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Understanding Screenwriting #6: The Women, Appaloosa, The Closer, Burn Notice, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #6: <em>The Women</em>, <em>Appaloosa</em>, <em>The Closer</em>, <em>Burn Notice</em>, & More

Coming Up In This Column: Three act structure; The Women; Appaloosa; The Closer; Burn Notice; 90210, but first…

Fan Mail: Since there were no comments at press time on US#5, let me just give a welcome to Michael Peterson, who has started the Comics Column for House Next Door. There was a suggestion here a while back about starting such a column and I was delighted to see Keith picked up on. On the basis of the first column, Michael is obviously the perfect guy for the job. I particularly appreciated his comments on American Splendor, my favorite adaptation of a comic.

I do want to throw in a reply I made to a former student of mine who recently asked if I knew of any good scripts that were written with a five-act rather than a three-act structure. He wanted to know because his script appeared to have five acts. Since I have never been big on the whole act structure for films, here is what I replied to him:

“Just as you can divide any film into three acts, you can also divide it into five acts. I have a particular preference for four, but that’s only because I ran track in high school and one of my events was the mile run, which was four times around a quarter mile track. I just got used to thinking in terms of fours. If you think I am joking, look at all the screenwriting textbooks that talk about the three act structure but disagree on exactly how long each act should be. The main thing is to keep the story moving forward and keep us involved with the characters and the story. If you do that, nobody is going to count the acts, however they count them.

“The three-act structure, by the way, comes from the Broadway theatre of the 1930s and 40s. Almost no stage play written now uses three acts. They are either a long one-act, or two acts. Shakespeare, by the way, used what was then the traditional five acts, so I supposed you could use a film of one of his plays as an example. Is this whole question to settle a bar bet? I can’t imagine it has a serious purpose.”

That settles that. Now on to some films and television shows.

The Women (1936 stage play by Clare Boothe. 1939 film: screenplay by Anita Loos and Jane Murfin; based on the play by Clare Boothe; 132 minutes. 1956 film The Opposite Sex: screenplay by Fay Kanin and Michael Kanin; based on the play by Clare Boothe; 117 minutes. 2008 film: written by Diane English; based on the play by Clare Boothe Luce and the screenplay by Anita Loos and Jane Murfin; 114 minutes): While for many people, the most anticipated film of 2008 was either The Dark Knight or Iron Man, I had high hopes for the second remake of The Women.

What is odd about that is that I had never particularly liked the play or even the classic 1939 film adaptation. All those women being bitchy to each other got a little tiresome. To prepare for seeing the new version, however, I went back and read the play again and saw the 1939 film. And I liked them both a lot more than I had before. The play was written by Clare Boothe after she married the head of Time-Life, Henry Luce (in both the play and the 1939 and 1957 films she is only credited as Clare Boothe; the Luce was added for the newer version. I am not sure what she would have made of that). Boothe discovered that the New York City society women she was now hanging out with were spoiled brats. What struck me most reading the play this time is that Boothe fills the play with working class women who serve the rich ones as maids, cooks, nurses, et al. The working class women act as a Greek chorus, commenting on the stupidities of the rich. This gives the play a wider view of the world of women than its reputation would have it.

The first drafts of the 1939 film were done by Jane Murfin. In those days, before the Writers Guild took over the arbitration of writing credits, the studios tended to give the top credit to the writer who worked on the material last. Today, the Writers Guild of America has reversed the process and gives top billing to the writer who first worked on the project, since he or she has done most of the heavy lifting in shaping it for the screen. The screenplay generally follows the play, which tells the story of Mary, who learns her husband Stephen is having an affair with Crystal, a salesgirl. Mary’s girlfriends encourage her to deal with the situation in various ways as Mary tries to keep her pride. She loses her husband to Crystal, then at the end of the play outsmarts Crystal and appears to be about to get him back. The play is in three acts (see what I said above about Broadway shows in the thirties?), with twelve scenes in eleven different sets. Murfin uses all but one of the scenes. She drops the scene where Edith, one of Mary’s friends, has just given birth to yet another child. In the script for the film, Edith’s fecund nature, a running gag in the play, has been reduced to an early shot of her with several kids, and then a payoff joke later that she has eight children. She only has four children in the play, which still gives Boothe a great line from Mary to Edith: “Are you Catholic or just careless?” The line is not in the film, since it would never have gotten past the Catholic Legion of Decency at the time.

The 1939 film’s director, George Cukor, was not entirely happy with the script and asked the legendary screenwriter and novelist (Gentleman Prefer Blondes) Anita Loos to come in and liven it up. It was Loos who wrote the opening scenes in which we see some of Mary’s friends in their natural habitats, as well as an introduction to what looks like a combination beauty salon and gym. Loos retains a surprising amount of Boothe’s raunchy wit. Miriam, a woman Mary meets at the ranch in Reno, where it was traditional for women to go to get relatively quick divorces, talks about the local cowhand as having “a big horse” and wonders if he can get his legs together. In the final scene of the play and film, there is a line from a woman about her married lover saying, “And he says: ’My wife always expects me home on Easter Sunday.’ So I says, ’What’s she expect you to do? Lay an egg?” Alas, most of the comments by the working class women have been cut, although a few survive, but they are not as hard-bitten as the ones in the play. The film, produced by MGM, has been sentimentalized, mostly by extended close-ups of Norma Shearer as the long-suffering Mary. It also pushes the glamor quotient by adding a fashion show, filmed in Technicolor (the rest of the film is black and white). Even the joys of Technicolor don’t keep it from stopping the show, and not in a good way. Neither Loos nor Cukor wanted it, but the studio did. On the other hand, Loos (probably) has written a much better farewell speech for Crystal than Boothe did. Boothe’s Crystal just tells Mary she has become a cat, but Loos and Joan Crawford’s Crystal is allowed a gallant exit speech.

In 1956, when the major studios were desperately remaking anything that had been a hit before, MGM remade The Women as The Opposite Sex. They turned it into a musical, alas a year before the perfect composer/lyricist for it, Stephen Sondheim, had his first Broadway show. And they added the male characters, who are off-stage and off-screen in the play and the 1939 film. None of these changes improved it, although a young Joan Collins is not terrible as Crystal. No Crawford, but not bad.

The main reason I was anticipating the 2008 remake is that it is written (and directed) by Diane English, best known as the creator of television’s Murphy Brown. Surely if there is anyone who could bring The Women up to date, it would be English. Murphy Brown, as well as Linda Bloodworth-Thomason’s Designing Women and both the series and film of Sex and the City have given us a modern contemporary look at the wit of women. In fact, it may be that the play and 1939 film did not seem as bitchy as legend would have it because those series and films have made bitchiness more commonplace than it was in the thirties. After all, The New York Times said in its review of the 1939 film, “So marvelous that we believe every Hollywood studio should make at least one thoroughly nasty picture a year,” rightly implying that the studios did not.

The structure of the new film follows the structure of the 1939 film for nearly three-quarters of its running time, but with several new scenes in place of the last two scenes of the play and the 1939 film. The film is still about Mary and her husband being stolen by Crystal, but whereas Boothe’s play and Murfin and Loos’s screenplay was ruthlessly focused on that subject, English’s script wanders off onto a whole plethora of other subjects. English’s film is perhaps even more about the tradition of consumption of this class of women, but without much of Boothe’s satirical edge, which Murfin, Loos, and most likely MGM dulled a bit in the film. Perhaps this is because the new film is stuffed to the gills with tie-ins from big name firms nobody wanted to offend. While Boothe, Murfin and Loos spread the scenes around in various stores, much of the new version takes place at Sacks, which leads Sylvia, one of Mary’s friends, to tell one of Edith’s complaining kids that “Nobody. Hates. Sacks.” In Boothe’s world that would be satire, here it is simply affirmation. In Boothe’s world, only Nancy, a lady author, works (Nancy is a self-admitted virgin—who somehow was dressed in the 1939 film as very butch, which in turn may have led English to make the equivalent character in her script openly gay). Sylvia in this version is the editor of a fashion magazine. A little after midway in the film, we get so many scenes with Sylvia at work that we think the movie is becoming about her rather than Mary.

In the play, Little Mary, Mary’s 11 year-old daughter, is very observant about marriage, at one point commenting, “But Mother, even when the ladies do do things, they stop it when they get the lovie-dovies. ... Ladies always end up so silly.” Almost none of that made it into the 1939 film, and none of that is in the current version. Instead we have Little Mary, now renamed Molly, worried about hitting puberty. Not quite the same thing.

While English retains some edge in the shopping scenes, she loses that edge completely when Mary begins to try the self-help route after Stephen leaves her. If there is any subject ripe for a no-holds barred satire, it is the self-help movement. Boothe and Loos would have had a field day with the subject, but English, like way too many people in Hollywood, takes it seriously (as Hollywood tends to with psychiatrists; when was the last time you saw a shrink as an object of fun in a Hollywood film?). Instead of Mary going off to Reno to get a divorce, she now goes off to a spa to find herself. Instead of the gallery of interesting characters the earlier Mary met at the ranch, the current Mary meets a Hollywood agent nicknamed the Countess, the equivalent of the real Countess in the earlier version. This leads to a scene with the usual satirical jabs at Hollywood, but it goes nowhere, since unlike the earlier Countess, who contributed to the plot, this one never appears again. See what I mean about a lack of focus?

So Mary finds herself, and rekindles her interest in dress design, yet another subplot that takes us away from the heart of the story. At least the fashion show in this version makes a plot point. And the clothes actually look like something a real woman might wear, as compared to most fashion shows in real life and the movies. There is even some indication at the end of the fashion show that Stephen may come back, but it gets lost in the hullabaloo of the fashion show and the inevitable run to the hospital when Edith has to give birth to yet another child. Edith has said earlier that she wants to keep having children until she has a boy. Guess what? This time she has a boy, the only male character to show up on screen. And he completely undercuts the focus of the film on the sisterhood of women. It should have been a girl baby.

English retains much of the structure of the Murfin-Loos screenplay, and she uses variations on some of the new scenes Murfin and Loos came up with. One scene from the 1939 film that is not in the play has Sylvia and Edith confronting Crystal at her work. It was probably Loos who wrote the scene, because it gives Crystal a whole range of attitudes to play when she is dealing with customers, on the phone with Stephen, and talking to Sylvia. Crawford is wonderful in the scene. Eva Mendes is Crystal this time around, and while you can more easily imagine a guy being immediately seduced by Mendes than Crawford, Mendes does not deliver the way Crawford does. This is not because Mendes is not yet the actor Crawford was, but because the scene has been so watered down there is not enough for her to work with. Likewise, English does not give Mendes anything like the gallant speech Loos gave Crawford.

English has said in interviews that she wanted to focus on the women as supportive friends rather than bitchy friends. This is probably what leads to the lack of focus. The problem simply is that she has not rethought the entire story in contemporary terms. In 1988 there was yet another remake of The Front Page called Switching Channels. The big idea behind it was to redo The Front Page in terms of television news. It simply did not work because the realities of television news kept bumping up against the mechanics of the original story. The year before, Broadcast News told a similar story of a triangle of people involved in television news, but James Brooks had completely re-imagined it in terms of what he knew and researched about television news. It was an infinitely better film than Switching Channels. The 2008 The Women is Switching Channels. What we need is the Broadcast News version of The Women.

Appaloosa (2008. Written by Robert Knott & Ed Harris. Based on the book by Robert B. Parker. 108 minutes): It is always nice to see a western on the big screen, where it belongs. Even better in this case, where it has more virtues than flaws.

Critics who have read Parker’s novel say that the film is faithful to the book, including large chunks of dialogue. The dialogue, especially between Cole and Hitch, the two free-lance lawmen hired to clean up the town of Appaloosa, is first rate. The men have worked together for twelve years and are as laconic talking to each other as two Sundance Kids with no Butch Cassidy beside them yacking away. The two actors, Ed Harris (Cole) and Viggo Mortensen (Hitch), under Harris’s direction, do as much as any two actors can with what Parker and the screenwriters have given them.

The story focuses on the two as they deal with the local bad guy, Bragg (Jeremy Irons, borrowing the same imitation of John Huston that Daniel Day-Lewis used in There Will Be Blood). One of the flaws in the script is that we do not know exactly what Bragg does, or why he needs his gang of men to do it. They are useful to threaten Cole and Hitch at several points in the story, but they seem to have no other function. As several critics have pointed out, the film has some family resemblance to both Rio Bravo (without all the waiting around Howard Hawks wanted in Jules Furthman and Leigh Brackett’s screenplay) and both versions of 3:10 to Yuma. There are enough twists and turns so that Appaloosa never seems like a mere ripoff. Narratively it is a lot more interesting than the trailers for it would lead you to believe, with a number of surprising twists and turns.

One set of those twists involve Annie, a widow who arrives in town shortly after Cole and Hitch do. The writing never sets up those twists (although the first big one is telegraphed earlier than it should be) as well as it could, and then does not develop them well. Because of these writing flaws, Renée Zellweger, who is not awful here, is rather at sea in the part. If you do not have it on the page, the actors cannot give it to you, and Harris as director cannot push her into giving a better performance than the script can support.

On the non-screenwriting side of the film, it should be noted that Viggo Mortensen has a great hat. Never underestimate the importance of great hats in westerns.

The Closer (2008. Episode “Time Bomb” written by Steven Kane. 60 minutes): I have been dealing with opening episodes of series, so how about a couple of half-season finales? The summer series of The Closer ended with this episode, and the second half of the series will show up in January. In this episode, there are at least two elements that connect to continuing stories.

In an earlier episode this season, “Sudden Death,” the brother of Det. Julio Sanchez was killed and he went a little crazy trying to find the murderer. There have been references to his dealing with this in the intervening episodes. “Time Bomb” deals, as the title suggests, with a set of bombs a bunch of teenage boys had planted at a mall. In the final shootout with the one remaining teenage boy, Sanchez is seriously wounded. In the half-season cliffhanger, he is being airlifted to a hospital. We are supposed to be concerned as to whether he will survive. After all, we have seen him through the death of his brother, which has made him a little more prominent in the last few episodes than previously. Extra-textually, this may tell us that the producers were giving the actor playing Sanchez, Raymond Cruz, a nice send-off as he leaves the show. Or the producers are knowingly doing this thinking the audience is going to think this. Or Cruz has been lobbying for more money and the producers are taking a hard negotiating stance. I have not heard any rumors about him wanting to leave the show, but he’s not a big star like William Peterson on CSI, so rumors may not have hit the media. (Yes, that is a real possibility. Honestly.) We will just have to wait until January.

The other plot thread is the closing down of Deputy Chief Johnson’s Priority Homicide Unit, which she has managed to manipulate into being turned into the Major Crimes Division. In the previous episode, “Tijuana Brass,” her boss, Chief Pope, made the change. The only real reference to it in this episode is an observation that now being Major Crimes as opposed to Priority Homicide means they cannot get the medical examiner to the scene of the crime as quickly as they did before. After setting that up, it turns out the ME is late because of a family matter. So the change in names may or may not play out later.

Since I am writing on The Closer for the first time, let me mention how good the show has been at developing the other members of Deputy Chief Johnson’s squad. Every one of them gets at least a line or two in each episode and, most importantly, a couple of good reaction shots. Since we know the people, a quick reaction shot tells us what they are thinking. Reaction shots are the lifeblood of screenwriting and filmmaking.

Burn Notice (2008. Episode “Good Soldier” written by Alfredo Barrios Jr. 60 minutes): The setup for this series is that spy Michael Weston was given a “burn notice,” effectively taking him out of the spy business, closing all his bank accounts, keeping him from access to any of his former compatriots, etc. It happened in Miami (but luckily we do not get as many shots of bikini babes as we do in CSI: Miami) where his mother and ne’er-do-well brother live, along with a couple of friends who still talk to him: Sam, an ex-F.B.I. agent, and Fiona, an ex-IRA gunrunner. Michael takes jobs helping people.

At the end of the first season, Carla, who knows why Michael was burned, contacted him, and this half season has had as its continuing storyline Michael’s attempts to find out from her who burned him and why. Those story elements are generally the B, or secondary story, of any episode they appear in, but the promotion for the finale of the half season was that he would finally learn who burned him. No such luck. He thinks he has figured out what Carla has been using him for: to set up a sniper doing an assassination. Michael thinks if he can stop the assassination, he can get back in the “company’s” good graces. Carla, however, has set him up yet again, and the episode ends with him narrowly escaping death as a bomb planted in his house explodes.

The upside is the show will get a new set for the winter episodes, but the downside is that it drags out any resolution of his overall situation. The writers may be writing themselves into a hole with this storyline. If Michael finds out and can get off the burn list, the nature of the show changes. See Mr. Peepers (1952-1955) or Moonlighting (1985-1989) as examples of shows with that problem. The writers of course could find a creative way to make his finding out make things worse for him rather than better. If the writers keep dragging out the story, we may give up on the show. See Twin Peaks (1990-1991) for the classic example of this.

90210 (2008. Episode “The Bubble” written by Dailyn Rodriguez. 60 minutes): The characters have not gotten more layered since I wrote about this show in US#5, and the plotting is just as klunky. In this episode, Dixon, the black adopted son in the Wilson family, accidentally knocks loose a wing mirror on another student’s car and tries to pay for it himself rather than report it on the insurance. Eventually Harry, his dad, finds out and ... offers to pay the cash himself, with Dixon paying him off. That is known as letting your characters off too easily.

Again, the older characters are underutilized. One of the casting inspirations of the show was to hire Jessica Walter, Lucille Bluth herself, as Tabitha Wilson, Harry’s former movie star mother. When the director of the high school stage show has to leave for personal reasons, Tabitha volunteers to take over. The scenes of Tabitha terrorizing the kids in the show are wonderful, but Annie, her granddaughter, is embarrassed. So she is replaced by Brenda. Shannen Doherty is no Jessica Walter.

The hype for this episode centered on Kelly and Brenda having a fight, just like the good old days. It’s not a fight per se, just a mild argument over the fact that the guy Kelly likes has actually talked to Brenda and understandably asked her about the father of Kelly’s child. Brenda told him nothing, obviously, because the show has still not figured out which male cast member of the original they can get to re-appear. If you were not listening closely you might think that Dylan was identified as the father in this scene, but he wasn’t. Brenda just tells Kelly that she, Kelly, is still in love with Dylan. Which doesn’t mean squat.

The nominal leads of the show are the two Wilson kids, Dixon and his sister Annie, but at least in this episode the focus is more on the beautiful rich bitch Naomi. Partly that is because she is the most active of all the characters, constantly stirring up trouble. Partly because she is played by AnnaLynne McCord, a young actress with what used to be Charlize Theron’s face and the ability to smolder effectively on-screen. Viewers of Nip/Tuck will remember her as the omni-sexual Eden, who made out with men, women, small furry animals, and venetian blinds. The quality serves her well here.

I am afraid I am going to have to stop watching 90210, however. I am diabetic and the show has already given me more than the American Diabetes Association’s annual limit of cute teen-aged girl hair tosses.

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.