Hollywood: Opening Moves

In the spring of 1988, my wife, Joan Didion, and I were approached about writing a screenplay based on a book by Alanna Nash called Golden Girl, a biography of the late network correspondent and anchorwoman Jessica Savitch. In the spring of 1996, the motion picture made from our screenplay, now called Up Close & Personal, with Robert Redford and Michelle Pfeiffer, and no longer about Jessica Savitch, was released. What follows, drawn from a longer account, is about some of the opening moves in selling a screenplay in Hollywood, years before the first day of principal photography—the day when the actors finally appear before the camera.

I first met John Foreman in my sophomore year at Princeton, at a cocktail party my brother gave in New York. John was from Pocatello, Idaho, had taught English literature at Stephens College in Missouri after service in the Navy in World War II, then had abandoned academe to become a show-business press agent. He was shepherding a client at the party that day, a neophyte film actress promoting a Gary Cooper western in which she appeared. The picture was High Noon and the actress was Grace Kelly.

It was almost twenty years before I saw John again, when he hired my wife and me to rewrite a screenplay for Joanne Woodward. During the intervening two decades, John had metamorphosed, first into an enormously successful motion picture agent, one of the founders of Creative Management Associates, or CMA, the power packaging agency of the Sixties and Seventies, and then into an equally successful film producer—of Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid, Sometimes a Great Notion, and Judge Roy Bean, among other pictures. His partner in the Newman-Foreman Production Company was Paul Newman, whose agent he had once been.

The screenplay for Joanne Woodward did not work out. It had been an original script by Joyce Carol Oates called The Verbal Structure of a Woman’s Life, and was about a blue-collar interracial love affair in Detroit and Cleveland. Ms. Oates departed the project after her contractual rewrites, and, after a draft or two by my wife and me, so did Ms. Woodward. Always the optimist, John had us rewrite the picture for a series of actresses, including Vanessa Redgrave, Faye Dunaway, Natalie Wood, Julie Andrews, and Shirley MacLaine, none of whom “committed” to the picture, but each of whom wanted to see an additional draft, with her own input. We did so many drafts that I protested to John that we were working for two cents a page. Detroit and Cleveland gave way to Hartford and New Haven, then San Francisco and Sacramento, and finally, by some alchemy I still do not totally understand, the blue-collar interracial love story, by this time retitled January, February, was situated at the Ojai Music Festival. There it blessedly died.

John was a welcome companion at the better by-invitation-only Hollywood funerals, where he could be counted on to have the last scurrilously hilarious gossip about the …

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