By Tom Stempel.
How The Hell Can We Figure Out What Went Wrong?
(2014. Original screenplay by Emma Thompson. 108 minutes.)
As you may have been able to tell from her picture appearing on the cover of the 2000 edition of my book FrameWork: A History of American Screenwriting, I am a big fan of Emma Thompson as a screenwriter as well as an actress. In the book I write about the terrific job she did adapting Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility into the great 1995 film. I had liked her earlier writing on her British television show Thompson, which was what made producer Lindsay Doran hire her for Sense. Not seeing many family movies, I skipped the two Nanny McPhee movies (2005 and 2010) she wrote and starred in, but I was interested in her return to British costume pictures with Effie Gray. The picture doesn’t work, and unlike many movies, it’s a bit difficult to figure out how it went wrong.
The story has a lot of potential. John Ruskin was a famous and influential art critic and essayist in the mid to late 19th Century in England. If you want a more well-rounded portrait of him than you get in the movie, you can read the Wikipedia entry on him here. The film focuses on his six-year marriage to Effie Gray. They were married when she was 18 and he was 29, but they never consummated the marriage. For some reason (and we do not know why, nor does the film tell us), he was put off by her body. She eventually got an annulment and married painter John Everett Millais, and, making up for lost time, had eight children with him.
As written by Thompson (and played by her husband Greg Wise, who was Willoughby in Sense), Ruskin is a rather one-note jerk. O.K., the movie is about and sympathetic to Effie, but by now you know that great villains make much better movies. When he ignores her, we have no idea why. We get no sense of the passion he felt for art and his own writing. Thompson could have given him a lot more texture, as she did everybody in Sense. There may have been more in the script, but was not, judging from the dialogue that survives in the film. Besides, if Thompson had a deeper vision of Ruskin, she surely could have whispered into Wise’s ear at home. Certainly the director, Richard Laxton (whose primary work has been in television), could have gotten more out of Wise if Thompson had given them more to work with in the script. Unless of course Laxton couldn’t. He has a great cast to work with, but his direction of all the actors is mediocre. In most films, the problem is obviously the script or obviously the direction. Here it’s hard to tell for sure, and I don’t think that is just my love for Thompson that makes me say that. There is a lack of creative imagination on the part of Thompson or Laxton or both.
Thompson’s version of Effie is equally textureless. Dakota Fanning plays her with a constant sad expression. At one point on their wedding night, Ruskin readjusts a lock of hair on her head, says “Perfect,” and then walks out of the room. Either Thompson did not write a reaction for Effie or did and Laxton did not shoot it. Think what her reactions could be: delight Ruskin likes her, bafflement that he leaves, irritation, and any others you may think of.
Austen’s structure of Sense was fairly straightforward: two of the Dashwood sisters are working their way toward marrying the best men for them, although I always thought that in the movie that Elinor and Colonel Brandon would have been a better match. Structurally Effie Gray is a mess. Thompson does get off to a quick start with Effie walking in a garden while we get a voiceover of how she came to be Mrs. Ruskin. Then we get a few brief shots of the wedding, and soon thereafter the newly married couple arrives at the home of Ruskin’s parents where they will live. John is pretty much a mamma’s boy whose mother still gives him baths. Fortunately we do not get that scene. What we get is scene after scene of John being a jerk and Effie sad about it. As far as I can tell Thompson has not written anything interesting for them to do, or at least Laxton doesn’t bring out anything in the material. There is more than a little evidence of post-production tampering. The couple goes to Venice, and then suddenly we are back in England. We have no idea how long they have been back and whether Effie’s medical problems began in Venice or after she got back. There may be some scenes missing there, but nobody thought to go back and reshoot the English scene to make the time line clearer.
Ruskin takes Effie and Millais off to Scotland, supposed to improve Effie’s health, although the cold and damp of the Scottish countryside would not seem the best location for recuperation. Effie and Millais are sort of attracted to each other, but neither Thompson, Laxton, nor the actors bring any passion, restrained or otherwise, to the scenes.
In the last twenty minutes, the film begins to pick up. At the encouragement of her friend Lady Eastlake, Effie sees a doctor to be diagnosed as a virgin, then sees a lawyer to arrange for an annulment. Which she gets and rides off in a coach. Fade out, the end. What? Thompson spends so much time wallowing in Effie’s misery that she does not have time for the interesting part of the story. Given Ruskin’s stature in the society of the time, Effie was ostracized in the better circles. She married Millais and got busy having children. Boy, could you do a lot with her fecundity, especially after Ruskin’s prudishness. You could also do a lot with Effie’s working her way back into polite society, which she sort of managed to do. Leaving all that out is like not blowing up the Death Star at the end of Star Wars.
The film was released in the UK in 2014, but not in America until March 2015, and Thompson did not bother to come to the States to promote its release. By then she probably wanted to be done with the project. She had been sued by two different writers who each claimed she had used material from their plays and screenplays. She easily won both cases.
She may just have realized by then the film did not work. She perhaps felt the truth the late theatre critic and historian John Gassner once said, “Doctors bury their mistakes, playwrights exhibit theirs.”
A Minor Film With Minor Virtues
(2014. Written by Marc Lawrence. 107 minutes.)
This one was barely released theatrically, and while it is not as bad as some that get bigger releases, it’s not that good. I was particularly interested in seeing it because the main character, Keith Michaels, is a screenwriter who ends up teaching screenwriting at an East Coast college. (I also wanted to see it since it was filled on the campus of State University of New York at Binghamton where my granddaughter went to college.) Michaels is not a particularly likeable character and even Hugh Grant’s charm can’t make us love him. He comes to the campus after a real downturn in his career and he is condescending to the campus and everybody on it. He starts an affair with a woman student, since it is a given in movies and television that middle-aged teachers have sex with their students. Movies and television vastly overestimate the amount of that sort of thing going on at American colleges. At least he does get into trouble for it and is nearly thrown off the campus. As the film progresses, he does develop a fondness for a more age-appropriate student, Holly, who reminded me of the “real woman” Esther in Don Jon (2013) that I liked in US #117. By then Michaels has learned his lesson and agrees not to start an affair until the semester is over. That’s what passes for maturity in this film.
The screenwriting class scenes are not as inaccurate as they could have been, and they are a reason you might want to see the film. Michaels does stumble around at the beginning, but that’s because he’s never taught before and has no idea how to do it. He does say something that most of us who teach screenwriting know, even if we don’t admit it: you can’t teach screenwriting. At least not like you teach math or history. What you can do is make it possible for students to learn. Lawrence has written an interesting collection of students. The college girl Michaels has the fling with is, no surprise here, working out her father issues, which pay off well at the end. There is a Star Wars aficionado whose only interest seems to be in rewriting the film. Listen to him tell Michaels why his character is not Yoda just because he has a different name. We do not get a lot of scenes with the best writer in the class, since he appears to be one of those students who just gets it. The teacher’s job in that case is simply to say, “Keep going. Keep going.” Ah, if all our students were like that.
(2014. Written by Stephen Beresford. 119 minutes.)
This was one we intended to see in theatres and missed. It is based on the true story of a group of gays in England in 1984 who decided to support the striking coal miners in a Welsh village. Sort of Boys in the Band meets How Green Was My Valley. It’s a great idea for a film, but Beresford’s screenplay (his first) is awfully unfocused. He spends way more time than he needs to on the group of gays organizing the trips to the village. If the film was made in 1984, this material would be fresh, but we have had a lot of gay characters in films since then. While they have some conflicts, those scenes are not as interesting as the conflicts they have when they get to the village, which are shortchanged in terms of the whole running time of the film. As a result, the great character actors like Bill Nighy and Imelda Staunton are underemployed. The film also goes on way too long after the end of the strike before it gets what is sort of a happy ending. Beresford could have tightened up the script and had a better movie.
Two of Our Long National Nightmares are Over. Sort Of.
The Writers: A History of American Screenwriters and Their Guild
(2014. Book by Miranda J. Banks. 328 pages.)
The first thing you need to know about this book is that the title is a misleading mess. It has the odor of something concocted by the marketing department. (One of the more repellant twists in the publishing business over the last fifteen years is that marketing departments assume their job is to change the titles of books, rather than marketing them with their original titles. Authors need to learn how to bat off foul titles from marketing like hitters hit foul balls until they get a pitch they like.) The book is about writers, but it is not by any stretch of the imagination a history of American screenwriters. The “and their Guild” in the subtitle seems tacked on. It shouldn’t have been. The book is primarily a history of the Writers Guild of America and its predecessor the Screen Writers Guild. It is an update and a vast improvement over the late Nancy Lynn Schwartz’s 1982 book The Hollywood Writers’ Wars, which ends with the blacklist in the forties.
You may notice that this is the third book on screenwriting that I have reviewed in the column in the last few months. One of our long national nightmares is that after the recession hit in 2008, publishers pulled back, way back, on publishing serious books about screenwriting. That dam is beginning to at least leak a little bit. In addition to the two I previously reviewed there is the recent Dalton Trumbo: Blacklisted Hollywood Radical, a 660 page door-stop biography; directors and studio heads have had door-stop biographies for years, while screenwriter bios traditionally came in within the 200-300 page range. If a book on Trumbo is too leftie for you, there is also Hollywood Traitors: Blacklisted Screenwriters—Agents of Stalin, Allies of Hitler, by Allan H. Ryskind, the son of Marx Brothers screenwriter Morrie Ryskind. I told you the dam was leaking.
Banks, an assistant professor at Emerson College, has used a lot of published sources for her research, although I was surprised at the ones she did not pick up on. She likes first-hand accounts, but Lester Cole’s Hollywood Red (1981) does not show up in her bibliography. Cole after all was one of the founders of the Guild in 1933, which he discusses in some detail in the book. She uses Frances Marion’s memoir Off with Their Heads! (1972), but not Cari Beauchamp’s much better Marion biography, Without Lying Down: Frances Marion and the Powerful Woman of Early Hollywood (1997) which points out that Marion was pressured to leave out material by her publisher.
For Banks, as with most academics, the Holy Grail is original research, and she has found some great material. Most film historians are aware of the Margaret Herrick Library that the Motion Picture Academy runs, but the Writers Guild Foundation has its own library, which has developed over the last thirty years. Banks has made her home there. She found that the Guild had conducted a series of oral history interviews in the late seventies and early eighties that were then stashed away until Banks dug them out. The material in those 104 interviews seems to be mostly about the Guild, at least from what we read in her book. She also conducted 60 interviews on her own. She found additional printed material, such as letters and memos. One of my favorites was from Phillip Dunne, writing to the Guild about how his becoming a producer may or may change his status with the Guild. After dealing with the serious issues, he wonders if he now has to grow a moustache like Charles Brackett did when he became a producer. If you saw the pictures of Brackett’s moustache in Anthony Slide’s book of Brackett’s diaries, you’ll get the joke.
So ignore the title and jump into the book. Unfortunately Banks tends to start each chapter with a long introduction that had me making notes on what she had left out until I realized she was getting to it in the heart of the chapter. So skim the introductions to get into the chapters. The sections about the early years of the Guild and especially about the blacklist are rather disappointing, especially the latter. We have had a lot about the blacklist and there is not a lot new in her chapter.
But don’t despair, as I almost did. When Banks gets into the fifties, the arrival of television and what that meant for the Guild, she is running on all cylinders, and stays that way through the rest of the book, especially dealing with the changes in technology and the structure of the film and television business. Judging by the book and the sources listed in her bibliography, she has a particular interest in industrial relations in America, which makes her a good choice for this book. It is a book that screenwriters and would-be screenwriters should read to appreciate how much the Guild has done for writers, something younger screenwriters often don’t understand.
I would of course be shirking my responsibilities as a film historian if I did not point out a couple of the very few errors in the book. On page 150 she has I.A.L. Diamond as Billy Wilder’s co-writer on Sunset Blvd in 1950, but Wilder and Diamond did not team up until later in the Fifties. On page 234 she gets it 2/3 right, mentioning Wilder and Brackett. In the filmography on page 264, she finally mentions the third one as well, D.M. Marshman Jr. On page 156 she says that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was the highest grossing film of 1969, but the list in Variety at the end of the year says that the film was fourth, behind The Love Bug, Funny Girl, and Bullitt. Yes, I know the last two were first released in 1968, but they made most of their money in 1969.
And now we come to my Be-Careful-What-You-Wish-For moment. As you may be aware from the about-the-author tag on this column, I have written two books on the history of film and television writers, FrameWork: A History of Screenwriting in the American Film (1988) and Storytellers to the Nation: A History of American Television Writing (1992), both of which are still in print. I have been waiting (the second of our long national nightmares, for those of you keeping score) for somebody to come along and outdo them, which Banks does in covering the history of the Guild, especially from the fifties to the present.
In the 3rd edition (2000) of FrameWork, I had a section at the end called “Twenty-Two Subjects for Further Research.” Number 15 was a full history of the Guild, which is what Banks has now done, and done well. However, neither of my two books show up in her bibliography. She does include Ian Hamilton’s Writers in Hollywood 1915-1951 (1990) and Marc Norman’s What Happens Next: A History of American Screenwriting (2008), both of which are, to put it politely, cheapo rip-offs of Framework. While I don’t appear in either the index or bibliography of Banks’ book, she has three quotes from the oral history I did with Phillip Dunne at the AFI in 1970. And each time she misspells my name as Stemple rather than Stempel.
Ah, kids today, got no respect for their elders.
Richard Corliss: An Appreciation
Richard Corliss, who was a film critic for Time Magazine, for 35 years died on April 23rd. Most people familiar with Corliss’s work know about his writings for Time, which ran a spread on him and his reviews. But in his younger days Corliss played an important role in making people aware of screenwriters. In the early seventies he was the editor of the New York based magazine Film Comment, and the Winter 1970-71 issue was devoted to American screenwriters, a daring thing to do given the East Coast attitude towards screenwriters. The issue was so successful that it was republished as a paperback in 1972. Corliss followed that up with his 1974 book Talking Pictures in which he put writers in categories, like Andrew Sarris did with directors. Corliss did fewer writers than Sarris did directors, but that was because he could go into greater detail on the writers’ contributions than you can with directors. Corliss hoped he would begin to get submissions to Film Comment about writers, but he received very few. He eventually left the magazine and went to Time, although he occasionally wrote shorter pieces about screenwriting. His work on screenwriters helped pave the way for the rest of us.
Don M. Mankiewicz: An Appreciation
Don Mankiewicz died two days after Richard Corliss. He was 93, and yes, he was one of those Mankiewiczes. He was the son of Herman J. Mankiewicz, the writer of Citizen Kane, and the nephew of Joseph L. Mankiewicz, the writer-director of All About Eve. You can read the Los Angeles Times obituary here. The obituary focuses on his television writing, especially his creating Ironside and Marcus Welby M.D., although a correction the Times ran a few days later noted that he did not create the two series, but merely (yeah, merely) wrote the pilots for them. He was nominated for an Academy Award for his screenplay for the 1958 film I Want to Live! You can track all those down if you want to, but the one Mankiewicz film I most highly recommend is the 1955 film Trial. He wrote the screenplay based on his own novel. It is one of those tough, solid fifties films that have often been ignored by critics and historians. For years it was almost impossible to see, and was never released on videotape. It has only recently become available on DVD. It tells the story of a law professor who works on the defense of a young Latino boy accused of murder. The lawyer comes to realize that the lead attorney is not only a member of the Community Party, but is determined to see his own client executed so he will become a martyr. It is the only intelligent anti-Communist film of the fifties, and certainly the only one that understands how the Party really worked. You can understand why film historians sympathetic to the blacklisted writers prefer to ignore the film. Check it out for yourself and make up your own mind.
Who Will Get Out of Harlan County alive?
(2015. Final season, multiple writers, multiple episode running times.)
You probably can’t do this with a feature film script, unless perhaps it’s part of a long-running franchise, but Graham Yost, the showrunner of Justified, uses the fact that this season was the series finale brilliantly. Because of the high body count of the series over its six seasons, you knew people were going to die. Lots of people. Since it was the final season, and was promoted as such, often with the line I used as the snarky sub-head at the top of this item, we just knew that one and perhaps more of the three main characters of the show were going to die before it was over. The logical choice was Boyd Crowder, who was responsible for a large number of people on the body count list. After all, Deputy U.S. Marshall Raylan Givens has been trying to get him for all six seasons, in spite of the fact they were frenemies going back to their days working in the coal mines. So we could expect Raylan to be unable to resist the opportunity to kill Boyd when he had the chance. Or Boyd might kill Raylan. Or they could kill each other. Or they could kill Boyd’s wife Ava, whom Raylan once had a fling with. Raylan had arranged for Ava to get out of prison, in return for which she is to snitch on Boyd to Raylan. Boyd has killed people for less. Much less. But Ava is a tough cookie and she may just be fed up with these two troublesome men in her life and willing to shoot them. Especially when ten million dollars is at stake.
So the fact that one or all three of them are likely to end up dead creates suspense, and also gives a feeling of dread that hangs over the whole season. Yost and his writers don’t have to push it, since we know that bad shit is going to happen. Part of the reason we feel that sense of dread is that we like all three characters, even with their flaws. When Boyd is around, stuff happens. And the writers have given Ava a lot of reactions to all the bad juju she has to deal with. And Raylan, although he cuts corners, is laid back and funny. We at least hope he can survive to get back to his ex, Winona, who has taken their child to live in Florida.
What also gives us a sense of fate closing in is the recurrence of many of the surviving characters from the series. We thought we had seen the last of Dewey Crowe, but Raylan springs him from prison to help him get Boyd. That does not end well for Dewey, but hey, it’s the final season. Winn Duffy, who always seems to survive, is back, this time involved with Avery Markham, who has come to Harlan and is buying up land with his partner and lover Katherine Hale. When there is a multiple killing in Duffy’s trailer, he calls 911. When asked the problem, he looks over the dead bodies and says, “I hardly know where to start.” Markham’s plans to buy up land to grow marijuana are disrupted by… Loretta McCready. You may remember Loretta from when she was a teenager and was taken into an informal protective custody by Mags Bennett in season two. Loretta survived Mags, but then we only got glimpses of her in the following seasons. Now she is grown up and trying to outwit Markham by telling a meeting of townspeople she will buy their land and keep pot growing local. She learned a lot from Mags, and we are glad to see her.
Oh, you asked about the ten million dollars. Markham has it, but Boyd has figured out a complicated way to steal it, which after several episodes he manages to do. Markham is not happy, and now even more people than usual are after Boyd. Boyd learns that Ava has been a snitch, and we feel she’s not long for this world, but you have to remember that Boyd really, truly loves her…and forgives her…for now. She shoots Boyd and escapes with the money. I told you she was a tough cookie. Ava’s escape plans get fouled up and she has to bury most of the money. Boyd escapes from the hospital and tracks her down. With Raylan right after them. Stop here if you have not watched the last episode.
So we have a showdown in a barn. Markham is killed and Boyd and Raylan have a faceoff. But Boyd’s gun is out of bullets. Raylan could kill him easily, but takes him into custody; remember, he’s a law enforcement officer. Boyd is off to prison. Raylan is taking Ava in when their car is attacked by Boon, one of Markham’s psychopathic thugs who has been looking for a western shootout ever since he saw Raylan’s hat. They have the shootout. Boon is killed, and Raylan has a head wound. What’s worse, Raylan’s hat, one of the leading characters in the series, now has a bullet hole in it. Ava is sympathetic, but while Raylan is wounded on the ground, she drives off in his car with the one million she still has. I don’t know about you, but I laughed. Ava has earned it.
The coda is now four years later. We see Raylan in Florida playing with his daughter. Ah, he and Winona are back together. Guess again. She’s married to Richard, whom we have never met. She’s happy with him, but glad Raylan is in his daughter’s life. At the office, Raylan gets sent a clipping from a West Coast office that has a photograph of a farm festival with a woman who might be Ava. He tracks the woman down to a farm in California and it is Ava. The writers of this episode, Yost, Fred Golan, Dave Andron, & Benjamin Cavell, all of whom have written multiple episodes, give them a great scene in which Raylan invites her to step outside and take her hand off the shotgun by the door, which we have not seen but he knows is there. We discover that Ava has had a child by Boyd, but does not want Raylan to tell Boyd. Raylan visits Boyd in prison (Boyd is back to his preaching ways) and tells him that Ava died several years back. He has a death certificate and a driver’s license under another name. We know, without being told, they are forgeries. How do we know? Because we know the characters. Boyd seems reasonably happy in prison and is glad to see Raylan. After all, as he says, “We dug coal together.” Wonderful.
Hey, wait a minute. Weren’t they promising that at least one of the three would not survive? Yes, they were. It’s known as a red herring, and if you don’t learn how to use them properly you’ll never be a screenwriter. The series and the buildup for this season fills us with dread, but because we love these characters, we are happy to see these particular outcomes. No, Raylan and Winona are not together, nor are Ava and Boyd. But they have all made peace with themselves and each other. You can’t ask for anything more from an ending.
Oh, and there is a rumor that Raylan might be back in another series. I’d advise against it. You don’t get this kind of lightning striking twice. Unless they get him another really great hat.