The world has lost a brilliant filmmaker, historian, and champion, and I have lost a cherished friend, Bertrand Tavernier. He died at age 79, which is too young for a man I hoped would live forever. I admired such films as The Clockmaker, Coup de Torchon, and A Sunday in the Country long before we met.
In 1994 he sent me a long letter via fax. It was jam-packed with news about his latest films and books. He was familiar with my Movie Guide and said, “Thank you for your comments on my movies. I agree with the restrictions [and] criticisms on Daddy Nostalgia. I missed [on] that film. But I think you are too severe for Life and Nothing But, one of the films I am most proud of. It got not only many awards but a beautiful letter by Joe Mankiewicz saying it was one of the deepest, of the most intelligent screenplay[s] he saw in the last ten years.” I appreciated his equanimity, which isn’t always the case when directors read less-than-laudatory reviews.
As a jazz fan I especially liked Round Midnight, a wonderful view of jazz life starring veteran saxophonist Dexter Gordon, who earned an Academy Award nomination as Best Actor for his first-ever acting gig. Bertrand wrote, “Did you know that Dexter Gordon got…a message from Brando telling that for the first time in the last years he (Brando) felt that he learnt something about acting. Dexter added, after phoning me the news, ‘and now who needs an Oscar?’ ”
Having worked as a publicist for American directors visiting Paris years ago, he conducted many interviews and applied what he learned to the two-volume opus he wrote with Jean-Pierre Coursodon, Fifty Years of American Cinema and Amis Americains. He asked why my Guide didn’t indicate well-known instances where someone worked without credit. I explained that I’d be opening a Pandora’s Box that too often relied on hearsay evidence.
“You are right,” he replied,” but some facts have been double-checked and are now totally sure: that Abraham Polonsky co-wrote Odds Against Tomorrow, that [Dalton] Trumbo is the writer of Cowboy, that most of the credits of Philip Yordan are dubious. Everything which I printed in my book was verified, double-checked by some American critics like Pat McGilligan or by people working on the film. For instance, Joe Mankiewicz is the main writer (the only one, according to the producer Sol Siegel) on House of Strangers, that the dialogue of Five Fingers was written by him. It sounds very Mankiewicz anyway. Burt Lancaster confirmed [for] me that most of Ten Tall Men was directed by Robert Parrish who transformed a serious script [into] a tongue-in-cheek comedy. He got a special credit from Harry Cohn for it.”
He also turned me on to reading novels that were adapted for the screen—often badly. “Have you ever seen Bugles in the Afternoon?” he asked one day. I said I had and thought it was mediocre. He agreed, but then sang the praises of the book and its author, Ernest Haycox, while encouraging me to also seek out the author’s Canyon Passage. I did as I was told and learned to rely on Bertrand’s selections. I now proselytize Haycox’s work to anyone who will listen. He is not just a great Western writer; he is a great writer, period. (Ernest Hemingway was also a fan.)
He loved making movies and even got to work with his son and daughter on films that drew on their life experiences. Many of his later movies were barely shown in the U.S., but I liked every one I saw, even the flawed feature he disowned, In the Electric Mist, his first American-made feature. He tried to work on films that fired his enthusiasm, like L.627, a gritty, satiric look at a police drug-busting unit in Paris, and Safe Conduct, a passion project about filmmaking during the French Occupation based on real-life stories he had gathered from veterans of the period. Even when he agreed to take the reins on a purely commercial film like Revenge of the Musketeers he made changes to the screenplay and cast his son Nils in a supporting role. It gave him a chance to work with the beautiful French star Sophie Marceau and his favorite actor, Philippe Noiret, who appeared in Bertrand’s debut film.
I will be forever grateful that the Telluride Film Festival lured him to America on so many occasions. We rarely sat down together but squeezed our conversations into the hustle and bustle of a hectic weekend. Imagine how proud I was when he agreed to come on stage at the Opera House to present me with the festival’s Silver Medallion in 2002.
The last time I saw Bertrand was on a trip to Los Angeles in 2017 with his wife Sarah. Because she and my wife were there we spoke of things other than movies for once and enjoyed each other’s company. Sarah expressed a desire to move to California and Bertrand was hoping to land a teaching position here. Despite his many supporters it never came to pass. I did bring him to my class with Holy Lola, the story of a couple trying to adopt a child from Cambodia that he wrote with his daughter Tiffany, based on her own experience. He spoke of the filmmaking process with unalloyed enthusiasm. That’s the way he was. Anyone who came into his orbit valued the opportunity to sit at his feet and let him expound on whatever subject came to mind.
His final project, Journeys Through French Cinema, has just been released on Blu-ray by Cohen Media Group. When I saw the three-hour-plus version of this early on a Sunday morning in Telluride I worried that I might doze. This highly personal documentary had the opposite effect, and not just on me. I was seated next to Ken Burns and when it was over we said, in unison, “More!” I now look forward to watching all nine episodes of the miniseries, because it will be like spending quality time with Bertrand. My family and I feel blessed to have known him.