Understanding Screenwriting #39: Broken Embraces, Nine, It’s Complicated, Panic in the Streets, & More

Somebody writing about Fellini in the ’60s said that he stole from everybody but left his thumbprints on it.

Understanding Screenwriting #39: Broken Embraces, Nine, It's Complicated, Panic in the Streets, & More
Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

Coming up in this column: Broken Embraces, Nine, It’s Complicated, Panic in the Streets, Battle Cry, Wild in the Country, but first…

Fan mail: “Andrew” liked my comments on Precious etc, which gives me an opportunity to expand on something I wrote that I had second thoughts about. I wrote, “Since The Blind Side has both white and black characters, we get a view of race relations in America today. With Precious’s virtually all-black cast and limited story, we only get another view of the black underclass, and without the nuances that The Blind Side has.” I felt that reads like I am suggesting Precious should have been about relations between the races, which I did not intend and may have been unfair to the film. It was focused on the black underclass, but even on those terms I felt it could have done better, for all the reasons I wrote about in the column.

“Joel_Gordon” would like me to give Men of a Certain Age another shot, but I have seen three of them and it’s just not working for me. I may pick up another episode sometime, but by now I pretty much know what works for me and what doesn’t.

“Olli Sulopuisto” cleared up where the voice communicators came from in Avatar, as did “Htet.” Obviously they got established the one time I ducked for the 3-D effects. Htet liked the film more than I did, as did many, many millions of people. The audience I saw it with appears to have been an exception. Htet is right on picking up on my problems with Cameron, although I certainly like both the first Terminator and True Lies. I was not as awed by the special effects as he was, and I agree with his comment that “Movies are not screenplays.” Which is another way of stating one of my longtime themes, that movies are written for performance, and as I pointed out in my comments on Avatar, that includes the special effects guys.

And now, on to Penélope Cruz Week here at Understanding Screenwriting…

Broken Embraces (2009. Written by Pedro Almodóvar. 127 minutes): Thumbprints.

Somebody writing about Fellini in the ’60s said that he stole from everybody but left his thumbprints on it. Absolutely true, and it is true of Almodóvar here (as in many of his other scripts). I whacked Monsters and Aliens (US#4) and Avatar (US#38) for borrowing extensively from other films, but my problem was that the writers of those did not leave their thumbprints on them. In fairness to James Cameron—yes, that’s a line I never thought I’d write—my eight year-old grandson loved Avatar, because as he wisely pointed out when we discussed it, he had not seen all those movies it borrowed from and so it seemed fresh to him.

For example, at one point Lena, the actress, and her financier/producer/lover get into a fight in their home. She is hurt and he puts her into his car and drives her to the hospital. Almodóvar the director shoots it like Douglas Sirk would—low angles and swirling camera movments. I half expected Rock Hudson and Dorothy Malone to wander in and say a couple of lines from Written on the Wind (1956). But it is not an unthinking tribute to Sirk; it is Almodóvar using Sirk’s approach to present this scene in this movie. In a similar way, the opening shot could come out of Fellini’s 8 ½ (1963). We are watching through a camera viewfinder on a close-up of an actress. And it’s not the star, Penélope Cruz. I thought when I saw it, it was a reference to the screen test sequence in 8 ½, but the more I think about it, my guess is the other woman is just the stand-in for Cruz’s character. And throughout the film we have characters standing in for others. See what I mean about thumbprints? Almodóvar is very aware that he is borrowing, and to save us from having to make a list of films and filmmakers he is referring to, we get a later scene of Diego going through Harry’s DVD collection, reading off titles and directors.

One thing that struck me in watching the film is that it makes more sense as you watch it than any summary I have seen in the reviews of it. That is Almodóvar’s skill as a screenwriter. Look at how he lets you know Harry/Mateo’s situation, first with the girl who is reading to him, and then when Diego and Judit show up. And listen to how the scene with the girl sets up the later flashbacks and gets the story moving. She is reading the paper to Harry, who is blind, and mentions that Ernesto Martel died. Harry takes note of this, but tells her he does not know who he was. In other words, he does (Martel was the financier). Then look at how long before we get into the detailed flashback of Harry in his days as a director named Mateo. By then we are dying to know the whole story. John Ford always said, “Never tell the audience something until they need to know it.”

Much has been written about Almodóvar and Cruz and their professional relationship. You see the advantages of working with someone you know well. He has written a terrific part for her. Look at the reactions he has given Cruz when Lena thinks Martel may be dead. That’s the writer-director and actor completely in sync. And then Penélope Cruz disappears from the movie for almost the last forty minutes. Wait, wait, she’s the star, top-billed, Almodóvar’s muse, she can’t go missing. Yes, she can, because the movie is not her movie. It is Harry/Mateo’s movie. We start with him, we are telling his story, and we want to see what happens to him, as wonderful as Cruz has been. Almodóvar has a great sense of balance in the script, figuring out he can get away with that. And of course he knows that we will see Cruz again near the end of the film. After Harry and Lena run off, the producer, in a fit of jealousy, edits the film they were working on by putting in only the worst takes. We see an example as cut by Diego and boy, is it bad. Then we eventually get to see the scene with the good takes, recut now by Harry. It is a great demonstration of the skills a director, actors, and an editor can bring to a script. Wait a minute, Harry is blind, how can he recut the picture? Listen to the year’s greatest payoff line, better than the last line of (500) Days of Summer.

Nine (2009. Screenplay by Michael Tolkin and Anthony Minghella, based on the musical book by Arthur Kopit with music and lyrics by Murray Yeston, adapted from the Italian by Mario Fratti. And there is no listing in the film’s credits or on the IMDb that the whole megilla is based on a screenplay by Federico Fellini, Ennio Flaiano, Tullio Pinelli, Brunello Rondi, based on a story by Fellini and Flaiano. 118 minutes): Messy thumbprints.

Somebody writing about Fellini in the ’60s said that he stole from everybody but left his thumbprints on it. Wait, I already told you that. With his masterpiece 8 ½ Fellini discovered the joy of having everybody steal from him and leave their thumbprints on his stuff. Sometimes it works (All That Jazz in 1979); sometimes it does not (Alex in Wonderland in 1970). With Nine, too many people have gone to the fingerprint ink pad too many times. The Broadway musical Nine opened in 1982 for a run of just under two years. Kopit and Yeston reconceived 8 ½ very much as a Broadway musical. In Fellini et al’s screenplay Guido is a director trying to get started on the production of a film, and he is surrounded by a variety—a great variety—of people. Kopit and Yeston reduced that to Guido and the women in his life. Each one was given essentially one number. I saw the show in New York in May 1983, and while it was not awful, my main recollection was that the lyrics were not that impressive. For example, the song “Be Italian” started out with “Be Italian, you rapscallion,” which to this day is the stupidest lyric I have ever heard. Thank God they have changed it for the film to “Be Italian, be Italian.” The characters were designed by Kopit and Yeston to be performed rather than acted.

Tolkin and Minghella focus on the women, but because they go outside of the framework soundstage set, we also get some male characters. But the writing of the characters is not a patch on that of the characters in 8 ½. Look at the scene in the theater in 8 ½ where they are looking at screen tests, then look at the screen test scene in Nine. 8 ½’s scene has more characters and more interesting characters. Also, Tolkin and Minghella, along with director Rob Marshall, have botched the difference between the character as performer and as character. Penélope Cruz’s first number is played as a cartoon, a caricature of a caricature, which is a total mismatch with the subtlety of the part as written and performed in the rest of the film. See, even Cruz needs good writing.

Oddly enough, with all these beautiful actresses at the filmmakers’s disposal, one of the elements of 8 ½ that is missing is its Italian sensuality. That’s not the only thing. The Catholic religion is given a cursory treatment, and the politics of the time are not mentioned at all. Most damaging of all is that Fellini’s wicked sense of humor has gone completely AWOL. Fellini and his collaborators, who had worked with him on many films, knew that Guido was often full of shit, and they all delighted in exposing that element. Tolkin, Minghella and Marshall are taking this all a little too seriously. As is Daniel Day-Lewis as Guido. He is of course a wonderful actor, but he is not a performer, which is what the musical calls for. I saw the singer Sergio Franchi in the New York production, and he was maybe 1/200th of the actor Day-Lewis is, but he could put over the songs and hold the stage.

There are moments in the film. I don’t think it was just that they had dropped “rapscallion” that made me enjoy Fergie as Saraghina in the “Be Italian” number, although I do miss the more fulsome Edra Gale from 8 ½. Marion Cotillard does a great job on “My Husband Makes Movies,” which is enough to make you imagine how good the movie should have been.
I would also be remiss if I did not point out that Tolkin and Minghella did get in a great dig at the whole occupation of directing, when they have Judi Dench’s Lili, Guido’s designer, ask him what is so difficult about directing? You say yes, you say no. What’s so hard? As I always tell people, any idiot can direct and many have. In 8 ½ we think there is at least something of a script for the film Guido is trying to make, although Guido keeps changing it. In Nine, it is clear he has not written it yet, which makes this more about writer’s block than director’s block. In both cases, the film production seems to be further along than would normally be the case, even in Italian films. Although you will notice in an item below that that is not always true.

It’s Complicated (2009. Written by Nancy Meyers. 120 minutes): Yes, Nancy Meyers writes screenplays about well-to-do women of a certain age who have sex. Get over it.

Some reviews of this have been absolutely scathing, and not just from male critics. What is it that pisses people off about Nancy Meyers’s films? First of all, she is writing about middle-aged women, both here and in 2003’s Something’s Gotta Give (see the book of Understanding Screenwriting for an in-depth look at the script of the latter; it’s in the Not-Quite-So Good section). Secondly, she is writing about middle-aged women who have sex, which automatically contains an “eeww” factor for critics young enough to be children of her heroines. Thirdly, she is definitely not writing about the underclass, as Geoffrey Fletcher does in Precious, etc. If Nora Ephron is into food porn, Meyers is into home decoration porn. Look at the main house in Something’s Gotta Give, or Jane’s house here. And to make it worse, Jane is having the house remodeled and enlarged. Most of us would kill for the kitchen she now has, especially as photographed by John Toll, but the remodel will include the kitchen she says she has always wanted. Nora Ephron just had a cow.

Once you either shield your eyes or get over the look of the film, what the script gives us is an amusing comedy of divorce. No, it is not as good as such ’30s and ’40s classics in that genre as The Awful Truth (1937) or His Girl Friday (1940), but it is not terrible. In Jane, Meyers has written a great part for Meryl Streep, who does everything she can with it and maybe a little too much. The same is true for Alec Baldwin as Jake, Jane’s divorced husband, with whom Jane has an affair. But would you really want to cut any of Streep and Baldwin’s stuff in here? Yes, the film could be shorter; the two earlier films mentioned above run 92 minutes each. But when those two are on-screen going full-tilt… (Speaking of Baldwin being at the top of his powers, the best news I have read in weeks is that Julianne Moore will be returning to play with him on more episodes of 30 Rock. Happy New Year)

Meanwhile Meyers creates some interesting secondary characters. Jane has a trio of female friends who serve as a Greek chorus until they unfortunately disappear halfway through the film, just when their comments could get really interesting. The scenes with Jane and the trio may be the most subversive element in the film. A writer in the British film magazine Sight & Sound several years ago stated that a photograph of a woman laughing is the most subversive thing in the world. Jane and her friends, especially Trisha, laugh a lot, which violates Hedy Lamarr’s brilliant observation that for a woman to be considered sexy in Hollywood all she has to do is stand still and look stupid. Jane and the trio do not stand still and they do not look stupid.

Jane’s about-to-be son-in-law, Harley, who figures out that Jane and Jake are having an affair, is a nice touch. In fact he is more interesting than either of Jane’s three grown children. Unfortunately, Meyers writes a very one-note character for Jake’s younger, current wife, Agness. She is a bitch from beginning to end, and the writing does a disservice to Lake Bell, the actress playing her. Given this is a film by, about, and for middle-aged women, I can see why Meyers wrote Agness that way, but as the film progressed I felt less hatred toward the character and more sympathy for Bell, who could have done more if given a better written character.

The real problem in the writing is Adam. He is the architect designing the remodel and a nice guy. See Ralph Bellamy in both of the earlier films I mentioned. He played those characters so well the role is now known as the “Ralph Bellamy” part. That’s fine if you have an actor as bland as Bellamy could be, but Meyers the director has cast Steve Martin as Adam. And Meyers the writer did not rethink the part for Martin. No, I do not expect him to show up in a white suit with an arrow through his head, but he can be a lot edgier than Meyers’s script lets him be. There is a funny scene where Adam and Jane get stoned on pot before they got to a party with her kids, and Adam does dance a little funny, but it is not enough. Meyers would have a much stronger film if Adam were a stronger character.

The extended pot scenes, by the way, are the reason the film is rated R. This was a source of outrage among pot smokers in Hollywood, but the rating system is set up to let parents know there may be something objectionable in the film for their kids. Lots of parents in America would not want their kids to see the scenes. As for us grownups, toke on the movie all you want.

Panic in the Streets (1950. Screenplay by Richard Murphy, adaptation by Daniel Fuchs of screen story by Edward and Edna Anhalt. 96 minutes): Creation and execution.

This began as a short story Edward Anhalt wrote for Dime Detective magazine, and then he and his wife Edna spent eight hours writing a thirteen page treatment, which sold to 20th Century Fox for a surprisingly high $75,000. As Edward Anhalt told William Froug in Froug’s 1972 The Screenwriting Looks At the Screenwriter, it was “hot.” The story won the Anhalts an Academy Award for best story, and Edward Anhalt went on to a long and distinguished career as a screenwriter. In this case, the story then passed through other hands and ended up as a screenplay by Richard Murphy. You may remember Murphy from US#12, when I wrote about his first collaboration with director Elia Kazan, Boomerang!. I said that Murphy’s screenplay “is a fast, tight, look at an unusual case.” That’s true here too. By the time this script came to Kazan’s attention, he had developed a real appreciation for Murphy.

Steven Maras, in his book Screenwriting: History, Theory and Practice (see US#38 for my review), discusses the issue of creation and execution in filmmaking, noting that many people writing about the subject consider the writing the creation of the film and the directing of it the execution. Maras writes about the difficulty of being quite so rigid about it. He suggests that, particularly as we get into technologically complex films (he was writing before Avatar, but that is a good example of what he is talking about), the creation is often done as part of production, both in CGI effects and animation. As Kazan writes in his memoir A Life, he and Murphy were both creating and executing at the same time. The story is about a guy who gets off a ship in New Orleans carrying the pneumonic plague, and the efforts of the cops and the health service to track down people who might have been in contact with him. Kazan insisted on shooting on location in New Orleans, and Murphy was on the set constantly adjusting the script to fit the locations. Kazan writes, “The author [Murphy] was with me every minute, and we reconceived each scene according to my directorial notions. I’d get to a location each morning before anyone and figure out the sequence of shots that would keep the story’s excitement going. Then Dick would show up, and we’d drop the tailgate of a truck, ask the property man to set up our [sic] typewriter, and, together, adjust the script for that day to fit my ideas. We rewrote every scene every day, and I was at the typewriter as much as Dick. But it wasn’t writing; it was filmmaking.” O.K., now discount even a third of that, which you should always do when you hear a director talking about his “rewriting” the script, and you still get a sense of the immediate collaboration that was going on. For an example of it in the film, look at the final chase in and around the coffee warehouse. Murphy and Kazan use every inch, every nook, every cranny, for maximum effect.

For all the rewriting, the script holds together very well. We follow the cops and the health service representative, and simultaneously we follow the crooks who killed the guy from the ship. The crooks assume the cops are asking about the dead man because he brought something valuable into the country. Murphy has done a nice job creating the two crooks. Blackie is the lead badass, and he is cool, pleasant, always dangerous and played by Walter “Jack” Palance, as he is billed, in his film debut. Raymond, his sort-of friend, is messy, nervous and wonderfully played by Zero Mostel, who was blacklisted the following year. Murphy has written such strong scenes that Kazan can shoot several of them in long single-takes.

Battle Cry (1955. Screenplay by Leon Uris, based on his novel. 149 minutes): Santa was not quite as good to me this year as last.

Last year Santa brought me boxed sets of Errol Flynn and Budd Boetticher films, which I dealt with over several columns. This was the most interesting DVD I got his year, so far, although there are another couple on order.

Battle Cry was a huge hit in its day, one of the top-grossing World War II movies of the ’50s, but now is generally forgotten. Not without reason, since it is not nearly as good as From Here to Eternity or The Young Lions, to mention only a couple of the period’s films this will remind you of. It has its moments. The book was the first novel by Leon Uris, who like the characters in the film had been a Marine radioman in the Pacific during World War II. As a lot of vets did, he wrote a novel about it. His is a big sprawling story with a large cast of characters, and the film is the same. The script follows a group of varied American guys into the Marine Corps in 1942. By the end of the first fifteen minutes they are through boot camp and on to radio school. Uris does a nice job in his opening scenes of setting up the different characters.

What the film borrows from From Here to Eternity is a focus on the love lives of the soldiers. Danny, the typical All-American boy who has left his relentlessly cute sweetheart to go into the Corps, has a torrid affair with an older married woman, Elaine Yarborough. He is played by the teen heartthrob of the day, Tab Hunter, and she, complete with glasses, is Dorothy Malone, somewhat reviving her role in The Big Sleep a year before she let it all hang out in Written on the Wind. She eats him alive. Not literally, since this is the ’50s, but you get the idea. Marion, the intellectual of the group, meets a sweet girl on his nightly rides on the San Diego-Coronado ferry. She turns out to have a shady present. Anne Francis captures both the sweetness and the raunch. Once the group gets through radio school and off to the Pacific, they set up camp in New Zealand. Andy, the lumberjack, falls hard for Pat Rogers, a Kiwi widow played by Nancy Olson, whose level-headedness matches nicely with Aldo Ray’s rough Andy. I don’t know if Marine Corps recruitment went up after this movie came out, but they should have had recruiting sergeants outside the theaters. To paraphrase the old Navy line, join the Marines, see the world, and get to shack up with Dorothy Malone, Anne Francis, and Nancy Olson.

Yes, the boys do see some fighting and several get killed, but mostly they spend their time coming in after the beachheads are established and mopping up the enemy. These scenes are not as exciting as they should be, and the final battle, when they get to go into Saipan first, messes up what should be the major turning point in the battle, the death of its commanding officer.

Partly because this is not an obvious star vehicle, it is very much in the Warner Brothers tradition of piling on as many stories and characters as Uris could squeeze from his book. It is not very deep, and it does not flow very well, but Uris writes several good scenes for the actors to play. He later wrote the screenplay for The Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957), one of the more stolid versions of the story, and then he became fascinated by Israel, leading to writing his best-known novel, Exodus. He spent the rest of his life writing novels, letting others adapt them into films and television miniseries.

Wild in the Country (1961. Screenplay by Clifford Odets, based on the novel The Lost Country by J. R. Salamanca. 114 minutes): Strange collaborators.

It was 1960 and Twentieth Century-Fox was falling apart. Darryl F. Zanuck had left as head of production and his replacements were incompetent. There were a few of the old guard around, including Jerry Wald, an enormously prolific producer. Since he had made Peyton Place for Fox in 1957, he was pretty much given free reign. Well, not so much given as taken by him. One day he called in Philip Dunne. Dunne was one of the great writers at Fox (How Green Was My Valley [1941]) who had turned to directing in the fifties (Ten North Frederick [1958]). Wald’s proposal was this: Clifford Odets, the New York playwright, was going to adapt Salamanca’s novel, and it would star Simone Signoret, who was just coming off her Oscar win in Room at the Top (1959), and…wait for it…Elvis Presley. Would Dunne like to direct it? Dunne replied, “Well, this is not what I expected, but let’s talk about it.” (I did an oral history interview with Dunne in 1970, and the material on the film is from that and his wonderful 1980 memoir, Take Two: A Life in Movies and Politics.)

Odets started writing, but as Dunne said, “It was impossible for him to write badly. He could write unshootably, but he couldn’t write badly.” Odets’s problem was that he went on and on. Scenes ran 30 pages, and the draft he turned in was 500 pages. Figure a minute a page running time on the screen and you see the problem. Odets worked with Dunne for a while, but then Fox refused to pay any more money for Odets to do revisions. The studio figured that Dunne was a screenwriter, so he could make them. Except that they wanted to start production right away. So Dunne was shooting during the day and wrestling with Odets’s script at night.

Meanwhile, Fox would not pay Signoret’s price, which undoubtedly went up after the Oscar, so they had to recast in a hurry. The novel was about a sensitive country boy who falls in love with his much older teacher and gets her pregnant. (Dunne thinks that may be why he was offered the job: He was just coming off a 1959 film about a pregnant teen called Blue Denim, and he thought, “I seem to be the pregnancy expert” at the studio.) It was Odets’s idea to turn the boy into a wild kid, and it was Wald’s idea to change the title. So the teacher became a psychiatric social worker, but they could not get any actress of the right age to play it. Dunne ended up going with Hope Lange. She was a good 10 to 15 years too young for the way the part was originally conceived, but Dunne thought that gave enough of a sense of class difference, as opposed to age difference, to make it work.

Presley did not want to sing. Wald did not want him to sing. Dunne did not want him to sing. Presley wanted to get more into acting than singing, and he had already given an excellent performance in the 1960 film Flaming Star. But the studio wanted him to sing. So in addition to hacking away at the 500-page script, Dunne had to find some places for Presley to sing. He did, mostly with Presley sitting down in a truck. When the film was previewed, the reaction of the audience was, “Cut the songs.” The audience felt the songs disrupted the story. The songs stayed, and Fox advertised the film as “ELVIS PRESLEY sings of love to HOPE LANGE—TUESDAY WELD—MILLIE PERKINS.” Both it and Flaming Star were not commercial successes, and Presley pretty much gave up the idea of becoming a serious actor.

The picture is not as much of a mess as you might imagine, and it is often fascinating. Presley is very good at handling Odets’s dialogue, as is Tuesday Weld as the town bad-girl. Presley’s acting is first-rate, especially in the scene where he talks about his mother. And one of the songs in the truck, which he sings to Millie Perkins, lets her react with more charm and lightness than you could ever imagine from watching her in The Diary of Anne Frank two years before. Dunne as both writer and director brought out the best in his actresses. Look at Suzy Parker in Ten North Frederick if you don’t believe me.

And just to add in another strange collaborator: When Dunne was preparing Lange and Presley for one of the love scenes (probably the one in the motel room), what music did he play to get them in the mood? J.S. Bach. Presley loved Bach.

Tom Stempel is the author of several books on film. His most recent is Understanding Screenwriting: Learning From Good, Not-Quite-So Good, and Bad Screenplays.

Tom Stempel

Tom Stempel is an American film scholar and critic. He is a professor emeritus in film at Los Angeles City College, where he taught from 1971 to 2011.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Previous Story

Review: When in Rome

Next Story

Oscar 2010 Nomination Predictions: Actress