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Ron Howard on the set of Hillbilly Elegy, with Glenn Close in costume
Howard on the set of Hillbilly Elegy, with Glenn Close
Photo: Lacey Terrell / Netflix

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The overlooked obsession at the heart of Ron Howard’s films

Typically dismissed as a workman rather than an artist, he’s actually laser-focused on fame and exposure

Toward the end of 1977’s Grand Theft Auto, a demolition derby set to film that marked Ron Howard’s directorial debut, there’s a small moment that unlocks the meaning of Howard’s entire filmography. Sam Freeman, played by Howard, is an average California kid whose plans to elope with his fiancée Paula (Nancy Morgan) are threatened when her wealthy father offers a $25,000 reward to anyone who stops them from reaching Las Vegas. Sam is on the car phone with a DJ who has been following them in his helicopter and broadcasting their location. “You make a big deal about wishing us luck,” Sam shouts at him, “and then you tell everyone where we are.” The DJ replies, “Sam, you created this situation. I didn’t.” Like many of Howard’s subsequent films, Grand Theft Auto is about fame and the anguish of living life under a microscope. From Apollo 13 to Netflix’s controversial new drama Hillbilly Elegy, his filmography reflects the realities of his experience growing up in the public eye.

By the time Howard made Grand Theft Auto at 23, he had already been famous for 17 years. He made his acting debut as Opie on The Andy Griffith Show in 1960, starred in George Lucas’s American Graffiti in 1973, then landed the starring role on Happy Days. Fame was the air he breathed, and what his character endures in Grand Theft Auto reads like a cry for help from a man who has spent his whole life in the public eye. Most people get married in front of only close friends and family, but Sam has to do it with the whole world watching, and while navigating an endless barrage of twisted steel. When he complains about the life-threatening scrutiny, the media man shrugs it off and continues to profit off his personal life.

An artist’s depiction shows Ron Howard and Nancy Morgan on the road together in 1977’s Grand Theft Auto
Detail from the poster for 1977’s Grand Theft Auto
Image: New World Pictures

In spite of his long career helming commercially and critically successful movies in a variety of genres, Howard still isn’t considered one of the better filmmakers of his generation. He’s barely considered an artist at all. His detractors see him as a soulless studio director who rarely puts anything personal into his films. His fans see him as something of a modern-day Robert Aldrich or Howard Hawks, a talented craftsman able to work in a variety of genres. A close look at his filmography reveals Howard as something else entirely: a commercial auteur, a versatile director who has returned to the same ideas over and over, picking at an old, deep wound so persistently that it never fully scars over.

For Howard, fame is more than a theme. It’s an obsession. His stories often revolve around a character who’s forced to make major life decisions under the intense pressure of public scrutiny. In Apollo 13, Jim Lovell (Tom Hanks) must make critical decisions with the world watching on television. So must rival Formula One drivers James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl) in Rush, a nifty car-racing drama that zooms in on the mortal dangers inherent in the sport. Even Howard’s late-career foray into documentaries follows the pattern: Pavarotti chronicles the intersection of the personal and public lives of the world’s most prominent opera singer, while The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years pops in on the most famous rock group of all time at their most visible, before they retreated into the studio for good.

Even those casually familiar with Howard’s career will recognize this theme in EDtv. Overshadowed at the time by the similar but more artful The Truman Show, EDtv is a crowd-pleasing exploration of the pleasures and perils of fame as seen through the story of a painfully average man thrust into the public eye. Matthew McConaughey plays Ed Pekurney, a video-store employee chosen as the subject of the first 24-hour reality TV show. The trajectory is predictable. At first, Ed is delighted by the perks — free parking, billboards with his face on them, dates with women who look like Elizabeth Hurley — but eventually, the scrutiny threatens to destroy his relationships. Ever a willing interview subject, Howard was more than willing to talk about about his connection to the material, telling the LA Times during production:

“Ed is going through what I went through during junior high and high school when I was first aware of how complicated it is … but I didn’t really come to understand it until I was a bit older. The good and bad of it comes into play in your relationships with people. You begin to see that people may have hidden agendas. You realize you have access to people you might not otherwise have access to. It opens doors and isolates at the same time.”

A wide-eyed Matthew McConaughey, lying in bed, looks up at a too-close camera lens in EDtv
From the poster for EDtv
Photo: Universal Pictures

While many noted how the subject matter of EDtv reflected Howard’s personal experience, few picked out how Ed’s particular characteristics make him an avatar for the director. Early on in the film, George Plimpton, playing himself on a Meet the Press-style show, sneers with frustration, “They couldn’t pick a guy with any talent or anything to say.” It’s the same criticism that has been leveled at Howard throughout his career.

Perhaps in response, he has gravitated toward characters who have been unappreciated in the same way. There’s James J. Braddock (Russell Crowe) in the underdog sports film Cinderella Man, a longshoreman-turned-pugilist underestimated by the boxing establishment. The Paper’s Henry Hackett (Michael Keaton), managing editor of a New York City tabloid, is mocked and belittled by his prospective boss at an interview with a prestigious paper modeled after The New York Times. Parenthood’s Gil (Steve Martin) loses a key promotion because in spite of his great work at his company, he doesn’t “dazzle” his boss by bringing in new clients. And Rush’s Lauda, referred to as a “genius at setting up cars,” is overshadowed by his more media-friendly rival. In other words, Howard’s protagonists are always Richie Cunningham, and never the Fonz.

That pathology affects both characters in Frost/Nixon, an opera of popularity and insecurity set under the hot lights of television. It’s a story about two men facing off in front of the world, each with their careers and reputations on the line. The film presents journalist David Frost (Michael Sheen) as a man undervalued, even by himself, because of his association with television. Early on, his associates describe him as “a man with no political convictions” who’s “achieved great fame without possessing any discernible qualities.” But they note his one advantage over the other newsmen working to wrest a confession out of former president Richard Nixon (Frank Langella): “He understood television.” It’s easy to imagine why Howard, who grew up on the small screen and has spent most of his career battling for respect as an artist, was attracted to the project.

What’s most fascinating about Frost/Nixon, though, is how much Howard gravitates toward Nixon, perhaps because he, even more than Frost, was acutely sensitive to public opinion. The actual scenes where Frost interviews Nixon feel somewhat perfunctory, so the real intrigue is Langella’s portrayal of the disgraced president behind the scenes. He comes across as a typical Howard protagonist: easily bruised, unabashedly ambitious, and resentful of his more popular colleagues. The camera stays tight on Langella’s face, savoring every bit of Nixon’s vulnerability as he disgraces himself. Howard’s sympathy for the reviled politician muddles the narrative — he hardly seems like the villain the other characters describe him as — but it reveals the director’s character more than any other work.

Even in his movies that have little to do with fame or celebrity, the theme of public disgrace reoccurs. There’s the subplot in Parenthood about Gil’s son Kevin failing in Little League, and the unbearable embarrassment it causes both generations. In one memorable scene in A Beautiful Mind, genius John Nash (Russell Crowe) loses a game of Go to his public rival. In Rush, James Hunt is forced to answer to a crowd of reporters outside a restaurant after failing to reconcile with his wife. And easily the best two sequences in Hillbilly Elegy come when J.D. (Owen Asztalos) must watch his unhinged mother (Amy Adams) resist arrest in front of an audience of friends and neighbors. Howard has shown a keen sensitivity to the humiliations of childhood and how they inform the adult self. As if to prove it, he’s built a career around re-creating these moments on film.

Ron Howard and producer Brian Grazer on the set of Hillbilly Elegy Photo: Lacey Terrell / Netflix

While Howard certainly passes the auteur test as a filmmaker whose obsessions are present in nearly all his work, his formal style admittedly lacks the wizardry associated with most of his era’s great directors. If he has a signature shot, it’s an extreme close-up of one of his protagonists on TV, often so close up that you can see the pixels. But mostly, Howard is an artist who lets form follow function. His films, about characters who play to the audience, are designed as crowd-pleasers. Then again, Howard’s contemporaries aren’t the artistic giants of New Hollywood, they’re 1980s stalwarts Robert Zemeckis and Rob Reiner, both of whom are unabashed entertainers rather than serious artists, and who also still fight to be taken seriously.

Especially for Howard, seeking the audience’s approval can’t be considered a flaw, since it ties so neatly into his biography. How could a man who grew up playing a sweet little boy on a beloved sitcom behave any differently? Further, he deserves credit for exposing that need to please, perhaps the most vulnerable part of himself, on screen time and time again.

At the end of Frost/Nixon, just before the two rivals say goodbye, Nixon asks Frost if he enjoys his wild social life, which the former president has read about in newspapers. “Of course,” Frost replies. Nixon responds, with a faraway look: “You have no idea how fortunate you are. Liking people, and being liked.” It’s a final bit of sympathy for Nixon, but it also reads as a moment of self-therapy, where Howard reminds himself to be grateful for his commercial instincts, and for his reputation as one of the nicest guys in Hollywood. It’s a beautiful, complex moment in the career of a film artist whose work rarely gets credit for being either.