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Festival's New Look at 1946 Powell Film
Wife says 'Matter of Life and Death'
was late British director's favorite
San Francisco Chronicle
Front page, Entertainment section
In 1980, when Martin Scorsese introduced her to Michael Powell, Thelma Schoonmaker Powell was married to her job - a workaholic film editor, never married, whose career cast a long shadow over her personal life.
Schoonmaker Powell was 40 that year, and Powell, and Powell, the British director of "The Red Shoes" and "Black Narcissus", was 75.
And yet, Schoonmaker Powell remembers, when Scorsese invited them both to dinner, "I fell in love with (Powell) immediately. He just sort of shocked me and stunned me with his intensity and commitment to life."
For the next 10 years, the Powells were inseperable. They married in 1983, lived for a time in a small cottage in Marin - near the front gates to San Quentin - and collaborated on Powell's two-volume autobiography: "A Life in Movies", which came out in 1987, and "Million Dollar Movie", which Random House publishes this month.
"Every minute of life with Michael was fascinating", Schoonmaker Powell said by phone from New York, where she is editing Scorsese's newest film "Casino". "From the minute he woke up in the morning until he went to sleep at night, that mind was just churning. He had a tremendous sense of humor, a deep understanding of love. It was heaven for 10 years."
Powell died in 1980, and his widow, who won an Oscar for editing Scorsese's "Raging Bull" (1980), has become the living symbol of her husband's legacy. It was Schoonmaker who pushed for the American publication of "Million Dollar Movie", and who, with the help of Scorsese and Hollywood superagent Mike Ovitz, persuaded Columbia Pictures to release Powell's 1946 film, "A Matter of Life and Death", for distribution.
"A Matter of Life and Death" plays at 6:30 p.m. tomorrow at the Castro Theater, where it is billed as a "centerpiece" of the San Francisco International Film Festival, and then continues through next Wednesday at the Castro. Both Schoonmaker Powell and actress Kim Hunter, 72, will appear at tomorrow night's screening.
A whimsical fantasy about love and mortality, "A Matter of Life and Death" (released as "Stairway to Heaven" in the United States) stars David Niven as a World War II British fighter pilot who crash-lands in the English Channel, falls in love with an American radio operator (Kim Hunter) and pleads for his life in a celestial court.
According to Schoonmaker Powell, "A Matter of Life and Death" was Powell's favourite of the films he made with longtime collaborator Emeric Pressburger. A huge hit at the time of its release, the film premiered Nov. 1, 1946 at the Empire Cinema in London, drawing a crowd of 50,000 to Leicester Square. It was Britain's first Royal Film performance.
IIt was a huge celebration", Schoonmaker Powell says. "The war was just over. Britain had been through a hellish time, and this sort of signaled the end of the war for people."
After "A Matter of Life and Death" Powell made severla more films with Pressburger - who co-wrote and co-produced, while Powell directed - and stayed active until 1960, when he made "Peeping Tom". A dark vision that used cinema as a metaphor for voyeurism and penetration, "Tom" was loathed by the critics and devastated Powell's career.
Powell worked sporadically for several years, but in the mid-'70s, when Scorsese located him during a trip to England, his films were largely forgotten, and he was unable to find work.
"It was a low point in his life", Schoonmaker Powell says. "Michael was living in a cottage in the country - very, very poor and quite forgotten. He had to heat the house with just the wood he could chop."
It was Scorsese, Schoonmaker Powell says, who gave her husband a second life. "He was so excited at meeting Powell and Pressburger that he ran back to America and said, 'I found them!' Michael was brought over to the Telluride Film Festival, and everybody started getting to know about these guys."
In short order, Francis Coppola invited Powell to work at American Zoetrope, his now-defunct Hollywood studio, as director emeritus and resident sage. Film critic and scholar David Thomson asked him to teach at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, and New York's Museum of Modern Art curated a major 1980 retrospective of the Powell/Pressburger canon.
"That opened people's eyes again", Schoonmaker Powell says. "And then all around the world people started doing retrospectives."
According to Thomson, who became a close friend of Powell's, "Thelma literally enabled Michael to live a few years longer. She certainly made his last years a lot happier than they ever could have been, because Michael needed a lot of looking after at the end.
"By the time he got a volume two [of the autobiography] his eye-sight was so bad that he would dictate it. Thelma would transcribe, and then go through it again with him as an editor."
In the end, Schoonmaker Powell accompanied her husband when his work was honored at film events around the world. "Michael was very lucky that he got to see so much of the resurrection of his work", she says. "For so many artists it can take 200 years for that kind of recognition".
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