Classic Hollywood Movies: 1950's 'A Lonely Place'
Imagine a screenwriter -- say, Michael Arndt (who wrote Little Miss Sunshine and Toy Story 3) -- going to a bar, flirting with some pretty young thing, talking crap to the head of Warner Bros., and then punching out Shia LaBeouf for talking down to a sadly drunk Richard Dreyfuss. Now that’s a screenwriter I can get behind.
My dirty little secret is that I’m a wannabe screenwriter. That’s what they call people who write spec scripts, investing time and energy into writing something that hasn’t already been purchased, that nobody will necessarily have any interest in, and that will most likely end up in the useless ether forever and always.
It’s a strange transition coming from the world of playwriting, which is what I'm attempting to do. Playwrights don’t sell the rights to their work forever, they get to control the pace of a production with the rhythm of their language, and they're contractually protected from anyone changing their words. And naturally, playwrights don’t have enough money to buy fancy pants too often. Screenwriters are different. Even though there’s more writing and reading going on in Los Angeles than anywhere else in the U.S., screenwriters are the beginning, rather than the end, of a highly collaborative process.
Auteur theory notwithstanding, cinematographers, editors, and directors are all “authors” of a movie. It’s been said that a movie gets written three times: when it’s written, when it’s shot, and when it’s cut. It seems to me to be more like a process of creating an iceberg in sedimentary layers, with only the top visible to the public. This means movies stars are famous, directors are powerful, editors and cinematographers are sought-after, and screenwriters support everyone while being held underwater in the dark until they drown. But they die wearing the very, very fancy pants they’ve bought with all their dough.
That’s an overstatement, of course, but a decent example of how screenwriters in Hollywood tend to see themselves -- as neglected chumps. Pound for pound, screenwriters seem to be wusses by choice. There's an iconic image of a screenwriter from 1950’s Sunset Boulevard of a screenwriter (played by William Holden) floating face down in Gloria Swanson’s swimming pool.
I’m only a wannabe screenwriter coming out of playwriting, but if I ever graduate into real deal screenwriter, I’m gonna be a lot less like William Holden in Sunset Boulevard, and a lot more like Humphrey Bogart in this week’s case in point:
1950’s In a Lonely Place
In the first minute of the movie a starlet tries to pick up screenwriter Humphrey Bogart while her husband’s right there. Bogart deflects her advances (she just wants to be in his next picture, anyway) and threatens to beat up her husband. Five minutes later, he’s teased a coat check girl (“And what do you call an epic?” “Oh, you know a picture that’s real long and has lots of things going on!”), gone after a studio head (“Nobody makes flops except you ... You haven’t had one because you’ve made and remade the same picture for the last 20 years -- you know what you are? You’re a popcorn salesman!”), and beaten the crap out of a rising star who was giving that aging actor a hard time.
That year saw two legendary movies about the entertainment business: Sunset Boulevard and All About Eve. Both brilliant, both movies you should have under your belt. In a Lonely Place takes similar material and puts it through the pulp blender: tough guys, a murder mystery, a guy with demons to purge. That’s the movie I go to when I start to worry about being a wannabe screenwriter. Bogart makes it all look cool.
Next week: Suicide Is Painless