Established in feature films since the mid-80s, Stephen Frears has enjoyed a successful, if uneven, career in both Britain and Hollywood. After a tentative start in films, Frears rose to prominence on British television with a series of well-observed state-of-the-nation dramas. More concerned with character and narrative than visual flourishes, Frears gives due credit to writers, enjoying fruitful collaborations with Hanif Kureishi, Alan Bennett and Christopher Hampton. His most notable films deal with outsiders on the margins of society, exhibiting insight and compassion rather than easy sentiment. Since the American-financed Dangerous Liaisons (1988), Frears has alternated personal projects, usually shot in Britain, with bigger budget studio assignments.
Stephen Frears was born on 20 June 1941 in Leicester. Educated at Gresham's School, Norfolk, he studied law at Trinity College, Cambridge between 1960 and 1963. In 1964, Frears joined the Royal Court Theatre, where he worked with directors Lindsay Anderson and Karel Reisz and actor Albert Finney. Reisz employed Frears as an assistant director on the film Morgan - A Suitable Case for Treatment (d. Karel Reisz, 1966).
Frears also worked in this capacity on Charlie Bubbles (d. Albert Finney, 1968) and If... (d. Lindsay Anderson,1968), both of which were made for Finney's own production company, Memorial Enterprises. Memorial part-financed Frears' directorial debut, The Burning (1967), a short political fable filmed in Morocco. Frears also worked regularly in British television, directing St Ann's (1969), a documentary about a slum district of Nottingham (the birthplace of Alma Reville) and episodes of Parkin's Patch (ITV, 1969-70) and Tom Grattan's War (ITV, 1968-70).
Frears made his feature film debut in 1971 with Gumshoe, a Memorial production starring Albert Finney as a Liverpool bingo caller who dreams of being a Bogart-style private eye. The film was only a modest success and Frears returned to television, working on the BBC's Play for Today and Play of the Week slots, collaborating with Alan Bennett on plays such as A Day Out (1972) and Me! I'm Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1978).
At the start of the 1980s, Frears directed three bigger budgeted television films: Bloody Kids (1980), co-written by Stephen Poliakoff, is a spirited attack on Thatcher's Britain, its juvenile leads caught up in adult incompetence and social breakdown; Walter (1982), the first Film on Four and its sequel, Walter & June (combined into Loving Walter for release in the US); and Saigon: Year of the Cat (1983), David Hare's drama set during the American evacuation of Saigon.
Despite his small screen success, Frears regarded television as primarily a writer's medium. He returned to feature films in 1984 with The Hit, an offbeat thriller made for £1.2 million. The script was written by Peter Prince, who had collaborated with Frears on four television plays. The Hit centres on a supergrass, exiled to Spain, who accepts his inevitable 'execution' with apparent good grace. Well acted by Terence Stamp, John Hurt and Tim Roth, the film benefits from its dark humour and sustained tension, though the narrative development is weak. Well reviewed, by and large, The Hit made little impact at the box-office and looked like a one-off return to the cinema for its director.
Frears achieved his career breakthrough the following year with My Beautiful Laundrette, a Channel Four production shot on 16mm for £600,000. Scripted by Hanif Kureishi, the film tackles racism, sexuality and Thatcherism in a provocative and entertaining fashion. Intended for television, My Beautiful Laundrette was given an international theatrical release, proving a critical and commercial success.
Now in demand, Frears reunited with Alan Bennett for Prick Up Your Ears (1987), a long-standing personal project. A biopic of playwright Joe Orton, the film features strong performances from Gary Oldman and Alfred Molina, and a candid depiction of Britain's gay subculture in the 1950s and '60s. It was generally well-received, though some critics found the modern-day framing narrative distracting, and claimed the film had little to say about Orton's artistic achievements. Sammy and Rosie Get Laid (1987) attempted to duplicate the success, and controversy, of My Beautiful Laundrette. Despite the best efforts of Frears and Hanif Kureishi, the film's examination of social and sexual mores lacks clarity and conviction, as does its depiction of culture clash in a riot-torn Britain.
Frears made his Hollywood debut with Dangerous Liaisons (US, 1988), scripted by Christopher Hampton, which he followed with The Grifters (US, 1990), produced by Martin Scorsese. Generally regarded as Frears' best American film, the latter earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Director.
After the disappointing Hero/Accidental Hero (US, 1992), Frears returned to Britain to make The Snapper (1993), a made for television BBC production based on the book by Roddy Doyle. Focusing on a teenage pregnancy, the film offers a convincing, whimsy-free portrait of working class life in Ireland. Following Mary Reilly (US, 1996), another expensive American flop, Frears reverted to Doyle country with The Van (1996), made for BBC Films and given a theatrical release. Second time out, Frears seemed overanxious to maintain the feel-good factor, in a tale of unemployment, fast food and World Cup fever.
Frears restored his Hollywood standing with The Hi-Lo Country (US, 1998) and High Fidelity (US, 2000). For Liam (2000), a British-Italian-German co-production, Frears collaborated with respected television writer Jimmy McGovern. Set in Depression-era Liverpool, the film deals with poverty, racism and religious bigotry, as seen through the eyes of a small boy.
Dirty Pretty Things (2002), Frears's latest film, centres on a group of immigrants, some illegal, living in London. Frears had already dealt with the plight of political refugees in the television play Cold Harbour (Thames, 1978), scripted by Peter Prince. In Dirty Pretty Things, made for BBC Films, the carefully delineated relationship between the two main characters is underpinned by a sense of daily routine and an audience-friendly thriller element. Fortunately for the British film industry, Frears shows no signs of wanting to migrate to Hollywood.
Barr, Charles and Frears, Stephen, Typically British (London: BFI, 1995)
Channel 4, Typically British: A Personal History of British Cinema by Stephen Frears, 1995 (television documentary)
Hacker, Jonathan and David Price, Take 10: Contemporary British Film Directors (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991)
Kureishi, Hanif, Sammy and Rosie Get Laid (London: Penguin, 1988)
Daniel O'Brien, Reference Guide to British and Irish Film Directors