As I hunch over my typewriter, I can hear the swirl of Beverly Hills life outside my hotel window -- the occasional growl of a passing Porsche or Ferrari and the omnipresent chatter of the Mexican American gardeners who seem to populate virtually every patch of this perfectly manicured landscape. In the distance I detect the faint sound of other IBM electrics ticking away in the morning sunshine. It is likely that others are engaged in similar labor, the composition of motion picture scripts. After all, this is the movie capital of the world, and it seems that if one is not engaged in gardening in Beverly Hills, one must be devoted to the creation of the next "Gone With the Wind" or "Raiders of the Lost Ark."
I am not so sanguine. I am here on temporary duty to make an emergency rewrite of a screenplay for a movie called "Big Daddy," the life story of a driver named Don Garlits, the seven-time world-champion drag racer and winner of just about everything in the sport. My associates on this project are vastly more experienced and credentialed. The director is John Frankenheimer, whose credits include such classics as "The Manchurian Candidate," "Seven Days in May," "Birdman of Alcatraz" and "Black Sunday." My co-writer is the fabled George Axelrod, who created "The Seven-Year Itch" and "How to Succeed in Business . . . " and who has excelled not only as a screenwriter, but as a playwright, novelist, director and producer.
Based on the track record (excuse the pun) of movies about automobile racing, we will need every erg of talent that myself and my esteemed collaborators can muster. Aside from Frankenheimer's landmark 1966 film, "Grand Prix," films on motor racing have been notorious bombs at the box office. The most recent, "Heart Like a Wheel" -- the life story of plucky female racer Shirley Muldowney -- was a critical success but did only modest business in the theaters. Paul Newman's "Winning" is said to have been the source of his enthusiasm for the sport, but the movie did little to flesh out his bank account when it was released.
Frankenheimer, who genuinely loves automobiles and automobile racing, is convinced that the sputtering commercial performance of racing movies has nothing to do with the sport, but rather with the generally abominable quality of the films themselves. Certainly the car-crash comedies of the 1970s did little to endear the sport to the general public. I confess to a certain responsibility in this regard, having co-written "Smokey and the Bandit II" and written "The Cannonball Run" -- a brace of Burt Reynolds epics that made millions but caused the critics fits of apoplexy. Because "car pictures" tend to be lumped together and are relegated to the critical trash heap beside ghoulish horror grislies and soft-core porn flicks, excellent films like "Grand Prix" and "Winning" get tarred with the critical brush as did, say, "Death Race 2000" and "The Ghost of Drag Strip Hollow."
Still, automobiles have played major roles in films since the first Keystone Kops one-reelers. Who can forget the riveting car chases in "The French Connection" or "Bullitt"? Or "A Man and a Woman," or the magical "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" (which was, by the way, the name of an actual 1920s racing car)? Automobiles, large and small, have been elemental presences in a thousand movies, from "The Grapes of Wrath" to "Vanishing Point" and their role is assured for the future.
Even now the renowned Francis Ford Coppola is working on a picture about the charlatan car-hustler Preston Tucker and his eminently silly namesake automobile that legend says was killed by the Detroit moguls because it was "too good."
But can racing cars and the men and women who drive them be considered legitimate subjects for a major motion picture? Based on the number of high-performance cars cruising the streets of Beverly Hills, an outsider might presume that every man, woman and child here is a speed-crazed car nut. Nowhere on earth can more hot cars be seen: Turbo Porsches, Ferraris, XJS Jaguars, hot rod Clenets, 560SL Mercedes-Benzes, BMW 328s, Jensen Interceptors, Aston-Martin Vantages, Lamborghini Countachs, Maserati Biturbos, AMG-converted S-Class Mercedeses. Many of these are driven by movie moguls, who one might assume would be eager to transfer their enthusiasm to the screen.
Sadly, these sensuous bolides are merely props in the town where everything composes a giant set. Guys draped in gold chains chug around in hot Ferraris at plug-fouling velocities. They care not a whit about sporty driving, but know that in the pecking order of Rodeo Drive, nothing packs more clout than one of Enzo's creations. Automobiles are totems in Hollywood and they mean nothing in terms of the owner's affection for fine road machinery.
Frankenheimer, like a small cadre of locals, does care about automobiles and drives to work either in a splendidly customized 500 SEC Mercedes-Benz or a right-hand-drive Bentley Continental. Axelrod, on the other hand, admits to auto indifference. He travels in a feckless rental Ford. No matter, he is a masterful writer and plot craftsman and he will bring to "Big Daddy" the kind of classic dramatic structure that must be present in all motion pictures, regardless of the subject. Then it will be up to Frankenheimer and myself to inject into the script the smells, sounds and sights of the sport. After that the story must be sold to a public whose tastes are at best unfathomable and diabolically erratic. ::