In honor of the striking screenwriters, I wanted to write a list of my favorites, either contemporary or all-time. But I decided that it would be more respectful to not exclude any of them. Even the bad writers need recognition right now. I've tried writing screenplays, and I salute anyone who has had one produced, whether brilliant or not. Even if it weren't difficult to actually write a script, it's certainly tough to deal with the b.s. of Hollywood and the sad truth that your vision will likely not make it to the screen as devised. So, instead of concentrating on real writers, I figured I'd look at screenwriter characters, specifically those portraying the hardships of the job.

"Joe Gillis" from Sunset Blvd.(1950, Billy Wilder).

I imagine there's nothing scarier for a struggling screenwriter than the thought of ending up like poor Joe Gillis (William Holden). The opening shot of Wilder's classic shows the character floating face down in a swimming pool, and immediately he's labeled "an unsuccessful screenwriter." This sets up a hopelessness for the character, and for writers in general, as the film then flashes back to one of the greatest stories of Hollywood cynicism ever made. Gillis not only represents the difficulty of making it as a screenwriter, he also shares some juicy lines about how writers aren't recognized enough by the public ("Audiences don't know somebody sits down and writes a picture; they think the actors make it up as they go along."); about drastic alterations to his scripts ("The last one I wrote was about Okies in the dust bowl. You'd never know because when it reached the screen, the whole thing played on a torpedo boat.") and about the desperation that turns good writers into seemingly hack writers (replying to talk of his once promising talent, he says, "That was last year. This year I'm trying to make a living."). There were screenwriter characters before him, and plenty after, but Gillis will forever be the quintessential example.


"Paul Javal" from Contempt(1963, Jean-Luc Godard)

As far as being a memorable character, Michel Piccoli's screenwriter protagonist in Godard's Le Mépris (Contempt) has some tough competition. Personally, I think of Brigitte Bardot first. Then I remember the awesome Jack Palance as the difficult American producer. Finally I recall Fritz Lang as himself. Certainly the favorite scene for many of us is the one in which Palance throws the film cans across the screening room. Doesn't it seem appropriate that the sexy woman, the producer and the director would overshadow the writer, even one so prominent? Still, Paul Javal is an important character. As the French screenwriter hired to rewrite Lang's treatment of an adaptation of The Odyssey, Javal deals with the very real issues of compromise, selling out and losing out to American influence -- which extends to his love life as well as his career.

"Stanley Gould" from Sweet Liberty(1986, Alan Alda)

It's been a long time since I last saw Sweet Liberty, but it was one of my first exposures to the pains of the writer. Of course, it's mostly about the pains of an author, who must deal with his historical book being adapted into an unfaithful movie filled with gratuitous sex and violence. But there is a screenwriter, Stanley Gould (Bob Hoskins), who represents the flipside of the adaptation issue. Like the other sell-out screenwriter characters, he is cynical and unapologetic. But he befriends Alan Alda's author character in an attempt to make changes where possible. The whole scenario is better played out in State and Main (see below), but nobody plays this kind of character better than Hoskins. Plus, it's interesting to see the screenwriter as a relatively antagonistic role.

"Barton Fink" from Barton Fink(1991, Joel and Ethan Coen)

Another intellectual hired to write something beneath him, the playwright turned screenwriter Barton Fink (John Turturro) gives us the best example of a man suffering from writer's block. Stuck inside a cheap hotel and assigned to pen a wrestling picture, the awkward Fink has to deal with the absurdities of Hollywood, and a psychotic salesman (John Goodman) who lives in the room adjacent to his. This is in addition to the trouble he has actually writing something for the common man, which turns out to be much different than writing about the common man.

"David Kahane" from The Player(1992, Robert Altman)

I also really love the constantly pitching screenwriters played by Dean Stockwell and Richard E. Grant, but it's the character David Kahane (Vincent D'Onofrio) that I assume more screenwriters can relate to in this adaptation of Michael Tolkin's biting Hollywood satire. Like Sunset Blvd.'s Gillis, Kahane is also murdered, but prior to being killed by the production executive (Tim Robbins) -- an obvious metaphor for what is really done to the writer -- he is just a regular guy trying to get his scripts sold, and painfully having to deal with studios that can't appreciate his talent.

"Joseph Turner White" from State and Main(2000, David Mamet)

As I mentioned, Mamet's State and Main is a bit like Sweet Liberty, but in many ways it's a lot better. The screenwriter here, Joseph Turner White (Philip Seymour Hoffman), is also like Barton Fink in that he has serious writer's block when needed to rework some parts of the script. But he also represents the usual integrity conflict. As another sort of Odysseus, and one of the few non-cynics on this list, he wanders through the small Vermont town, which has been overrun by the film production, trying to find where he fits into such a ridiculous and miserable world as the movie industry.

"Charlie Kaufman" and "Donald Kaufman" from Adaptation(2002, Spike Jonze)

This mind-f**k of a movie from the real Charlie Kaufman and director Spike Jonze is possibly the most important film a screenwriter could watch. The characters of Charlie and Donald (both Nicolas Cage) represent two paths a screenwriter may choose to go: Charlie is on the path of pretentious yet integrity-filled screenwriting while Donald is on the more conventional, cliché, sell-out path. The film portrays pretty much everything a struggling screenwriter -- first-timer or veteran -- goes through on the path to finishing a "good" script. Plus, it shows us how to adapt a book that should be impossible to adapt, and it's filled with dialogue that gives screenwriting tips, criticizes the usual screenwriting tips and overall analyzes the craft to death. It's more cynical than cynical, which apparently is how one must be these days to make it in the business.

categories Cinematical