MY FAIR LADY REVISITED

In an earlier post I recognized in a film production the contribution of the actors on the writing of the screenplay.  It is important to remember, which readers of my book should be well aware, that the screenplay is a continually evolving work which is never actually finished until the film is shown to theater audiences, if then.  In the aforementioned post, I gave the example of how the American actress Judy Garland demanded changes in the tone of the story for the film Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), which contributed to it being a box-office success.  However, it is not generally recognized that the most consequential influence on the development of the screenplay after that of the writers is often the audience itself.  This is especially true in Hollywood, where it is not uncommon for a film to be screened for a test audience, and from the comments collected, substantial changes made, including reshoots.  One should never lose sight of the fact that in Hollywood the customer—audience in this case—is always right (practitioners of “art for the sake of the artist” need not apply in that town).

For example, if the writer is unsure whom his heroine should choose for a husband, have no fear, the audience will choose for her, and often does.  A writer may fancy himself as “a man of the world” and an expert on human nature; but that counts for nothing to an audience, whose opinion must never be ignored on such matters: case in point is the 1914 play Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw and its many adaptations–the 1964  film My Fair Lady, based on the stage musical of the same name, being the best known.  Regrettably I have never seen the stage version of My Fair Lady, so my examination will be based primarily on the film, which I presume did not differ much from the stage production. I will also be drawing heavily on Shaw’s original stage play itself, along with a 1938 film adaption that credited him as the  screenwriter (along with a few others).

Now let’s get down to work, and there is no better place to start than with the songs that made both the stage musical and the film the immense hit that it became. But before we do, we need to review the origins and plot of the work: My Fair Lady, and its predecessors (Shaw’s original play and the 1938 film Pygmalion) is a retelling of the Greek myth in which the sculptor Pygmalion creates a statue of a woman so beautiful that he falls in love with it and beseeches the goddess Aphrodite to bring her, Galatea, to life; a wish that is granted.  In Shaw’s play Professor Henry Higgins, a well- to- do expert on phonetics, rescues an impoverished young woman, Eliza Doolittle, from the streets of London and teaches her to speak English so perfectly that he can pass her off as a Duchess.  The central question we will be asking in the many versions of Shaw’s work is: does the Professor fall in love with Eliza as did Pygmalion with Galatea, and she with him?  Those of you who are familiar with the work may be surprised at this question, but as we will shortly see, the answer is not so clear.

The score for My Fair Lady by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe is indeed brilliant, so let’s begin with some of the highlights.  What better place to start than with Alfred P. Doolittle’s, Eliza’s father, song “With a Little Bit of Luck,” his paean to the morality (or lack of it) of the “undeserved poor.” This is pure Shavian wit. A real crowd pleaser; nothing for the audience or Shaw, himself, not to like here.  This theme is expanded on splendidly with Doolittle’s next number, “Get Me to the Church on Tine,” in which this incorrigible reprobate bemoans his sad fate at being thrust into the ignominy of “middle class morality,” owing to his new found (financial) fortune. Moving on to Professor Higgins’s musical numbers, we find that “Never Let a Woman in Your Life (I’m and Ordinary Man) ” and “Why Can’t a Woman be more Like a Man (A Hymn to Him)” perfectly embodies Shaw’s misogyny.   Then there is the magnificent ballad by the love-struck Freddy Eynsford-Hill “On the Street where You Live.”  Vic Damone’s version of this fine song shot up near the top of the American popular music charts during the original New York run of the show and for good reason.

Now comes Lerner and Loewe’s piece de resistance, Eliza’s show-stopper “I could have Danced all Night,” in which our heroine gushes on how her heart went a flutter when Higgins, her Svengali, danced with her. But wait a minute! My Ouija board is in overdrive! It appears that I’m getting a message—and an angry one—from the other side. It is indeed from that old curmudgeon George Bernard Shaw, himself.  And the message is: STOP THE MUSIC AND DROP THE CURTAIN!  THAT’S NOT MY PLAY!   And he is absolutely right: My Fair Lady, splendid as it is, has nothing to do with his original concept for Pygmalion.  You see, My Fair Lady is predicated on there being a romantic tension between Professor Higgins and Eliza: a tension that Shaw insisted never existed.  Furthermore, contrary to what the audience may have wished, Eliza will never marry the Professor nor ever had any intention in doing so!

As much as Shaw sought to suppress even a hint of affection between his Pygmalion and Galatea, the interpreters of his work kept undermining him at every turn.  For example, in the play’s 1914 London premier the actor playing Professor Higgins, Herbert Beerbohm Tree, at the end of the last act, throws Eliza a bouquet of flowers as she leaves him, ostensibly for the last time.  This was not written or intended by Shaw, so he went back stage and angrily told the actor he should be shot for desecrating his play; the actor replied that Shaw should be grateful because his (Tree’s) ending, which pleased the audience immensely, was making money.  So exasperated had Shaw become that in 1916 he added an epilogue to the print edition that clearly indicated why there could never be any happy ending for Eliza and Higgins’s non-existent romance. However, for the 1938 film adaptation of his play for which he (and a few others) is credited for the screenplay, Shaw seems to have softened.  For example, the line in the play in which Eliza tells Professor Higgins that he will not be seeing her again, is changed to simply her saying to him goodbye.  In addition there is an added scene in which Higgins watches Eliza drive off with Freddy; that the Professor is extremely jealous is undeniable.  Let’s examine Shaw’s reasons for why Eliza and Professor Higgins can never be together and determine how persuasive they really are.

Shaw begins by lobbing a hand grenade:  when Eliza tells Higgins that she would never marry him if he asked her, she is not being a coquette; according to Shaw, Eliza never seriously considered nor would ever consider the Professor as suitable for marriage.  Shaw assumes that any single woman (he uses the unflattering term “spinster”) worthy of her sex, upon encountering a bachelor as eligible as the Professor will do a quick calculation as to his suitability as a life partner.  Unfortunately for the old bachelor, he is found wanting in every metric: and this by a woman whose most recent home was the streets!  What are these liabilities?

Of course, there are the usual suspects that an astute woman, or perhaps any woman, can easily pick up on:  the fact that he is a confirmed bachelor, that she must compete with his mother with whom he has a close relationship, his devotion to his stuffy work, and last but not least, the Professor is a rather disagreeable chap. And to counter the old adage that beggars cannot be choosers, Eliza does bring something to the table:  she as “a good-looking girl does not feel that pressure” to marry; therefore she can to pick and choose.   Of course, a determined woman could possibly surmount or overlook these obstacles (e.g. his attachment to his mother and his work)—after all, with his breeding and his wealth, the Professor certainly would be a “catch.”  But there is one obstacle that could never be overcome: the fact that Eliza and the Professor are too much alike. They are two very strong -willed people, and we all know that only opposites attract.

Shaw quite persuasively expands upon this observation:

Accordingly, it is a truth everywhere in evidence that strong people, masculine or feminine, not only do not marry stronger people, but do not show any preference for them in selecting their friends. When a lion meets another with a louder roar “the first lion thinks the last a bore.” The man or woman who feels strong enough for two, seeks for every other quality in a partner than strength.

So if Eliza is not to marry Professor Higgins, whom then is she to marry?  Elementary.  She will marry Freddy Eynsenford- Hill .  Freddy!  That useless fop that can’t even be relied on to get a cab for his mother! Freddy whom as Professor Higgins declares couldn’t get a job as an errand boy if he had the guts to look for one!  Yes, Freddy. Here is Shaw’s cynical logic:

This being the state of human affairs, what is Eliza fairly sure to do when she is placed between Freddy and Higgins? Will she look forward to a lifetime of fetching Higgins’s slippers or to a lifetime of Freddy fetching hers? There can be no doubt about the answer. Unless Freddy is biologically repulsive to her, and Higgins biologically attractive to a degree that overwhelms all her other instincts, she will, if she marries either of them, marry Freddy.

So certain is Shaw that Eliza will marry Freddy that he wrote a final scene for the 1938 film in which Eliza and Freddy are married and running a modest grocery/flower shop together.  The producers knew better, however, and substituted one in which Eliza returns to Professor Higgins’s townhouse; in fact, it is literally the very same scene that is the ending of My Fair Lady. You would think that Shaw would have been livid about this substitution, but why should he?  Shaw knows just as does Professor Higgins that Eliza will return; for where else could she go?  Shaw alludes to this when he observes:

Eliza’s instinct tells her not to marry Higgins. It does not tell her to give him up. It is not in the slightest doubt as to his remaining one of the strongest personal interests in her life.

So now where does that leave us? We’ve heard from the characters and Shaw, himself.  Now it’s time for the audience to weigh in.  And weigh in they will (an audience in 1964, not necessarily one today):  Although Shaw may be extremely erudite and can effortlessly quote Nietzsche (“When you go to a woman bring the whip”), an audience of that period knows what they know; and they don’t need a so-called man of the world to tell them otherwise, especially when it comes to affairs of the heart.  They know full well that it is not uncommon for young female students to fall in love with their professors and vice versa.  In fact, it is quite common.   Don’t try to tell them that there is no spark between Eliza and Professor Higgins ready to turn into a full scale conflagration.  And when Eliza tells Professor Higgins that she wouldn’t marry him if he asked her, they know that that is precisely what she wants: for him to ask her to marry him.  That doesn’t mean that they expect her to say yes: Higgins has sinned and he must atone.  He has failed to acknowledge that although she may not be a gift from the gods as was Galatea to Pygmalion, this comely young woman, who is at least twenty years younger, is the best thing that ever happened to him and must be treated accordingly.

The audience decrees that Higgins be given a second chance, and if he should fail again, then—and only then—will they give Eliza leave to pursue another man: and it certainly will not be that fop Freddy Eynsford- Hill, no matter how earnest and sincere he is!   And as for Eliza “running the numbers” in deciding upon a suitable husband, don’t insult their intelligence.  The audience knows full well that in these matters one listens to the heart not the brain—and they can point to the soaring divorce rates to prove it.  No, Mr. Shaw, stick to philosophy and stinging social commentary:  don’t try your hand at writing an advice to the lovelorn column; you will fail miserably.

Can you imagine if the lyrics and book for My Fair Lady had been written by Shaw and not Alan Jay Lerner?  For the showstopper we might have had Eliza singing “I want a Weak Man” rather than “I could have Danced All Night.”  And for the final scene, we may have had the newlyweds Eliza and Freddy, in their cold-water flat, singing a duet entitled “I’d rather have Love than Money.”

The New York stage production of My Fair Lady broke all Broadway records at the time. It also ran in London for over five years (Shaw’s original production of Pygmalion ran for little more than 100 performances).  The film version of My Fair Lady received eight Oscars, including Best Picture.

If any of you find my analysis of the film less than convincing, I encourage you to undertake your own.  The source materials are readily available on the internet.  Shaw’s play with epilogue is available for free, as well as the 1938 film version.  Although the film My Fair Lady is not available for free, much of it, including the musical numbers, can be viewed in short clips at no cost.

The role of Eliza was played by the late Audrey Hepburn.  If you have never seen her in a film before, you just may be, like Freddy, pleasantly “done in” by her enormous talent and gracious charm.

P.S.

Not everyone believed that Eliza should marry Professor Higgins instead of Freddy Eynsford-Hill.  The actor who played Freddy, Jeremy Brett, was so handsome and the song he sung (“On the Street where You Live”) so beautiful that he could melt the heart of any woman, young or old.   But Eliza never heard him sing, although his sentiments would surely have been expressed in the daily love letters he sent her.   We never hear Eliza express any deep affection for Freddy either, in the original play or the musical:  his main function is to make Professor Higgins jealous and/or show him that she could get along without him very well.  It is obvious that Shaw was skeptical that women married for love; given the disparity in power and money between the sexes at that time, they could hardly afford to do so.

 

 

 

 

The Pivotal Character Revisited

In an earlier post I mentioned that although the late drama theorist Lajos Egri was indeed brilliant, many of his dictums on the art of playwriting are extremely dated. That is not to say that his insights were not valid for the plays of his day, but tastes change, particularly when it comes to playwriting and screenwriting.  I made reference to one of Egri’s central tenets: the premise.  I defined this as a thought-provoking idea, usually of social significance, that must be proved or demonstrated; Egri insisted that any play worthy of the name must have one.  However, I pointed out that such premises are rare today because audiences have “seen it all” and don’t like to be preached to (although that hasn’t dissuaded more than a few stubborn playwrights and filmmakers from “preaching to the choir”).

Another of Egri’s insights that you don’t hear mentioned much today is the concept of the Pivotal Character.  According to Egri, without such a character there would be no play: he (or she) sets the action in motion.  As an example, Egri points to  Krogstad, a minor character in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, whose demand that the main character, Nora, repay a loan sets the play in motion. A pivotal character may be a secondary character or, more commonly, the main character or protagonist.  According to Egri, a pivotal character must not only set the drama in motion, he or she must be “necessarily aggressive, uncompromising, even ruthless.”  Ironically, Egri considered Hamlet, whose name is almost synonymous with vacillation, as a pivotal character because he (Hamlet) “ferrets out his father’s murderers . . . to bring the guilty to justice.”

Do I think that Egi’s concept of the pivotal character is dated?  The answer is “yes” and “no”. There are pivotal characters in contemporary drama, but less so than in Egri’s time, because many of today’s dramas don’t have concrete beginnings and endings: there is no action to set in motion because the characters’ lives change little from day to day.  This is particularly true of “slice of life” dramas that periodically fall in and out of fashion.  And as far as characters being “aggressive” and “ruthless,” you are likely only to find those traits in psychopathic villains.   Furthermore, males today—particularly American males—are more likely than not to be depicted as being complex and sensitive. Thus when the pivotal character is a male, you can be certain that Alpha Males need not apply!  And if the pivotal character is an aggressive male, there is a dearth of actors to portray them.  As one American screenwriter not so long ago warned his fellow writers, when choosing their characters, they should keep in mind that “there are no more Lee Marvin’s.”  To which I would add, no Humphrey Bogart’s or John Wayne’s either. So why am I revisiting this concept?

I am doing so because although there are indeed pivotal characters– and should be– in contemporary drama, employing them presents a challenge for both the writer and the actor.   It is essential for both in practicing their art to know the motivation of the characters they write of or portray.  For most characters this is very straight forward.  For example, we can assume that a mother will always protect her children and a father will always protect his family because that is what we expect parents to do.  But when a character is “pivotal,” motivation may not be so clear.   Case in point is the pivotal characters in American “Road films.”  In this genre the main characters, usually seeking a better life, pack up whatever belongings they possess and drive across country, along the way encountering interesting people and embarking on unusual adventures.  The problem is, despite the perception that Americans are very mobile and move around a lot, most would never make so consequential a journey unless they had the offer of an exceedingly good job—and even then it’s not certain that they would actually make such a bold move.  Writers of these films often come up with stronger motivations for the pivotal characters, such as reconciling with a dying relative, searching for a lost child, or collecting a large inheritance or some other large sum of money.  These “stronger” motivations are obviously contrived, but audiences don’t seem to mind as long as the rest of the film is engaging and entertaining.  Let us now look at an example where a writer skillfully met the challenge of the pivotal character and found an actor to capably execute it:  Peter Shaffer’s masterful play Amadeus.

The subject here is the alleged murder of the 18th century Viennese musical genius Mozart by the jealous court composer Salieri.  Mozart, of course, is a historical figure.  Salieri is, too, although a minor one.  In fact there is no real documentation that the two had much interaction, although Salieri had been the music teacher of Mozart’s son and had even conducted some of Mozart’s work.  The drama really doesn’t start until Salieri renounces God and commits himself to undermining Mozart (and possibly committing murder).  This then is the ultimate pivotal act by the pivotal character.  Without Salieri’s treachery, instead of having an engrossing play, all you would be left with would be a faithful biography of Mozart.

Now here is the challenge for the playwright: while the motivation for Mozart is quite clear and straightforward, the motivation for Salieri is not.  Mozart, despite his character flaws, wants nothing more than to be successful in his art; furthermore he sees himself as a dutiful husband, father and son.  Salieri’s motivation is not so clear or uncomplicated.  Salieri is driven by resentment and professional jealousy.  These feelings are understandable; but is it really credible that a devout Catholic would renounce his religion and be so driven by hatred?  Real genius is required on both the part of the playwright and the actor portraying Salieri to make the play succeed.

And succeed they did.   The original Broadway production received the Tony for Best Play, and the motion picture adaptation a few years later received the Oscar for Best Picture.  The actors who played Salieri, Ian McKellen (play) and F. Murray Abraham (film), both received Best Actor awards: the Tony and Oscar, respectively.

 

Who was Lewis Helmar Herman?

If you happened to read the memoirs of successful twentieth-century American screenwriters, you might have come across  anecdotes about how upon being offered their first screenwriting assignment and not having the slightest idea of how to write one—most of them were novelists or playwrights—they headed down to a nearby all-night bookstore and purchased a book on screenwriting.  Most likely the book they purchased was A Practical Manual of Screen Playwriting by Lewis Helmar Herman.  First published in 1952, the book is still in print.  But just who was the author of one of the most widely-read books on screenwriting?  Oddly, on the back cover of my copy of the book there is absolutely no information about the author.  Even the Wikipedia has no entry for him—and they have entries on just about anyone.  Given what I believe is Herman’s importance, and spurred by curiosity, I undertook my own investigation on the internet of this very remarkable man.  Unfortunately, my investigation didn’t turn up a great amount of information.  I did learn that he was born in 1905; however, I couldn’t confirm when he died, or if  in fact he was still living—which would make him 111 years old—though my sleuthing has led me to believe that he passed away in New York City some time during the 1990’s.

My investigation revealed some interesting aspects about the man.  Herman was a type of writer who is very rare today:  a writer who makes a living writing plays, books, articles and short stories.  (In my library I have a copy of a book he wrote on American dialects)  Furthermore, in the 1940’s Herman went to Hollywood to write screenplays, which I surmise was only for a few years.  Additional investigation reveals that he most likely headed-up the United States Army’s motion picture center in New York City during the 1950’s.  Unfortunately, for the last thirty or forty years of his life, the trail went cold for me.

But just what is Herman’s importance besides the fact that his book has been so widely read?  Well, perhaps it has something to do with the fact that during the 1980’s film academics in the United States proclaimed that during the 1930’s. 1940’s and 1950’s American cinema had enjoyed a “classic” period—never to be equaled again—and the secret of its success was indeed “secret.”  This spurred film scholars and a new crop of manual writers and script gurus to delve into the archives of the major film studios in search of Hollywood’s most closely guarded “trade secrets.”  However, what these film scholars and would-be gurus failed to realize or acknowledge was that these supposed trade secrets were hiding in plain sight—in Herman’s all -encompassing 1952 screenwriting manual.

Herman revealed all, particularly the mainstay Hollywood plot gimmicks, particularly “the plant,” “the old switcheroo” and “the weenie”—referred to as “the MaGuffin” by Alfred Hitchcock.  Although Herman knew all the gimmicks, he was critical of their overuse by Hollywood.  He complained that “In Hollywood the gimmick is the most overused stock in trade.  It is because of the gimmick that Hollywood pictures stress plot to the detriment of genuine characterization.”  Herman did not simply dwell on gimmicks; he even provided an exposition on a “three-act” structure.

Although Herman worked primarily in Hollywood, he was well aware of foreign (non-U.S.) films, particularly their strengths and weaknesses.  He noted that while American films often opened literally with a “bang,” e.g. someone being shot in the opening scene, European films—and British films in particular—began at a much slower pace.  He noted the following:

It is obvious from their pictures that the British believe the gradual –and therefore natural—development of character is vitally important.  So they begin their pictures with an overall visual exposition of the milieu in which the action will take place . . . .  This done, they go in from the general to the specific, by showing the people who will be involved in the action as they go through their normal workaday lives.  From this they become more specific, and single out the protagonists and antagonists, so as to set them up in their proper relation to each other, and to the story line.

Only when these expository preliminaries have been attended to do they begin to get into the action itself.

Herman went on to note how this slow build and slower tempo persisted throughout almost the entire length of a British film, picking up only at the end.  Although Herman understood the logic of this type of slow build, he noted that it did not always produce good results; in fact in some instances he found that there was an almost robot-like adherence to its employment.

Lewis Helmar Herman: the author of the only screenwriting manual you will ever need!

The Writer and Modern Psychiatry

In an earlier post I discussed how the mental health profession has relied heavily on film for teaching examples and the reasons why.  Today I will discuss how the screenwriter draws on (and perhaps should) modern psychiatry, if not for inspiration, at least for authenticity.  For much of the previous century, films incorporated very little insight from psychiatry.  There were two reasons for this: the first was the fact that psychiatry was still in its infancy; the second was  that most writers had very little contact with the mentally ill.  People that were seriously mentally ill, such as schizophrenics, were almost always placed in mental institutions and thus the public had essentially no contact with them.  There was one exception to this, and that was the psychoanalytic theories and techniques of Sigmund Freud.

The influence of Freud was pervasive in 20th century films, particularly in the area of symbolism. In my Screenplay as Literature I wrote about Federico Fellini’s use of Freud’s theories in his films, particularly in his marvelous 8 ½ (1963).  But despite Freud’s popularity with certain filmmakers, audiences and critics could ignore Freud and still enjoy their films.  For example, with 8 1/2 you could know nothing about Freud or understand little about the inner psychological conflicts of the main character, Guido, yet find the film highly entertaining.

In the last quarter of the 20th Century, psychiatry and mental health practices in general changed dramatically in the United States.  In short, the mental institutions were emptied out, as their former patients were dumped on the public on the justification that powerful new drugs could control their serious mental illnesses.  Thus, for the first time, the public was introduced to people suffering from mental illnesses such as schizophrenia and bi-polar disorder (i.e. manic-depressive).  Then there were the classification of many new syndromes that impair behavior such as attention-deficit and post-traumatic stress syndromes.  Anyone who has watched the television series Law and Order is probably aware of the difficulty that prosecutors have in securing convictions against felons, particularly in the case of murder, due to the proliferation of evermore “syndromes” that can be offered up as a defense

These advances have provided writers with much new material, plot and character wise.  The cable television series Homeland is an intriguing example of this.  In this series the main character, a high-ranking officer for an American spy agency, suffers from bi-polar disorder, for which she takes powerful medications.  It is indeed a breakthrough to depict people with mental illness able to excel in high-powered jobs.  What is fascinating about this series from a writing point of view is that we are never sure when the main character becomes infatuated with a new man if this is a symptom of her bi-polar disorder or actual love.  The same could be said when she becomes stubbornly insistent on her work-related insights—is this genius, or the failure of her medications to work properly?  In any event I am sure that qualified psychiatrists are employed to act as consultants to the show.

The real challenge today may not be serious mental impairments such as schizophrenia, for which people may be institutionalized, but impairments that are referred to as personality disorders. The better known (to the public) of such disorders are paranoid, obsessive-compulsive, narcissistic, and anti-social.  The latter is particularly important for writers of crime shows because it is estimated that up to thirty percent of imprisoned criminals are diagnosed as having anti-social personality disorder (by the way, people who are diagnosed with this disorder are alternately called sociopaths and psychopaths).

Why are personality disorders a challenge for the writer?  They are because most of the characters that writers write about, particularly the most interesting, may be covered by such diagnoses.  Why is this a problem?  It is a problem because it difficult to incorporate the concept of free will.  People diagnosed with a personality disorder may not be capable of making valid choices, such as between good and bad and rational and irrational.   So the problem for the writer when dealing with characters that appear to have one of these disorders is the following:  when trying to determine what the character is going to do next, do you consult a book on dramaturgy and plotting or a psychiatric manual?

A recent cable television series provides an interesting example of a dilemma such as this.  Here, during the first two seasons, one of the main characters does the following:  is unfaithful to her husband, destroys the marriage and family of her lover without remorse, steals drugs from a hospital for her own personal use, willingly participates in illicit drug dealing, lies to her lover (now her second husband) about who got her pregnant, and finally is perfectly comfortable in having him go to prison for a crime that she committed.  You wouldn’t be overreaching if you concluded that this character exhibits many of the characteristics of a psychopath. Keep in mind that she is very sympathetically portrayed (her first child died due to a tragic accident).  And I neglected to mention that her lover/new husband is a classic narcissist.  The question we have to ask ourselves is the following:  is this a story about a woman who desperately wants to get her chaotic life in order or the unfolding of a horrendous train wreck or both?

As a disclaimer I wish to make it clear that I do not purport to be an expert on mental health issues.  My intent is simply to highlight the challenges that these issues present for writers today.  No matter what your opinion is about modern psychiatry, the examples of its relevancy and practice confront us on a daily basis and can no longer be hidden-away behind the locked gates of mental institutions.

The Screenplay and The Actor

One regret I have about my book The Screenplay as Literature was that I did not give enough attention to the contribution of the actor in the production of a film.  We all know that the casting of a particular actor in a film can overshadow almost everything else, making it impossible to conceive of the film without him or her.  For example, who could think of the film noir classics The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep without Humphrey Bogart?  Or The Godfather without Marlon Brando?   Furthermore, the influence of the casting of a particular actor in a film can even affect the underlying  screenplay, especially if the actor is a major star, as the two following examples illustrate.

Meet Me in St. Louis is a 1944 film musical set during the time of the1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, Missouri.  The story of the film concerns a family living in St. Louis and the anxiety and uncertainty caused by the husband/father’s decision to move his family to New York in order to start a new job.  The star of the film was Judy Garland, who was then 22 years old.  At the time Judy Garland was “America’s Sweetheart,” and one of the biggest stars in Hollywood.

In the film Judy was to sing a song entitled “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”  The lyrics to the song began like this:

Have yourself a merry little Christmas

It may be your last

Next year we may be living in the past

When Judy Garland was first given the lyrics to read, she protested that she could never sing them.  She is quoted as saying, “If I sing that, little Margaret will cry and they’ll (the audience) think I’m a monster.”   (Margaret was Margaret O’Brien, who played Judy’s younger sister, to whom she was to sing the song.)

The lyricist of the song, Hugh Martin, was unmoved, telling Judy that the lyrics he had written perfectly fit the screenplay, no matter how depressing they sounded.  Finally, one of the other actors in the film said to him, “Do what she asks and change the lyrics; if you do you’ll have a huge hit.”   Martin did change the lyrics, which began as follows:

Have yourself a merry little Christmas

Let your heart be light

Next year all our troubles will be out of sight

I am not familiar with the source material (a novel) for the film, so I cannot comment whether or not the changes made to suit Judy were an improvement or a detriment; but in any event the audience did not seem to mind:  Meet Me In St. Louis turned out to be the second highest grossing film of the year.  And as for the song in question: it has become an American standard—played again and again at Christmas time.

In 1976 John Wayne made a Western entitled The Shootist.   Wayne was an enormously popular actor who had appeared mostly in Westerns for over five decades.  In most of these films he portrayed  a hero, who although often violent and sometimes uncouth, was nevertheless “a straight-shooter.”  In The Shootist, Wayne deviated somewhat from his usual roles; here he is an ex-gunfighter with an unsavory past who was dying of cancer.  When Wayne read the screenplay for the first time, he noted to his chagrin that his character was to shoot someone in the back.  Wayne is then alleged to have said, “Mister, I’ve made over 250 pictures and have never shot a guy in the back.  Change it.”  Well, the script was changed: someone was shot in the back, but not by John Wayne.  Since I am not conversant with the source material for the film (a novel), I cannot say that this was an improvement.  But in any event Wayne’s multitude of fans never had to witness their beloved hero shooting someone in the back.  This turned out to be Wayne’s last film; he passed away three years later.

The Premise Revisited

In earlier posts I defined the “premise” as a proposition that must be proved or demonstrated; furthermore, such propositions are often of a profound nature with social significance (e.g. “poverty breeds crime”).  That is the way that the premise has been used in plays and films, although I pointed out that premises in those two mediums are somewhat rare today.  However, in American television, not only is the premise not rare, the word has taken on an entirely different meaning.  The meaning in this instance is almost synonymous with a “gimmick”: something that distinguishes one television show from another; and often such premises are quite outlandish.  Thus we have had shows about genial genies, flying nuns, talking horses and favorite Martians.  My personal all-time favorite for silliness is “My Mother the Car”, in which a car is the reincarnation of the main character’s deceased mother.  As the premises of these shows cannot really be proved because they are fantasies, the audience must suspend disbelief in order to enjoy them.

However, for “serious” series shown predominately on cable television, there are some more subtle—and also insidious—premises that viewers must also accept beforehand; and they fall into two broad categories.  The first, for shows dealing primarily with criminals or persons engaging in criminal behavior, is that” bad people can do bad things—e.g. brutality and murder—and be not so bad people.”  The second is that “good people—e.g. non-criminals—can do bad things—e.g. infidelity and substance abuse—and still be good people”.  Weighty premises such as these in plays and films we would expect to be conclusively proved or demonstrated by the end of the production.  But because these series often go on for years, it is not reasonable to expect their viewers to wait that long to see if the premises of these shows prove to be true.  Thus, the audience must “buy in” to them from the beginning.  I must say that for the shows of the first type—and I have seen many—the criminals, despite their professed devotion to their families, appear to me to be little more than brutal thugs.  And as for the second type, the ones dealing with so-called good people, in the end the main characters strike me as totally self-absorbed, caring little about the people they hurt as the a result of  their selfish pursuits.  So why do I watch such shows if I fail to “buy-in” to their premises?  That is a good question.

Well, for one thing, I like to keep up on what is going on in the arts and entertainment.  And you have to admit that many of these shows are well produced with top-notch talent.  Or perhaps I simply find them to be a guilty pleasure.  Then again maybe the real reason I watch them is because they make me nostalgic for a simpler time, when cads were cads and criminals were criminals; and it was not politically incorrect not to like them.

Once Upon A Time In America: Underground Films Revisited

It seems that anyone making a movie or television series set in New York City in the 1960’s and early 1970’s finds it  irresistible to include something about the Underground Film scene that flourished in New York at that time, particularly as it relates to Andy Warhol and his bizarre friends/entourage. (In an earlier blog post on Andy Warhol, I discussed some of the reasons for this fascination.).  Furthermore, I find it rather amusing to see casting notices for some of these projects which contain the names of persons long forgotten and hardly known during their “15 minutes of fame” that  derived from their association with the Underground movement.  Just what were Underground Films?

Well, that’s difficult to say because it was such an eclectic movement; but one thing these rather amateurish films had in common was the cachet that they were films that you were not supposed to see.  I know that the concept of forbidden films may be difficult to comprehend today, when with cable television and the internet, “anything goes” and there is “everything for everybody”; however in those dark days there  was certainly something conspiratorial in just attempting to see such films  You learned about screenings mainly by word of mouth and announcements  in Underground (i.e. counter culture) newspapers—which, themselves, contained things you were not supposed to read, written by writers who often employed noms de guerre. Most screenings were held in lofts in the industrial part of town or church basements.  In fact, just getting to these showings was scarier than anything you would ever see on the screen.  And  having made your way to one of these films, if you felt that the man sitting next to you might be an undercover agent, you may  not have been paranoid : Underground filmmaker Jack Smith’s  notorious Flaming Creatures (1963) was seized by the authorities after its first public showing, never to be screened again for decades; and one of Andy Warhol’s films suffered a similar fate.

What happened to the participants of the Underground at the end of their “15 minutes of fame?”  Most moved on.  Andy Warhol, for example, went on to make films that were more and more exploitive and commercial.  However, for many “moving on” meant moving on to the next world, as so many of them died tragically young.

But to get back to the special fascination that this particular era has today, it seems every talented young actress wants to play the tragic Andy Warhol muse Edie Sedgwick; British actress Sienna Miller played her last.  And then there is the enigmatic Nico of Warhol’s illustrious Velvet Underground; what a splendid role for an actress who possesses her statuesque good looks. But what about Mario Montesz, another Warhol “superstar”?  How would a good actor play one who was universally acknowledged to be so terrible?  Mario Montez was a female impersonator who patterned himself after Maria Montez, a Hollywood actress who appeared in many exotic low budget adventure films. (It should be noted that Maria Montez was considered by many as “the world’s worst actress.”)   And as far as female impersonators go, Mario Montez was, himself, considered to be“pretty bad.”   But perhaps the  key to portraying him can be found in critic Parker Tyler’s astute observation: “Mario Montez does not impersonate Maria Montez; he is (that is, wishes to be) Maria Montez.”  Mario passed away in 2013; sadly, he was one of only a few veterans of the Underground to have survived to old age.

Let the record show that once upon a time in America, if you were determined and not afraid, you could see films that you were not supposed to see!

Wild Strawberries Revisited

The past few weeks here in the United States, we have experienced  something of a stir about the publication of Harper Lee’s “new” novel, Go Set a Watchman, which is a sequel to Ms. Lee’s 1960 acclaimed novel, To Kill a Mocking Bird.  This much anticipated book has taken 55 years to finally appear—the reasons for which I will not go into here.  Much of the controversy about the book is not just literary; it has to do with the fact that it appears the central character (of both books), attorney Atticus Finch, is not the man we thought him to be, prompting more than one front page article on the subject in the New York Times.  Why should there be such an interest in a fictional character?   Well, maybe some of that interest has had to do with actor Gregory Peck’s superb interpretation of him in the 1962 film adaptation of the first book.  But beyond that, a lot has to do with the peculiar and rare phenomenon where a fictional character becomes much more than a fictional character; in fact, takes on a life of its own.  And what particularly intrigued me, as I have learned in following the controversy, is the fact that more has been written about the character Atticus Finch in journals aimed at the legal profession than in literary ones.  This non-literary fascination with Atticus Finch recalls to mind a similar such fascination with the character Isak Borg of Ingmar Bergman’s 1957 film Wild Strawberries.

The name Isak Borg is probably not well known to the general public—and that also includes the film-going public.  But he is well-known to the mental health profession in America; and that is for two important reasons.  The first is because Isak Borg is seventy-six years old, which is unusually old for the main character of a film.  The second reason is that in America, mental health professionals (e.g. psychiatrists) are severely restricted in writing about their patients in professional journals.  Furthermore, they are usually prohibited from writing about the perceived mental problems of people they have never treated, particularly public figures.  So who can they write about?  Why fictional characters, of course.

The use of literature to illustrate an important theory is not new to the field of mental health: Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, used a character from ancient Greek drama, Oedipus, to formulate one of his most important theories—the oedipal complex.  Although Freud had no knowledge of the film Wild Strawberries—he died years before the film was made– the film made a distinct impression on three people who are/were practitioners  of the field that Freud helped pioneer: psychotherapy; I will recount some of those impressions now.

Dr. Harvey Greenberg in an article entitled “The Rags of Time” (1975) subjects Isak Borg to the rigors of psychoanalysis.  Characterizing his study as “psychoanalytic notes on Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries,” Dr. Greenberg pays particular attention to Isak’s childhood relationship with his mother, whose perceived coldness figured prominently in the psychological and emotional problems that plagued Borg throughout his life.   Dr. Greenberg also provides a Freudian interpretation to the many dreams of Wild Strawberries.  In particular, he points out that at least one of the dreams in the film was what Freud termed an “examination” dream, in which the dreamer finds himself taking an exam in which he is ill-prepared for ;  however, the purpose of such a dream is to reassure the dreamer of  his ability to handle and resolve current stress or neurotic conflict in his life.  This is perhaps a key to understanding Isak Borg’s character: for most of his life Isak had to overcome disappointment ithat he was ill-prepared for: e.g. his fiancée abandoning him, a loveless marriage and an unfaithful wife; but persevere he always did.  (It should be noted that in Swedish the word borg means fortress.)

Erick Erickson was another mental health care professional who saw in Isak Borg a promising teaching tool.  Erickson was more than just a health care professional: he was a giant in the field.  A renowned psychoanalyst and developmental psychologist, Erickson broke with Freud in the area of personality development.  Whereas Freud concentrated almost exclusively on the infantile development of the psyche, Erickson saw its development as a lifelong process.  Erickson divided this development into eight stages:

  1. Infancy
  2. Early childhood
  3. Play Age
  4. School Age
  5. Adolescence
  6. Young Adulthood
  7. Adulthood
  8. Old Age

In a chapter {A Life History: Revalidation and Reinvolvement ) from a book [Vital Involvement In Old Age (1986]] that he authored with two other people,  Erickson uses Borg’s life to illustrate the above eight stages.  Obviously the last stage, old age, has particular significance as it relates to Wild Strawberries.  Erickson explains that the word wisdom symbolizes the strength of this last stage of life.  It is indeed ironic to associate the word wisdom with Isak Borg, as wisdom was the one thing that escaped him for most of his life, despite his education.  Erikson, in justifying the use of a fictional character to present his theories and clinical findings, goes beyond the obvious need to protect the privacy of actual patients; he notes that “artistic works of greatness have a way of presenting in a convincing form some total truths about life, which rarely characterize other reports and abstracts of a human life, making it truly a life history.”

Dr. Bob Knight, in his book Psychotherapy with Older Adults (1996) also employs Isak Borg as a teaching example.  Dr. Knight stresses the cautions that need to be taken when employing a “life review” with elderly patients—and certainly Wild Strawberries was a “life review,” among other things.

The central aesthetic question pertaining to Bergman’s Wild Strawberries, as I indicated in my book The Screenplay as Literature, was whether or not Isak Borg undergoes any significant change after this “life review.”  My answer was that he did not.  Furthermore, I wrote, “Besides, from the point of view of dramaturgy, what would be the point of such a change anyway?  At the age of seventy-six, what effect on his own life and the life of others could such change have?”  I then noted that Isak’s wife was dead, and then there was the rather acrimonious relationship between Isak and his son.  However, where I may have seen a mellowed, somber stoicism as the  best outcome for Isak, Knight sees hopeful potential.  He points out that Borg still is mentally sharp and could practice his profession if he so chooses.  Then there is the fact that he soon will become a grandfather—so why shouldn’t he become a doting grandparent?  And as for romance, Knight reminds us that his cousin Sara, who is now 75 years old and still beautiful, is a widow: why not marry her?  Keep in mind that Sara rejected Isak when he was a young man and married his older brother.

Well, I don’t see any of the above as likely to transpire, particularly a marriage between Isak and Sara.  I still stand by my original literary analysis of the film and screenplay—rather than a psychological one.  But, then again, who am I to deny that where there’s life, there’s hope!

What is Genre? (Part II)

In my previous post I defined genre as a category of film (usually American) that was made primarily for commercial reasons (usually in a prior era) and which transcended its commercial underpinnings.  Because the accolade of genre was usually bestowed by critics to films years after they were made, it would seem the term would only have significance to film historians—and perhaps it should.  Yet the term is frequently being associated with contemporary filmmakers.  It is not unusual to hear that a filmmaker’s next project will evoke another era, such as the 1940’s, and this is further reinforced when the film is made in black and white.  And if there were any doubt about what the filmmaker is planning to do, it becomes abundantly clear when critics praise him for having made a genre film and paying homage to long deceased directors.

You may detect that I might have a problem with a contemporary filmmaker unabashedly making a genre film.  Do I and should I?  Well, let me put forth a question.  If I bought my clothes in vintage clothing stores—and many do—what would people think when they saw me walking down the street in clothes of a bygone era?  That I have good taste in clothes?  That I am making a fashion statement?  Or perhaps that I am an eccentric who wishes that he lived in a previous century?  No matter how people would regard me, it will be entirely different than how the original owners of the clothes were regarded when they wore them in the appropriate era.  Bear in mind that the term genre is not synonymous with timelessness or classic.  What worked in one era may not work in another.  Audiences change.  In the 1930’s and 40’s, everyone went to movie theaters to see films.  Today, that audience is much smaller and younger.

Does that mean that contemporary filmmakers shouldn’t make genre films?  Not necessarily:  especially if the genre serves as an inspiration rather than a road map.  Quentin Tarantino is a very talented filmmaker who has had great success in re-inventing filmmaking  from another era for new audiences; his Kill Bill (martial arts), Inglourious Basterds ( World War II action films), Django Unchained (spaghetti Westerns), and  Jackie Brown (Blaxploitation) are a few examples.  As to their artistic merit, I will leave that question to the critics.

What is Genre? (Part I)

In my The Screenplay as Literature I employed the term genre very sparingly; regrettably I never defined it.  Because this term is often inappropriately used as it refers to film, I will endeavor to define it now.  But before I do so, I would like to provide some background as to how the term originated.

From my perspective, the term is most relevant to the American film industry.  Loosely defined, genre is “a type or category” of film.  Obviously there can be a multitude of types or categories of films, but as the American film industry has always been pre-occupied with financial gain, the types or categories of films that most interested it were those that were “guaranteed” to make money.  This begs the question: is there actually any category of film that is guaranteed to make money, regardless of its quality or merit?  My answer is that I really don’t know, but much of the “business model” of Hollywood is based on the assumption that there is such a thing.  And that is the primary reason that so many films imitate other films that were successful at the box office.

So what are some of these categories that the American film industry believes or has believed to make money?  Terms such as melodrama and comedy are much too broad; but with a category such as “action-adventure” you may be getting warm.  “Romantic comedy” is a pleasant sounding word—though sometimes derisively referred to as “a chick flick”—but a proposed romantic comedy starring Kate Hudson or Anne Hathaway would certainly warrant the attention of the studio bosses.  But it is much further down the film industry “food chain”—the realm of independent production and distribution—where the quest for this “fool’s gold” takes on an even greater significance.  In this “jungle” there is no margin for error: if you don’t deliver what the theater owners and audiences want, you are out of business.  And because films from the independents have had to be marketed on other than their merit—assuming that they had any—they were often referred to as exploitation films.

What are some of the film types that the independents believed to be profitable?  Well, kung fu or martial arts films are a good place to start: in the early 1970’s every independent distributor had to have its own kung fu film.  And in New York City, there was a least one theater on Forty-Second Street that exhibited martial arts films twenty-four hours a day!   But the most lucrative type of film for independents has to be the “slasher” film.  This is a very violent and gruesome horror film: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and the Halloween and Friday the Thirteenth film franchises are prime examples.

So how would I thus define genre?  I would define it as a type of film made for purely monetary reasons yet transcending its commercial underpinnings. And how is this accomplished? Usually by having a very powerful theme.   So what are some examples of genre?  Unfortunately, it is easier to define genre than give examples.  Obviously, whether a film transcends its commercial purpose is a purely subjective observation; but whether a film was primarily intended to make money is not always clear, even in Hollywood.  For example, so-called “road” films have often been considered genre and indeed have long been a Hollywood staple.  What characterized these films is their depiction of a long journey across the United States (usually by car) where those embarking on this journey meet bizarre people along the way.  And if much of the film takes place in the American Southwest, so much the better, as it reveals wide expanses of beautiful but empty landscape, conveying a feeling of alienation (an important theme frequently found in these films).

While many “road” films were recognized for their artistic aspirations, it is not a certainty that they were made in order to make a lot of money, even though they were primarily financed by the big Hollywood studios.  The seminal film in this category is Easy Rider (1969), which was both a box-office and critical success; yet the filmmakers responsible for it appeared to be more interested in making an anti-establishment statement than in getting rich.   Owing to the success of Easy Rider, a number of other “road” films were financed by Hollywood in the 1970’s; to my knowledge, few of them performed well at the box office.

So is there really a true film genre according to my definition?  Well, for the 1970’s you might want to consider “spaghetti” Westerns.  These are Westerns in which there is an inordinate amount of violence and where there is no clear differentiation between good and evil.  Most of them were made in Spain, and not by Americans—although they masqueraded as American films.  These films were immensely popular throughout the world; and if they happened to be directed by Sergio Leone and starred Clint Eastwood (“The Man with No Name”), even more so.  Of course, in order to be truly genre, you would have to find that these films transcended their purely commercial genesis.  Many, including critics, did think so.

Now that we have defined genre, we need to examine what is its significance for contemporary filmmakers and critics.  This I will do in my next post.