Unsung Auteurs: Robert Greenwald

August 11, 2022
FilmInk salutes the work of directors who have never truly received the credit that they deserve. In this installment: unlikely Xanadu helmer turned political documentary filmmaker Robert Greenwald.

The sad, sad passing of Australian stage and screen icon Olivia Newton-John got us looking back over the superstar’s widely varied film career (check out our story “Olivia Newton-John: An Aussie Legend On Screen”), which of course led us to 1980’s Xanadu, the musical that ONJ made after the extraordinary success of 1978’s wonderful throwback rock’n’roll extravaganza Grease. The big budget Xanadu was far, far (far, far) less successful than Grease, but it’s an utterly fascinating film: a roller-skating musical with cracking tunes by ELO (and ONJ with ELO) drawn out of Greek myth and featuring a supporting turn from screen great Gene Kelly and a stoic leading man in Michael Beck, hot off the ultra-violent 1979 gang warfare masterpiece The Warriors. This then got us wondering…who would direct a truly original and enjoyably unusual musical like Xanadu? Did this director have other wondrous curios like this on his resume? Um, no…but Robert Greenwald has certainly made some interesting movies.

Robert Greenwald was born in New York City in 1945, the son of prominent psychotherapist Harold Greenwald, and the nephew of choreographer Michael Kidd, whose career path he more closely followed. Greenberg attended New York’s famous High School of Performing Arts, and then started his directing career in the theatre, eventually moving onto a host of high profile projects. While still working in the theatre, Greenwald moved into producing and directing projects for television, through the creation of two production companies in Moonlight Productions and Robert Greenwald Productions, both of which tapped into the major US networks’ hunger for made-for-TV “movie of the week”-type content.

Robert Greenwald on set.

After producing a large batch of TV movies and directing three himself (1977’s Sharon: Portrait Of A Mistress, 1978’s Katie: Portrait Of A Centrefold and 1979’s Flatbed Annie & Sweetiepie: Lady Truckers), the initial forty-page treatment for Xanadu somehow came to Robert Greenwald, who has stated he’s still not sure how it ended up with him. He’d directed no musicals (though he loved them) and his TV output didn’t seem to qualify him for the job. “When I got the 40 pages, I thought, well, this is strange,” Greenwald told The LA Weekly many years later. “Maybe there’s a plan here that I’m not aware of. Maybe there’s another version of the script someplace; for sure the script will be improved. Unfortunately that never happened.”

Despite the rather unedifying kick-off to the production, Greenwald signed on because he couldn’t resist the opportunity to direct a musical. He delivered a great showcase for Olivia Newton-John’s prodigious gifts as a singer and performer, and created a truly bizarre musical that still astounds with some of its creative decisions and stylistic flourishes. The roller-skating musical sequence finale is truly amazing, to say the very least. The film, however, tanked at the box office and saw nothing short of hell visited upon it by critics. Though he would never make another musical, Greenwald told The LA Times in 2002 that he made Xanadu at “a time in my own life when retreating into a fantasy world was a highly desirable and necessary thing for me.”

Olivia Newton-John, Gene Kelly, Michael Beck in Xanadu.

Xanadu is a true anomaly on Robert Greenwald’s resume: he had never made a film like it, and would never make another like it again. Rather than musicals, Greenwald was far more concerned with gritty, socially motivated subject matter, which he put front and centre in his film and TV work. He directed powerful TV movies about juvenile incarceration (the riveting Martin Sheen-Emilio Estevez 1982 drama In The Custody Of Strangers), alcoholism (1986’s Martin Sheen starrer Shattered Spirits) and clinical depression (1987’s On Fire with John Forsythe). Greenwald also directed the seminal 1984 Farrah Fawcett-starring TV drama The Burning Bed, an epochal piece about domestic violence that opened up wide debate about the issue.

While continuing to produce a huge array of television films (most showcasing socially driven subject matter), Greenwald also directed a few feature films, with 1988’s Sweet Hearts Dance (a solid relationship drama with Don Johnson, Susan Sarandon, Jeff Daniels and Elizabeth Perkins), 1993’s Hear No Evil (a taut thriller with Marlee Matlin) and 1997’s Breaking Up (starring Russell Crowe and Salma Hayek as a heated on-again, off-again couple). Greenwald’s career took a major, well, left turn, however, with his wonderfully playful 2000 drama Steal This Movie, which starred Vincent D’Onofrio as notorious leftist radical and infamous misbehaver Abbie Hoffman.

Vincent D’Onofrio and Janeane Garofalo in Steal This Movie.

A highly entertaining and well-structured look at this inventive political troublemaker, Steal This Movie, along with the tragic events of 9/11, inspired a major change in Robert Greenwald. Though always strongly invested in the fore-fronting of social issues through his work on television, Greenwald took his concerns in a considerably more left-focused direction with the creation of his production company Brave New Films, the purpose of which was to produce feature-length documentaries and investigative videos that seek “to educate, influence and empower viewers to take action around issues that matter.”

Beginning with his utterly compelling (and now seminal) 2004 documentary Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War On Journalism, Greenwald has become an uncompromising cinematic voice often loudly raised and organised against the right wing conservative  power structures that dominate the conversation in the US and around the world. In a stunning career turnaround, Robert Greenwald is now a highly committed and highly prolific activist filmmaker and producer.

Robert Greenwald on set.

Just a quick scan through the titles of Robert Greenwald’s post-Outfoxed documentaries highlight a true cinematic auteur making films with a very distinct sense of style and subject matter: Uncovered: The War On Iraq, Wal-Mart: The High Cost Of Low Price, Iraq For Sale: The War Profiteers, War On Whistleblowers: Free Press And The National Security State, Unmanned: America’s Drone Wars, Making A Killing: Guns, Greed, And The NRA, and several more. As well as these directorial efforts, Greenwald has also supported and promoted the work of other leftist activist filmmakers through Brave New Films as a producer and executive producer.

Via internet distribution channels, the director of Xanadu has now become a vital cinematic voice from the left, and a true auteur documentarian. “I do think that we are facing a crisis in our democracy,” Robert Greenwald has said. “As true patriots, each and every one of us has to speak up, speak out, and change those in charge. Our democracy depends upon it. What I always try to do is make the political personal.”

If you liked this story, check out our features on other unsung auteurs Phyllida Lloyd, Milton KatselasKaryn KusamaSeijun SuzukiAlbert PyunCherie NowlanSteve BinderJack CardiffAnne FletcherBobcat 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.



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