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How Ruth Sacks Caplin Wrote A Movie and Put the Silver Back in the Silver Screen

By Darragh Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 30, 2006

Across the room, the screenwriter is dressed in dramatic black and surrounded by friends and fawners.

"Congratulations!" calls an old neighbor from the District, leaning in for a kiss. "This is so exciting," murmurs an acquaintance from Chevy Chase. The screenwriter, Ruth Sacks Caplin, takes her well-wishers' hands into both of hers and answers, "It's a very quiet movie."

Quiet, yes, but it's creating indie-film buzz -- a feat made even more impressive by these two facts:

"Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont" is Sacks Caplin's first screenplay.

Sacks Caplin is 85 years old.

Adapted from a novel by British writer Elizabeth Taylor, it stars Academy Award nominee Dame Joan Plowright -- longtime star of the British stage and films such as "Enchanted April" and "Tea With Mussolini," and widow of Sir Laurence Olivier. Now making the rounds of small film festivals, "Mrs. Palfrey" will arrive here in March. Last month, it opened in New York and Los Angeles to reviews like:

"A tender, touching, deeply moving film. Lady Olivier deserves an Oscar nomination. If people say they don't make great movies anymore, point them in the direction where this film is playing" (NBC Reel Talk). "An endearing, deceptively simple story" (Variety). "A genuine sleeper! . . . 'Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont' is a terrific, long-overdue vehicle for Lady Olivier" (New York Post).

Earlier this month, USA Today added Plowright's name to a list of "Don't Forget" suggestions for this year's Oscars, for Best Actress nominees.

Funny thing is, Sacks Caplin confesses, when movie director Dan Ireland ("The Whole Wide World") said he wanted to cast Plowright as Mrs. Palfrey, Sacks Caplin disagreed.

"I had seen her in 'Enchanted April,' " she says, and worried, "Oh, she's a little stiff and haughty."

But her grandson Daniel, who is still in high school, reassured her: "No, no. I saw in her in another film, and she was the woman next door. She was really very nice."

And when Sacks Caplin finally saw Plowright in the film, "and when I heard her voice, I thought, 'Oh, boy!' " She claps her hands. "She has got it!"

Period of Melancholy

Sacks Caplin lives in a huge Chevy Chase apartment across the street from Saks Fifth Avenue. It's got a wide, wraparound terrace, long views of the nearby golf course and a living room so spacious that the black grand piano almost appears small.

She does not drive. She has never driven: "I don't use machinery." She calls e-mails "telegrams," and she types on a manual, white Olympia typewriter.

"I've been trying to convince her that the word processor is -- " begins her husband, Mortimer Caplin.

"No, no!" She shakes her head stubbornly. "I won't use it."

The only machine she has made peace with is the microwave, which she approaches "reluctantly," she says, "and it is never happy to see me."

She and Caplin met in 1938 at a summer camp, Camp Mahopac. She was the assistant arts and crafts counselor. He was the swim counselor.

"But he's never been able to teach me to swim," she says. "I am his one failure."

"You do swim, Ruth," he says gently.

"But I don't put my head under the water." She laughs.

He went on to become a law professor at the University of Virginia, where "I had taught both Bobby and Teddy" -- Kennedy -- "and am still very close with Ted today." In early 1961, they moved to Washington after President John F. Kennedy appointed Caplin commissioner of Internal Revenue. He is also a founding member of Washington's Caplin & Drysdale law firm.

Sacks Caplin grew up in Brooklyn, in a family that loved the theater, and though she earned a degree in teaching art from Skidmore College, she was always writing. While still in college, she says, "I wrote a one-act story about a woman who had a lost-love affair. Of course, it was very sophomoric."

She has a long-standing book club devoted to reading poetry, and she is well known for her birthday cards: She always sends poems. "But not little rhymes," says her son Michael. "They are epics."

In the 1970s, she and her husband were in London, staying at their favorite hotel, the Connaught. He was there for a board meeting. She found "Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont" on a library shelf at the hotel. She had read other novels by Elizabeth Taylor (no, not that Elizabeth Taylor; the British literary novelist), but "none of them went to my heart the way that one did." It's the story of an elderly widow living in a London retirement hotel, who begins a close friendship with a young, penniless writer.

Sacks Caplin decided to turn it into a screenplay. And she was so serious about this, she bought a book called something like, she says, "How to Write a Play Script." She used that as her guide to adapting "Mrs. Palfrey." The work offered an escape to an "imaginary, quiet" place that "had nothing to do with anybody." At the time, she says, she and her family were enduring a "period of melancholy."

Her eldest daughter had recently died. Mary Ellen Caplin was 29 years old. "Pancreatic cancer," Sacks Caplin still whispers the words. On the writing desk and bookshelves of her office, she keeps nearly three dozen photos of her five children and eight grandchildren. Two of the photos, right at eye level above the typewriter, are of Mary Ellen, a pretty, buoyant young woman whose head is covered entirely by a white hat.

So in the late 1970s, Sacks Caplin disappeared for a while every day into her script. She imagined Helen Hayes as the lead, and at one point mentioned this to the Rev. Gilbert Hartke, legendary head of the drama department at Catholic University, who knew Hayes.

"You have to rewrite and rewrite ," he advised, urging Sacks Caplin to concentrate first on finishing the script.

When she finally finished, Hartke helped her get the script to Hayes, who wrote back, Sacks Caplin says, "saying she'd love to do it."

There was only one problem. Sacks Caplin didn't have the rights to the book. Elizabeth Taylor had died, and her widower had no intention of selling the rights -- not least to an unknown writer.

"And that was the end of that," Sacks Caplin says. "The whole thing went into that bottom drawer" -- she gestures over her head to the writing desk behind her -- "and I let it go."

But her son Lee, who went on to found the Picture Entertainment Corp. and produce "Ali," the boxing film starring Will Smith, didn't. He kept calling Elizabeth Taylor's widower, year after year. The widower never relented, but when he died, the estate agreed to sell.

Lee Caplin phoned one day about two years ago and cheered, "I've got the rights! We can do 'Mrs. Palfrey.' "

Marquee Event

"It is a nice surprise, in the senior quarter of my life, to have this bloom," Sacks Caplin says. "It's like a big birthday party."

She is a tiny woman dressed in a black Jacquard suit, leaning on her elegant black cane. Her son Michael has dropped her off, in his very Hollywood black Toyota Prius, at Silver Spring's AFI Silver Theatre for this Saturday night reception and private screening. Around the marquee, in bright digital red, circles the name of her movie: "MRS. PALFREY AT THE CLAREMONT."

"We could see it," she says, "from three blocks away! Whoever heard of such nonsense?" The newspaper photographer keeps flashing pictures. "I'm going to look stupefied in a minute," she tells him.

Inside the theater, at a reception where guests drink wine from plastic cups and eat seared tuna and chicken satay and grab Chinese takeout boxes filled with noodles and chopsticks, the nearly 200 well-wishers continue to parade past.

"Your first opening!" says Darwin Curtis.

"First and, I suspect, last," Sacks Caplin answers.

"It had good reviews in L.A.," murmurs Jan Piez, another Caplin friend, to the woman standing next to her. "I had friends who saw it and liked it."

Lynn Pearle, the Caplins' old neighbor from the District, tells Sacks Caplin that she was talking to her sister outside New York about "Mrs. Palfrey," and her sister said, "I know all about that movie!"

Sacks Caplin's son Lee has co-produced the movie, and her husband's law firm is hosting the night's reception. Still, the limelight tonight remains on her. She gets up, right before the screening, and the lectern is nearly as tall as she.

She talks about her correspondence with director Ireland, who would put into her script "some things to spice it up," and she would admonish him, "Uh-uh. Uh-uh," until he would respond, she says, "You know, we're not making a granny picture." She laughs. She says she calls him, now, "my second best friend."

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