UNDERSTANDING SCREENWRITING: That Time of the Year
By Tom Stempel • January 11, 2022
For his Special Holiday Double Issue, Tom gets a surprise, and then looks at a number of awards-grovellers such as 'Cyrano', 'Nightmare Alley', 'Don’t Look Up', 'West Side Story', and 'Parallel Mothers', then leaves you with a present for next Christmas.
I Nearly Fell Out of My Chair.
The day the December 20-January 2 issue of TV Guide arrived, I was flipping through it over dinner. One item left me absolutely gobsmacked. Their Movie Pick for December 29th was a day’s program of romantic comedies on Turner Classic Movies. That was not what gobsmacked me. It was that all seven films had won Academy Awards for…screenwriting.
A little backstory. When the late Robert Osborne was the longtime host for TCM, the focus was on stars. There were Stars of the Month, Star of the Day, etc. There was virtually no mention, either in the promotion or in the film introductions, of the screenwriters.
I joined the TCM club, or whatever they called it, several years ago. As a member you are invited to suggest films. I got carried away and suggested they do a one day a week program of films by screenwriters: one day of Anita Loos films, one of Jules Furthman films, one of Nunnally Johnson films, etc. I never got a direct reply from TCM. I did however get an indirect reply. The next time I tried to log in, I discovered they had changed my password and I could not get in.
Things have gotten better, even before Osborne died. Now we have two of their hosts make a point of mentioning screenwriters, Noir Alley host Eddie Muller, and Sunday Night Silent Films host Jacqueline Stewart. Muller particularly gives us a lot of information on noir writers. Ben Mankiewicz mentions writers, but not as much as you might expect from a member of that family. I do not watch enough of the introductions of the other two hosts to say for sure, but my impression is they do not mention writers.
So I thought things were changing at TCM. After I saw the TV Guide item, I went out to the TCM website. They had no specific item on the romcom day, or the Oscar connection. And of the ones I watched, there were no introductions. So I wonder, is there an intramural war going on at TCM between the remaining Osborneites and the Mankiewiczis?
Rostand’s play was written and first performed in 1897, and has barely been off the stage since then. There have been several movies either of the play or of different versions of the story. For one of the best of the latest modern adaptations, see my review here of The Half of It (2020).
In the original, set in the 17th Century, Cyrano is a swordsman and poet, and is in love with his distant cousin Roxanne. Unfortunately, he has a large nose that people make fun of, and he thinks Roxanne will not love him. She is in love with a fellow soldier name Christian, a handsome, rather dull soldier. Cyrano writes letters to Christian to send to Roxanne. Years later, she realizes it was Cyrano writing the letters.
Schmidt first did her musical version for the stage in 2016, when it was presented at the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, Connecticut. That version starred the two leads of the film, Haley Bennett as Roxanne and Peter Dinklage as Cyrano. Dinklage is Schmidt’s husband. Which explains why there is no nose in this film. Schmidt uses Dinklage’s small stature as what Cyrano and the others think of his disfigurement. It is an inventive choice and it means Schmidt can avoid all the nose insults Rostand wrote.
Schmidt’s screenplay (I have not seen or read her play version, but I have seen a number of film and stage versions of the play) is a brilliant re-thinking of the material in cinematic terms. The play opens in a theatre where Cyrano is going to insult the lead actor off the stage. Schmidt opens with Roxanne at home preparing to go to the theatre. She is dancing around her room, showing us how charming she is. The scene establishes Roxanne well enough in Schmidt’s terms that when somebody later says that Roxanne is “vain” we can believe it. I don’t think anybody calls her that in the play. It helps explain why she falls in love with the handsome Christian and why Cyrano assumes she cannot love him.
Early in the film, Roxanne has fallen in love with Christian (we see an exchange of looks in the theatre scene; that’s all it takes). She arranges a meeting with Cyrano to tell him. In the play it is mostly a dialogue scene, but Schmidt makes sure to include the close-ups of Bennett and Dinklage. Schmidt obviously knows Dinklage’s strengths as an actor. He easily does the flamboyant side of the character, as in the theatre scene, but in this scene we see the longing and hurt in his eyes. Schmidt and her director Joe Wright know they are making a film here, not just recording a play.
Schmidt is also good at developing Christian. Too often in productions he comes across as just a handsome dolt. Here he is handsome, but also is self-aware enough (like the equivalent character in The Half of It) to know that he is not good at words.
Schmidt has done a good job of condensing the play, although I miss the character of Rageneau the baker. In Rostand’s play he is a great comedy relief; here he has at most a bit part.
There are a couple of flaws in the film. Cyrano and his soldiers are sent off to the front to fight the Spaniards (which in the early eighties production of the play by Britain’s Royal Shakespeare Company was an incredibly spectacular bit of stage craft; here it appears to be limited for budget reasons). There is a musical number of the soldiers writing letters home before they go into battle, but they are not any characters we have met. It takes us out of the main story. I suspect they kept the scene in because there is a brief reprise as they go into battle, but I am not sure we need the whole number.
My other quibble is in the final scene. As I mentioned in my review of The Half of It, if it is done right, there is not a dry eye in the house. In the play we are fifteen years after Christian’s death in the battle. Roxanne is living in a convent and Cyrano comes to visit her each day with the local gossip. She realizes as he reads Christian’s last letter from memory that Cyrano wrote the letters. On stage it is simple and powerful. I have seen two totally different productions where the scene left audiences emotionally drained.
In the film we are in a hospital where Roxanne is helping out, which is a slightly more spectacular set than the garden of the convent on stage. Schmidt also has a song for Roxanne, which draws the focus away from the moment of her realization. Sometimes simpler is definitely better.
Fast is Better Than Slow.
We have discussed Nightmare Alley before here. There we were talking about both the 1947 film and a 2010 stage musical adaptation. I liked the former, not the latter. The 1947 film ran 110 minutes; the new film runs 150 minutes. Longer is not better.
When I first heard that del Toro, who directs as well as writes, was doing the new film, my hopes were raised. If there is any filmmaker now working who could bring off an update, he would be the one. He made, for example, Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), Crimson Peak (2015), and The Shape of Water (2017). You can read my comments on Crimson Peak here, which give you some idea of why I like some of del Toro’s work.
One point I mentioned there is that in his earlier work like Pan’s Labyrinth I like how he simply did not do gross-out genre pieces, but used genre elements to connect to the real world.
He and Morgan do not do that in their Nightmare Alley. As co-writer and director del Toro spends his time and space more on the Gothic narrative and visual elements. The visuals (production and set design) overwhelm the rest of the film. The visuals of the 1947 20th Century-Fox film were big-studio elaborate, but not close to what del Toro does.
The script of the 1947 version was by the great screenwriter Jules Furthman, whose other credits include Shanghai Express (1932), To Have and Have Not (1944), and The Big Sleep (1946). The producer of the film, the vaudeville star George Jessel, read a review of the book and encouraged Darryl F. Zanuck to buy. After buying it, Zanuck read the book and was appalled by it, but he let the production proceed. Furthman was probably on his own, although Zanuck may have been involved, as he was with nearly every A film. (Jessel’s apparent interest was in building the sideshow set, which became a tourist attraction for people working on the Fox lot.)
Furthman’s script was tough, but within the limitations of industry censorship at the time. There are apparently a lot of gory details in Gresham’s novel that could not be used, but they do not seem to appear in del Toro’s film. Based on what I know of the 1947 film and its making, I would have expected a lot grosser film from del Toro than he has given us.
Furthman’s script moves at the usual speed of Fox scripts under Zanuck. The problem with del Toro and Morgan’s script is that it covers the same ground as Furthman’s but at greater length. Many if not most of the scenes drag on. And on. As your homework assignment this month, see the film, transcribe a single scene from the film, get out your red pen or pencil and condense the scene. Get to the heart of the scene in the way del Toro and Morgan have not.
No, This is Not a Sequel to the 2008 Argentine Film Don’t Look Down.
What is it about pictures that show up this time of year that are desperate to win awards? Why can’t they keep them at two hours or under?
In a story in the Los Angeles Times (December 19th, good luck finding it on the Times website), both Adam McKay, who directed as well as wrote the script, and Leonardo DiCaprio, the star of the film, said they had been trying to come up with an idea for a film that would warn people about climate change. DiCaprio has produced a number of documentaries on the subject, but they have had little impact. McKay had written several treatments in many genres, but none of them, he said in the Times piece, “fully landed with that big open door you need for an idea like this.”
One day McKay was talking to David Sirota, who in addition to writing comedy also wrote speeches for Bernie Sanders. Sirota said, “Yeah, it’s like an asteroid is going to hit Earth and no one cares.” The door opened. I don’t think it stayed open.
McKay’s best film so far was The Big Short (2015, you can read my review here). It was about the economic collapse of 2008, and what made it work was that McKay and his co-writer focused on characters. All the characters were sharply drawn and sharply played.
In the script for Don’t, the characters are not sharply drawn. They are all over the map. The film opens with Kate Dibiasky, a graduate student in astronomy, discovering a comet is heading directly toward Earth and will hit in six months. Kate is smart and serious and one of the better written characters. McKay said in the Times article he wrote the character with Jennifer Lawrence in mind, and Lawrence focuses on Kate’s good sense and seriousness. McKay, who also directed, may have put too much faith in Lawrence, since in the editing he includes several close-ups of Lawrence where she has nothing to do or express. (The editing is the worst I have seen in any recent movie.)
Kate contacts Professor Randall Mindy, a renowned astronomer, played by DiCaprio. Mindy is all over the place and DiCaprio is too, with no focus. The same problem happens with a lot of the other characters. Meryl Streep plays the president as sort of a Trump-like figure, but McKay does not give her any interesting specifics to play. On the other hand, the two television anchors are played by the odd-ball team of Cate Blanchett and Tyler Perry and they have an interesting chemistry. The best performance is by Mark Rylance as a tech genius. I have no idea how many of the details of the character come from the script and how many come from Rylance’s genius as an actor.
DiCaprio said in the Times piece he saw this as in the vein of Dr. Stranglove (1964). He and McKay should be forced to sit through Strangelove, which only runs 95 minutes by the way, to see the kind of precision necessary to bring off something like this. And then they should look at The Big Short again.
Well, What’s Your Taste in Movies?
West Side Story (2021. Screenplay by Tony Kushner, based on the stage musical, book by Arthur Laurents. 156 minutes---well, that’s only five, or three, depending on who’s counting, minutes longer than the 1961 film)
My Irish friend Elaine Lennon hated, hated, hated this movie. A former student of mine, Lincoln Spector, who writes a San Francisco online column called “Bayflicks,” loved it and found himself in tears at the end, which never happens when he watches the 1961 version.
I am somewhere in between. I have never been that fond of the earlier version. As soon as the gang members star doing ballet moves in the streets, I’m pretty much out of it, although I was impressed by George Chakiris as Bernardo and loved, as I have since I was 12, Rita Moreno, here in the film as Anita.
When Steven Spielberg pulled off a wonderful musical number at the beginning of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), lots of people thought he should make a musical. He thought so too, although it has taken him until now to do it. In the promotional shorts that show up on Facebook, et. al, he says that the one musical he wanted to do was West Side Story, and now he has.
To do the book he drafted Tony Kushner, the great playwright, who worked with Spielberg before on Munich (2005) and Lincoln (2015). You can read what I thought about Kushner’s work on the latter here. You will notice that Ernest Lehman’s screenplay for the 1961 film is not mentioned in the credits. I would have thought it might have been, although Kushner seems to be starting from scratch, i.e, Laurents’s book.
The opening of the stage play and the film starts with the two gangs chasing each other around. Their fight is simply a turf war. Kushner’s script gives us more dialogue, which evolves out of the visuals of the area they all live in being torn down for an urban renewal project that ended up, as a billboard promises us, as Lincoln Center. This provides a social context for the film that was not there in the stage and ’61 film versions.
One of Kushner’s improvements is in the writing of the adult characters. Lt. Schrank, the detective who is always hassling the gang members, as he does in the first scene, is much more rounded than the one in the earlier versions. That is not so much true with the DJ at the dance, but it is certainly true of what Kushner has done with Doc. The earlier Doc was the middle-aged owner of a drug store where the Jets hang out. He was constantly making speeches to the gang members. There was nothing Ned Glass, the great character actor, could do with him. Kushner has turned him into Valentina, Doc’s widow, who talks like a human being rather than a speechmaking machine. She is played by Rita Moreno, who won an Academy Award for playing Anita in the ’61 film. Here she brings all of her decades of experience. Kushner and Spielberg reward her not only with an executive producer credit, but with the song “Somewhere,” which was sung by Tony and Maria in the early versions. I vote for Moreno’s version.
Kushner has tried to broaden the gang leaders. Bernardo, the leader of the Sharks, is now a boxer, but Kushner is not able to do a lot with that without disrupting the flow of the film. Kushner makes Tony an ex-con, who was only released from prison. He nearly beat a man to death. Kushner uses that at several points in the film.
Ah, Tony. Tony has always been a problem character, even when he was Romeo in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Shakespeare cheats a little by not making Romeo a fierce warrior, but he is still supposed to be enough of a tough guy to be involved in the violence. Of the stage productions I have seen of the play, I have only seen one actor to get the balance right. He was a young Kristoffer Tabori in a production in 1979.
I did not see the original stage production of West Side Story, but I have seen a couple of later productions. One in the early sixties starred Pat Boone, who was not quite up to the demands of the part, nor of the Leonard Bernstein-Stephen Sondheim score. Richard Beymer was considered the weakest link in the cast of the film and rightly so. He emphasized the romantic side of Tony, but without the toughness the part requires.
In the current film, Ansel Elgort has both the vocal weakness of Pat Boone’s performance and the flat romantic side of Beymer’s performance. Kushner’s making Tony an ex-con can only go so far. Movies are a collaborative art, and Elgort does not hold up his side of the work.
Kushner has pretty much left Anita alone, although she gets more straight dramatic scenes than in the ’61 version. Ariana DeBose is good in the role, although she is not making me forget Rita Moreno. Rachel Zegler is the best of the four leads as Maria. It helps that she does her own singing (Natalie Wood in the ’61 film was dubbed by the ubiquitous Marni Nixon), so her acting matches her singing.
Speaking as we are of writing, a word or two about the Stephen Sondheim lyrics. West Side Story was his first Broadway show, and at age 27 he was dealing with the real heavyweights in the business, book writer Arthur Laurents, composer Leonard Bernstein, and choreographer/director Jerome Robbins. In his 2010 book Finishing the Hat, Sondheim has a section of creating the show, in which he talks about dealing with those guys. It’s worth reading. He spends most of the time on the development of his lyrics. He had a basic disagreement with Bernstein, who wanted more “poetry” in the lyrics. That was really not what Sondheim then and later was interested in, but he tried to deliver. He certainly does in some of the songs, although he wrote in the book that he still blushes when he thinks of the lyrics to “I Feel Pretty.”
The song that I have always liked, from the original cast album on, is “America.” In the stage version, Anita sings it in juxtaposition to a minor woman character. For the ’61 film, the song was rewritten so it was a duet between Anita and Bernardo, her lover. It is much livelier, more dramatic, and funnier that way. The lyrics in the stage version are a little harsher than in the ’61 film. Some of that harshness has been restored for the new version.
In the stage and first film, the number was done in a dance number on the roof of the apartment. In the new version, it begins as a dance number with Anita and her friends, which is closer to the stage version, but then it becomes a large-scale number in the streets, with Bernardo joining in. The number looks and feels like one of the numbers in the first half of In the Heights (2021), and the size of the number takes some of the focus off the song. If you know all or most of the lyrics, it will still work for you, but if you don’t, you may have trouble keeping up. Directors both on stage and screen have to learn not to cover up Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics.
Something New, Something Old.
In his nearly 50 year career as a filmmaker, Almodóvar has not dealt with Spanish politics. In an interview in 2016, quoted in Anthony Lane’s New Yorker review of this film, Almodóvar says that he decided to ignore Franco and his decades ruling Spain. Recently Almodóvar has decided it was time to deal with that part of Spain’s past. In 2018 he was one of the executive producers of the documentary The Silence of Others, which dealt with survivors of the Franco regime.
Parallel Mothers is his first feature film to deal with the subject. So how can Almodóvar, who specializes in whacky comedy and intense melodrama, put his talents to use on the horrors of Franco’s regime? There is none of his comedy, and the film is more drama than melodrama, but it has its intense moments.
We start with Janis, a professional photographer, taking portrait pictures of Arturo, an anthropologist. After the photoshoot, Janis discusses with Arturo the issues of where Franco’s victims are buried. She thinks she knows where her grandfather is buried, along with other people from her village. We get a lot of exposition here, so we expect the film will be primarily about that.
Nope. Arturo disappears, then pops up from time to time to give Janis advice on how to arrange for the burial site to be examined. In the final sequence of the film, Janis, Arturo and others are at the site. Listen to what the surviving women tell what they remember about the men, and look how Almodóvar uses them.
So what goes on the in major portion of the film? Janis and Arturo had a quickie and she got pregnant. We don’t find out until much, much later why Arturo is not around too often; would you hold off that information for that long? And would any studio development person let you?
In the maternity ward, Janis is roommates with a teenager (Janis is “under forty”; Penelope Cruz is now 47, but makes a very convincing under forty). The girl is Ana, played by Milena Smit in only her second feature. Smit holds her own against Cruz; in one two-shot, I was actually looking at Smit more than Cruz, not something that happens a lot when Ms. Cruz is on-screen.
Both Janis and Ana delivered daughters and run into each other from time to time as we follow both their lives. You and the rest of the audience are probably assuming that is the meaning of the title of the film. Yes, but like everything else in the film you need to give it your full attention.
Then Almodóvar gives us number of his typical twists and turns, and I am not going to give away a single one. They are too important to the film for you not to discover for yourselves, but pay attention to how Almodóvar paces them in the film. By the end of the film, plot twists and all, we know Janis and Ana.
So what does that have to do with the running details of exploring the burial ground? In addition to Janis, Ana and one of their daughters is at the village, along with the older women survivors, many of them grandmothers, many with friends with other grandmothers. If Janis and Ana are parallel mothers, so are the other women, not only with the women in their village, but with the younger women who have come to find out what happened to their ancestors.
I told you you needed to pay attention; this is not a brainless movie.
For You for Next Christmas.
I had never seen this film until right before this Christmas. I knew of it, since Leonard Maltin in his late, lamented Movie Guides says it is the perfect movie to watch on Christmas Eve. I know my Irish friend Elaine Lennon loves it and watched it every year since forever.
So I figured that since TCM was running it I would DVR it and give it a chance. Leonard and Elaine are right on the button about this one. It is absolutely charming. The set-up is a great idea, and it is beautifully developed and executed.
Elizabeth Lane (Barbara Stanwyck, in a total change of pace from her previous role in Double Indemnity ) writes a magazine column about how to be a great homemaker, describing her wonderful life living with her husband and baby in their restored farm house. None of which is true. She’s a single woman living in an apartment in New York City who does not know how to do any of the things she writes about.
The film naturally starts with footage of a ship being torpedoed (I think from Action in the North Atlantic ) and two sailors surviving on a life raft. Well, how else would you start a Christmas romcom? Elizabeth’s boss, Alexander Yardley (played in a wonderful performance by…Sidney Greenstreet! Yes, he could play more than villains), gets the great idea that Elizabeth should invite the most heroic of the two sailors to her farmhouse for Christmas. OK, where is she going to get a farmhouse, a husband, and a baby, not to mention learning how to cook, on short notice? The writers have worked it all out in inventive and funny ways. Try to watch it next Christmas or the one after that, and then just try not to keep watching it, like Elaine.
One of the things that just floored me about the film was that I have never heard of any of the writers, or the director Peter Godfrey. I looked up their credits on IMDb and there is nothing in the credits for any of them anywhere near the quality of Christmas in Connecticut. This appears to be one of those one-of-a-kind movies where, much to everybody’s surprise, all the moving parts work.
The introduction to the film on TCM was by Ben Mankiewicz. He did not mention any of the writers. Sigh.