Monday, November 28, 2011

Playwright, Screenwriter, Director, Judge

Arthur Laurents died earlier this year.  I saw his book Original Story By in the library and checked it out.  The subtitle: "A Memoir Of Broadway And Hollywood."

He worked with a lot of big names (many of whom were gay--Laurents' homosexuality is the second big theme of the book) and has plenty of stories to tell.  And he's not afraid to criticize.  In fact, that seems to be his specialty.  Not that I'm complaining. I'd rather have portraits etched in acid than painted in rose colors.  But still, it sometimes seems that everyone lets him down sooner or later. For instance, his final chapter (the book is not in chronological order) discusses the development of West Side Story.  Laurents created the show with Leonard Bernstein, Jerome Robbins and Stephen Sondheim. He has praise for his collaborators, but spends at least twice as much time discussing their personal shortcomings.  He raises cattiness to almost Olympian heights.

At least in the theatre the playwright has a fair amount of say.  In Hollywood, the screenwriter is at the mercy of the producer, the director and the stars.  His chapter on the making of The Way We Were is a great demonstration of this principle.  He's the guy who came up with the concept, the characters, the script, but once Hollywood took over, he had to fight to have anything of what he wanted to say make it on screen.  And, as opposed to Gyspy or West Side Story, he didn't really respect the talents of those who got in his way.  He liked Barbra Streisand somewhat--he helped discover her when directing I Can Get It For You Wholesale on Broadway--and her interest in the script helped get the movie made.  But he felt she was limited as an actor, and had unfortunate mannerisms.  Robert Redford he'd seen on Broadway in the 60s and thought he had a flair for comedy, but now was a powerful movie star who was mostly interested in making his character manly and in charge, no matter what damage it did to the story.  But it's producer Ray Stark and director Sydney Pollack who come off worst.  They didn't really understand the screenplay and were liars who begged Laurents for help when they needed it but stabbed him in the back when they didn't.  Or so Laurents says.

Laurents believes himself to be a great judge, not only of talent, but of morality. Few measure up to his standards.  Okay, it's his book, after all.  But really, was his career that impressive?  Maybe I can't blame him for the films, since, according to him, he mostly wrote to order and his screenplays were rarely done justice.  But on Broadway, he created some decent books for musicals and some not so great, while his straight plays, such as Home Of The Brave and The Time Of The Cuckoo, are far from classics.  As for his moral stature, who can say.  Still, he notes certain friends he used to have whom he dropped.  If I may read between the lines, I wonder if it wasn't the other way around.


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