A major force in both narrative films and documentaries, British filmmaker Michael Apted (1941-2021) proved his versatility in a wide range of genres while directing many notable talents to some of their finest award-winning performances. In honor of the recently departed director, here are a few milestones from a career stretching half a century.
Coal Miner's Daughter (1980)
Sissy Spacek took home a Best Actress Oscar (one of seven Academy Awards the film was nominated for) for her unforgettable portrayal of real-life country music legend Loretta Lynn in this beloved biopic. Apted’s keen sociological insight is invaluable here as he captures her difficult upbringing in Kentucky and her rise to fame in Nashville, with a young Tommy Lee Jones and Beverly D’Angelo turning in powerful performances as Lynn’s husband and fellow country music icon Patsy Cline, respectively.
Continental Divide (1981)
Apted showed off his lighter side with this charming romantic comedy featuring an atypical role for John Belushi as a reporter who embarks on an unusual Rocky Mountain assignment to interview nature researcher Blair Brown. This was the first feature produced by Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment, and its screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan led to Kasdan being hired immediately to write a little film called Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981).
Gorky Park (1983)
Based on the bestselling novel by Martin Cruz Smith and adapted by innovative screenwriter Dennis Potter, this taut thriller set in the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War stars William Hurt as a military detective investigating the discovery of three faceless bodies in the titular snowy Moscow park. The chilly atmosphere is achieved with Finland convincingly standing in for the U.S.S.R., and between the suspense and action, Apted finds a way to slip in some biting commentary about international commerce and political corruption.
Jodie Foster earned an Oscar nomination for her powerful portrayal of a young woman raised deep within the mountainous wilderness of North Carolina, where she’s developed a language of her own. Apted’s return to Southern culture was shot on location and became a frequently quoted pop culture sensation throughout the 1990s.
Gorillas in the Mist (1988)
Based on the life of Dian Fossey and her famous primate studies that landed her in deep peril in Africa, this five-time Oscar-nominated true story is anchored by an indelible performance from Sigourney Weaver. With its evocative location shooting and haunting score by Maurice Jarre, the film shed light on the attacks on gorillas in Rwanda that nearly brought them to extinction.
Class Action (1991)
The theme of corporate misdeeds is the center of this drama that preceded the wave of legal thrillers of the 1990s. Gene Hackman and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio star as rival father and daughter attorneys embroiled in a hot-button case involving an auto manufacturer whose irresponsibility leads to the loss of multiple human lives.
The theme of Native American activism inspired Apted to tackle two connected projects in the same year: this socially conscious suspense film inspired by the 1973 events at Wounded Knee and the documentary Incident at Oglala about a reservation confrontation two years later. In this film, Val Kilmer plays an FBI agent investigating the murder of a South Dakota tribal council member who experiences a rude awakening about the nature of American justice.
The World Is Not Enough (1999)
An unexpected choice to direct a James Bond film, Apted brought his thriller chops to this tale of an oil heiress whose past kidnapping poses an imminent threat to MI6 and 007 himself, played by Pierce Brosnan in his third Bond outing. Though it has a divided reputation among fans, the film features a number of spectacular action sequences, a complex performance by Sophie Marceau and one of the most unique plot twists in the series’ history.
63 Up (2019)
Apted’s most enduring claim to fame is his participation in the watershed Up series, which began in 1964 as the short film 7 Up when he selected fourteen 7-year-old children (as a researcher for Canadian director Paul Almond) to be profiled in a look at British attitudes and social classes. After the initial film, Apted took over as director and returned to the same subjects every seven years, resulting in eight subsequent films, with 63 Up being the most recent look at their lives over the decades.