The must-read longread of the day is Slate’s “I Was an A-List Writer of B-List Productions” by journeyman screenwriter Stephen Harrigan. In what feels like a warm-up for a must-read Hollywood tell-all, Harrigan — whose writing credits include “Beyond the Prairie, Part 2: The True Story of Laura Ingalls Wilder” and the TV-movie version of “Cleopatra” with Billy Zane and Timothy Dalton — explains how he carved out a healthy thirty year career penning middling TV movies of the kind that used to be ubiquitous on weekend broadcast television and are now nearly extinct (at least on free TV) thanks to the popularity and inexpensiveness of reality programming.
Back in the ’90s, the made-for-TV movie reigned supreme. That’s when Harrigan wrote one of the most infamous telefilms of all time: “The O.J. Simpson Story,” which went into production just days after Nicole Simpson and Ron Goldman’s murders and wound up being “directed” by Alan Smithee, Hollywood’s go-to alias for embarrassed filmmakers. Given the ever-so-faint whiff of exploitation, it’s probably not surprising that “The O.J. Simpson Story” was crushed by critics. That flogging sparks the most interesting part of Harrigan’s piece, at least from a critical perspective. Getting eviscerated, Harrigan says, was fun.
“It felt good, a little, to be reviled; I’m not sure why. Maybe because I had spent my whole career as a writer courting critical approval, there was something liberating about working on a project for which it was unachievable. And I wasn’t ashamed of the movie. The notion of an instant drama about O.J. Simpson had never struck me as unseemly in the first place, and I still maintain that as TV movies go (a low standard, I admit) the final product was triumphantly better than average. I was particularly fond of a scene I had written that really irritated Mr. O’Connor, in which the young O.J. Simpson gets a dressing-down from none other than Willie Mays.”
A couple of lessons here. One, getting brutally panned needn’t be a painful process, provided you have the right perspective on what you’ve written (i.e. you know what you’ve written is schlock). Also, “The O.J. Simpson Story” might not be as bad as advertised. Anyone have a copy?
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