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10 Essential Films About 20th Century Writers

10 Essential Films About 20th Century Writers

It may not be the most outwardly dynamic of professions (I write this in a more or less supine position on the sofa from which I can’t remember having stirred all day), but writing is not only one of the more mythologised pastimes —it’s also a vital part of the filmmaking process. As a result, there are perhaps an inordinate number of films that place writers at the center of their narratives, as though screenwriters, casting around for a subject and being advised to “write what you know,” can most readily identify with other writers. And a significant number of such films take real-life writers as their focus and their inspiration, as this week’s release “The End of the Tour” (our very positive review is here) demonstrates.

Focussing on a series of conversations between a Rolling Stone journalist (Jesse Eisenberg) and David Foster Wallace (Jason Segel), James Ponsoldt‘s film is about many things, but one is the nature of artistic success and just how much compromise is acceptable as a means to achieving it. That theme, along with a separate but related one positing writing as a potentially redemptive, even life-saving activity in certain circumstances, looms large in the canon of films about literary figures, as we discovered when we decided to look at ten other films about real-life 20th century writers.

“American Splendor” (2003)
While the term “comic-book movie” may strike a certain note of dread in the less omnivorous cinephile’s heart these days, it pays to remember that there are a few films that can be thus described but that retain a resolutely independent mind. One such is “American Splendor,” based on the late Harvey Pekar’s autobiographical underground graphic novel and winner of Sundance’s top prize in 2003. The first film from married directing team Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, backed by HBO, it follows the irascible, deeply misanthropic cartoonist through his resolutely downtrodden working-class life as he gradually discovers, partly through an acquaintance with iconic cartoonist Robert Crumb (James Urbaniak), the consolations of writing and even a kind of low-key cult fame. As an innovative and imaginative portrait, the film derives a great deal of its watchability from the brilliant warts-and-all turn by Paul Giamatti as Pekar, in what has to be one of the most perfect casting coups achieved this century, even if the slightly more ferocious-looking real-life Pekar appears in several documentary-style vignettes himself. But most playfully and most creatively, the film really reflects in a heightened, metatextual way on both the creative process and the impossibility of true representation in any art form. So in addition to those two Pekars, we get Donal Logue as an actor playing Pekar in a stage production and an animated version too. It’s a hall-of-mirrors approach that keeps the film feeling endlessly inventive and fresh, however wilted and jaded the opinions of its subject.  
Bonus Points:  The directing team slightly missed the mark with the Kristen Wiig-starrer “Girl Most Likely,” but, according to our reviewer, bounced back in a big way with their return to Sundance this year with “Ten Thousand Saints.”

“An Angel At My Table” (1990)
Originally shot for television but still displaying a wonderfully cinematic sense of shotmaking, Jane Campion‘s second film after her terrific debut “Sweetie” is a much more sprawling but no less intimate and insightful affair. Divided into thirds and running at nearly 2h40m, it follows in merciless yet graceful and compassionate detail the life of celebrated New Zealand author Janet Frame, played by three different actresses during three different stages of her life. While all three sections are strong, it’s the last, featuring a blisteringly real performance by Kerry Fox as the adult Frame, that really snakes its way inside you. There is no sense of Campion as an inexperienced filmmaker here —already she has that uncanny ability to create characters and situations that simply absorb attention. And for our purposes here, the film is a fascinating evocation of the creation of a writer —Frame, on whose autobiographies Laura Jones‘ screenplay is based, was a social maladroit from an early age, and after a hard childhood in a poor, populous family was misdiagnosed as schizophrenic. Then consigned to a mental institution where she underwent eight years of electroshock therapy, Frame’s story should be one of grimness and heartbreak, but while there is plenty of both, Campion’s sensitivity never sells her subject’s spirit short, and her literary talent is portrayed as both partially the result of, and an escape from, her desperate circumstances. Sometimes it’s even a literal escape —Frame’s scheduled lobotomy was cancelled with mere days to go when her first short story collection won a literary prize. But the dramatic details of her incarceration are only part of the film too, as Campion continues to follow Frame as she stumbles hesitantly into the real world, and, unexpectedly even to herself it seems, takes flight.
Bonus Points: This is not Campion’s only film about a real-life writer: her wonderful but underseen “Bright Star” details a passionate romance involving 19th Century poet John Keats (Ben Whishaw) in the years before his tragically early death at 25.

“Barfly” (1987)
Scripted by Charles Bukowski and centered on, if not himself, then alter ego Henry Chinaski (Mickey Rourke), a device that arguably allows Bukoswki to be more autobiographical through the act of overt self-creation, “Barfly” has a curious air of “pretend” about it, despite its authentic credentials. A passion project for director Barbet Schroeder, it follows a few empty-headed, booze-filled, loose-limbed days in Chinaski’s life as he contends with nemesis bartender Eddie (Frank Stallone), meets and moves in with fellow dissipated dipsomaniac Wanda (Faye Dunaway) and evades the silken clutches of a beautiful young publisher (Alice Krige) who wants to ‘save’ the incorrigible Hank from himself —i.e. install him in her nice upper-middle lifestyle. There is a thread of deep disdain for mainstream culture and a celebration of alcoholism as a valid lifestyle choice and even a creative force that gives “Barfly” the feel of a 1970s film (and it looks like one too —famed DP Robby Müller also shot Wenders‘ “The American Friend,” for example). Yet the sordid dinginess of Hank and Wanda’s lives also feels somehow fetishized and play-acted for added effect: Rourke staggers and slurs convincingly, but gives little sense of Hank’s interior intelligence (indeed, the actual writing happens almost entirely offscreen, with apparently no effort and no struggle on Hank’s part), and while Dunaway is game for mining Wanda’s indignities —stringy hair, ratty clothes— she can’t divest herself of her fine-boned air of class and her well-educated, modulated voice. In fact, the episodic, rambling ride can feel less a like a glimpse at a big, hard life than an exercise in squalid self-indulgence were it not for two things: that tiny glint of mischief in Rourke’s eye and the unexpectedly hilarious, roustabout, cyclical ending. These qualities let us in on “Barfly”‘s secret: it’s a comedy, and really quite a funny one.
Bonus Points: Bukowski/Chinaski was also portrayed by Matt Dillon in Bent Hamer‘s good, serio-comic “Factotum,” and Ben Gazzara (playing “Charles Serking”) in 1981’s more straight-faced, less intriguing “Tales of Ordinary Madness.”

“Before Night Falls” (2000)
Julian Schnabel‘s biopic of Cuban-born poet, novelist and playwright Reinaldo Arenas is, like some other titles here, based on the writer’s own memoirs. But Schnabel, a painter as well as a filmmaker, is as much concerned with an impressionistic evocation of the precise subjectivity of his central character as he is with narrating the outward details of his life (arguably the same impulse can be seen in Schnabel’s feature debut, “Basquiat” and in next film after this one, “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” both of which also take artists/writers as their subjects). And so “Before Night Falls,” centered on an impressively magnetic breakout performance from Javier Bardem, builds its story in fragments, juxtaposing recollections and imaginings with the cold facts of Arenas’ life, yet always allowing for moments that seem to hover somewhere between the two, like an sudden improbable attempted escape by hot-air balloon, or a startling Johnny Depp cameo in one of his two roles as a glamorous transvestite with a capacious rectum, which is good for smuggling contraband in and out of prison. Arenas’ experiences as a gay man during the most turbulent period in Cuba’s history thereby take on the more lyrical, almost hallucinatory qualities of his writings, spanning love affairs and lifelong friendships, his countryside childhood, his life in Havana, his imprisonment and disillusionment with the Castro regime, his eventual defection to New York and his assisted suicide there three years after his diagnosis with AIDS. Yet despite covering all that ground, the film never feels episodic, instead swallowing leaps of time in simple cuts and expanding simpler moments into deeper, more poetic phrases. It feels like a life remembered by a poet, which is maybe the highest possible compliment.
Bonus Points: Bardem was nominated for Best Actor here (beaten out by Russell Crowe for “Gladiator”) and Schnabel would get a director’s nod for his next film, the excellent “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” when the Coens won for “No Country for Old Men.”

“Capote” (2005)
Even at the time, it was an effort not to write that with Bennett Miller‘s “Capote,” Philip Seymour Hoffman had won his first Oscar. His subsequent death, a tragedy we are nowhere near over, means it will always be his only Oscar, but we can at least be thankful for the performance it awarded, in which Hoffman plays the “In Cold Blood” author from the inside out. Despite little physical resemblance and the kind of character whose mannerisms and verbal idiosyncrasies make him ripe for impersonation, Hoffman’s Capote feels real and human, not an imitation of life. It’s also a mark of the intelligence of Miller’s approach: this is less a biography of Capote than a soil sample of his life and personality during one pivotal period, when his literary aim to unite reality and fiction conflated with a personal journey that saw him becoming more and more invested in the real-life characters about whom he would write his greatest book. “Capote” is as much about the idea of the author self-creating his own myth as it is about the facts and circumstances he investigates. And so we get the vanities and gaieties of Truman Capote’s lifestyle —the parties, the witticisms— and we also get the doubts, the insecurities and the jealousies, which are particularly well outlined in a few key scenes with his friend Harper Lee (an indelibly great Catherine Keener). This eternal push-pull between self-expression and the desire for peer respect and recognition becomes a great portrait of creative struggle (and its inherent selfishness), here thrown into high relief against the actual life-or-death situation faced by murderer Perry Smith (an undersung Clifton Collins Jr).
Bonus Points: The very next year, almost exactly the same story was told in Douglas McGrath‘s “Infamous,” starring Toby Jones as Capote, Daniel Craig as Smith and Sandra Bullock as Lee. Any other year it might have been definitive, as it’s very good too…

“Hammett” (1982)
The fascination of European filmmakers with the American traditions of film noir and pulp fiction, has been made manifest many times over, to most notable effect in the early films of Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard. Coming along a bit later but definitely part of that procession is Wim Wenders‘ own homage to the genre, “Hammett.” Taking a similar tack to that which Steven Soderbergh employs in “Kafka,” Wenders mines Joe Gore’s novel of the same name and presents his protagonist as the key player in a story that is glancingly about his life, but more closely related to his fiction. Dashiel Hammett was the author of foundation noir “The Maltese Falcon” (and also “The Thin Man“), but his detective fiction was based on his own experiences as a private eye. And so Wenders’ film has Hammett (called “Sam” by one and all, played sleekly by Frederic Forrest) involved in a convoluted blackmail/missing persons/murder/ransom/prostitution ring story, despite the fact that he’s left the detecting racket in an attempt to make a go of his writing. It’s not entirely successful by any means —the film too often misses the homage mark and ends up closer to pastiche with its underwritten women (Marilu Henner), archetype villains (including a witchy Chinese femme fatale) and all-too-predictable double crosses, and it operates entirely in a thought-experiment register so that there are practically no moments of real emotional connection. But it looks great, defiantly stagey (apparently even the exteriors are interior sets), lovingly lit and dressed in the costumes of the 1940s noirs it emulates. It’s just a shame that despite its meta-premise, it all feels so familiar, as even Raymond Chandler paid tribute to the freshness of Hammett’s writing: “He wrote scenes that seemed never to have been written before.”
Bonus Points: Look out for Elisha Cook Jr‘s supporting role as the taxi driver —it’s a tip of the fedora to his appearance in John Huston‘s landmark movie version of Hammett’s “The Maltese Falcon.”

“Henry & June” (1990)
Ovelong, over-talky, overacted but almost always gorgeous to look at (Uma Thurman‘s beauty has been much extolled, but the big-eyed, doll-like Maria de Madeiros was never more ravishing either), the main claim to fame today of Philip Kaufman‘s “Henry & June” is that it was the first feature released with the infamous NC-17 rating after the X-rating was abolished. To the modern eye, it’s pretty baffling why that came to pass —while sex is unavoidably the main theme of the film (it’s about Henry Miller and Anais Nin!), it’s mostly disappointingly tasteful, though the fact that some of it is girl-on-girl surely made it that much more unacceptable to a prudish MPAA. Chronicling the sexual adventures of Nin, whose erotic imagination at the start of the film extends far beyond her actual experiences with her loving husband Hugo (Richard E. Grant), it’s really the story of a peculiar love triangle between Nin (De Madeiros), a pre-success Miller (Fred Ward) and Miller’s wife June (Thurman), and how that released the “woman” in Nin and brought her added confidence in her writing. Thurman struggles slightly in her role —her accent sounds affected and June’s aura of wild allure seems forced despite how stunning she looks, and Ward never feels like he quite occupies the room the way you imagine Miller might have (or maybe it’s just the unconvincingly razored hairline he has to act beneath). For a film whose reputation suggests it should be a deliciously fleshy affair, it’s all rather weightless, with sex scenes respectfully cross-cut, glowily lit or slow-motioned into aesthetic acceptability, and precious little to really tell us about the relationship between sex and art. This is perhaps its biggest miss: “Henry & June” is about not one but two real-life writers who perhaps more than anyone since D.H. Lawrence explored and expanded the idea of erotic literature, but the film, puns intended, titillates that notion rather than penetrating it.
Bonus Points: Philippe Rousselot‘s cinematography was nominated for an Oscar here, which makes “Henry and June” the first NC-17 to be recognized by the Academy. It wasn’t till 2000 and “Requiem for a Dream” that a film thus categorized would be nominated again, this time for Ellen Burstyn as Best Actress.

“Kafka” (1991)
The word “sophomoric” may have largely pejorative connotations, but it applies in every shade of meaning to Steven Soderbergh’s second film —and how many sophomores are coming off a “sex, lies & videotape” freshman year? “Kafka,” which reimagines elements of the life of Czech author Franz Kafka (Jeremy Irons) and sets them in amongst themes and events from his fiction (especially “The Castle” and “The Trial“), feels far less focused than Soderbergh’s brilliant, low-key debut, and more overtly experimental in its majority black-and-white, Expressionist-influenced photography. It rambles, it’s wilfully obscure and a little too in love with the idea of itself as a homage to other films, books, and directors to wholly work by itself. But it’s also spikily brilliant at times (love Keith Allen and Simon McBurney as the hapless clerks who alternately torture and grovel before Mr. Kafka) and an interesting attempt to meld the act of writing and the writer himself with what-he-wrote. Irons’ Kafka is therefore the ultimate Kafka antihero: a small man caught up in the dehumanizing workings of a secretive social machine. However, critics were nonplussed and audiences stayed away in droves. Partially in response to that, inveterate tinkerer Soderbergh announced a couple of years ago that he was going to reedit the film entirely. Having reshot some sequences and worked with screenwriter Lem Dobbs on new dialogue, Soderbergh said that while the re-edit would be shorter, it would also be “more abstract and more of a hardcore art movie. It’s not a tweak: it’s triage.” It’s a somewhat damning retrospective assessment of his own film, and while we’d be very curious to see what an older, wiser Soderbergh does with it (if this ever comes to pass), the “Kafka” we have now may not satisfy entirely, but it has a charm and a value all its own.
Bonus Points: Check out Welles The Trial” for a stunning-looking feature-length dose of Kafka shenanigans, or, if you can find it, the Peter Capaldi-directed 23-min “Franz Kafka’s It’s a Wonderful Life,” which is a genius title and has Richard E. Grant playing the beleaguered author.

“My Left Foot” (1989)
It’s not at all fair that Jim Sheridan‘s biopic of Dublin writer Christy Brown is now most commonly remembered in reference to Daniel Day-Lewis‘ first Best Actor Academy Award —while the performance is undeniably extraordinary, there’s a lot more to the film than its status as an early benchmark for the “disabled character = Oscar gold” paradigm. No less impressive is its minute, uncompromising tracking of the evolution of an artist despite hardships external and self-generated. Brown, afflicted with cerebral palsy and paralysed from birth, is defined by far more than his disability, and this comes through not only in Day-Lewis’ performance but also in Shane Connaughton and Sheridan’s excellent script adaptation of the writer’s own memoir. In fact, the triumph-of-the-spirit arc here is all the more remarkable for being the triumph of an often very difficult, even unlikeable spirit, yet one who jealously guards his flaws as much as his virtues. Brown is indomitable, brilliantly profane and witty, but he can also be vicious, mercurial and selfish as the inchoate, incommunicable rage builds to storm-levels inside his head. And so the act of writing, using only his left foot, the only part of his body he can move at all, becomes a furious exorcism of all that ungovernable internal energy: “My Left Foot” is pre-eminently a moving depiction of the power and maybe even life-saving value of writing, for the writer him/herself. And beyond Day-Lewis, the film also features great support from Ray McAnally as Brown’s father, Hugh O’Conor as the young Christy (he has perhaps the most memorable moment when manages to write “mother” in chalk on the ground) and the also Oscar-winning Brenda Fricker as the stalwart matriarch of the enormous Brown clan. In contrast to the more straightforwardly sentimental disability films it gets bracketed with, “My Left Foot” deals as much in bruises as against-the-odds beauty.
Bonus Points: Considering he has only made 11 feature films in the 26 years since “My Left Foot,” Day-Lewis’ track record of 5 Best Actor Nominations and a record-breaking 3 Best Actor Oscar wins is even more impressive.

“Prick Up Your Ears” (1987)
Gary Oldman‘s brilliance is such an accepted fact these days that it’s hard to think there might have been a time when a terrific performance by him might have been a surprise. But back in 1987, just a year after he snarled onto the scene with his breakout portrayal of Sid Vicious in “Sid and Nancy,” he played another vibrant artist involved in a volatile relationship that would end in violent death: playwright Joe Orton. But Stephen Frears‘ film showcases a totally different side to Oldman — as Orton, he’s the mercurial, charming success story, blithely unaware or uncaring of how the ease of that success hurts his older lover Kenneth Halliwell, played with tragicomic intensity by a similarly great Alfred Molina. Framing the story in flashbacks related by Orton’s agent (a kind but pragmatic Vanessa Redgrave) to a journalist (Wallace Shawn, playing the proxy for John Lahr, on whose book Alan Bennett based the script), the film follows the last six months of Orton’s life, as the dizzying success of his play “Loot” exacerbates the divide between him and Halliwell, and his increasingly promiscuous and neglectful behavior eventually causes the older man to snap in the most brutal fashion. It’s a fascinating portrait of artistic ego and jealousy, and a testament to the power of all the performances that by its end the tragedy of the murder/suicide is not lessened, but rendered oddly understandable. It comes over as an exaggeration of an ongoing domestic abuse situation that’s all the more heated for being complicated by artistic mentorship-turned-rivalry, and kept shrouded in secrecy due to the illegal nature of homosexuality at that time in Britain. Raw, tragic, but shot through with droll warmth and skewed wit, it’s underseen now, but “Prick Up Your Ears” is a small film that adds up to more than the sum of its individually interesting parts.
Bonus Points: In the film, Orton mentions having sold the rights to a film version of his hit play “Loot.” 3 years after his death that film was released —sadly, the black comedy starring Richard Attenborough and Lee Remick is not very good, despite playing In Competition at the 1970 Cannes Film Festival.

This is simply a curated selection of the many titles that deal with 20th century writers, but some of the others we considered were: “Shadowlands,” the insanely effective weepie about C.S. Lewis starring Anthony Hopkins; recent Beat Generation tale “Kill Your Darlings“; Clive Owen and Nicole Kidman playing “Hemingway & Gellhorn“; Ginsberg again, this time played by James Franco in “Howl“; Gwyneth Paltrow playing tragic poet “Sylvia” [Plath]; Kate WInslet and Judi Dench playing the younger and older “Iris” [Murdoch]; among other luminaries, Ernest Hemingway was played by Corey Stoll in Woody Allen‘s “Midnight in Paris“; he was also played by Chris O’Donnell in a movie no one remembers called “In Love and War” with Sandra Bullock; Jennifer Jason Leigh delivered a cherishable Dorothy Parker in “Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle“; Willem Dafoe was great casting for TS Eliot in “Tom & Viv“; and of course Nicole Kidman won the Oscar by a nose for playing Virginia Woolf in “The Hours.”

Let us know your own favorites in the comments below.

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