Studied at the University Chicago. Student, Harvard University Law School.
He does have to be an American filmmaker. The sharpest moment in that life of hope was The Right Stuff, his best film and the most painful commercial failure. That adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s book draws on two of Phil s great strengths, even if it discovered a conflict between them: he is romantic about American heroes, and thus he loved Sam Shepards presence as a Gary Cooper-like Yeager, as phlegmatic and unaffected as chewing gum at Mach 1. But Kaufman has an ironic cast of mind and a wary, critical (if not satirical) view of American pomp, cant, and circumstance. And so in The Right Sttiff he reveled in the hvpe and crazy self-deception of the Moon program. He made a movie that was classical and subversive at the same time.
It remains a model for anyone who cares to look at it, a bold, dangerous, and uncategorizable picture (maybe the last movie of the heroic 1970s). Kaufman’s script was publishable—he had wanted to be a novelist once. His delight in gangs of good actors was proven in what is a monument to supporting players. The picture was comic and inspiring; it was as if someone had managed to make a mix of Preston Sturges, Capra, and Anthony Mann. The Right Stuff got flying, the sky, the desert, flimflam, team spirit, cartoon, and an Ivesian noise or tumult. Moreover, Phil managed to film great chunks of it in disguised and ingeniously reinvented parts of the Bay Area.
The film failed. Audiences didn’t quite want it. The project’s original writer, William Goldman, made an interesting case for commercial confusion in Kaufman’s approach (Goldman dropped out after they attempted collaboration) as the Yeager spirit battled the NASA ale-and- quail club. This is possible, yet it may only be a way of defining Kaufman’s originality. As time passes, only the achievement survives.
But the box-office failure urged Kaufman into trying to make American European films. He seemed to agree with the numbers: he must be too intelligent, too artistic, too much the outsider. So Paris became his setting for much of two films, the adaptation of Milan Kundera and Anai's Nin.
The Unbearable Lightness did not, could not, convey Kundera’s spiral of thought or expression. It also refashioned his hero and, in Daniel Day- Lewis, found an actor too young, too pretty. The weary fatalism of the book was sacrificed. But in its place Kaufman did justice to Prague of 1968, to the politics, and to the women. It was a far better study of sex, love, and jealousy than Henry Lr June would prove, and it drew a brilliant performance from Lena Olin and a great one from Juliette Binoche.
Henry & June had to live under the spurious clamor of being the first NC-17 film. In addition, it showed how hard it is for anyone to like Nin as much as she liked herself . And as she became a pain in the neck, so it was easier to see that Henry Miller was monotonous and self-centered. The film is arty and showy, and too obviously the work of an American infatuated with bohemianism.
Commercially, the two films were failures, and Kaufman sought return to the mainstream with Rising Sun. For while Kaufman is plainly open to Europe and the whole world in ways not common in Hollywood (his family lived in Europe in the earlv sixties), his strength may be in seeing the outside through American eyes. After all, in his early pictures, Kaufman was often intent on Americana: the James gang; the frozen north as experienced by a variety of Americans; empty bodies in San Francisco.
Rising Sun was probably too deft, too wry, and quick, to be a big hit. In the end, it was just a police story shadowboxing with the question of Japanese character and intent. Sean Connerv’s hero was a little too independent to be true, and finally the picture lacked pain or shock.
Still. Kaufman is an outsider in several ways, friendly but a stubborn loner, too. He was fired from the Outlaiv Josey Wales (76, Clint East- wood)—which he wrote—because of an impasse with Eastwood. He remains attached to wry heroes: he did write the story for Raiders of the Lost Ark (81, Steven Spielberg). He is a director equipped to handle large American subjects— the life of Nixon. He has a better than ordinary grasp of America's need for rogue tricksters—and of their longing to be treated as good guys.
No one regretted the seven-year wait before Quills more than Kaufman. There had been many projects, but nothing to reach fruition. And Quills was a low-budget picture, set in France but shot in England, that left one marveling at Kaufmans wit and skill. This is a man who ought to be making a couple ot pictures a year. But Quills had no paper to write on—its rare mixture ol tenderness and cruelty, black comedy and the erotic, liberty and censorship, found few viewers because it seemed too hard for the mainstream to identify with Sade (despite Geoffrey Rush’s passionate commitment to it).
Member Directors Guild American, Writers Guild American.
Phil Kaufman has sometimes been described as a “maverick” filmmaker, someone who has deliberately set himself apart from the Hollywood stream. Phil has striven to keep his base in the Bay Area, without ever becoming an identified part of the Lucas or Coppola groups. Wherever he has filmed, he brings his movies back here for postproduction. When he prepares, he works closely with his wife, Bose (cowriter on The Wanderers and Henry ir June), and his son, Peter (who has produced Rising Sun). And while he has eschewed Los Angeles, he has built his allure as a top director in that city. That is more than steadfast northern Californian; it is downright adroit.
Married Rose Kaufman.