Going to the Movies: Why the Writing Matters
Screenplays and Three Must-See 2023 Academy Award Nominees
Earlier this month about a third of the 29 screens in Alexandria’s two most convenient multiplex theaters showed two movies: Avatar: The Way of Water and Puss in Boots: The Last Wish. The multiple showings confirm that theater owners see their target market as very narrow. Avatar: The Way of Water is a hugely expensive special effects-driven sequel to a proven box office winner—the type of bet-covering movie that is increasingly a Hollywood mainstay. Puss in Boots: The Last Wish fits the same description and includes adorable animated cats. There will soon be more movies with colons in the title; releases from the Mission Impossible and Indiana Jones franchises are scheduled for June.
Understanding Hollywood, and its choices, is notoriously difficult. The late screenwriter William Goldman (All the President’s Men, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) famously said of moviemaking, “Nobody knows anything.” Even so, anticipation builds for the March 9 Academy Awards ceremony in Los Angeles.
This Oscar season includes many movies worth seeing but today’s focus is on three current releases. Tár, Living and The Fabelmans succeed in different ways but they share an important attribute: each is driven by very strong writing. Tár and The Fabelmans are nominated for Best Original Screenplay and Best Picture, and Living is nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay. As Hollywood talent manager Trice Koopman said, “It all comes back to the writing.”
Tár ($6.1 million), Living ($6.3 million) and The Fablemans ($18.1 million) have had limited box office success. In contrast, Avatar: The Way of Water has earned over $2 billion worldwide. So, while it may be difficult to find Tár, Living and The Fabelmans in theaters before they disappear into streaming’s abyss it will be worth the effort.
Tár : Inverting the “Me Too” Narrative in Shakespearean Style
Director and screenwriter Todd Field’s Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett, in an astonishing and Oscar-nominated performance) is brilliant, controlling and magnificently talented cultural royalty. She is an EGOT— an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony winner—an ethnomusicologist and the principal conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. She is also a sexual predator, a chronic liar about things large and small, and a relentless opportunist. Lydia avidly pursues young female prey and her next professional opportunity.
Tár is an uncompromising movie that rewards close attention. Field, who has sole screenplay credit, portrays Lydia Tár through social media messages, a scene with slashing dialogue in a Julliard master class, and scenes where Tár verbally manipulates the media (Adam Gopnik of The New Yorker, playing himself), a conductor of lesser status (Mark Strong) and her partner, Sharon (Nina Hoss), the Berlin orchestra’s first violinist. Sharon acutely observes that Lydia’s connection with their daughter, Petra, is her “only non-transactional relationship.”
Shakespeare’s tragedies illuminate the decline of monarchs by mixing elements of fate with compelling portrayals of his characters’ very human traits. These traits include ambition (Macbeth), emotional neediness (King Lear), and vengeful cruelty (Richard III.) Lydia Tár is a modern music and cultural queen; her castle is an expensive and rigorously modernist Berlin condominium and her horse is an electric Porsche. Field brings the queen low by portraying her monumental self-regard in many ways, but, as in Shakespeare’s tragedies, much of her decline is traceable to the words she speaks and the words others speak and write about her.
The film alludes to literature in other ways. Lydia receives an anonymous gift of a first edition of a Vita Sackville-West novel, Challenge, about a lesbian affair. The implication is that the gift comes from a musical protégé/lover whom she has cast aside. She destroys the book in an airplane lavatory. Lydia, of course, is also a writer. The title of her book? Tár on Tár, of course.
Living: Social Class Repression and Its Discontents
Living is a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s 1952 movie, Ikiru. The screenplay is by 2017 Nobel Prize for Literature winner Kazuo Ishiguro (Never Let Me Go, The Buried Giant, Klara and the Sun, Artist of the Floating World). Bill Nighy stars as Rodney Williams, who lives a life of metronomic regularity as a manager in a Public Works department in early 1950’s London.
Nighy’s remarkable restraint and control as an actor (he conveys more with a raised eyebrow than most actors can through extended speech and gestures) conveys Williams’ buttoned-down personality. Nighy disappears into Williams and makes us care about him.
Williams is diagnosed with cancer and told that he has months to live. When the doctor who conveys this news says how difficult such a conversation is Ishiguro’s minimalist dialogue has Williams respond, “Quite.”
Much of what we learn about Williams is through incomplete sentences or speeches partially given. Williams practices telling his son and daughter-in-law about his diagnosis, a discussion that never takes place. His friendship with a much younger former work colleague, Aimee Gibbs (Aimee Lou Wood), is profound, but restrained and correct. Ishiguro captures the halting speech patterns associated with their disparate ages and situations perfectly.
Ishiguro also portrays Williams through inferences, some in dialogue and others that are visual. The concept of time, which is so important to Williams (see above), completely changes after he learns his fate. In the scene below, Williams, having determined that people who want to live it up go to English seaside resorts and eat fish and chips, temporarily abandons the office that is the center of his life and does exactly that. Somehow, the beach doesn’t work for him.
Ishiguro is on familiar ground in portraying controlled, even repressed, members of the English social class system who becomes unmoored from that system. Williams is similar in many ways to the butler, Stevens, in Ishiguro’s novel, The Remains of the Day. Stevens’ narrowly-defined existence on an English estate, Darlington Hall, is altered in ways that he has difficulty understanding by World War II and the post-war purchase of the estate by a wealthy American.
In the book and the movie, Stevens (Anthony Hopkins) is so caught up in his identity and profession that he cannot admit to the affection he has for the estate’s head housekeeper, Miss Kenton (Emma Thompson), nor can he acknowledge the affection she has for him.
The joy, and genius, of Ishiguro’s screenplay for Living is that it makes the ways Williams copes, sometimes awkwardly and sometimes admirably, with his changed circumstances connect to our personal experiences.
The Fabelmans: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
Steven Spielberg (the fable man) teamed with his longtime collaborator, playwright and screenwriter Tony Kushner (Angels in America), to write The Fabelmans, a Best Picture nominee. The early years of film-obsessed Sammy Fabelman are portrayed in a loosely autobiographical story. Sammy’s family circumstances—the family moves several times as Burt Fabelman (Paul Dano) rises in the technology industry—parallel Spielberg’s youth. His mother, Mitzi (Michelle Williams in an exceptional performance), is an adventurous free spirit trapped in the role of a mother and homemaker. Burt and Mitzi’s marriage eventually dissolves.
It’s love at first movie for Sammy when his parents take him to Cecil B. DeMille’s circus epic, The Greatest Show on Earth. His fascination extends beyond how a camera works: he designs and makes a set with his electric trains to film his own version of a crash in DeMille’s movie.
As a teenager, Sammy directs and films his friends in a gunfight scene and figures out that he can make toy guns appear to “flash” by using a pin to pierce key frames of film. Sammy creates propaganda when he makes a senior class film that gets back at an anti-Semitic bully and glorifies the school’s star athlete/big man on campus with glistening images of bodies in motion that recall Leni Riefenstahl’s documentary, Olympia, about the 1936 Olympics.
Kushner and Spielberg’s great screenwriting strength is dialogue. The Fabelman family conversations, whether it is Sammy talking with his sisters or the children talking with their parents, are completely authentic and believable. The same is true of Sammy’s conversations with his high school classmates, including his Jesus and pop star-obsessed prom date.
The action in Tár and Living occurs in weeks or months. In contrast, Spielberg and Kushner portray Sammy and his family in episodes that span about 20 years. The scenes, which take Sammy from age 6 or 7 to his early 20’s, flow in a logical and natural way which is a tribute to the quality of the screenplay.
In a lovely closing sequence, Sammy lands an entry-level television job and wangles a brief meeting with legendary movie director John Ford (David Lynch.) Ford, the director of Stage Coach, The Informer, The Quiet Man, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, How Green Was My Valley, Young Mr. Lincoln, The Grapes of Wrath, The Searchers and many other movies, was legendarily gruff. Ford provides modest guidance, and significant inspiration. He tells Sammy just enough.
The last word goes to the great screenwriter and director, Billy Wilder (Sunset Boulevard, The Apartment, Double Indemnity, Some Like it Hot):
But writing is just an empty page. You start with nothing, absolutely nothing, and I think, as a rule, writers are vastly underrated and underpaid. It is totally impossible to make a great picture out of a lousy script. It is impossible, on the other hand, for a mediocre director to screw up a great script altogether. 
Tár, Living and The Fabelmans: Evidence that writing matters to movies. Your comments are very welcome.
 The media accounts of people seeking to download Lydia Tár’s recordings from music streaming services are a testament to the believability of Blanchett’s performance.
 Hollywood: The Oral History by Jeanine Basinger and Sam Wasson (HarperCollins Publishers, 2022) p. 228.
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