golden Globe.

Alan William Parker was born Feb 14, 1944, in the Islington district of London.

He started his career as a copywriter and then moved into making television commercials.

"The only way anybody would give me a chance to say 'Action!' and 'Cut!' was by doing commercials," he told The New York Times in 1980.

"That's how I learned the craft. I've done ridiculous things, like re-create - frame by frame - 'Brief Encounter' for Birds Eye Dinner for One."

That background, he said, gave him a certain disdain for the auteur theory of filmmaking, which holds that the director is the main creative force of a project.

In the early 1970s, with hundreds of commercials under his belt, he began moving into feature films, first as the screenwriter on a 1971 British movie, "Melody."

In 1974 he directed a BBC Television movie called "The Evacuees," about Jewish children being evacuated from London during the Blitz in World War II.

Soon, though, Parker was thoroughly identified with films about American subjects.

"Midnight Express," with a screenplay by Oliver Stone, is about an American college student who is thrown into a Turkish prison on a drug smuggling charge.

"Fame," about students at the High School of Performing Arts in New York, brought Parker some criticism in his home country, where, he said, people asked, "Why don't you make a film about London, about the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art?"

"The exciting thing about the High School of Performing Arts," he told The Times in 1980, "is that it has a social and ethnic mix that you couldn't possibly find anywhere in the world, especially not England."

"Mississippi Burning" is a fictionalised treatment of the real-life case involving the murder of three civil rights workers in Mississippi in 1964.

Vincent Canby, reviewing it in The Times in 1988, called it "one of the toughest, straightest, most effective fiction films yet made about bigotry and racial violence, whether in this country or anywhere else in the world."

Some of Parker's films generated controversy.

"Midnight Express" was accused of demonising Turkey and its people.

"Angel Heart" featured a steamy sex scene between Mickey Rourke and Lisa Bonet, who was then best known for her role as Denise Huxtable on the family-friendly sitcom "The Cosby Show."

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"Mississippi Burning," starring Gene Hackman and Willem Dafoe, was faulted for, among other things, not having strong Black characters even though it was a civil-rights-era story.

"Angela's Ashes" was criticised as misrepresenting Irish life.

"It would be nice to do a film that isn't controversial," Parker told The Chicago Tribune just before the relatively benign "The Commitments" was released, "although I'm sure someone is bound to find controversy in 'The Commitments.'"

Parker received a lifetime achievement award from the Directors Guild of Great Britain in 1998 and was knighted in 2002.

He is survived by his second wife, Lisa Moran-Parker; a son from their marriage, Henry; four children from his marriage to Annie Inglis, Lucy, Alexander, Jake and Nathan Parker; and seven grandchildren.

In a 2003 discussion organised by the British Film Institute in conjunction with the release of his final film, "The Life of David Gale," about a death-penalty opponent (Kevin Spacey) facing execution for murder, Parker talked about the intuition and serendipity that play a part in the director's art.

"It seems to me that a director's job is to look for wherever the magic may be in any scene," he said, "and sometimes it's not where you think."

"Sometimes the images in your head are better than what you end up with," he added.

"Sometimes they're nowhere near as good as what happens in front of you."

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