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Lardner Receives Nantucket's First Annual Writer's Tribute

Lardner Receives Nantucket's First Annual Writer's Tribute

by Mark Rabinowitz




A rapidly growing segment of many film festivals is the retrospective,
or tribute section. A festival decides to pay tribute to a certain
writer, director, genre or actor, thus giving both attending filmmakers
and filmgoers the chance to see what has come before. This year, the
Nantucket Film Festival inaugurated an annual writer's tribute, with
the award going to two-time Academy Award winner, Ring Lardner, Jr.


Lardner's screenwriting career began in 1939 when producer David O.
Selznick asked Lardner and writer Budd Schulberg ("On the Waterfront")
to fix the ending to "A Star is Born." That done, Lardner's career as a
public relations assistant was over. For the next eight years, he
fashioned a stellar career, writing such films as "Woman of the Year"
(with Michael Kanin-Academy Award, 1942) and "Laura" (1944, uncredited
screenwriter) before the McCarthy era and the House Un-American
Activities Committee (HUAC) subpoenaed him in 1947. By refusing to
answer the committee's questions regarding possible Communist Party
affiliation, Lardner was making a stand in support of the Bill of
Rights. As part of the Hollywood Ten, Lardner spent nine months in
prison for refusing to answer questions about the political affiliations
of himself and others. In addition to serving time in jail, Lardner was
blacklisted and would not receive another screenwriting credit until 1965
(Lardner wrote one film under a pseudonym). The blacklist, in effect
cost him and many others, many years of their professional (and often
personal) life, resulting in financial ruin and shattering thousands of
lives across the United States. Post-blacklist, Lardner returned to
writing films, and he landed a second Oscar for his screenplay for the
classic 1970 film, "M*A*S*H." Both "Woman of the Year" and
"M*A*S*H" were screened in Nantucket, along with a documentary
about the blacklist entitled "Hollywood on Trial." "M*A*S*H" was and
remains to this day, a revolutionary comedy, and shortly after its release,
became one of the highest-grossing comedies of all time.


Screenwriting and screenwriters were the themes of the tribute to
Lardner at Nantucket on Friday, with the introduction of Lardner handled
by Oscar-winning screenwriter, Frank Pierson ("Dog Day Afternoon").
Pierson told the story of what happened when a producer asked Lardner
if he wanted to work on the TV version of "M*A*S*H." Lardner declined,
telling the producer that he felt that that there was nothing left for
the characters to do. "We don't hire writers to decide shit," was the
response. That attitude by the industry was discussed throughout the
evening, with Lardner beginning his remarks by pointedly attacking the
apparent universality of the "auteaur theory." The theory assigned the
French term "auteur," or "author" in English, to directors, thereby leaving
writers in the proverbial dust, credit-wise. Lardner maintained that while
the idea "made a certain amount of sense in relation to some largely
improvised French and Italian pictures of that (late 1950's-early 1960's)
era," it made "almost no sense at all when applied to the majority of
American pictures, which are as close to a cooperative expression of
many different talents as any art form can be."


Continuing, Lardner outlined his objection to the possessory credit now
claimed on the majority of American movies, citing wording like: "An
Ivan Reitman film," "A Mimi Leder film" and "A Forest Whitaker film" as
examples of credit working to marginalize the writer. He added, however,
that titles such as "'Bulworth', a film by Warren Beatty" and "David
Mamet's 'The Spanish Prisoner'" were acceptable, as they, like many
independent films, are written and directed by the same person. Lardner
also criticized writer Andrew Sarris for adding to the marginalization
of the screenwriter, by quoting the Sunday New York Times' review of
Sarris' latest book, "You Ain't Heard Nothing Yet," an account of the
birth of the talkies, from 1927-1949. "In this history of American film,
there are 9 pages devoted to the studios, 99 pages devoted to genres, 92
pages devoted to actors and actresses, and 244 pages devoted to
directors." Lardner added that "no other category of film workers gets a
mention."


Lardner also pointed out, that in the 1940's, no one would have dared
refer to a film as "George Stevens' "Woman of the Year," and if the
studio had called it "A film by George Stevens," Lardner and Kanin might
very well have won a large lawsuit. He added, however, that after a test
screening of that film, the writers went to New York on a vacation with
their wives, only to return to discover to their (and Katherine
Hepburn's) horror, that director Stevens, with the approval of Louis B.
Mayer and producer Joe Mankiewicz, had hired "arch-conservative writer
John Lee Mahin to write the kitchen scene that took the place of our
ending." Lardner continued, adding that, "the righteous masculinity of
those four men determined that Tess Harding (Hepburn's character in
"Woman of the Year") had to get her comeuppance for her refusal to stick
within the limits of a woman's world."


The point Lardner made, and an important one it is indeed, is that the
writer in no less an integral part in the creation of a film, and should
thus share equally in the credit. "The most brilliant director in the
world cannot make a good movie from a bad script -- except by rewriting
it, and thus sharing in the screenplay." By the end of his remarks, the
80-something Lardner had the entire room ready to lobby the DGA and the
Producers Guild for the elimination of the possessory credit, and
increased recognition for writers. "Even in a free country, crime is
subject to punishment, and I think the time may have come for a writer
to have a director arrested for larceny, grand or petty as the case may
be.

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