Unsung Auteurs: Anthony Page

June 29, 2023
FilmInk salutes the work of directors who have never truly received the credit that they deserve. In this installment: Brit Anthony Page, who helmed I Never Promised You A Rose Garden and The Lady Vanishes.

Many would argue that to be a true cinematic auteur, you have to dedicate your life to film, to the exclusion of all other pursuits, which would somehow indicate a conflict of interests. The Unsung Auteurs column is heavily populated with film directors unduly celebrated because they did more high-profile work elsewhere, which is the unhappy space in which the little known (at least cinematically) Anthony Page resides. Born in 1935 in Bangalore, British India, Page worked on English television in the 1960s (on shows like Z Cars and Festival) before eventually going on to become a highly successful stage director in both the UK and US, where he enjoyed great acclaim on Broadway, winning a coveted Tony Award for Best Director for his 1997 production of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. Though best known for his stage work, Page also boasts a slew of television films and mini-series on his resume, as well as a small but impressive collection of feature films.

Anthony Page made his big screen debut with 1968’s Inadmissible Evidence, a tough, cogent adaptation of John Osborne’s highly successful play, which won a Tony Award for Best Play on Broadway. Page hues fairly closely to the source material, and makes another intelligent choice in tapping the play’s major performers, Nicol Williamson and Peter Sallis, to recreate their roles for the big screen. An emotionally complex and powerfully performed drama about a lawyer re-examining the shattered remnants of his life after a career filled with morally questionable behaviour, Inadmissible Evidence is a highly impressive first film, but remains largely forgotten today.

Anthony Page

Despite this powerful debut, Page spent much of the 1970s making television films, many of which (including 1974’s Alpha Beta with Albert Finney and Rachel Roberts; 1974’s The Missiles Of October, with William Devane, Martin Sheen and Ralph Bellamy; 1975’s F. Scott Fitzgerald In Hollywood, with Jason Miller and Tuesday Weld; 1976’s Collision Course: Truman Vs MacArthur, with Henry Fonda and E.G Marshall) were of an impeccably high standard, and the equal of much big screen material. In the late 1970s, however, Page returned to the cinema for a trio of strong, highly varied works.

An unlikely effort from famous exploitation producer Roger Corman (who was clearly influenced by the huge success of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest), 1977’s I Never Promised You A Rose Garden represented another strong work from Page, this time adapting a novel by Joanne Greenberg, who later disavowed the film. The author’s issues aside, the film boasts a highly sensitive screenplay from filmmaker-in-his-own-right Lewis John Carlino (The Great Santini) and Gavin Lambert, and Anthony Page mines it beautifully, telling the difficult story of a young woman diagnosed with schizophrenia (an extraordinary early performance from Kathleen Quinlan) who is placed in an institution and only begins to flourish when she is put under the care of a kindly doctor, winningly played by Bibi Andersson. Though the film received Golden Globe nominations for Best Film and Best Actress, and an Oscar nod for Best Screenplay, I Never Promised You A Rose Garden, like Page’s first film, now remains largely forgotten despite its many impressive qualities.

Richard Burton in Absolution.

Also largely forgotten is Page’s next film, 1978’s Absolution, an excellently unhinged little thriller penned by famed playwright and screenwriter Anthony Shaffer (Sleuth, Frenzy, The Wicker Man). Atmospheric, engagingly theatrical, and deeply unsettling, the film stars the towering Richard Burton as a priest at a Catholic boys’ school pushed to the brink of insanity by a creepy, arrogant, monstrously manipulative young student (a brilliant Dominic Guard) who first pranks the priest in the safety of the confessional with a tale of murder, and then actually does it, knocking off his hippy friend (played by, um, Billy Connolly!), and then eyeing off a fellow student as his next target. Strange and creepy in a way that only British horror thrillers of the 1970s could be (see also the somewhat similarly themed Unman, Wittering And Zigo by John Mackenzie), Absolution is a true forgotten gem, if a decidedly nasty little one.        

Also awash with paranoia and encroaching madness, Page’s 1978 thriller The Lady Vanishes is another fine but soundly under-celebrated work, likely due to the fact that Alfred Hitchcock had already adapted the source novel by Ethel Lina White back in 1938. Any remake of a work by the great master will likely suffer in comparison, and Page’s The Lady Vanishes suffered this fate, despite charming lead performances from the very 1970s duo of Cybill Shepherd and Elliott Gould (who play an odd couple thrown together on a train in post-WW2 Europe investigating the disappearance of a missing woman) and a fast moving, well-paced, involving story nicely orchestrated by Page.

Cybill Shepherd and Elliott Gould in The Lady Vanishes.

If The Lady Vanishes is now only really recalled as a 1970s oddity via its Hitchcock connection, then Page’s next film has been well and truly forgotten altogether. A deeply humanist story, 1984’s Forbidden stars Jacqueline Bisset and Jurgen Prochnow as a couple whose romance is truly put to the test when they are separated by the Nazis in WW2 Europe. Forbidden still stands as Anthony Page’s final feature film, but mention must be made of some of the director’s television films released before and after it. Though telemovies are now extremely difficult to source (especially legally), they represent (despite being so frequently maligned) an absolute treasure trove of storytelling, performance and directorial skill.

Anthony Page has directed some of the best works of this modest, horribly under-appreciated artform: 1981’s Bill (starring Mickey Rooney as a man with an intellectual disability befriended by Dennis Quaid and his wife Largo Woodruff); its 1983 sequel Bill: On His Own; the moving 1982 drama Johnny Belinda, starring Rosanna Arquette, Richard Thomas, Dennis Quaid and Candy Clarke; 1986’s Second Serve (a very early and then highly controversial look at transgender issues with Vanessa Redgrave); 1988’s Scandal In A Smalltown (in which Raquel Welch’s blowsy barmaid legally takes on racism and anti-Semitism in a small town); 1993’s Guests Of The Emperor (starring Gena Rowlands, Annabeth Gish and Chloe Webb as prisoners of the Japanese in Singapore during WW2); and 2008’s My Zinc Bed (a strong look at addiction penned by David Hare starring Uma Thurman, Jonathan Pryce and Paddy Considine).

A master of the stage, Anthony Page is also a compelling and criminally underrated feature filmmaker (with a particular interest in the frailty of the human condition, and how easily we can be pushed to the edge), and a true titan of the telemovie.

If you liked this story, check out our features on other unsung auteurs Julie Gavras, Ted PostSarah JacobsonAnton CorbijnGillian RobespierreBrandon CronenbergLaszlo NemesAyelat MenahemiIvan TorsAmanda King & Fabio CavadiniCathy HenkelColin HigginsPaul McGuiganRose BoschDan GilroyTanya WexlerClio BarnardRobert AldrichMaya ForbesSteven KastrissiosTalya LavieMichael RoweRebecca CremonaStephen HopkinsTony BillSarah GavronMartin DavidsonFran Rubel KuzuiElliot SilversteinLiz GarbusVictor FlemingBarbara PeetersRobert BentonLynn SheltonTom GriesRanda Haines,Leslie H. MartinsonNancy Kelly,Paul NewmanBrett HaleyLynne RamsayVernon ZimmermanLisa CholodenkoRobert GreenwaldPhyllida LloydMilton KatselasKaryn KusamaSeijun SuzukiAlbert PyunCherie NowlanSteve BinderJack CardiffAnne Fletcher,Bobcat GoldthwaitDonna DeitchFrank PiersonAnn TurnerJerry SchatzbergAntonia BirdJack SmightMarielle HellerJames GlickenhausEuzhan PalcyBill L. NortonLarysa KondrackiMel StuartNanette BursteinGeorge ArmitageMary LambertJames FoleyLewis John CarlinoDebra GranikTaylor SheridanLaurie CollyerJay RoachBarbara KoppleJohn D. HancockSara ColangeloMichael Lindsay-HoggJoyce ChopraMike NewellGina Prince-BythewoodJohn Lee HancockAllison AndersDaniel Petrie Sr.Katt SheaFrank PerryAmy Holden JonesStuart RosenbergPenelope SpheerisCharles B. PierceTamra DavisNorman TaurogJennifer LeePaul WendkosMarisa SilverJohn MackenzieIda LupinoJohn V. SotoMartha Coolidge, Peter HyamsTim Hunter, Stephanie RothmanBetty ThomasJohn FlynnLizzie BordenLionel JeffriesLexi AlexanderAlkinos TsilimidosStewart RaffillLamont JohnsonMaggie Greenwald and Tamara Jenkins.