Jake Liebowitz - A Life in Film by Frederic Raphael

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Jake Liebowitz: A Life in Film by Frederic Raphael (2013). Dir. Dirk Maggs. Perf. Eleanor Bron, William Hope, Nathan Osgood. BBC Radio 4, 14 Feb. 2014. BBCiPlayer

The great American film director Jake Liebowitz (William Hope) recently passed away. With the help of presenter/ producer Alexandra Crawley (Eleanor Bron), Dirk Maggs's production traced his colorful life with the help of extracts from some of his best films, plus reminiscences from those who knew him.

Such was the basic scenario of "A Life in Film." It was only as the action progressed that we realized that the whole play was a fiction, drawing on author Raphael's experiences of working in the movie industry in Britain and elsewhere. The subject-matter is highly reminiscent of Clifford Odets's "The Big Knife" (1949), portraying an industry full of shysters, the most obvious of whom is Liebowitz himself. The man is certainly no saint. He cheats on his wives almost as casually as drinking booze or making movies. Rather than responding sincerely to Alexandra's questions, he treats every encounter as an opportunity to try and get her into bed. Screenwriters are routinely treated like dirt: Liebowitz steals their work and pretends to "work" on it in pursuit of a screen credit.

The movie extracts are equally fictitious; as portrayed in a series of virtuoso characterizations by actors (including Nathan Osgood, Laurel Lefkow, William Roberts, Kevin Millington) doubling, even trebling roles, they suggest that, while Liebowitz likes to think of himself as an auteur, he is nothing more than a creator of pulp fictions, the kind of movies that continue rather than instigate new trends. In the old Hollywood of the studio period, he would be thought of as nothing more than a journeyman.

In the movie-crazy world created by the contemporary media, however, every work of his is celebrated for its so-called "artistic" qualities. In a wicked impersonation of presenter Joan Bakewell, Bron transforms Alexandra Crawley into a stage-struck groupie, recounting the preposterous plots of Liebowitz's movies for a credulous audience. She seems blissfully unaware of the director's true intentions during her interviews; and even if she were aware of them, she would probably excuse him on the grounds of his so-called "artistic temperament."

"A Life in Film" lacks the satiric bite of Odets's earlier work, but nonetheless makes some trenchant points about the cocoon-like world of movie-makers and the journalists who celebrate their work. An uncomfortable injection of life's realities might destroy their illusions forever.