John Korty: Award-Winning Director and Key Figure in the Independent Cinema Movement

From a Washington Post obit by Emily Langer headlined “John Korty, director of ‘Miss Jane Pittman,’ dies at 85”:

John Korty, the award-winning director of television movies including “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman,” a 1974 tour de force starring Cicely Tyson as an African American centenarian whose life spans from slavery to the civil rights movement, died at his home in Point Reyes Station, Calif….

Mr. Korty was a key figure in the independent cinema movement that took hold in the 1960s and 1970s in Northern California, hundreds of miles, physically and philosophically, from the Hollywood studios to the south.

“I was in rebellion against Hollywood films,” Mr. Korty told the San Francisco Chronicle. “I thought everything they did, I wasn’t going to do. I thought Hollywood films were artificial. They used too much makeup. I was basically trying to come down from that with real people and realistic dialogue and shooting without a lot of lights and filters. … I just made the film the way I wanted to make it.”

Mr. Korty was nominated for two Oscars and shared one. His win honored “Who Are the DeBolts? And Where Did They Get Nineteen Kids?”, a 1977 documentary he directed about a couple and the children they adopted, some of whom were war orphans.

A version of the documentary aired on ABC and won Mr. Korty a 1979 Emmy. He had previously received an Emmy — one of nine that went to the production — for “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman,” which aired on CBS and remains one of the most lauded TV movies of its time.

Based on a 1971 novel by Ernest J. Gaines, the film featured Tyson in her most noted role, as the 110-year-old titular protagonist, her life an embodiment of African American experience in the 19th and 20th centuries. Pauline Kael, the New Yorker film critic, was quoted as declaring the film “quite possibility the finest movie ever made for American television.”

In contrast with many cinephiles who regard TV movies as an inferior class of film, Mr. Korty valued the genre as a way of directly reaching households across America.

“I wouldn’t give up television movies,” he told the New York Times in 1986. “There is nothing like the response you get. Fifty million people saw ‘Jane Pittman’ in one night. That’s very different from even the biggest hit movie.”

Mr. Korty later directed the NBC TV movie “Farewell to Manzanar” (1976), about the internment camps in the western United States where thousands of Japanese and Japanese Americans were detained during World War II.

Many of Mr. Korty’s more than 40 directing credits explored social concerns. “Go Ask Alice,” which aired on ABC in 1973, was described by as “one of the first television films to deal with teenage drug addiction.”

In “Resting Place,” a Hallmark Hall of Fame film that aired on CBS in 1986, Mr. Korty directed John Lithgow as an Army officer who assists the parents (played by Morgan Freeman and CCH Pounder) with the burial of their son, an African American serviceman killed in the Vietnam War.

Mr. Korty’s film “Redwood Curtain,” another Hallmark Hall of Fame production featuring Lithgow, aired on ABC in 1995. An adaptation of a Lanford Wilson play, it, too, explored the legacy and wounds of Vietnam.

Mr. Korty valued variety in his work, saying in 2011 that “to me, my work is a kind of vacation, and I don’t like to go to the same place over and over again.”

Mr. Korty directed “Oliver’s Story,” a 1978 sequel to “Love Story” that starred Ryan O’Neal and Candice Bergen. In the animated category, he made shorts for the children’s educational TV program “Sesame Street” and co-wrote and co-directed “Twice Upon a Time” (1983) under executive producer George Lucas.

Mr. Korty also directed “Caravan of Courage: An Ewok Adventure,” a 1984 TV movie co-written and executive produced by Lucas about the furry creatures of the Star Wars franchise.

Mr. Korty had met Lucas in the late 1960s when Lucas, then in his 20s, had stood in for Francis Ford Coppola, the co-founder of the San Francisco-based studio American Zoetrope, at a panel discussion where Mr. Korty was also on the program.

“George grabbed me by the shoulder,” Mr. Korty said, “and said, ‘We have got to find a pay phone. I am going to call Francis because you are doing exactly what he says he wants to do — making films outside of Hollywood.’”

John Van Cleave Korty was born in Lafayette, Ind. He grew up in Santa Monica, Calif., and Kirkwood, Mo., before moving to Ohio and entering college. He received a bachelor’s degree in communications media from Antioch College in 1959.

He began exploring film as a university student and pursued his career in earnest after settling in California. Filmgoers and critics soon took note. His documentary short “Breaking the Habit” (1965), an antismoking production made with the American Cancer Society, was nominated for an Oscar.

Mr. Korty burst to even broader attention at the end of the decade with three films — “The Crazy-Quilt” (1966), “Funnyman” (1967) and “riverrun” (1968) — that seemed to capture the spirit of independent cinema. He sometimes acted as cameraman, in addition to director.

“I have a lot more feeling of possession of a film if I’m operating a camera,” he said. “It sort of burns its way into the retina. I can go back to my hotel room, plop down on the bed, close my eyes, and watch the dailies in my head,” he added, referring to the raw, unedited footage of a day’s shoot….

“I’m hooked on film making as a process,” Mr. Korty said. “I just wish I had three or four lives, because then I could be an animator in one life, a documentary film maker in another, and a maker of dramatic films in the third. … I think every film director’s education has a direct relationship to the number of feet of film he’s shot. The more films you do, the more you learn.”

Emily Langer is a reporter on The Washington Post’s obituaries desk. She writes about extraordinary lives in national and international affairs, science and the arts, sports, culture, and beyond. She previously worked for the Outlook and Local Living sections.
Also see the New York Time obit by Neil Genzlinger headlined “John Korty, Director of ‘Miss Jane Pittman,’ Is Dead at 85.” The opening grafs:

John Korty, a director best known for ambitious made-for-television projects, including the 1974 film “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman,” which won nine Emmy Awards, died at his home in Port Reyes Station, Calif….

“Miss Jane Pittman,” a CBS presentation based on the Ernest J. Gaines novel in which a Black woman recounts more than a century’s worth of memories, featured an acclaimed performance by Cicely Tyson as the title character. John J. O’Connor, reviewing the film in The New York Times, called it “a splendid night for television.”

“John Korty’s direction is cool and restrained,” he added, “never underlining and always avoiding what could easily be mawkish.”

The Emmys the film won included one for Mr. Korty for best directing of a single program, comedy or drama.

Mr. Korty also won both an Oscar and an Emmy for “Who Are the Debolts? And Where Did They Get 19 Kids?,” a documentary about a couple whose many children included hard-to-place adopted ones with disabilities or other challenges. American television networks weren’t interested in the documentary when Mr. Korty first offered it; it was initially released as a film in Japan, then shown at the San Francisco Film Festival in 1977, where it received a standing ovation.

That brought it an Oscar for best documentary feature, but Mr. Korty still wanted to get it in front of TV audiences. With some persuasion from Henry Winkler, whose role as Fonzie on “Happy Days” had made him one of the network’s biggest stars, ABC finally broadcast a cut-down version in late 1978; that version won the Emmy for outstanding individual achievement for an informational program.

Although Mr. Korty also directed lighter fare and the occasional Hollywood feature, including “Oliver’s Story,” the 1978 follow-up to the hit 1970 movie “Love Story,” he gravitated toward television movies that touched on social issues….

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