“I started out as a television writer, for a show that was on live every week. You didn’t have the luxury of coming in and waiting to be inspired. You came in and you wrote, because you had to. So I can do that. It’s not always good, but I can get something on the page pretty frequently.
“I always write with a yellow pad and a ballpoint pen, on my bed. I go into my room, I take a walk, I take a shower, and eventually I write. Some things come out well, some don’t. When it works, I type it up afterward.”
The SIGHT AND SOUND review of the much-lauded BLUE JASMINE (2013) describes Woody as a ‘first draft’ writer. Its probably over-stating it, but his annual output does produce mixed results. He is always capable of producing zinging one-liners and clever turns of phrase, but sometimes the structure and dialogue can creak at the joins.
Its interesting that his films are populated by writers – film critics, sports writers, playwrights, comic-writers and TV writers – many of whom are struggling to attain the greatness to which they aspire: Peter in INTERIORS who feels inferior to his poet wife; MIDNIGHT IN PARIS’ Gil Pender seeks fulfillment by asking Gertrude Stein’s assistance in his fantasy 1920s Paris playground; and CELEBRITY’s Lee Simon watches as his precious novel manuscript is thrown in the sea.
The writers depicted in his films are also distracted by the libidinous pursuit of the muse: Isaac Davies in MANHATTAN, Jerry Falk in ANYTHING ELSE and … all of them really.
In interviews, Woody shares his protagonists’ humility about his own efforts and aspires to achieve greatness by referencing Tolstoy and Chekov, acknowledging that he’ll never get there.
The films selected below illustrate how writers are essentially capricious creatures who are willing to take the credit for other people’s work.
THE COMPLETE PROSE (1991)
“The lion and the calf shall lie down together, but the calf won’t get much sleep.”
This is the collected volume of short pieces that were originally published in the 1960s – 70s in various publications such as The New Yorker and Playboy and first collected in WITHOUT FEATHERS, GETTING EVEN and SIDE EFFECTS. For the purposes of the Woodython, I abandoned my well-thumbed Faber copy of THE COMPLETE PROSE, and downloaded the audio-books instead. Woody performs these pieces impeccably (treat yourself!).
What’s interesting about these prose pieces is trying to find the seeds of stories that would later be developed into a film. One of the most weighty stories is THE KUGLEMASS EPISODE where the protagonist is mystically thrown into the novel Madam Bovary, but there are also slighter pieces that work well too, such as, THE WHORE OF MENSA where clever prostitutes offer erudite chat, or DEATH KNOCKS where a comic version of the Bergman Death figure is open to bartering, and THE GOSSAGE-VARDEBEDIAN PAPERS featuring a testy game of chess played by exchange of correspondence (it demonstrates the influence of S.J. Perelman).
Listening to the audio-book, I enjoyed the pieces more than when I read them, particularly those in which he affects that wise-guy, Chandleresque tone that he tried to pull off in CURSE OF THE JADE SCORPION. MR BIG, for example, reads like a parody aiming for the obvious targets but the performance becomes more witty and engaging.
There’s a part of me that believes that he should break up his film schedule to knock out a couple of these every year rather than turn some of his thin sketches into 90 minute movies.
Howard Prince in THE FRONT (Ritt, US, 1976)
‘Performance of the year’ according to Danny Peary in his book The Alternative Oscars. No mean feat when you consider this was the year of De Niro’s TAXI DRIVER. That said, Woody is flawless as a cashier who acts as a front for black-listed writers in the 1950s. It’s within his range (the same could be said for De Niro’s Travis Bickle).
Howard Prince becomes entranced by the life-style of a TV writer and falls for a woman in the process of his act, he works for more and more writers in a bid to pay his gambling debts. When the authorities become suspicious of his own politics, he eventually becomes ‘America’s most unlikely hero’.
The roll-call of black-listed artists in the credits is a very chilling moment.
David Sayne in BULLETS OVER BROADWAY (1994)
John Cusak is the most satisfying of all the Woody surrogates. In fact, overall this is one of his most satisfying films of his middle-period as it is well realised with some spot on performances from Jim Broadbent, with his comically expanding waist-line and, of course, Diane Wiest as early-years Norma Desmond-like character. There is nothing like ‘putting on a show’ that gives an ensemble film a narrative drive.
It was co-written with Douglas McGrath, but Cusak’s writer is a Woody archetypical writer in search of perfection, hampered by his lack of talent. He’s educated and ambitious but lacks sufficient understanding of human-feeling to be a great writer. He is forced to make compromises. Firstly, he accepts a gangster’s moll in the cast in order to get funding, secondly, he accepts un-credited rewrites from her chaperone, Cheech.
Chaz Palminteri’s Cheech is a strange character. I’d forgotten how brutal he is and how brutal the film is towards him.
Harry Block in DECONSTRUCTING HARRY (1997)
This film had an ensemble cast list of the great and good of nineties cinema in a sprawling, story within a story, series of vignettes built around the life of Harry Block. He’s a writer who is experiencing writers’ block, and is about to go on a road-trip to his alma mater to collect an honorary award. Many people in Harry’s life are getting annoyed at him using their lives as material for his work. Critics at the time got excited at this admission and jumped to the conclusion that Woody WAS Harry and the character’s cynicism and abrasiveness was an honest admission of his true character.
I’m not so sure. I think its another device he employed to cover up the patch-work of vignettes that would have made great New Yorker pieces – the actor who appears ‘out of focus’, the young man who meets Death too soon due to an address cock-up, and a blind woman walking in on a couple having sex during a family gathering.
I first saw this film at a cinema (or theater) opposite The Lincoln Centre in New York City; on Woody’s door-step.
Roy in YOU WILL MEET A TALL DARK STRANGER (2010)
Set in London, with another ensemble cast, depicting the lives and disintegrating loves of family and friends. Gemma Jones visits a medium who gives her insight on the nature of life and how it might continue.
Josh Brolin is a struggling writer who has his book rejected, so he resorts to stealing the work of a friend who has been in a car crash. The manuscript is lauded by the publishers.
Despite the best efforts, this is a leaden affair where some of the performances are half-baked and off the mark.
In many ways, its worse than CASSANDRA’S DREAM, as it will never be so bad that its good.