Monday, August 15, 2011

Emma Stone plays a writer in The Help
Why Do We Love Movies About Writers?
by Janet Lawler

There are certain professions that movie audiences seem fascinated by. We are obsessed with detectives, doctors and medical examiners. We love to see how they do their jobs, interact with colleagues and overcome obstacles.

We're also drawn to movies about writers.

I know I am.

The new movie The Help is about an aspiring writer. Emma Stone plays Skeeter who is trying to get her big break (submitting articles to New York) while writing for her local weekly newspaper. I liked this movie a lot -- for its genuine heart and focus on Civil Rights in the 60s -- and it didn't hurt that the lead character is a writer.

As anyone who has labored over an article, poem, play, novel or screenplays knows... writing is darn hard work. It takes commitment, discipline and a thick shell to withstand rejection. It also takes courage to tell a story and especially to tell the truth.

Think of the many movies we've loved at the box-office that focus on writers: All the President's Men, Wonder Boys, Hannah and Her Sisters, Finding Forrester, The Hours, Adaptation, Leaving Las Vegas and recently Midnight in Paris.

Remember Sophie's Choice? It was one of the most horrifying, powerful films I ever watched. Sophie's pain of surviving a Nazi concentration camp is told to her new downstairs neighbor -- Stingo, a writer -- played by Peter MacNicol.

How about The Great Gatsby (1974)? We witness Jay Gatsby's lavish and tragic life through his new friend -- writer Nick Carraway -- played by Sam Waterson.

Or Little Women (1994) starring Winona Ryder? She played "Jo", a writer who tells the story of life with her three sisters in a small town.

One of my favorite movies The Way We Were (1973) starring Robert Redford and Barbra Streisand is remembered as a love story. Hubbel Gardiner (Redford) and Katie Morosky (Streisand) start out the movie as aspiring authors in college. Scenes show Streisand laboring over her short story to submit in writing class -- a montage of her at the library, rewriting while working at the malt shop, and racing to class in hopes of her story being read aloud in class. Instead, her professor chooses Hubbell's story (Redford's) and shatters Katie's dream of being a writer.

For me, The Way We Were is as much about Redford selling out as a screenwriter in Hollywood as about McCarthyism and a failed romance. There is a great scene where Katie gives Hubbel a typewriter for Rosh Hashanah. It's her way of pushing him to write. I love that scene -- but of course, everyone only remembers the ending of the movie with the couple outside the Plaza Hotel.

Another movie which I can watch over and over again is Sunset Boulevard (1950). William Holden plays a down and out Hollywood screenwriter who has bill collectors on his tail. He sells his soul to the devil -- or in this case, to Norma Desmond -- and pays with his life. As the movie opens, he's found dead in a Hollywood swimming pool. This is where Joe Gillis' story begins and ends -- a washed up screenwriter shot in the back for choosing to love a woman for the wrong reasons. It's a classic movie with classic lines and it's all about writing.

Writers may not be as exciting to watch in movies as cops and coroners -- but they sure give us something to talk about when the lights go down or when we open that new book. They give us our voices.

Until next time.

Side note: The NY Screenwriting Life is on Facebook and also available at Amazon.Com if you'd like to subscribe to your iPad.

Monday, August 08, 2011

The Woman and Writer Behind Lucy
by Janet Lawler

August 8, 2011
New York

Unless you spent last weekend under a rock, you know that it would have been Lucille Ball's 100th birthday. Tributes flooded the Internet and airwaves.

Lucille Ball was an original -- a true American icon and legend.

We still love Lucy Ricardo. Thankfully, Lucy lives on forever on TV and through our laughter.

But have you ever wondered who wrote all those hysterical skits and lines for Lucy, Ricky, Ethel and Fred? Think about it. Those shows were hilarious from start to finish, line to line.

The classic comedy ran for six years on CBS. It never won an Emmy for comedy writing. Imagine that? One of its writers was a remarkable "girl writer" (that's what they called women on writing staffs in TV then) named Madelyn Pugh.

Years later, she became Madelyn Pugh Davis.

In the 1980s, I had the pleasure of corresponding with Ms. Davis through snail mail. I still have the letters saved. She was one of my idols in the television writing world. She wrote I Love Lucy for heaven's sakes. At the time of being pen pals, she was writing and producing for the CBS TV Show "ALICE" starring Linda Lavin. Ms. Davis knew of my passion for writing. She sent me Alice scripts to read and study with a note to "let me know your progress."

She was a sweet, refined lady on paper and in interviews. Her letters came typed, professional in tone, but yet closing with warm words of advice and support.

Ms. Davis, along with her longtime writing partner, Bob Carroll, Jr., wrote for every one of the 179 episodes of I Love Lucy. They also went on to write for all of Lucille Ball's TV Specials and shows.

Before TV, Ms. Davis started writing for Lucy on the radio... caught the actresses' attention and was plucked to help with writing I Love Lucy.

It was a match made in heaven -- not just for Lucy and Ricky, but for Lucille and Madelyn. According to articles, the female pair weren't best of pals -- Lucille Ball wasn't Lucy Ricardo off-camera -- but Lucille Ball respected solid, funny writing. She was smart to keep Madelyn close by and she always gave credit to her writers.

Ms. Davis noted in interviews that before putting Lucy through the famous skits, she would run through the scenes herself with her writing partner -- making cigars, flipping pizzas, milking a cow, swimming in the shower, working in a chocolate factory, getting tipsy filming a vitamin commercial, stomping grapes... and much, much more.

As hard and fast as Ms. Davis clanked on her typewriter, the bigger the belly laughs came for Lucy and Ricky.

And for us watching at home.

So this week we celebrate Lucille Ball, but hats off to Madelyn Pugh Davis too -- a great woman, writer and producer. She died in April. She was 90. She lived a life filled with love, success and laughter.  Who could ask for more?  She was the woman behind Lucy... and that's saying a lot.

After all, I'm certain Lucille Ball wouldn't want us to forget the "girl writer" behind all the classic belly laughs.

(Here is one of the longest live TV studio laughs in television history:  Lucy Learns to Tango.  Episode 172.  Aired in March 1957.)

Until next time.