Harold Becker: “It’s a strange thing to say, but during an audition, you know if it works the moment you hear it”

“City Hall” (1996) starring Al Pacino, John Cusack and Bridget Fonda was one of the best crime-drama films made in the 1990s. Directed by Harold Becker, he came to prominence with films as “The Onion Field” (1979) and “Sea of Love” (1989)—the latter also with Pacino. Mr. Becker is best known for his work as an actor’s director in the thriller genre, and for introducing and establishing young talented actors such as James Woods, Ted Danson, Sean Penn and Tom Cruise in some of their early films.

Harold Becker during the Q&A at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica. Photograph: © Film Talk Archive

Mr. Becker’s films never let you down: he always works with great screenwriters, cinematographers and editors, and he knows how to get the best performances out of his actors. When he and Al Pacino attended a screening of “City Hall” at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica, California, only recently, for a panel discussion followed by a Q&A, he was asked what he was looking for when an actor comes to an audition: “It’s a strange thing to say, but during an audition you only know if it works the moment you hear it.”

With a screen icon such as Al Pacino sitting next to him on the Aero Theatre stage, the audience was pretty starstruck so most of the questions were addressed to him, almost forgetting that Mr. Becker, an awesome 90-year-old filmmaker and one of the best of his generation, was up there as well.

Announcing the screening of “City Hall” with filmmaker Harold Becker and Al Pacino in person. Photograph: © Film Talk Archive

On top of that, Mr. Becker’s audio (microphone) didn’t pick up everything he said too clearly. What a pity that was—a loss for what would have been a most perfect encounter with two incredibly talented movie people.

Fortunately, Mr. Becker’s films are out there to tell his stories as only he can. Just watch any of them and you’ll see why. And if I need to pick out one just out of the blue, I’d go with “The Onion Field,” an intriguing, compelling and gripping movie based on a heart-wrenching true story.

Santa Monica, California
March 27, 2019

FILMS

THE RAGMAN’S DAUGHTER (1972) DIR Harold Becker PROD Harold Becker, Souter Harris SCR Alan Sillitoe CAM Michael Seresin ED Anthony Gibbs MUS Kenny Clayton CAST Simon Rouse, Victoria Tennant, Patrick O’Connell, Jane Wood, leslie Sands, Rita Howard, Brenda Peters, Brian Murphy

THE ONION FIELD (1979) DIR Harold Becker PROD Walter Coblenz SCR Joseph Wambaugh (also novel) CAM Charles Rosher Jr. ED John W. Wheeler, Thomas Stanford MUS Eumir Deodato CAST John Savage, James Woods, Franklyn Seales, Ted Danson, Ronny Cox, David Huffman, Christopher Lloyd, Dianne Hull, Priscilla Pointer

THE BLACK MARBLE (1980) DIR Harold Becker PROD Frank Capra Jr. SCR Joseph Wambaugh (also novel) CAM Owen Roizman ED Maury Winetrobe MUS Maurice Jarre CAST Robert Foxworth, Paula Prentiss, Harry Dean Stanton, Barbara Babcock, John Hancock, Judy Landers, Pat Corley, Anne Ramsey, Christopher Lloyd, James Woods

TAPS (1981) DIR Harold Becker PROD Stanley R. Jaffe, Howard B. Jaffe SCR Darryl Ponicsan, Robert Mark Kamen (novel by Devery Freeman; adaptation by James Lineberger) CAM Owen Roizman ED Maury Winetrobe MUS Maurice Jarre CAST George C. Scott, Timothy Hutton, Tom Cruise, Sean Penn, Ronny Cox, Brendan Ward, Evan Handler, John P. Navin Jr., Billy Van Zandt, Giancarlo Esposito

VISION QUEST (1985) DIR Harold Becker PROD Peter Guber, Jon Peters SCR Darryl Ponicsan (novel by Terry Davis) CAM Owen Roizman ED Maury Winetrobe MUS Tangerine Dream CAST Matthew Modine, Linda Fiorentino, Michael Schoeffling, Ronny Cox, Harold Sylvester, Charles Hallahan, J.C. Quinn, Daphne Zugina, R.H. Thomson, Forest Whitaker, Madonna

BIG TOWN (1987) DIR Ben Bolt, Harold Becker [uncredited] PROD Martin Ransohoff SCR Robert Roy Pool (novel by Clark Howard) CAM Ralf D. Bode ED Stuart H. Pappé MUS Michael Melvoin CAST Matt Dillon, Diane Lane, Tommy Lee Jones, Bruce Dern, Lee Grant, Tom Skerritt, Suzy Amis, David Marshall Grant, Lolita Davidovich

THE BOOST (1988) DIR Harold Becker PROD Daniel H. Blatt EXEC PROD Harold Becker, John Daly, Julia Phillips, Darryl Ponicsan, Derek Gibson SCR Darryl Ponicsan (book by Ben Stein) CAM Howard Atherton ED Maury Winetrobe MUS Stanley Myers CAST James Woods, Sean Young, John Kapelos, Steven Hill, Kelle Kerr, John Rothman, Amanda Blake, Grace Zabriskie

SEA OF LOVE (1989) DIR Harold Becker PROD Martin Bregman, Louis A. Stroller SCR Richard Price CAM Ronnie Taylor ED David Bretherton MUS Trevor Jones CAST Al Pacino, Ellen Barkin, John Goodman, Michael Rooker, William Hickey, Richard Jenkins, Paul Calderon, Gene Canfield, Samuel L. Jackson

MALICE (1993) DIR Harold Becker PROD Harold Becker, Charles Mulvehill, Rachel Pferrer SCR Aaron Sorkin, Scott Frank (story by Aaron Sorkin, Jonas McCord) CAM Gordon Willis ED David Bretherton MUS Jerry Goldsmith CAST Alec Baldwin, Nicole Kidman, Bill Pullman, Bebe Neuwrith, George C. Scott, Anne Bancroft, Peter Gallagher, Josef Sommer, Tobin Bell, Gwyneth Paltrow

CITY HALL (1996) DIR Harold Becker PROD Harold Becker, Ken Lipper, Edward R. Pressman, Charles Mulvehill SCR Paul Schrader, Ken Lipper, Bo Goldman, Nicholas Pileggi CAM Michael Seresin ED David Bretherton, Robert C. Jones MUS Jerry Goldsmith CAST Al Pacino, John Cusack, Bridget Fonda, Danny Aiello, Martin Landau, David Paymer, Anthony Franciosa, Richard Schiff

MERCURY RISING (1998) DIR Harold Becker PROD Brian Grazer SCR Mark Rosenthal, Lawrence Konner (novel by Ryne Douglas Pearson) CAM Michael Seresin ED Peter Honess MUS John Barry CAST Bruce Willis, Alec Baldwin, Miko Hughes, Chi McBride, Kim Dickens, Robert Stanton, Bodhi Elfman, Carrie Preston

DOMESTIC DISTURBANCE (2001) DIR Harold Becker PROD Harold Becker, Donald De Line, Jonathan D. Krane SCR Lewis Colick (story by Lewis Colick, Gary Drucker, William S. Comanor) CAM Michael Seresin ED Peter Honess MUS Mark Mancina CAST John Travolta, Vince Vaughn, Teri Polo, Steve Buscemi, Matthew O’Leary, James Lashly, Debra Mooney

VENGEANCE: A LOVE STORY (2017) DIR Johnny Martin PROD Nicolas Cage, Michael Mendelsohn EXEC PROD Harold Becker, Patricia Eberle, Michael Nilon, Richard Rionda Del Castro SCR John Mankiewicz (novel ‘Rape: A Love Story’ by Joyce Carol Oates) CAM David Stragmeister MUS Frederik Wiedmann CAST Nicolas Cage, Anna Hutchinson, Talitha Eliana Baterman, Deborah Kara Unger, Don Johnson, Joshua Mikel, Rocco Nugent, Joe Ochterbeck, Charlene Tilton, Marc Coppola