Hollywood’s Hessians

The Craft of the Screenwriter: Interviews with Six Celebrated Screenwriters

by John Brady
Simon and Schuster, 462 pp., $16.95

A year or so ago, I went to the funeral of a screenwriter in the chapel of All Saints Episcopal Church in Beverly Hills. The deceased had won one Academy Award and been nominated for several others, was a former president of the Writers Guild of America West and a recipient of the Guild’s annual Laurel Award for distinguished lifetime service to the art of screenwriting. He had written pictures starring Paul Newman and Jane Fonda and Elizabeth Taylor and Dean Martin and Sidney Poitier and pictures directed by Robert Aldrich and Richard Brooks and Sydney Pollack and George Roy Hill.

All Saints was jammed. Two of the deceased’s ex-wives were up front, and in a rear pew, keening rather more loudly than necessary, was the sixteen-year-old he had been romancing the last few months of his life. “He kept worrying,” whispered my companion at the funeral, a screenwriter and a cad of international repute, “that his pubic hair was turning gray.” The Twenty-Third Psalm was read, William Blake’s “Jerusalem” was sung, and then the eulogies began. The first eulogist was another former president of the Writers Guild. He reminisced about days at the Guild fighting against the indignities done to screenwriters by studios and stars and directors and recalled how at one Guild social function the deceased had come up on stage to accept an award and had thrown a ream of blank pages out into the audience, a symbolic act meant either (I am not sure which) as a statement against the auteur theory or as a tableau vivant of the loneliness of the writer’s life.

The second eulogist was the ex-husband of a movie star. The deceased, he said, had been kind and gentle and truthful, although no boy scout, and he had also been a lonely man. To illustrate the degree of loneliness, he told the following story: “If I hadn’t seen him for a long time, the phone would ring and a voice would say, ‘What’s up? Is your sauna unoccupied?’ And he would drive into town and we would go into the sauna and afterwards we would talk for an hour or two. Only after he left would I stop and think, ‘He drove all the way in from Malibu to use my sauna in West Hollywood.’ And I know there are a lot of saunas he could have used in Malibu that were a lot closer than mine in West Hollywood.”

It was difficult not to reflect on this funeral while reading The Craft of Screenwriting, a collection of John Brady’s long interviews with six screenwriters—the late Paddy Chayevsky, William Goldman, Ernest Lehman, Paul Schrader, Neil Simon, and Robert Towne. “In the beginning,” screenwriters are fond of saying, “is the Word.” Screenwriters in fact are given to such rhetorical flourishes. “The holy chore of screenwriting,” one called his trade recently in a letter quoted in the Los Angeles Times, while another, musing about a screenplay …

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