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Understanding Screenwriting: Scientists and Movie Stars, Then and Now and in the Future

Who else but Tom Stempel would think to compare the scripts of 1943 and a 2019 film, both about Marie and Pierre Curie? And he throws in Burt Reynolds, Kurt Luedtke, and at no extra cost Ariel Winter. Don’t worry, you’ll find out who she is.

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A Brief Update on “Jackleg Lawyer.”

Two columns ago, I did an item on Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) in which the term “jackleg lawyer” came up. Most movie people were aware of it from the tale both John Ford and Henry Fonda told of the term Ford used to convince Fonda to play not the president of the United States, but his younger self. I mentioned in the item that the term was in the script by Lamar Trotti, so it probably came from Trotti.

Imagine my surprise when I was watching one of my favorite Nunnally Johnson movies Jesse James (1939) the other night and heard the term in it. Johnson was working on his script before Trotti was working on his, and it was not uncommon at 20 Century-Fox for writers to read each other’s scripts. So, that is probably where Trotti got it from.

And we know the business in Young Mr. Lincoln of Lincoln liking the tune of “Dixie” came from Nunnally’s script for The Prisoner of Shark Island (1936). Now you insistent Fordians are going to point out that Ford directed Shark Island and so it may have come from him. But it did not. It came from one of the books Nunnally used as research called Myths after Lincoln.

No, I am not going to do an item on Jesse James. If you want my take on that, read the chapter on it in my book Screenwriter: The Life and Times of Nunnally Johnson, which will tell you everything you need to know about Jesse James.

A Day With the Curies.

Madame Curie (1943. Screenplay by Paul Osborn and Paul H. Rameau—and, uncredited, Walter Reisch and Aldous Huxley—based on the book by Eve Curie. 124 minutes) and Radioactive (2019. Screenplay by Jack Thorne, based on the graphic novel Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout by Lauren Redness. 109 minutes).

Madame Curie 1943

I had been meaning to watch Radioactive since it popped up on the one streaming service I get, Amazon Prime, but I had not gotten around to it. Then Turner Classic Movies had a medical day and ran Madame Curie at 3 a.m. That’s why God made DVRs. So, I spent the day with the Curies, the 1943 one in the afternoon, and the 2019 one at night.

The earlier film is very much a 1940s MGM major production. MGM had put Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon together in the 1941 film Blossoms in the Dust, and the stars seemed to click. So, the studio put them together the next year in Mrs. Miniver. The stars really clicked in that, and the picture was an enormous hit at the box office and won the Oscar for Best Picture. It makes sense the studio put them together again as Marie and Pierre Curie, two of the most famous scientists of the 20 Century. The script was obviously shaped to fit their chemistry, so to speak.

The picture begins with Marie, who was Polish, already in Paris in the 1890s. You know you are in MGM-land when, in the opening scene in a lecture hall, Greer Garson, as Marie, has a key light that follows her around.

One of her professors talks Pierre into taking a student into his lab, but he does not mention the student is female. When Marie shows up, there is some typical 1940s awkward by-play. The script does not have them romantically attracted to each other. They are attracted by their mutual interest in science. The writers give them a nice scene walking down the street talking technobabble to each other. No, we don’t know what they are talking about, but they know, and she is keeping up her end of the conversation.

Later, when Pierre brings up the question of marriage, love is mentioned only once in the discussion, with more discussion of friendship, companionship, and their mutual interest in science. They get married and ride off on their honeymoon on matching bicycles.

[Script Extra: Making the Dream of Screenwriting Success Come True]

As they get into trying to discover the element that gives off radiation, the script gives us some narration explaining what they are doing. This section could fit easily into a documentary film, but we are so involved in the characters we want to see them succeed.

Their work wins the Nobel Prize in Physics, but the movie does not get into the Nobel committee’s reluctance to give it to a woman. We just get Pierre’s father talking to reporters who want to talk to Pierre, mentioning the Nobel in passing. Pierre’s father is one of a large number of supporting characters played by a gallery of great character actors of the 40s. Even C. Aubrey Smith, the quintessential Englishman of the time, shows up for a couple of scenes as Lord Cavendish. I suspect he spent more time in hair and makeup than he did shooting his scenes.

Pierre dies in 1906 after being run over in the street by a team of horses and wagon. Marie grieves as only Greer Garson can, beautifully lighted by Joseph Ruttenberg’s cinematography. The film then cuts to the 25th anniversary of the discovery of radium. The older Marie gives an inspiring speech, fade out.


Radioactive also starts with Marie in Paris. She runs into Pierre in the street, but does not really meet him until later. Pierre offers her a place in his lab. There are not the friends, family, and character actors we got in Madame Curie. In both films we get very little of the sexist resistance to Marie’s being a scientist, usually in each film, only from one or two men. And we get nothing of the resistance to her by the French because she was Polish, and even though she was not Jewish, she got attacked by anti-Semites.

In Radioactive, it is clear there are romantic feelings early on between Marie and Pierre. We don’t get as nuanced a view of their relationship as we do in Madame Curie. When they get married, they do not go off on two bicycles, but on one bicycle with two seats. Then Marie and Pierre run naked along a pier and jump into a lake, where they happily skinny dip. Unless I blinked, I do not think there is in Madame Curie a scene of Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon skinny dipping.

When the first Nobel Prize is awarded, it is only given to Pierre. He reluctantly goes to Sweden to accept it. Uh, wait a minute, didn’t Marie win it as well? After the Nobel Prize scene, we get a scene stuck in where somebody reminds Marie that Pierre fought to get her included. The scene sounds like an afterthought and is messy screenwriting.

In Radioactive, Pierre dies halfway through the movie. This is not a 1940s MGM romantic drama. Marie is played, brilliantly, by the film’s name star, Rosamund Pike. Pike has a much greater acting range than Garson, although Garson, like a lot of movie stars, is great in her limited range. The scripts for the two films take advantage of their stars’ ranges as actors. Pierre is played here by an actor I’ve seen in a couple of films but who did not make much of an impact on me, Sam Riley. The two are not a famous duo like Garson and Pidgeon, and they don’t have the older actors’ chemistry.

For obvious reasons, the earlier film does not mention Marie’s affair after Pierre’s death with a married man, but the newer one does, and it shows the French turning against her. The earlier film does not mention Marie’s second Nobel Prize (this one in chemistry), but the newer one mentions it, along with the request by the Nobel committee that she not come to Sweden to accept the prize. She comes anyway, and when she gets up to give her lecture, the women in the audience give her a standing ovation, joined, reluctantly I expect (Marjane Satrapi’s direction is not as sharp as it could be), by the men.

But there’s more. During the First World War, Marie is pushed by her daughter (the woman in this family are very pushy) to set up portable X-Ray machines to take to the front, which helps save many lives.

[Script Extra: Script Secrets - Low-Budget Screenwriting]

Satrapi’s background is in comics and animated films. Her first feature, Persepolis (2007) was animated, and her 2011 film Chicken with Plums was a live action film based on a comic book she wrote. In Radioactive the main storyline is intercut with flash forwards of the future of radiation. The first is to a little boy in 1957 Cleveland being given a radiation treatment. Great, the benefits of radiation. But the next is the bombing of Hiroshima. And then the meltdown at Chernobyl. An end title of the film tells us that radiation has saved millions of lives, but that does not seem to be where the filmmakers’ hearts are.

I have the suspicion that Satrapi wanted the Hiroshima and Chernobyl scenes in the film because she was much more comfortable with the dazzling visuals of those sequences than the straight-ahead storytelling in the main part of the film. Modern day directors are like that. Mervyn Le Roy, the director of Madam Curie, was an old Hollywood hand who knew how to do a star vehicle. The secret to that, by the way, is to photograph the leading actress looking up (old Hollywood rule: you win Oscars when you look up, either in prayer or just being beatific over something) with enough glowing light to make you think she is radioactive.

Goodbye Burt, Hello Ariel.

The Last Movie Star (2018. Written by Adam Rifkin. 94 minutes)

This film, one of the last Burt Reynolds made before his death in 2018, was obviously intended as a farewell to Reynolds. He plays Vic Edwards, a former stuntman and big-time movie star, in the later years of his life. Nice idea, and I can understand making him a grumpy old man, but Rifkin, who also directed, writes Vic pretty much as a one-note character for at least the first half of the movie.

Vic gets an offer to come to the International Nashville Film Festival, which has given awards to De Niro and Eastwood, among others. He decides to go and it is not what he expected. Instead of a First Class ticket awaiting him at the airport, he’s in coach. In a middle seat.

When he gets to Nashville, there is no one to meet him. His driver/assistant finally shows up: a goth girl, tattoos piercings and all, named Lil. The only reason she has the job is that she is the sister of Doug, the head of the festival. Lil doesn’t like movies and is more concerned about her boyfriend, whom she is on the phone with all the time.

When they get to the festival, it is not at a convention center, but at a small bar. Vic had thought it was the Nashville International Film Festival, not the International Nashville Film Festival. And De Niro and Eastwood never showed up to pick up their awards.

[Script Extra: Behind the Lines with DR: Who You Know...Can Make Your Day]

So, Vic convinces Lil to drive him to Knoxville, for reasons of his own. She does, and we finally see a more interesting side to Vic. They visit the house he grew up in, in which a Black family now lives. Rivkin handles the first part of that scene reasonably well, but then does not do anything interesting with the family members and neighbors show up.

Vic visits his first wife at a nursing home, but Rivkin bungles the fact that she has Alzheimer’s by not being precise about what she knows and what she does not at any given point.

Vic and Lil end up spending the night in a lavish hotel. No, there is no romance, since he is about sixty years older than she is. What has developed between them is a nice grandfather-granddaughter relationship.

One of the big reasons the relationship works is that Lil is brilliantly played by Ariel Winter. If that name does not ring a bell, she was Alex, the “smart” Dunphy daughter, in Modern Family. She was good in that rather limited role, but she is great in this part. Rivkin has written in more variety in Lil than he has with Vic, and Winter uses it to steal the show completely from Reynolds. By the time Reynolds gets to do more than being just a grumpy old man, Winter has the picture stolen and locked up in a bank safety deposit box.

An Appreciation: Kurt Luedtke

Photo by George McGinn/Getty Images

Photo by George McGinn/Getty Images

Oscar-winning screenwriter Kurt Luedtke died in early August. Like many screenwriters, he spent his early life as a newspaperman. When he was assistant city editor of the Detroit Free Press he supervised the paper’s coverage of the race riots in Detroit in 1967. He eventually rose to be executive editor of the paper, but then decided he did not want to do that the rest of his life.

His first screenplay was Absence of Malice (1981), about the reporter who breaks several rules of professional ethics. It is, not surprisingly, one of the best and most realistic movies about American journalism. As a piece of screenwriting, it is a brilliant example of how to tie up a very complicated story: bring in Wilfred Brimley to take over the picture for the last ten minutes.

Sally Fields in "Absence of Malice'

Sally Fields in "Absence of Malice'

The director of Malice was Sydney Pollack, and Leudtke convinced Pollack to do a film based on Karen Blixen’s books and stories about her life in Africa, especially her romance with the British hunter Denys. Pollack was reluctant, but the film turned out to be Out of Africa (1985), which won a stack of Academy Awards, including one for Luedtke for Best Adapted Screenplay. I was not crazy about the script, since it tells the story entirely from Blixen’s point of view. I kept wondering what Denys’ feeling about all of this was.

Luedtke’s third script, also for Pollack, was Random Hearts (1999), but it was not either an artistic or commercial success.

Then he never wrote another produced script. He may have contributed to other screenplays, but the IMDb, which is a hawk about finding out about un-credited writers, does not mention any other work. Still, any career that includes Absence of Malice and Out of Africa is worth noting.

More articles by Tom Stempel

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