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Thursday, November 8, 2007

Authors! Authors! (originally published 8/99)

According to the traditional wisdom of the movie industry, all actors secretly want to be directors. It is, after all, the director who is in charge of the pace, the look, and the style of the finished film. Writers, on the other hand, have traditionally been regarded as nothing more than hired help by the movie industry. Notwithstanding the fact that it is the writers who actually think up the story and put words in the actors' mouths, as far as the industry is concerned they rank somewhere below the guy who sweeps up the studio. Needless to say, no actor worth his salt aspires to be a screenwriter. In the world of the theater, by contrast, the creative primacy of the writer's contribution is fully acknowledged. A successful playwright will be the toast of Broadway, an object of reverence in his profession.

In his latest film, "Illuminata," actor-director John Turturro has captured for himself the best of both worlds. In addition to directing the film, he plays the part of a playwright. Considering that all movies originate in the imagination of a writer, you will certainly not be surprised to learn that a great many earlier movies have also revolved around characters who happened to be playwrights. If you'd like to see how earlier films have built stories around playwright protagonists, look for these titles on home video.

"Sudden Fear" (1952). Joan Crawford stars as Myra Hudson, a successful playwright who declines to cast actor Lester Blaine (Jack Palance) in her new play. She does, however, become romantically involved with him. The love affair ripens into a marriage, but wedded bliss is short lived. Myra soon discovers that Lester is planning to murder her so that he can inherit her money and return to his old girlfriend. Instead of calling the police, the wily Myra begins methodically plotting her revenge. Having manipulated events many times in her plays, she now employs those same skills in manipulating the fortunes of her treacherous spouse.

"Critic's Choice" (1963). If playwrights are the most revered figures in the theatrical world, theater critics are the most feared. In a few brief paragraphs they can make or break a show. But what if a critic had to review a play written by his own wife? That's the premise of this comedy, in which Bob Hope plays a critic with a problem. His wife, played by Lucille Ball, has written a play, more or less as a lark. To her surprise, the play is actually produced, leaving her husband in the awkward position of having to review it.

"Author! Author!" (1982). Writing a play is a difficult undertaking under the best of circumstances. The task is made all the more difficult by the fact that playwrights have leaky faucets and sick children and family arguments to cope with just like the rest of us. In this comedy, Al Pacino portrays a playwright whose family is even more distracting than most. His flaky wife leaves home to live with another man, leaving him in charge of a houseful of kids, most of whom are the products of her earlier marriages. This transpires just as the hapless playwright is trying to oversee the casting and rehearsals of his new play.

"Deathtrap" (1982). Aside from having a talent for storytelling, playwrights are just regular folks, possessed of the same virtues and failings as everyone else. Some are models of rectitude while others are reprobate jerks. In this adaptation of Ira Levin's play, Michael Caine plays one of the latter. Sidney Bruhl is a playwright whose creativity has dried up. When a former student (Christopher Reeve) sends him a copy of a play he has just completed, Sidney hits upon the idea of bumping off his young colleague and passing off the fresh, inventive manuscript as his own work. I don't dare tell you more than that, because half the fun lies in discovering the many twists and reversals in Levin's plot.

Each of these films portrays a contemporary playwright, unlike "Illuminata," which is a 19th Century period piece. This may have been a shrewdly calculated move on Turturro's part. After all, he cannot have been unaware that one of last year's biggest hits was also a period piece about a struggling young playwright - an upstart English quill pusher named Will Shakespeare.

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