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Saturday 16 January 2016

Oscar Used To Like Writers ... Typewriters

Patrick Fugit as William Miller in Almost Famous, Smith-Corona.
On the day Australia (thanks to 10 for Mad Max: Fury Road alone) scored a record 15 nominations for the Oscars (the awards show on February 28 will, appropriately, be produced by an Australian), I was reminded of typewriter fests contained in previous Oscar nomination lists.
Tobey Maguire as James Leer in Wonder Boys, Royal.
While in the process of some PC housekeeping, I came across the link to a story I'd stored away on an external hard drive 15 years ago. It was an amusing article in The New York Times of March 25, 2001, the day the 2000 Academy Award winners were announced. Written by independent filmmaker and author Jay Jennings, it was headlined, appealingly: "Oscar Likes Writers,  Typewriters". Jennings had a look at such typewriter-laced movies as Wonder Boys, Almost Famous and Before Night Falls, as well as Finding Forrester. OK, Finding Forrester wasn't among the contenders that year, but it was a fiercely competitive list: Gladiator, Chocolat, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon,  Erin Brockovich, Traffic, Cast Away,  Quills, O Brother Where Art Thou?, The Perfect Storm.
Bryan Cranston as Dalton Trumbo in Trumbo.
Headed by The Revenant, Mad Max, The Big Short and The Martian, this year's group of eight candidates for best movie is almost equally impressive. Not so much for movies with typewriters, however. Trumbo is undoubtedly the stand out and Laugh Killer Laugh hasn't scored a mention.
William Forsythe as Frank Stone in Laugh Killer Laugh, Olivetti Studio 44.
But 2000 was a different story: I'll let Jay Jennings tell it as he saw it:
Javier Bardem as Reinaldo Arenas in Before Night Falls, Remington Model 2 portable.
AS I am a writer, someone who slumps in a chair and stares at a screen for a living, my life hardly makes a dramatic mise-en-scène. So I found it strange when I noticed recently, while reading the paper in bed - as I do every morning for a Dr Johnson-like four- or five-hour stretch of procrastination - that there were some half-dozen films out featuring writers, real and fictional: Quills, Before Night Falls, Wonder Boys, Almost Famous, State and Main and Finding Forrester.
Sean Connery as William Forrester and Rob Brown as Jamal Wallace in Finding Forrester.
Their ads were top-heavy with Golden Globes, and now the first four are Oscar wild cards in one category or another. Curious about how the potentially striking screenwriters were able to make striking drama out of a writer's life, I bestirred myself from my linens and ventured to the theatres for some chair-slumping and screen-staring of a different sort.
I saw all six films in one maniacal weekend. For the record, I spent $57 in admission, untold millions in concessions and 726 minutes (or just over 12 hours) being ''entertained'' by writers' lives.
David Mamet wrote and directed State and Main.
The concentrated viewing allowed me insights perhaps missed by those who saw the films, say, over several months, when their movie going lives were interrupted by love, death, jobs and meals not purchased from a glass case. My viewing was bookended by the Marquis de Sade, in all his frilly glory in Quills and in the opening shot of Finding Forrester, where the bedside reading of the 16-year-old inner-city prodigy includes The Portable de Sade, as well as Finnegans Wake. That fanciful reading pile, more appropriate to a post-doc than a high-school student, had me hurling Peanut M & M's (dinner) at the screen. But here are more egregious lies these movies tell about writers, followed by my own Oscars (damn their trademark) named for Mr Wilde and his witty truth-telling.
Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrance in The Shining.
Writers in movies don't procrastinate. They are stupendously productive, pounding out pages the way a court stenographer hammers out testimony (or as some production assistant on The Shining must have typed those reams of ''all work and no play'' pages for Jack Nicholson's writer). Grady Tripp, played by Michael Douglas in Wonder Boys, reaches page 2612 (single-spaced) of his novel, though he eventually thinks his pages are excremental.

The marquis in Quills, stripped naked in prison, composes in his own feces, literally embodying that idea. In none of the films is there an hour-long period where a writer stares at the wall and eats Pop-Tarts.
Michael Douglas as Professor Grady Tripp in Wonder Boys, IBM Selectric.
So I award my Oscar for best writer-actor to Philip Seymour Hoffman, who, in two roles - as the beleaguered screenwriter in State and Main and as the rock journalist Lester Bangs in Almost Famous - doesn't write at all. In the former, he wanders around a small New England town, lamenting the loss of his early promise, and in the latter, he smokes, philosophises about writing and plays records.
Robert Downey Jr as Terry Crabtree in Wonder Boys.
Writers in movies don't slump. After a night of drinking, dope-smoking and wife-stealing, Mr Douglas's Tripp sits as erect as a new DeVry graduate at his IBM Selectric. And though he hasn't published a book since 1954, Sean Connery's William Forrester sits rod like at his Underwood as if he were James Bond preparing for ejection from his Aston Martin.
Sean Connery as William Forrester in Finding Forrester.
My Oscar for best supporting part goes to the various beds and couches (in the prodigy's bedroom in Finding Forrester, in Reinaldo Arenas's low-rent room in Cuba in Before Night Falls and in de Sade's prison cell) where the writers recline. Scenes truest to a writer's waking hours show him horizontal. Writers in movies don't stare at screens.
Javier Bardem as Reinaldo Arenas in Before Night Falls, Remington Model 2 portable.
They use typewriters, which clack nicely in Dolby. The typewriter is a film totem, a more dramatic object than the silent and cold PC. Mr Hoffman's Bangs asks the young journalist William Miller what he writes on, and he immediately says, ''Smith-Corona Galaxy Deluxe.'' 
Javier Bardem's Arenas has his first sexual experience with a man after gazing at his typewriter, the real lust object. Mr Hoffman's screenwriter can work only on a manual typewriter. (Ed, the real Lester Bangs and typewriter are below left)

So my Oscar for best original screen goes to the PC in a cameo at the end of Wonder Boys, when a reformed Tripp types away on a laptop (ignoring the beautiful Connecticut countryside).

The flickering big screen's romance with and romanticisation of writers has consistently been rewarded by those other Oscars (the trademarked ones), from The Life of Émile Zola to All the President's Men to Shakespeare in Love. But the creative essence of writing remains elusive on screen. Virginia Woolf is as wise as any on this subject. In her essay ''The Leaning Tower'', she writes (after much slumping and staring, no doubt): ''Let us look at the writer. What do we see - only a person who sits with a pen in his hand in front of a sheet of paper? That tells us little or nothing.''
Robert Redford as Bob Woodward and Dustin Hoffman as Carl Bernstein in All the President's Men.
Below, Wes Mason as Reinaldo Arenas in a stage production of Before Night Falls:
Sean Connery as William Forrester and Rob Brown as Jamal Wallace in Finding Forrester.
Javier Bardem as Reinaldo Arenas in Before Night Falls, Royal portable.
Michael Douglas as Professor Grady Tripp in Wonder Boys, IBM Selectric.


Joe V said...

A great write-up, thank you Robert. I continue to be amazed at the depth of your archives and research.


Bill M said...

I'm still amazed at how you find so much to write. Great post Robert,
Manual typewriters will always be more photogenic (and useful) than a pc.