Hollywood lost a lot of wonderful folks in 2010, but three of those deaths hit close to home for me, so before we barrel too far on into 2011, I wanted to stop for a minute to pay tribute to these three greats.
Edwards was responsible for one of my earliest movie going memories. I come from a very big family – my very Catholic, very fecund parents popped out nine children in a very short space of time. It made for a lively household, but a very tight budget. My folks didn’t have much spare cash, so our few entertainment dollars had to be stretched as far as possible. When it came to movies, the price of eleven tickets was too dear, but the cost for a carload was manageable, so we became patrons of a nearby drive-in theater (remember those?). The very first film we saw there was Edwards’ 1975 The Return of the Pink Panther. At the time, we all thought the movie was hilarious (I caught up with it again recently and I still think so – after A Shot in the Dark, it gets my vote as the funniest in that remarkable series). Because we all enjoyed it so much, we made it a point to see the next two installments: The Pink Panther Strikes Again and The Revenge of the Pink Panther. They weren’t as funny as Return, but they were entertaining and my enjoyment of them prompted me to search out Edwards’ other films. I was astounded to learn that the man that produced such belly laughs could also create something as terrifying as Experiment in Terror, as devastating as Days of Wine and Roses, and as wistfully romantic as Breakfast at Tiffany’s. This was an inspiration -- a testament to how successfully versatile true talent can be. There is no doubt that Edwards was a wonderful director – he could successfully helm serious dramas and sophisticated comedy and (along with John Landis) was the only American director of the modern era that could successfully stage slapstick and farce on screen. He was also a terrific writer – he wrote many screenplays and teleplays before becoming a director and wrote or co-wrote most of the films he directed. A number of his Pink Panther screenplays are masterpieces of the jewel watch-like construction that great comedy requires, as well as a wonderful lesson in tone (one of the great things about the best Panthers is that the stories and other characters are usually played completely straight, which makes Inspector Clouseau’s idiocy and clumsiness so much funnier than they would have been if the rest of the film was equally ridiculous). 10 is a wonderful mix of farce, sophisticated comedy, and melancholy drama that shows how much you can do with a single premise in a single film; and his scripts for the Peter Gunn series (which he created) put a jazzy spin on traditional detective stories. There is so much more to say about Edwards than we have space for here, but for now I’ll just say thanks – for the great lessons in screenwriting and for the many years of great entertainment.
Dino De Laurentiis
As some of you may know, a few years back I wrote a book about all of the King Kong movies that have been produced over the years, so it was through the great simian god of Skull Island that I first came to know of the Italian film producer Dino De Laurentiis, who was, of course, responsible for the 1976 KK remake (of which I am quite fond – it’s certainly not the classic the original 1933 Kong is, but it does have its moments). Among the uninformed, De Laurentiis has a reputation for being something of a schlockmeister, due to some unfortunate productions he was involved with in the 1980s. But when I researched De Laurentiis’s career, I was amazed to learn that, along with his then-partner Carlo Ponti, he was one of people responsible for reviving the Italian film industry in the aftermath of World War II. He produced the Fellini classics La Strada and Nights of Cabiria and Lucino Visconti’s The Stranger. In the 1950s and 1960s, he was one of the pioneers of the “international co-production,” a trend in which European producers hired big Hollywood stars to appear in wide-screen spectaculars that kept audiences coming to theaters in an era when television threatened to sink the entire industry. He also pioneered the method of financing films by pre-selling the distribution rights territory by territory across the world, which was then considered audacious and is now the primary way that independent producers raise the funds to make their movies.
After suffering some financial setbacks in Italy during the early 1970s, De Laurentiis made the brave decision to start over. He moved his family and his business to New York, where in quick succession he produced the modern classics Serpico and Three Days of the Condor, along with the controversial box office smash Death Wish. He later brought Ingmar Bergman to America (with The Serpent’s Egg) and helped many young filmmakers make their mark (he gave David Lynch the opportunity to make Blue Velvet, financed Evil Dead 2 for Sam Raimi, produced the Wachowski Brothers’ first directorial effort Bound, and gave Jonathan Mostow his start with Breakdown). Aside from his films, the thing that I loved most about De Laurentiis was that he was one of what writer/director Robert Benton called “the pirates” of the movie business – independent producers that spent lavish sums of money on impossibly big, spectacular films that they then promoted with ferocious passion that turned their movies (good or bad) into must-see events (whatever you think of it as a film, De Laurentiis’s Kong was one of the most amazing pop-culture happenings of the 1970s – the film was covered by the press from inception to release; its wonderful, iconic poster appeared everywhere: on magazine covers, on theater marquees, and on hundreds of tie-in products and merchandise; it had the widest release of any movie up to that time; and it created a major star in Jessica Lange. And, oh yeah, it made tons of money). In short, De Laurentiis was a showman who made movies fun and exciting in an era when they weren’t so much. Yes, he did make some bad films (in part because he made so many), but like the great moguls of yore (and unlike many of the MBAs running the business today), Dino loved movies and his passion and enthusiasm came through in every picture he made. I’ll always be grateful to Dino for Kong, but it’s his spirit I’ll miss the most.
Followers of this column will know that I’ve written about Tom Mankiewicz a lot in the last year – I interviewed him for a lengthy career retrospective piece that was posted on Scriptmag.com in April, on the heels of a live q & a that I hosted with Mankiewicz for the New York Film Academy that same month. I’ve been an admirer of Mankiewicz’s work for a long time – I originally came to know his name because he worked on a number of James Bond films that I had enjoyed and because, even though he didn’t receive credit, it was well known that he wrote the shooting script for 1978’s Superman. When I first saw Superman as a kid, I loved it because I was a Man of Steel fan and because I thought it was a really fun time at the movies. Over the years, however, my admiration for the film has increased – it’s a marvelously entertaining mixture of fantasy, sci-fi, adventure, and screwball comedy; it has an enormous and very sweet heart; and it is impeccably crafted in every respect – and I now consider it a minor classic. Mankiewicz’s work is one of the reasons that I think so highly of the film. When I was a screenwriting fellow at the American Film Institute, I had the chance to read the original “final” draft of the Superman screenplay that was written by the film’s credited screenwriters Mario Puzo, David Newman, Leslie Newman, and Robert Benton. It’s a fascinating document – just about all of the scenes that ended up in the final film were in this draft, as was a great deal of the dialogue. And yet this version of the story was incredibly flat – the storyline meandered with no sense of urgency or direction and the characters were stiff and lifeless. Reading Mankiewicz’s revision of this script taught me how incredibly important structure was in making a movie work. The original Superman draft had no focus; it was just a collection of scenes. At director Richard Donner’s behest, Mankiewicz reorganized the script to focus all of its elements on the love story between Superman and Lois Lane. When he did, the film was transformed from being just another bloated action film into a romantic comedy with spectacular trappings – a seemingly simple change, but one that brought the narrative to life, giving it direction, momentum, and purpose. It was the best lesson in scripting I’ve ever received. It was a thrill for me to meet Tom, who turned out to be a very nice man full of wonderful stories, insight, and a love for movies and the industry that was unique in my experience. He clearly wasn’t well when I interviewed him and had made a few passing remarks about “playing the back nine,” but even so, the news of his passing in July came as a great shock. Still, I am so grateful that I got the chance to meet Tom, and am equally grateful for all that he taught me, both directly and indirectly.
Thank you, gentlemen. RIP.