After writing about Yates and his “preoccupation” with Fitzgerald, and RY’s Hollywood story “Saying Goodbye to Sally,” it’s worth remembering that this “Year of Yates” is heading towards its climax. The first press screenings and preview showings of Revolutionary Road seem to be quite favorable, and the film has been carefully positioned for Oscar consideration. There is, of course, no Oscar for the novelist or writer of the original material on which a film is based–no Oscar last year for Cormac McCarthy. Scott Rudin got one for No Country for Old Men, and he’s after another one this year with RevRoad. Still, Best Picture will be a tall order; it’s quite a sweepstakes, and everything has to break in its favor.
We’ll have to see the film and a number of others before talking about actors and director, but Leo, Kate, and Sam–and the fact that we can readily refer to all of them on a first-name basis is a big plus–may have an easier road than Rudin going back-to-back on Best Picture. You also have the other awards, photography, editing, costumes, music, etc., where a well-made film can get a lot of nominations and gather momentum. The whole thing is a rather foolish contest, but it is what it is, and it gets people to see and feel allegiance to some of the best films of the year. And now, in mid-November, with Bond doing 70 million over the weekend along with a couple of hundred million internationally (can you say recession proof?–no, don’t, let’s not jinx it; and all we can really say at this point is that James Bond is recession proof, not the movie business as a whole), we’re heading into the thick of things, so why not enjoy the ride?
Revolutionary Road may have its bigger fish to fry, but the no-brainer category for a nomination, given the ambition, casting, and package of the film, is adapted screenplay. Yates has done the heavy lifting here, and we can’t speculate on the screenwriter, who is a relative unknown. My assumption is that he–his name is Justin Haythe, I believe; I don’t want to get it wrong–and Sam Mendes found a mutual affinity in the novel in some way, and Haythe became the screenwriter. Maybe he is a playwright–need to do a little research here. He’s certainly not a well-known, established Hollywood screenwriter with a long and distinguished pedigree (more on that in a moment), but I’m sure we’ll hear the story and see the profiles soon enough. And I’m telling you that it’s a very safe bet that this fellow will be nominated for an Oscar.
I say let’s look at it as a nomination for Yates, just for a moment. And guess what–lookie here–who’s the primary competition? It’s that Fitzgerald guy, with a little film called “The Story of Benjamin Button.”
There’s a wonderful apocryphal Hollywood story about Fitzgerald and a studio developing Great Gatsby or Tender is the Night, one of the novels, in the 80’s, and a very young woman, one of my own generation, who had gone straight from high school to being the assistant to a studio chief. She was an Executive Vice-President before she was 25, running movies and very much on the Monroe Stahr track. The development on the project had hit a snag, and they couldn’t find a satisfactory writer (where was Yates?), and she asked “well, what about this Fitzgerald guy, could he do it?” Such a good story: too bad it isn’t true.
For me personally the funny thing is that I was around for the beginnings of Benjamin Button as a film, all the way back in the late 80s/early 90s. I’d have to ask some questions to try to remember where and how it fit into the sequence, and it’s a very small part of a much larger Hollywood tableau for me. I’ll just toss out this one memorable nugget from that time: I had been out of Berkeley for maybe six months, was still thinking about putting together a program for writing my dissertation in my spare time (good luck with that), and I had just gotten my third good job in quick succession, climbing fast through circumstance and my LA native-regular guy-Berkeley PhD/ABD mystique. Amusing how far the ability to read books and talk about them can take you in the film business (“what about this Fitzgerald guy…”). I had been working for Kathy Kennedy for only a couple of months, things were already happening fast, and at this point I told myself that I would stop worrying and focus on the big opportunity in front of me. Pretty easily managed, since I hadn’t done any work whatsoever on the dissertation. I was what’s called a “creative executive,” a junior position with all sorts of non-specific responsibilities and guidelines, none of which I really understood. Ultimately I chose to focus on hanging out and kibbitzing, which don’t appear at the top of the list of ways to get ahead. At any rate, I’m in my office, tweaking my master plan, when I get a call from Scott Rudin. “Come talk to me. Everybody says you’re smart. I want you to work for me.” “Wow, Scott,” I say, “that’s really flattering, I don’t know what to say.” “Don’t say anything. Let’s set it up.” “Well, you know, I’ve kind just been working for Kathy here for only a couple of months, and there’s a lot going on.” “C’mon–get outta that henhouse. Just meet with me.” “I’d love to, Scott, but I don’t think I should do it–I don’t want to waste your time. Very flattering, like I said, but…” “Suit yourself. Good luck–you’re in a great spot.”
So there I am breaking Hollywood rule #1: always take the meeting. It took me years to figure out that it’s relationship business, then years more to realize I’m kind of quirky when it comes to relationships, or something like that. Not long after the above amusing exchange, a script called “The Postman” was going around, written by Eric Roth. Roth wasn’t an overnight success, but apparently he had cracked the code, and he was quickly established as a top drawer screenwriter. In the meantime, Benjamin Button was swimming into view, although Kathy Kennedy will have to tell us exactly where it came from. The first writer, Robin Swicord, might have brought it to Kathy–or maybe Robin wasn’t the first writer; what do I know? But she was definitely working on it, at the very beginning I think, and at this point we’re playing “inside baseball,” as Sarah Palin would call it (“Were there any direct conflicts between you and the McCain campaign managers?” “I don’t want to get into that inside baseball kind of stuff.”–not the exact quote, but something like that.) Because Swicord is married to Nick Kazan, and their daughter Zoe Kazan plays Maureen in Revolutionary Road. But you knew that.
At any rate, years and Forrest Gump and Munich, Good Shepherd, and lots of great work later, Eric Roth cracked Benjamin Button, no easy task. And there you have just one of the primary competitors for the adapted screenplay Oscar. The irony here is that adapting Benjamin Button required a masterful touch and a lot of work. It’s just the opposite of Revolutionary Road. Fitzgerald gives us the concept and perhaps his own tone and setting and pedigree–but who knows. No heavy lifting by Mr. Fitzgerald. With Yates, it’s pretty much all there, every scene, every detail, and we’re worried about how much of the whole and its exquisite tone and struggling dark spirit can make it into the film. Not to take anything away from Justin Haycint, except for goofing around with his name. But with Benjamin Button, anything goes–Brad Pitt style, of course.
Brad vs. Leo. Kathy Kennedy (Diving Bell and the Butterfly, along with a couple of other films, and I proudly call her my mentor, remembering the good old days in the henhouse) vs. Scott Rudin. Eric Roth vs. Justin Zhiv. And F. Scott Fitzgerald vs. Richard Yates.
Update: Justin Haythe’s first novel, The Honeymoon, was nominated for the Booker in 2004. Sam Mendes talks about getting the script, not going nuts for it, and then reading the book here:
But he gives wife Kate Winslet the credit for reading it first. Did she read the script and then the book too? And there goes the theory that he had read RevRoad before directing American Beauty. Very interesting comment that “At the end of the day, it is sister to films like “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” “Scenes From a Marriage” and “Carnal Knowledge” rather than to “Little Children,” “American Beauty” and “Ordinary People.””
And I’m not kidding about getting ready for the deluge to hit. Typing this, an AP story was filed 15 minutes ago. Gawker picks up the Mad Men comparison, showing that that is going to be a topic for discussion. But that’s what press screenings and junkets will do for you. If you want to know how the system works, just take another look at the brilliant scene in Notting Hill, where Hugh Grant pretends to be a reporter from Horse and Hounds to talk Julia Roberts, who is doing a press junket.
And I’m not going to be shy about putting “RevRoad movie” in the title here: why not?