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April 08, 2006

The Write Stuff


I finally had a chance to examine the Writers Guild of America's list of 101 Greatest Screenplays. While it's not quite as misguided as the lists of films presented by the American Film Institute or Entertainment Weekly for example, there are still plenty of opportunities for serious film scholars to go "Huh?". It's probably no surprise that the list is slanted towards more recent film, older films that have higher profiles, and that foreign language films get short shrift.

That Casablanca gets named as the top film is amazing considering the oft-told stories about the making of the film. Would we even be watching the film today if the stars were other than Bogart and Bergman as has been rumored? Would some of the humor of the dialogue, especially in the line, "Round up the usual suspects", still sifted through the film had the director been someone more fluent in English than Michael Curtiz? This does not even account for the fact that the Epstein brothers and Howard Koch are the credited names for a screenplay that was never finished before shooting began. Based on available information, Casablanca truly is a film that works in spite of all the elements that should have worked against it.

Another film that should never have worked was # 17 - Tootsie. I have no idea if any of the five credited writers had ever been in the same room together prior to shooting. At least the original author, Don McGuire, had a last laugh being honored at the end of his career.

David Webb Peoples had to wait fifteen years for #30 - Unforgiven to be filmed. I recall reading somewhere that as successful as Unforgiven was, Peoples was stiffed by Clint Eastwood who claimed to have originally received the screenplay as a writing sample.

While George Lucas received sole credit for #68 - Star Wars, it has been noted by Peter Biskind that the screenplay was actually written in collaboration with Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz. My own feeling is that the best screenplay Lucas had a hand in was American Graffiti, Lucas' best realization of the themes of different social groups and their coded languages.

The title most likely to have people asking WTF is probably #78 - Rocky. Especially absurd is that it is one notch above Mel Brooks' The Producers.

The only foreign language films are #85 - Grand Illusion and #87 - Eight and a Half. Nevermind that Fellini shot his film without sound and doesn't always know what his characters will say until he gets around to dubbing. Among the screenwriters not making this list are Truffaut, Shinobu Hashimoto, Jacques Prevert and Marguerite Duras.

In terms of classic films, only one citation for Ben Hecht, none for Samson Raphaelson or any of the scribes who worked on behalf of Ernst Lubitsch, no citing of Preston Sturges for The Power and the Glory, a film that influenced the structure of Citizen Kane, and no love shown for Donald Ogden Stewart. And while there are those who love Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, I would have rather seen that space taken by Dudley Nichols for Stagecoach.

I also have to laugh at seeing #99 - The Wild Bunch on the list. Keep in mind that I love this film and have seen it three times theatrically. I also remember an article written in "Esquire" magazine in the early Seventies by Dominick Dunne. Dunne wrote about reading two screenplays, one he thought well-written, the other screenplay had little to recommend it. The better screenplay was for The Great Gatsby. The screenplay that read poorly was The Wild Bunch. Even Dunne had to admit that when it comes to making movies, it is more often the director who truly gets the final word.

Posted by peter at April 8, 2006 03:07 PM


Thanks for the commentary, Peter. Looking through the list I knew it felt like I was reading the results of a wrong-headed endeavor, and you help break down some of the reasons why. Bringing out the comparison between the Wild Bunch and Great Gatsby scripts is particularly apropos. I can't help but wonder if the decision to make it a top 101 rather than 100 came after realizing Hecht was about to be snubbed, which would have been even more absurd.

I don't think leaving the Power and the Glory off is a problem with the list though. As formally groundbreaking as it may be, it actually reads fairly poorly compared to most Sturges scripts, and it didn't film all that well either. I consider it more a curio than a classic.

Still, a list that included it would at least be more interesting than one that had Jerry Maguire on it.

Posted by: Brian at April 10, 2006 02:14 PM