Famous Screenwriters is a new series by The Script Lab for the new year, in which our resident cinema historian, Martin Keady, looks at the great screenwriting cities of the world – those that have produced many of the world’s greatest screenwriters. He has previously covered London and New York.
For Part 3, he looks at Los Angeles, the home of Hollywood.
In cinematic terms, Los Angeles is Hollywood, and Hollywood has been so successful as a filmmaking city that it effectively has various “twin” cities around the world, not least “Bollywood” in Bombay and “Nollywood” in Lagos, the capital of Nigeria. Consequently, since the birth of cinema, it has been home (or become home) to many of the world’s greatest screenwriters.
Here are 10 great LA screenwriters.
10. LEIGH BRACKETT
There are a pair of “Bracketts” on this list, but they are unrelated (other than both of them being exceptionally fine writers). The first is Leigh Brackett, a native Californian who was one of the few female screenwriters to become successful in Hollywood before the first wave of feminism in the 1960s finally began to open up cinema and screenwriting to women (a process that even today is obviously still nowhere near completion).
Leigh Brackett was hardly prolific, writing or co-writing fewer than a dozen films in three decades. Fortunately for her, at least four of them are masterpieces. The Big Sleep (1946) was an adaptation of the Raymond Chandler novel that she co-wrote with another great novelist, William Faulkner, and a journalist, Jules Furthman. It was her breakthrough, showing the devilish side to the so-called “City of Angels”. More than a decade later, she was reunited with Furthman to write another Howard Hawks film, Rio Bravo (1959), this time a Western about a sheriff (played by John Wayne) and his hopeless sidekicks, a drunk (played, appropriately enough, by Dean Martin) and a young boy (played by contemporary singing sensation Ricky Nelson). Remarkably, another decade passed before she wrote The Long Goodbye (1973), Robert Altman’s extraordinary updating of Chandler’s Philip Marlowe to the counter-culture of the early 1970s. Then, finally, and perhaps most impressively of all, Brackett was one of the co-writers credited on The Empire Strikes Back (1980), the second installment of the original Star Wars trilogy. In writing film noirs, Westerns and sci-fi so successfully, Brackett proved that whatever she lacked in the quantity of credits to her name, she more than made up for in quality.
KEY LA WORK: THE BIG SLEEP (1946)
9. HERMAN J. MANKIEWICZ
Herman J. Mankiewicz was summoned to Los Angeles in 1926 by the famous telegram sent by his friend and fellow writer, Ben Hecht, informing him that there were “millions” to be made in Hollywood (with the only competition coming from “idiots”). Ultimately, however, Mankiewicz enjoyed the most mixed of fortunes in Hollywood. He wrote or co-wrote almost as many films as Hecht (who himself wrote or co-wrote about seventy films), including such classics as The Wizard of Oz (1939) and The Pride of the Yankees (1942), but he was often uncredited and consequently was often paid less than the credited writers. However, he also conceived and co-wrote the screenplay for what is still arguably the greatest film ever made, Citizen Kane (1941).
The mythology of Kane is almost as incredible as the film itself. It has prompted a library’s worth of critical evaluation, notably Pauline Kael’s famous essay in which she argued that Mankiewicz was completely central to the whole enterprise, and even a film (a television film, but a good one) about its making, RKO 281 (1999). However, whatever the true division of creativity and credit between Orson Welles and Mankiewicz was, there is no doubt that “Mank” came up with the original idea for a thinly disguised biopic of Randolph Hearst, who may have tried to stop the film from being released but, without it, would almost certainly be completely forgotten today.
KEY LA WORK: CITIZEN KANE (1941)
8. CHARLES BRACKETT
The second Brackett and the first of Billy Wilder’s two great co-writers to appear on this list, Charles Brackett was, unlike Leigh Brackett, not a native Californian. Indeed, unlike Wilder, the brilliant European Jewish émigré who fled the Nazis to restart his life and career again in Hollywood, he was from a wealthy, even patrician, background. Nevertheless, Wilder and Brackett struck up a wonderful writing and producing partnership that resulted in some of Wilder’s greatest early work, in particular The Lost Weekend (1945), the first relatively authentic depiction of alcoholism in the history of Hollywood, and Sunset Boulevard (1950), probably the greatest film ever made about Los Angeles and its cinema industry.
Brackett and Wilder first began collaborating and co-writing together in the late 1930s, when Wilder was virtually fresh off the boat from Europe. Although they were very different in background and personality, the two men truly brought the best out of each other, co-writing their scripts together, which would then be directed by Wilder and often produced by Brackett. Of course, their finest work, without doubt, is Sunset Boulevard, a film that is so good that it now seems to exist as much beyond the screen as on it, as shown by Andrew Lloyd Webber’s decision to base a musical on it. It addressed the great rupture in cinematic history – the coming of sound (and the corresponding slow death of silent movies) – as it tells the story of a desperate young screenwriter (played by William Holden), who tries to milk money out of a once-famous silent movie star (played by Gloria Swanson), before realizing that the tables have turned and she is the one who is controlling affairs.
KEY LA WORK: SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950)
7. THE EPSTEIN BROTHERS
Julius J. and Philip G. Epstein are undoubtedly the finest pair of twins to become a successful screenwriting partnership. They co-wrote Casabalanca (1942) with Howard E. Koch, a playwright and screenwriter who would go on to be blacklisted in the anti-communist witch-hunts in Hollywood in the 1950s. The Epstein brothers were spared that fate, but when Philip died tragically young in 1952, Julius was left to write on alone, eventually writing another classic more than 40 years after Casablanca, Reuben, Reuben (1983), the story of a British poet drinking and womanising his way across America on a 1950s publicity tour, which was loosely based on the life of Dylan Thomas.
Casablanca has only one serious rival for the title of the most quotable film ever written, which is Withnail and I (1986), in that almost every single line in both films is truly memorable. Based on Everybody Comes to Rick’s, a play by Murray Burnet and Joan Alison, the Epsteins and Koch did such a tremendous job of adapting it for the screen that it has almost created a sub-genre of its own, namely films that are either inspired by it or quote it. These range from Woody Allen’s brilliant early comedy, Play It Again, Sam (1972), to The Usual Suspects (1995), which, given the newfound notoriety of its star, Kevin Spacey, may not be shown very often now but is still one of the greatest films (and scripts) of the last thirty years.
KEY LA WORK: CASABLANCA (1942) (IF ONLY FOR ALL THE OTHER HOLLYWOOD MOVIES IT HAS INSPIRED)
6. ERNEST LEHMAN
Alfred Hitchcock employed many fine screenwriters, from John Michael Hayes, who wrote Rear Window (1954) and To Catch A Thief (1955), to Jay Presson Allen, who wrote Marnie (1964). However, the finest of them all is probably Ernest Lehman, who not only wrote or co-wrote North By Northwest (1959) but several other non-Hitchcock classics, notably The Sweet Smell Of Success (1957), The Sound of Music (1965) and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966).
Lehman was born in New York, in 1915, and went to college there. However, unlike many successful New York playwrights and screenwriters, he did not head west to Hollywood immediately, as he had a successful job as a copywriter for a publicity firm that specialized in theatrical productions, an experience that eventually led him to write the short story that The Sweet Smell of Success was based upon.
Lehman eventually went to Hollywood to collaborate with Hitchcock, writing North by Northwest, which was based on one of his own ideas, although it was also inspired by the real-life WW2 story of a British secret agent who had been “invented” by the Allies to throw the Nazis off the scent of a real agent. North By Northwest is arguably Hitchcock’s finest film, with Lehman’s brilliant and witty writing contributing enormously to its success. Emboldened by that success, Lehman not only wrote but produced many other movies afterward.
KEY LA WORK: SCREENING SICKNESS AND OTHER TALES OF TINSEL TOWN (1982) (A NON-FICTION BOOK BASED ON HIS EXPERIENCES IN HOLLYWOOD)
5. I.A.L. DIAMOND
Billy Wilder’s second great co-writer, I.A.L. Diamond, was very different from his first great co-writer, Charles Brackett. Whereas Brackett was a lofty, almost aristocratic type who was very different from the far more earthy and wily Wilder, I.A.L. Diamond was, like Wilder, Jewish and of Eastern European descent (his parents having emigrated to America from Romania). When Wilder and Brackett eventually fell out and stopped working together, Diamond filled the gap left by Brackett and effectively propelled Wilder on to his second great wave of filmmaking.
Diamond, like so many Hollywood writers, originally hailed from New York, but he moved to Los Angeles after graduating from college to take up what was originally only a short-term contract with Columbia studios. He did sufficiently well to carve out a career as a screenwriter, although it was only when he began co-writing with Wilder that he went from being a good writer on movies such as Romance on the High Seas (1948) (for which he wrote that Hollywood staple, “additional dialogue”, to supplement the Epstein Brothers’ screenplay), to a great writer on masterpieces such as Some Like It Hot (1959) and The Apartment (1960). In fact, it is possible to divide Wilder’s two great co-writers into the “dramatist” (Brackett) and the “comedian” (Diamond).
KEY LA WORK: FEDORA (1978) (A FILM ABOUT A FOREIGN MOVIE STAR WHO MAKES IT BIG IN HOLLYWOOD)
4. DAN O’BANNON
Dan O’Bannon is one of the relatively unsung heroes of the great wave of sci-fi movies that began to be made in Los Angeles in the early to mid-1970s and ended up conquering the world, to the extent that sci-fi (if we include “Superhero Movies” under that broad heading) is now probably the dominant cinematic genre of the 21st century.
O’Bannon was not just a screenwriter, as he was also a visual effects artist and director. However, having begun his movie career as a co-writer of John Carpenter’s gonzo sci-fi movie, Dark Star (1974) (which was dubbed “the Spaced-Out Odyssey” for its recreation of the American counter-culture in outer space), he then strayed into far darker territory when he came up with the idea for and co-wrote Alien (1979). Partly inspired by the crippling stomach cramps that he suffered, caused by Crohn’s disease (which eventually killed him), he conceived of an alien monster that somehow implanted itself in an astronaut’s body before eventually bursting out of its stomach, in what would become arguably the defining image of all sci-fi cinema.
KEY LA WORK: DARK STAR (1974) (WHICH BEGAN LIFE AS A SHORT FILM MADE BY JOHN CARPENTER AT THE UNIVERSITY OF SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA)
3. FRANCES MARION
Despite often being described as “the greatest ever female screenwriter”, today Frances Marion sadly enjoys little of the cultural kudos enjoyed by any of the writers (such as Ben Hecht or Herman J. Mankiewicz) who could lay claim to the title of the “greatest ever male screenwriter”. Hopefully, in the increasingly feminized world and cinema industry of the 21st century, her status will rise again, so that she can be truly celebrated as one of the most important figures in early Hollywood.
Marion was born in San Francisco in 1888, but eventually worked her way down the California coast to Los Angeles, where her two natural gifts as a born storyteller and a skillful illustrator won her work in the nascent film industry. Ultimately, she became the “personal” scriptwriter for America’s first great female movie star, Mary Pickford, before striking out on her own to write such Ur-tales of Hollywood as The Big House (1930), a prison drama, and The Champ (1931), the story of a down-on-his-luck boxer trying to reconnect with his family which has been remade several times since Marion’s original.
KEY LA WORK: THE CHAMP (1931) (IF ONLY FOR BEING ONE OF THE FIRST FILMS TO BE REMADE SEVERAL TIMES)
2. WILLIAM GOLDMAN
William Goldman died recently, which allowed the world to pay tribute to one of the greatest ever chroniclers of Hollywood, both on and off the screen. As a screenwriter, he wrote several classic movies, including Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid (1969), All The President’s Men (1976) and The Princess Bride (1987). However, he enjoyed even greater fame (and some notoriety) as the writer of what is universally regarded as the greatest ever book on screenwriting by a screenwriter, Adventures In The Screen Trade (1983).
Goldman’s maxims in Adventures In The Screen Trade have become so widely known that they have crossed over from cinema into the wider culture. The most famous of them all is, “Nobody knows anything”, which was the term he used to describe the complete inability of anyone in cinema (however much they were paid or however knowledgeable they appeared to be) to predict what would be a hit movie in the future. It has become a kind of Hollywood mantra: a permanent reminder that in an industry that is always seeking the new and previously unseen, there is absolutely no point in basing predictions based on what happened in the past.
KEY LA WORK: ADVENTURES IN THE SCREEN TRADE (1982)
1. ROBERT TOWNE
Robert Towne wrote Chinatown (1974), the greatest ever film about Los Angeles. Intriguingly, it is not a film about the film industry, LA’s greatest employer, but one about the very foundation of the city itself – how it was literally created out of a desert, but only by stealing water from the farmland that once surrounded it.
Unlike almost all the other screenwriters on this list, Towne was actually born in Los Angeles, in 1934. That was during the city’s first great period of literary and film noir, when Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler were creating Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe respectively, the private eyes who would turn a forensic eye on the murky misdeeds of those in power and authority in the city.
As if inspired by being born into such a remarkably cinematic era, Towne himself virtually invented the sub-genre of “neo-noir”, whereby the ideas and conventions of the original noir novels and films were updated to the present day. However, while other neo-noir movies, such as Robert Altman’s The Last Goodbye literally updated 1930s-style detectives to the age of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, Towne’s own approach was even more inventive. He looked again at the original period of noir, before World War Two, and considered whether it was even more pernicious than it had first appeared.
The formal brilliance of Chinatown as a screenplay is such that it is regularly, indeed almost routinely, described as the greatest screenplay ever written. For all his other films, notably The Last Detail (1973), in which two veteran marines escort a young marine to prison (in the process taking him on a last wild tour of life’s pleasures), Towne will always be associated with the film that almost bears his name, Chinatown. However, if you are only ever going to be remembered for one film, it might as well be the one that boasts perhaps the finest screenplay ever written.
KEY LA WORK: CHINATOWN (1974)
Martin Keady is an award-winning scriptwriter whose work has been produced for film, television, stage and radio. His major credits include: The Final, a short film about the famous ending of the 1979 FA Cup Final, which was shown on Channel Four; Moon the Loon, a play about the legendary Who drummer, Keith Moon, which was premiered at The Edinburgh Festival; and a collection of love poetry, Shards, extracts from which have been broadcast on Radio Four.” http://theshakespeareplays.com/