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By Martin Keady · March 11, 2019
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 writers for film and television. He has previously covered London, New York and Los Angeles.
In Part 4, he looks at Boston.
Home to Emerson and Thoreau, Boston is one of the great literary cities of America. However, it also has a fine televisual and cinematic tradition, as the setting for Cheers and such varied films as Love Story (1970), Good Will Hunting (1998) and The Departed (2006).
As with all the famous screenwriters, the writers on this list may not all have come from Boston originally, but even those not born in Boston have a strong connection with the city, either because they lived there for a time or because they wrote works that have become synonymous with it.
Here are 10 great Boston screenwriters.
Paul Monash was originally from New York. Consequently, because of the traditional rivalry between New York and Boston, as expressed most fiercely in the world of sports, he might have resented being included on any list of “Boston” writers. Nevertheless, his greatest work, The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973), which he both produced and wrote the screenplay for, is one of the great films about Boston and a key part of its cinematic legacy.
Monash adapted The Friends of Eddie Coyle from the novel of the same name by George V. Higgins. It is the story of a small-time crook, Eddie “Fingers” Coyle, who specializes in shifting illegal weapons. When one of those weapons is used in the hijacking of a truck, Eddie is hauled in by the police and told that unless he begins informing on the men he is working for, he will be sent to jail. That would be an unappealing prospect for a young man, but Eddie is an old man and fears that he will die in jail, so he agrees to help the police. What he doesn’t realize, though, is that he is not the only member of his criminal network who is acting as an informant.
As the eponymous hero of The Friends of Eddie Coyle, Robert Mitchum gives arguably his last truly great performance in a movie. He had begun his career as a genuine heart-throb, in noir classics such as Out of the Past (1947), but he was also capable of playing genuinely bad, or even evil, men, as demonstrated most spectacularly in Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter (1955). In the 1970s, when his matinee idol days were long behind him, Mitchum finally got the chance to extend his range and he did so magnificently, in films as diverse as David Lean’s Ryan’s Daughter (1970) and The Friends of Eddie Coyle.
KEY BOSTON WORK: THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE (1973)
William Monahan is a Boston native whose most famous screenplay, The Departed (2006), is loosely based on the life of a far more famous Bostonian, the notorious gangster James “Whitey” Bulger, who has been the subject of many other films, including Black Mass (2015), books and newspaper articles. In effect, Bulger has become to Boston what Al Capone was to Chicago – gangster-in-chief, both in myth and reality.
Monahan was born in Boston in 1960 and studied at Amherst University in Massachusetts. After working as a journalist in New York, he wrote a novel, Light House: A Trifle (2000). Almost immediately, it was optioned as a film and Monahan soon transitioned from writing novels to writing screenplays, with his most prestigious credit before The Departed being Ridley Scott’s crusader drama, Kingdom of Heaven (2005).
There must be something about Boston that appeals to veteran stars eager to make one last good movie (usually playing a gangster contemplating “one last job”). Just as The Friends of Eddie Coyle is arguably Robert Mitchum’s screen swansong, so The Departed features probably the last great screen performance by Jack Nicholson. From the opening credits, over which he narrates his now-famous monologue (including the immortal line, “I never wanted to be a product of my environment: I wanted my environment to be a product of me”), Nicholson dominates the film, arguably to the detriment of its supposed leads, Matt Damon and Leonardo DiCaprio. Consequently, although The Departed is not as powerful or intriguing as the Hong Kong drama, Infernal Affairs (2002), that it is based on, it merits inclusion in any list of great Boston films or any list of late, great Jack Nicholson films.
KEY BOSTON WORK: THE DEPARTED (2006)
Spotlight (2015) is the story of the investigative journalism unit at The Boston Globe (whose name gives the film its title), which uncovered a plot by the hierarchy of the Catholic Church in the city to conceal systematic, almost institutional, child abuse that had taken place over generations. Based on a series of articles written by the Spotlight team in the early noughties, it was transformed into a powerful political drama – a kind of All The President’s Men (1976) for the new millennium – through a script by director Tom McCarthy and screenwriter Josh Singer.
Like several other writers on this list, Singer was not born in Boston (he hails instead from Philadelphia) but Spotlight, his best work, earns him the title of honorary Bostonian, especially in cinematic terms. Together, he and McCarthy did what William Goldman had famously done with All The President’s Men, namely taking a long-running series of newspaper stories and turning them into a much shorter (but still necessarily complex) story for the screen. They succeeded triumphantly, so much so that Singer, like Goldman nearly four decades before him, won an Oscar for his screenplay.
KEY BOSTON WORK: SPOTLIGHT (2015)
Matt Damon and Ben Affleck are still often thought of as something of a double act, given their close friendship and, far more importantly, their co-write of Good Will Hunting (1997), which achieved every screenwriter’s dream of winning an Oscar for their first ever script.
Good Will Hunting is the story of a 20-year-old maths genius, the titular Will Hunting, who works as a janitor at the world-famous Massachusetts Institute of Technology, one of several world-class universities or colleges located in Boston and Massachusetts, whose staff and alma mater have occasionally proved to be great screenwriters (as will be demonstrated again later in this list). It is only by seeing a therapist that Will is able to unlock his true potential and leave the broom cupboard behind, but first, he has to leave behind him the long years of failure, underachievement and petty crime, which have even brought him to the attention of the police.
Having won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for Good Will Hunting, it is surprising that Damon and Affleck have not collaborated together since on a major film. Instead, they have gone their separate ways, at least as far as screenwriting is concerned. Damon has concentrated on his acting, most notably and successfully in the Bourne series of films, which thrillingly updated spy movies for the 21st century. Affleck, in addition to acting, has become an accomplished director, most notably on Argo (2012), based on the remarkable true story of how the CIA came up with the idea of sending a fake film crew to Iran to try and rescue Americans caught up in the country’s 1979 Islamic revolution.
KEY BOSTON WORK: GOOD WILL HUNTING (1997)
Dave McLaughlin may only have co-written one screenplay, Southie (1999), but it is the best example of what might be called a sub-genre of Boston films, namely crime dramas about the relatively impoverished southern half of the city, which is very different to wealthier north Boston and the liberal arts and science colleges found in the rest of Massachusetts. Other examples of this sub-genre include The Fighter (2010), a biopic of the boxer “Irish” Micky Ward, but Southie (which could easily give its name to the whole sub-genre) is the stand-out.
In these South Boston-set films, the story often starts with a character returning to the city, usually from the much bigger metropolis of New York (which always seems to loom large in the Boston imagination, be it in sports or cinema). They are determined to make a new life for themselves, but however pure their intentions they often struggle to escape their roots in poverty and crime. In Southie itself, Danny Quinn (played by Donnie Wahlberg, the younger brother of the more famous Mark), makes that journey home and discovers that his siblings are even more mired in petty crime and drugs than he had been. However, if he is to save them, he risks becoming entangled again in a world that he had hoped to leave behind.
The real interest in films such as Southie is that they depict a side of Boston that is rarely seen outside the city – its poor, white, formerly working class (but now largely welfare class or even criminal class) areas. McLaughlin’s co-writers on Southie were the film’s director, John Shea, and actor James Cummings, who himself had grown up in South Boston. The film is largely based on Cummings’s own experiences, which give it an unmistakable air of authenticity.
KEY BOSTON WORK: SOUTHIE (1999)
The story of Erich Segal is almost a real-life version of Good Will Hunting, albeit Segal was not a janitor but an acclaimed Classicist who had first studied at Harvard and then taught there. However, Segal’s sideline or “side hustle” (as it is often called now) was as a screenwriter. Having first contributed to, of all things, the script for Yellow Submarine (1968), an animated film inspired by The Beatles, he then wrote a novel, Love Story, that became a best-seller, and when it was inevitably adapted for screen, Segal convinced the producers that, despite his limited experience, he should write the screenplay himself.
The “Love Story” in question is that between Oliver, a wealthy, athletic student at Harvard (played by Ryan O’Neal) who falls in love with his polar opposite, Jenny, a poorer but much more sensitive pianist (played by Ali McGraw). Such is their love for each other that Oliver defies his father to marry Jenny, and his father promptly disinherits him. Nevertheless, the pair of lovers are still prepared to carry on together, until Jenny is diagnosed with a terminal illness.
Nearly fifty years on from its initial release, it is hard, if not impossible, to appreciate what a cinematic and indeed cultural phenomenon Love Story was in the early 1970s. Perhaps because it was written by an academic, its script is often wittier and more intelligent than a bald summary of its plot suggests, and early 1970s audiences adored the film. Of course, that was also because it was one of the first major Hollywood pictures to deal (however sentimentally) with the reality of disease and death. As a result of Love Story’s enormous success, especially at the box office, Segal ceased to be solely a classicist and instead became one of the most famous novelist-screenwriters of his time.
KEY BOSTON WORK: LOVE STORY (1970)
Strictly speaking, John Michael Hayes, one of Hitchcock’s great screenwriters, should be included on a list of “great Massachusetts screenwriters”, as he was not born in Boston but in the nearby city of Worcester. However, given the presence of several New Yorkers on this list (because of their involvement with major Boston movies), it is surely permissible to include the great Hayes.
Hayes was born in 1919 and studied in Massachusetts before beginning his career as a writer by adapting novels and plays for radio, including The Adventures of Sam Spade, a series of dramas based on Dashiell Hammett’s legendary sleuth. As a result of his success in radio, Hayes was effectively “poached” from it by one of the greatest film directors ever, Alfred Hitchcock, who wanted to use his natural skill as a story-teller and gift for dialogue in the scripts for his films. In total, Hayes wrote four screenplays for and with Hitchcock: Rear Window (1954); To Catch a Thief (1955); The Trouble with Harry (1955); and The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956). The first two are bona fide classics, and if the latter two do not quite match their level, they are still fascinating minor Hitchcock movies from his golden age of the 1950s.
After ending his successful and highly lucrative period of collaboration with Hitchcock (partly because Hitchcock moved on to work with other screenwriters, notably Ernest Lehman), Hayes wrote nearly a dozen other movies, in particular, Peyton Place (1957). The story of the kind of small New England town in which Hayes himself had grown up in, it later became the basis for the spectacularly successful TV series of the same name.
KEY BOSTON (OR AT LEAST NEW ENGLAND) WORK: PEYTON PLACE (1957)
Dennis Lehane was born in Boston (in 1955), has lived there for most of his life and, most importantly, has set most of his hugely successful novels and screenplays there. And if he is most famous for being part of David Simon’s “Murderers’ Row” of great writers on The Wire (along with fellow crime novelists George Pelecanos and Richard Price), which is obviously set in Baltimore and not Boston, the key preoccupations of that greatest of TV series – crime, drugs and the near-total collapse of modern civilisation (at least for the poorest in society) – are also those of Lehane.
Most of Lehane’s novels, including Mystic River (2003), Gone Baby Gone (2007) and Shutter Island (2010), have been adapted for screen, and in addition to his stunning work on The Wire (in particular on its “psychedelic” third season, in which a rogue police commander effectively tries to “legalize” drugs in one part of Baltimore), he also wrote the original screenplay for The Drop (2014), James Gandolfini’s last film. Lehane’s brilliance as both a novelist and a screenwriter have made him undoubtedly the greatest and most successful chronicler of modern-day Boston.
KEY BOSTON WORK: MYSTIC RIVER (2003)
Cheers put Boston on the global map like no other Boston-set TV series or movie had ever done before, partly because it could only ever have been set in Boston and not in any other American city. A sitcom about a former Boston Red Sox pitcher who, despite being an alcoholic, ends up running a bar, Cheers tapped into what at the time was a long Boston tradition of ignoble failure. That tradition was epitomized by the Red Sox’s long trophy drought after their owner foolishly traded their star player, Babe Ruth, to their loathed rivals, the New York Yankees, nearly fifty years earlier. Consequently, Cheers, unlike almost every other American sitcom that preceded it, became a celebration of failure, dissatisfaction and regret, all of which, fortunately, was leavened by witty one-liners and fabulous exchanges of dialogue that were some of the finest since the heyday of screwball comedy in the 1930s.
The creators of Cheers were the Charles Brothers, Glen and Les, and director Jim Burrows. They had all met while working on Taxi, a late-70s sitcom about New York taxi drivers that was one of the few American sitcoms before Cheers even to acknowledge the possibility of failure in American life. The trio collaborated closely on Cheers, with Burrows directing all but a handful of its several hundred episodes and the Charles Brothers writing many of its finest episodes. And the influence of the Charles Brothers extended to Frasier, the even more successful spin-off of Cheers, as they were always rightly credited with having created the character of the hapless psychiatrist, Dr. Frasier Crane.
If they are regarded as two parts of the same long-running storyline, Cheers/Frasier are without a doubt the greatest sitcom (or pair of linked sitcoms) ever written. They made the Charles Brothers rich, put Boston on the global cultural map and to this day they exert a continuing influence on comic writing for television. That is evident in one of NBC’s biggest hits, The Good Place, which stars Ted Danson (who played Sam, the bar-owner in Cheers) and is rumored to have considering using Kelsey Grammer (who played Frasier in both Cheers and Frasier) as a guest star.
KEY BOSTON WORK: CHEERS (1982-1993)
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/