An inside look at the Hollywood screenwriter's profession

By Ty Burr
Updated February 23, 2001 at 05:00 AM EST

Screenwriting may be the most thankless task in Hollywood. In most cases, a writer’s on-screen credit is the only credit he or she gets for providing the girders of narrative structure, the nuances of characterization, the give and take of dialogue. Ernest Lehman is particularly short-shrifted in this regard, and he knows it. ”I’ve spent the best years of my life trying to convince movie critics,” the writer once said, ”that if a film is any good, it was probably well written, and that if it was a stinker, it was probably due to a bad screenplay. But I couldn’t even make a dent.”

To an extent, it’s his own fault. Lehman’s specialty has been adapting properties with strong existing voices, from hit stage musicals (West Side Story, The King and I, Hello, Dolly!, The Sound of Music) to Broadway sensations (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?). If that sounds like his job was to write camera directions around other people’s dialogue, think again: When Lehman saw The Sound of Music on Broadway, ”it consisted of lead-ins to the next number. No story.” Even his sole original script — the deathless gimcrack thriller North by Northwest — is the Hitchcock flick to end all Hitchcock flicks by conscious design. Said Lehman, ”You realize very early when you’re working with Hitch that you’re writing for a star and that star is Alfred Hitchcock.”

Behind such self-effacing craftsmanship is a witty intelligence that knows when to bite — Lehman wrote the story and cowrote the screenplay for that tabloid melodrama Sweet Smell of Success. He’s been acknowledged with six Oscar nods (four for writing, two for producing), but that’s clearly not enough. On March 25, the octogenarian Lehman will (along with British cinematographer Jack Cardiff) receive an Honorary Oscar ”in appreciation of a body of varied and enduring work.” Maybe that will make a dent.