I AM INDEBTED to Ray Stark for giving me the final push into retirement from screenwriting after 45 years. When he telephoned me last May, I was already planning to claim my Social Security benefit and a Writers Guide Pension as of my 65th birthday in August, and to start work on a novel. Stark, one of Hollywood's richest and most powerful executives, suggested that I do one last screenplay: a new version of "Pal Joey," the 1940 Broadway musical, with Al Pacino as star and Herbert Ross as director. I would be free, he told me, to start afresh with the original John O'Hara stories, but we would have the benefit not only of the superb score but also of any other Rodgers and Hart number that suited our needs. "And in my setup," he promised, "you won't have to talk to any studio. You won't even have to talk to me. Just to Herb Ross."
Now, one of my reasons for getting out of movies was a run of unproduced screenplays. This has always benn an occupational hazard, but several aborted projects in a row had left me more frustrated than usual. In this context it was a positive factor that both Stark and Ross had been having a lot of commercial success lately, especially as producer and director of a series of Neil Simon films. How much more satisfying to quit the scene with a hit in the can than a script on the shelf.
The first discussion with Ross was encouraging enough for me to say I would give another week's though to the project. Stark called during that period to say how heartened he had been by Ross' report of our meeting and how much they both hoped I would undertake the assignment. After a second meeting and another few days, I had some more specific ideas to propose, and Ross responded to them with so much enthusiasm that I said I would be willing to take the job. He said it only remained for terms to be agreed upon between Stark and my agent, and Stark confirmed this in a call just before I left for Italy on a 10-day vacation. By the time I returned, he predicted, there would be a contract for me to sign.
That was the last I ever heard from either of them. No proposal was made to the agent; instead, he was told they needed a week to clear up "a technicality" concerning the rights to the material. That was the last word he ever had on the matter.
I cannot reveal to you what caused the sudden switch in this case because I don't have a clue myself. I can only report that it belongs to a class of phenomena that no longer surprise me after more than four decades. I don't even know whether Stark controlled the rights to "Pal Joey" when he approached me about it. If he didn't it was a serious breach of ethics to enlist my time and effort for two weeks without so advising me, and in any case it was a breach of common courtesy not to explain the technicality directly to me when it arose.
I am not so ambitious, however, as to want to reform Stark's character or his manners. What I am concerned with is the familiar blend of flattery and contempt with which writers have always been treated in the American motion picture business.
I was barely 22 years old when I turned in the first screenplay I had written in a collaborator. I could hardly wait for the producer's reaction, but I wasn't ready to hear it before he even opened the script. "I'm sending this right over to Wald and Macaulay," he said, referring to a well-paid writing team on the lot. "I gave it to you so you could break ground for them while they were finishing another job." It was hard to believe he was going to pass it on without reading a word, but that is just what he did. And on what grounds could I object? I had been paid for my work, almost $1,000 as I remember it.
It is the fact rather than the amount of payment that counts. Three years later Michael Kanin and I were paid $100,000, the highest price to that date for an original screenplay. We also received an Academy Award for the script, but in a transmutation so prodigious it could only be achieved by contract, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer "became" the author of the work. If anyone remains skeptical about this process, let him take note that the authors' royalties from the musical version of that 1942 movie, "Woman of the Year," now on Broadway, are going to MGM, and not to us.
My career in Hollywood was divided into two parts by a hiatus of 15 years during which my name was barred from the screen and my presence from the studios. By coincidence it was in those blacklist years that a basic change took place in control over the screenplay. In the old days a writer was subject to replacement for no more substantial reason than "getting a fresh viewpoint." Changing writers was about as significant to Irving Thalberg and David Selznick as sending in an alternate wide receiver with the next play is to a modern football coach. But if yours happened to be the final script approved by the man in charge, you knew no one else had the authority to make changes from then on.
My first experience with the new system came when another blacklisted writer, Ian McLellan Hunter, and I wrote a screenplay for a British company under a pseudonym. After meeting with the producers and the director on the Caribbean location, we made some changes to conform to what we found there. Just before filming began we were startled to receive a "final shooting script" that was quite a drastic rewrite of ours, with the added defect of being, in our opinion, decidedly inferior. The producers' only response to our protest was that standard British practice entitled the director to a final revision after the writer was through. Hollywood's New Direction
By the time I was able to write under my own mane again in the 1960s, this inflation of the director's authority was already taking hold in Hollywood although the time was still years off when one of them could single-handedly change the whole purpose and thrust of a picture in mid-production, or spend twice his authorized budget without any effective restraint.
The whole auteur theory, as imported from France in the late 1950s, was actually quite incongruous with an American system in which the director usually appeared on the scene after the second or third draft of the script. It is true, nonetheless, that the most impressive filmmaking talent of the last 20 years has emerged among the younger directors who see themselves as creators as well as interpreters. Unfortunately, their egos have generally developed faster than their self-critical faculties, and their best efforts have been followed by such anticlimaxes as "New York, New York," "1941," "Heaven's Gate," "Images," "At Long Last, Love," "Buffalo Bill" and the apocalyptic part of "Apocalypse Now."
I had the good luck to come in contact with one of the most original of these new talents when Robert Altman undertook my screenplay of "M"A"S"H" after its rejection by 16 other directors in a row. In my partisan judgment, he discarded values that could have made it a better movie, but he added so many more that I remain in his debt for my share of the acclaim, including my second Oscar in 1970.
Three years and five unproduced screenplays later, I tried to cheer up my agent, a mercurial Sicilian, for our lack of success in advancing my career. "George," I said, "you know the old Hollywood saying: You're only as good as your last picture. Well, what better strategy could we think up than keeping 'M*A*S*H' as my last picture?"
In reality, though, it hurt -- all that construction and action and dialogue that was not being recorded on film. One of the times I can recall hurting most was when a man named Michael Ritchie refused to speak to me about my screenplay. I had done, for David Merrick, a couple of drafts of an adaptation of the book "Semi-Tough" by Dan Jenkins. Merrick liked my script; Jenkins liked it and, most significant of all, United Artists liked it enough to say they were taking the crucial step from "developing the property" to making it a starring vehicle for Burt Reynolds.
The one missing element was a director, and this was supplied in the person of Ritchie, who, it turned out, had one reservation. Even after I had conveyed to him indirectly my willingness to consider a major revision, he said he didn't care to talk to the writer of the script; he wanted to talk to a new writer. Merrick and the U.A. hierarchy at the time regarded this demand as arbitrary but not excessive. They displayed their adaptability by transferring their entrepreneurial endorsement from the book and screenplay they had bought to whatever Ritchie and his new writer might devise to take its place. What they had bought was a satirical comedy about professional football; what Ritchie felt like making that season -- and did -- was a satirical comedy about consciousness-raising groups. (The new writer was my friend Walter Bernstein, who called me when he was offered the job and received my dispensation and blessing, just as I would have had his in a reversal of the situation.) Easing the Pain
So many factors over which he has no control contribute to the eventual fate of a screenwriter's work that he can ease the pain by persuading himself he has no control at all -- that it really doesn't matter how hard he tries. To fortify himself against this delusion, he has to remember that while good scripts have been turned into bad films, no good film was ever made from a poor script.
Another temptation is to fantasize that his unshot scripts would have become more original and provocative movies than the ones that ran the gauntlet to theatrical exhibition. A sober review of the files exposes this, too, in my own case at least, to be a piece of self-delusion. Among the unproduced scripts are a sizable number that were poor ideas to begin with, undertaken for misguided or unworthy motives, including the classic cop-out of the indentured artist: "If they're dumb enough to pay all that money for this crap, who am I to object?" In the end, "my best scripts are on the shelf" has to be amended to "my best and worst scripts are on the shelf."
There still remain just enough of the former, however, to put together a small festival of respectable unshot films. The picture that opens this festival was definitely ahead of its time. It concerned the disease of alcoholism and its ravaging effects on a woman played by Carole Lombard. I can see no one else in the role because it was Carole who took the story from one studio to another, to be told by all of them that the subject was unacceptable. Five years later, Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder made "The Lost Weekend." Festival of Screenplays
The most lively and enduring of all my defunct creations was an original comedy written in 1943 called "The Great Indoors." I sold it the year I went to prison as one of the Hollywood Ten to an enterprising producer named Bob Roberts, whose payments went for family support while I was away. Then he was blacklisted and moved to London, where he has let few years go by in the last 30 without a statement of his interview to produce "The Great Indoors."
From the year 1945 comes the first Hollywood movie to deal with the subject of anti-Semitism, a screenplay based on Gwethalyn Graham's novel "Earth and High Heaven." My adaptation provoked a memorable reaction from its first reader, the Samuel Goldwyn of life and legend: "Lardner, you have defrauded and betrayed me!" Defrauded, he explained, by writing scenes that were more explicitly on the theme than they had seemed to be when I described them in synopsis. "And one of the reasons I hired you, just one, was the fact that you're a gentile. You have betrayed me by writing like a Jew."
Skipping to the decade just past, I did an adaptation of an entertaining and cogent novel by Tom McHale called "Farragan's Retreat." A reactionary family of Roman Catholics in Philadelphia assigns one of its members to liquidate his own son, who has disgraced them all by fleeing to Montreal instead of taking his patriotic place with our troops in Vietnam. Paramount Pictures cheerfully paid for the book and the script of this black comedy, then abruptly decided Vietnam might become a forgotten issue during the year it would take to get the picture out. Actually, just 14 months later, Nixon and Kissinger were keeping the issue fresh with their Christmas bombing.
Another comedy was "Cedarhurst Alley," based on a novel by Denison Hatch. It is the story of a family, plagued by nose and vibration, that raises a barrage of balloons over their house and into a main approach corridor to Kennedy Airport; it was a fine setting for a lone-individual-versus-the-system movie. But what makes it especially memorable to me now is how urgently I felt the obligation to get that script ready for shooting. When asked to write the pilot episode for the proposed "M*A*S*H" television series, with a piece of the action for however long that speculative venture might last, I had to say no because I couldn't do it without losing some of my concentration on "Cedarhurst Alley."
Completing the festival week is an original screenplay, "The Volunteers," about the Americans in the Spanish Civil War. The main character is a correspondent who went to Spain as my brother Jim did in 1938 to cover the war, joined the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in the last terrible months and was killed, as Jim was, the night before the Internationals were withdrawn. On this one, Hannah Weinstein, the producer who originated the project, and I ran into the problem that the top jobs in Hollywood these days are the least secure ones. The head of production at Columbia Pictures, who liked the idea and contracted with us for the script, had been replaced, when we returned with a first draft, by a head of production who announced for starters that he hated the idea. That meant Hannah had to look elsewhere for financing. She's still looking, but you don't find investors readily for an expensive production with debatable box office appeal.
They all still sound like good ideas for pictures, but I guess I have to admit that the great appeal of every one of these films is not so much the strength of the original concept as the brilliant fidelity of its execution. In what other festival has each entry been photographed with faultless taste, accented with an unassuming yet telling musical score, directed with imaginative respect and played up to the hilt and not an inch beyond by inspired and selfless actors?
In the real world, unfortunately, the screenwriter faces the constant, inescapable truth that nothing ever quite comes out the way it was conceived. He can be rewritten by one of his colleagues, or by a director, producer, actor or cutter, or in a final affront called editing for television. Occasionally, a marvelous moment will emerge on film that could only have come from such promiscuous collaboration. But the results far more often fall somewhere short of the intention.
Books have been published decades after they were originally written; a current Broadway hit, "Morning's at Seven," was a failure when it was first produced 40 years ago. Mature writers have thought anew about an early novel, then revised and republished it. It is a regular part of an out-of-town tryout of a play for the playwright to test various versions of a scene before a paid audience.
A publisher, a magazine editor, a theatrical producer, may all make suggestions to a writer, but it is the writer who decides whether to change his work or find another sponsor. For the screenwriter, 99 percent of the time, there is no control over the transition from concept to frames of film, and once that transition has been made, no previous version retains any significant reality. How can I match my paper draft of a scene against what is now implanted on celuloid? One for the Writer
I recall the only time I ever thought I won an argument with Darryl Zanuck. We were discussing (quite soberly; all such discussions seem important at the time) his proposal to cut from the script of "Forever Amber" a scene that I felt was essential to the leading character's motivation. Although motivation scenes were a prime Zanuck target (he preferred to strip down to pure action), he finally conceded and I might have a point and instructed Otto Preminger, the director, to go ahead and shoot the scene. A couple of months later we sat in a projection room watching a rough assembly of the picture, and the scene in question, which I never did see on film, was now out. Zanuck directed a comment at me over his shoulder; "Humoring you on that one cost us $20,000."
That closed the subject for good, and properly so. If I had pointed out that I found the new transition confusing, I would have been ignoring the several facts he had incorporated into that one short statement. It was a fact that I had wanted to retain the scene; it was a fact that he had made the irrevocable decision to elimiante it; therefore, it was equally a fact that I had made a mistake costing the studio $20,000.
If I added up the various drafts of the scripts in my fantasy festival and multiplied that by four to approximate the total number of unshot screenplays I have written since 1936, and then added all the preliminary drafts and unused versions of scenes in the scripts that did get produced, I would be talking about tens of thousands of pages filled with characters and scenes, dialogue and description that served little or no function in the past and are not likely to be put to any use in the future.
I am not saying by any means that I regard all that as wasted effort. For a young writer every discarded page is a step in mastering his craft. At my age, however, it is natural to think more about immediate results and to return to a medium in which I can hope to expend my energy more frugally.