Why the Academy loves films about writers
On the list of Least Cinematic Occupations of All Time, writers hover very near the top. Above the sleep therapists, the certified public accountants, the people who come up with names for colors in women’s-clothing catalogs. Dentists? Way above dentists — all that pain and blood is tailor-made for movie suspense, as anyone knows who remembers Laurence Olivier asking ”Is it safe?” in Marathon Man.
Dentists do things to people. But writers? They do things to a piece of paper in a typewriter or, if it’s a movie made in the past 20 or so years, to a computer. (For a period drama, out come the quills.) The drama’s in their heads until it squirts out in small black print on white background. Hard to build an epic around that. Yet filmmakers and actors keep trying, and the Academy keeps egging them on. Philip Seymour Hoffman and Catherine Keener are the latest to be Oscar-nominated for portraying famous authors — Truman Capote and Harper Lee in Capote — and Bennett Miller’s film deserves credit for getting as deep as it does into the details and compromises of a visually drab creative process.
That said, audiences aren’t going to Capote to see Truman or Harper stare at their Remingtons. They’re going to hear them reel off glittering bon mots of high-society bitchery, to get the dirt on the Clutter killings, and to ponder the morality of selling out your source.
They’re going for everything but the writing.
This is nothing new. Films have tackled authors’ lives from angles comic (Wonder Boys), romantic (Under the Tuscan Sun), and surreal (Barton Fink, Naked Lunch, The Singing Detective), but rarely from a realistic slant. And when Oscar enters the picture, it’s usually to reward the portrayal of a Famous Writer who is shown in every posture except the correct one: sitting at a desk agonizing whether to finish that sentence or go fix a sandwich.
This was especially true during the heyday of the studio era, when lavish biopics threw in everything but the hard work. The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1934) gave Norma Shearer her third Best Actress nomination in five years; MGM’s reigning queen (and wife of production head Irving Thalberg) played poet Elizabeth Barrett as a vibrant invalid who leaves her sickbed to defend her siblings from their creepy control-freak father (Charles Laughton). When fellow wordsmith Robert Browning (Fredric March) shows up to woo Elizabeth away, the audience does get a brief sense of two writers communicating on a level no one else shares — and there’s a good gag when Browning admits he can’t remember what one of his own stanzas means — but Barretts is ultimately hamstrung by its own staginess. (Anyway, it was It Happened One Night’s year to sweep the awards.)
The Life of Emile Zola was Warner Bros.’ quality release of 1937, and with 10 Oscar nods the most nominated movie of the year (and ultimately Best Picture winner) — all accomplished without a shot of the great French writer actually sitting down and writing. Even when it comes to the publication of ”J’accuse,” the newspaper essay that broke open the Dreyfus scandal and rocked all of France, Zola (Best Actor nominee Paul Muni in fully bewhiskered Great Man mode) reads the piece aloud after he has composed it. Yes, it’s more dramatic, but the man wrote 60 literary works. Can’t we see a little sweat?