Alphabetical Index of Column Topics

Click here for index.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

When Writers Write About Writers (originally published 2/02)

I mentioned last week that movies about famous writers, like the current "Iris," starring Judi Dench and Kate Winslet as Iris Murdoch, often take broad liberties with the historical facts in order to tell a more engaging story. Naturally enough, filmmakers often go on to take the next logical step with their writer protagonists, inventing them out of whole cloth rather than basing them on actual writers. For a look at some of the cinema's most interesting fictional wordsmiths, look for these titles on video.

"The Third Man" (1949). The setting of Graham Greene's delightful screenplay is occupied postwar Vienna, carved up by the victorious Allies into separate Russian, British, and American jurisdictions. Since everyone is jointly in charge, it follows that no one is really in charge. Amid the confusion a black market thrives, along with all manner of collateral corruption. Into this cauldron of intrigue comes Holly Martins (Joseph Cotton), an American writer of Western novels. He has come to Vienna to meet his old friend, Harry Lime (Orson Welles), who has offered him a job. Upon arriving, however, the hapless Holly is told that Harry has been killed in a street accident. As Holly probes more deeply into the circumstances surrounding the incident, a disturbingly unflattering image of his friend begins to emerge.

"Sunset Boulevard" (1950). William Holden stars as penniless screenwriter Joe Gillis in one of the classic Hollywood movies about Hollywood. While eluding some men who want to repossess his car, Joe stumbles upon the home of Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), a has-been star of the silent screen. He learns that she is planning a comeback in the role of Salome, starring in a script she has written herself. Desperate for work, Joe convinces her to hire him to rewrite her script for the contemporary market. Soon, however, he learns that she is interested in more than his writing talents. Writer-director Billy Wilder bit the hand that fed him with this sharply satiric send-up of Hollywood, but he did it so artfully that the industry gave him an Academy Award for his screenplay. Reproduced below is the film's original promotional trailer, courtesy of Turner Classic Movies.

"A Fine Madness" (1966). If I told you that this mid-sixties film was the story of a brooding poet struggling to write a masterpiece long after his muse had deserted him, who would you expect to see in the lead role? In the highly unlikely event that you guessed Sean Connery, you'd be correct. Right in the middle of his very successful run as the screen's first and best James Bond, Connery acquitted himself admirably in this manic comedy about the trials and tribulations of a tortured, misunderstood poet.

"Sleuth" (1972). Anthony Shaffer's play about a deadly game of cat and mouse was translated to the screen with consummate skill by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, one of the most respected directors from the old days of the Hollywood studio system. Most of the film is concerned with the conflict between aristocratic mystery writer Andrew Wyke (Laurence Olivier) and Milo Tindle (Michael Caine), a working class hairdresser. It seems that Milo has been having an affair with Andrew's wife. When Milo visits Andrew's stately mansion to discuss the matter, Andrew uses the occasion to take his revenge. But, being a famous mystery writer, Andrew feels compelled to make a game of it, weaving an elaborate plot in which Milo becomes perilously entangled. Olivier and Caine play off one another spectacularly.

"Reuben, Reuben" (1983). Tom Conti stars as Gowan McGland, a dissolute Scottish poet who finds himself living in a strait-laced New England college town. Gowan is that most wretched of creatures, a writer who can no longer write. Empty of inspiration, seemingly with his best work behind him although still a young man, he has turned to drink and debauchery. After a series of sordid liaisons with older women, he meets a younger woman, played by Kelly McGillis in her screen debut. Gowan falls in love with her, and finds in her youthful vitality the hope of rediscovering the wellspring of poetic invention that has so long eluded him.

Thankfully, the sort of terminal writer's block that we see in movies like "A Fine Madness" and "Reuben, Reuben" isn't that common in real life. In fact, the script for "Reuben, Reuben" was written by septuagenarian Julius J. Epstein, still going strong after having co-scripted "Casblanca" some forty years earlier.

No comments: