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UNDERSTANDING SCREENWRITING: Writing Real and Fictional People

Tom Stempel writes about movies: the new (The Glorias), the newish (A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood), and some old ones (Tora! Tora! Tora! and Pearl Harbor).

How Many Gloria Steinems can Dance on the Head of a Pin?

The Glorias (2020). Screenplay by Julie Taymor and Sarah Ruhl, based on the book My Life on the Road by Gloria Steinem. 147 minutes by my count, 139 by IMDb’s count.

A little while ago the comic strip Lio had an opening panel that hit the nail on the head. The panel had a TV set with the sound blasting out of it promoting a new streaming service, saying that, yes, it had all the old TV shows the other streaming services did, and all the old and new movies the others did, but it did have one new series.

Exactly the reason I am not a fan of streaming services. I hate paying however much a month they are charging for one film or show. It is bad enough on my cable system where there are channels I may watch only one show on, but I don’t need to buy more channels. I have missed a bunch of new movies that have gone straight to streaming. I have made up a list of all the ones I missed that I will eventually be able to pick up on cable. So far the list is up to three.

Lorraine Toussaint as Florynce Kennedy and Julianne Moore as Gloria Steinem.

Lorraine Toussaint as Florynce Kennedy and Julianne Moore as Gloria Steinem.

The one streaming service I do have is Amazon Prime. One new film that had been produced for theatrical release but came up recently on Prime was this one, The Glorias, based on Gloria Steinem’s memoir. I’ve always found Steinem an interesting character. I read her first famous article, “A Bunny’s Tale,” about her working undercover as a Bunny at a Playboy club in the early sixties, then read Ms. Magazine in its early days. I’ve read some of her books, and when my daughter was getting over a breakup with a not-nice boyfriend, I gave her my copy of Steinem’s Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions when she was going away to college. It helped her get her shit together.

[Script Extra: The Broadcast Television Exodus to Netflix]

(On the downside, there is a 1998 book by Kathryn Leigh Scott called The Bunny Years. Scott had been a Bunny at the same time Steinem was working undercover. Scott and the other women did not like Steinem and they liked her article even less, feeling that Steinem was condescending to them. Scott tracked down many women who had worked as Bunnies and interviewed them. Almost without exception they still disliked Steinem’s article. The women had worked as Bunnies to make money to go to school, including graduate school, acting classes, and many had gone on to become scientists, lawyers, business owners, and the like. In spite of what Steinem may have thought of them, her later feminism may, or may not, have pushed them to achieve what they did.)

I was afraid when I heard Julie Taymor was going to both write and direct the film. Taymor is best known as a stage director, particular with the Disney mega-hit The Lion King, and she likes to get flashy as a director. When I read the reviews that mentioned there were some flamboyant scenes, I was still afraid. The good news is that there are only two and they are not too obnoxious. This script is the first produced script by Taymor’s co-writer Sarah Ruhl, who is best known for her theatrical plays such as In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play and The Clean House.

Their script is very uneven. The first half is about Gloria as a child and a tween (played by Ryan Keira Armstrong and Lulu Wilson, respectively) and then as a young adult (Alica Vikander). These scenes tend to be the most interesting in the film, because each of the actresses are given things to do and say. Vikander gets a lot to do as Gloria spends two years in India, then begins her career as a writer. The writers cut back and forth between time frames moderately well, although there are disruptions. After Gloria has been in India and her father has died, we cut back to scenes of India and her father still alive, which interrupts the flow of the film.

[Script Extra: INTERVIEW: Sebastián Lelio, Director of Gloria Bell]

An hour and 22 minutes into the film, Taymor gives us a flashy CGI tornado scene and afterwards we are mostly with Julianne Moore as the adult Gloria. The film then seems to turn into a documentary recreation of episodes from Gloria’s life. There is not the characterization there is in the first part of the film. We do get a pile of guest stars, including a wonderful Bette Midler as Bella Abzug, but the scenes are rushed so the writers can get to the speeches from Gloria and the others. And some scenes are just tacked on, including Gloria’s one marriage to a man who died a year later. We don’t learn anything about his character, or why they got married.

One of the more interesting scenes in the second half is Gloria trying to improve her public speaking. Moore makes it very interesting. The real Gloria Steinem shows up as herself, giving a speech at the big rally after Trump’s inauguration. By his time, Moore is a better Steinem than the real one is. Just like Tina Fey was always a better Sarah Palin that Palin was.


A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2019). Screenplay by Micah Fitzerman-Blue & Noah Harpster, based on the Esquire magazine article “Can You Say…Hero?” by Tom Junod. 109 minutes.

tom hanks

My Irish friend Elaine Lennon saw this before I did and had a reaction that surprised me. She thought Tom Hanks was “creepy” in it. That would have been fine if it was a horror movie, but he’s playing the beloved children’s television host Fred Rogers. And the movie is not an expose about how creepy Mr. Rogers was.

The director is Marielle Heller, who did a terrific job directing the 2018 Can You Ever Forgive Me? She got great performances there by Melissa McCarthy and Richard Grant. You can read by review of it here. What happened here? For some reason, Hanks plays Rogers with a squint. Mr. Rogers did not squint. The squint makes Hanks look creepy. Look at the much better film about Mr. Rogers, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, the 2018 documentary. Yes, that is another of my usual comments that the documentaries are often better than the fictional films on the same subjects.

[Script Extra: INTERVIEW: "A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood" Editor Anne McCabe]

So am I getting around to suggesting the script was wonderful and if Hanks had just kept his eyes open the picture would have worked? Not a chance. Junod’s article tells us about how knowing Mr. Rogers made Junod a better person. It is the type of what has been called the New Journalism, in which the articles are more about the writer getting the story than the story itself. I am not a big fan of that kind of journalism (yes, I know, I occasionally fall into it myself; I said I am not a BIG fan of it), since it seems very self-centered on the part of the journalist. The problem with adapting that kind of article is that the movie is more about the writer than the subject.

Here we have paid to see a movie with Tom Hanks as Mr. Rogers, but after a brief introduction to Mr. Rogers and his “new friend,” the journalist Lloyd Vogel (no, I have no idea why they “fictionalized” Junod), we follow Vogel’s story and his family problems. They simply are not very interesting. I am guessing that Junod made his family problems more interesting in the article.

See the documentary instead.

Pearl Harbor Days at Tom’s House.

Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970). Screenplay by Larry Forrester & Hideo Oguni & Ryuzo Kikushima, and uncredited, Akria Kurosawa, based on the book Tora! Tora! Tora! By Gordon W. Prange and the book The Broken Seal by Ladislas Farago. 144 minutes, and Pearl Harbor (2001). Written by Randall Wallace. 183 minutes.

In my last column, I reviewed a couple of books about screenwriting, but I have also been reading books about other subjects. I have a particular fondness for non-fiction books about history and biography, since I get enough fiction from movies, television, and politics. I started the pandemic with a stack of eleven books, and the last one I read was Countdown to Pearl Harbor: The Twelve Days to the Attack by Steve Twomey, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist.

As the title suggests, the book follows the events leading up to Pearl Harbor. It is very good on the facts on both the Japanese and the American sides, but it is particularly good on the character of the men involved. So when I finished it I could not help but go back and look at the two most expensive movies made about the attack.

In the sixties, producer Elmo Williams spent five years trying to convince 20th Century-Fox to make a film about Pearl Harbor, but the studio was busy making big-budget musicals like The Sound of Music (1965) and Hello, Dolly! (1969). The former made a pile of money, the latter didn’t. Williams finally got the OK from the president of the company, Darryl F. Zanuck, who saw it as a follow-up to his successful production of The Longest Day (1962). Williams’s idea was that the Japanese would tell the Japanese side of the story and the Americans would tell their side. The American scenes were written by Larry Forrester, whose credits both before and after were primarily in television.

Williams approached the great Japanese director Akira Kurosawa to both write and direct the Japanese scenes. Kurosawa’s script had scenes that did not add to the story, not unusual for him. Look at the opening scenes of the horsemen riding through the fog in Throne of Blood (1957) and try to count how many times the shots are repeated. The American tradition, especially at 20th Century-Fox, was narrative drive. Kurosawa was used to having his own way and was obsessed with details, but the studio kept pushing him along. Finally he quit the project. Richard Fleischer, the director of the American scenes, wrote in his memoir, Just Tell Me When to Cry, that only one of Kurosawa’s scenes appears in the final film: a rather stolid scene with the American ambassador in Tokyo. Fleischer says it’s the worst scene in the picture. It’s not good, but it’s not the worst.

Williams wanted the film to be as accurate as possible, and seeing it again just after reading Twomey’s book, it is impressive how much it gets right. For better and worse. The events are laid out so they are clear, but that makes a lot of the film seem like a documentary. If Forrester makes the story clear, he does not make it come to life. The American characters are rather stock figures, and mostly we are just going through the motions. For example, the Commander-in-Chief at Pearl was Husband Kimmel, who was a by-the-book type and who saw his job as preparing the Navy for the war everybody knew was coming. Like most Americans, he could not imagine the Japanese could mount an assault on Pearl Harbor. There is nothing in the writing and Martin Balsam’s acting that leads us to the moment where Kimmel is hit by a stray, spent bullet and says, “It would have been merciful if it had killed me.” The two Japanese writers do much better by the Japanese characters. We get more of a sense of their reality as people than we do with the American characters.

Richard Fleischer’s direction of the action sequences (some of which were directed by Ray Kellogg) is as good as you would expect. The physical production is impressive, especially the flying sequences. What Fleischer lets several of his actors get away with is nudging the audience in the ribs to let them know while their character would do this stupid thing, they, the actors would never think of being that stupid. It happens in a lot of small roles.

In my 2008 book Understanding Screenwriting: Learning from Good, Not-Quite-So-Good, and Bad Screenplays, I had a Short Takes item in the section in the Not-Quite-So-Good scripts on Pearl Harbor. I wrote that it was a guilty pleasure of mine because it included every single cliché of the World War II movies I grew up watching. I wrote, “Pearl Harbor is one-stop shopping for all your World War II film needs.” But I mentioned that enough of what Wallace intended in script (the transition of America from an isolationist country to an international power) survived in the overproduced film (Jerry Bruckheimer and Michael Bay, enough said) to make it hold together, sort of.

Pearl Harbor is immediately different from Tora! in that it is a fictional story, so we spend much more time with the rather bland romantic triangle than we do with the reality of Pearl Harbor. We meet Rafe and Danny when they are boys interested in flying in 1923, then when they join the Army Air Corps in 1940, then Rafe alone when he flies for the RAF before America’s entrance into the war. Along the way he falls in love with Evelyn, an Army nurse. When she thinks he is killed in the RAF, she falls in love with Danny and gets herself preggers. OK, we did not see that in World War II movies, except of course in Preston Sturges’s 1944 film The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (see my review of that one here).

[Script Extra: Behind the Lines with DR: Die Hard Doug Meets Don Simpson]

Wallace does include some of the real people in his script, but they are less well-developed than in Tora! Admiral Yamamoto is mostly a grouch, and we get none of the details about his attitude towards America and the war. In Tora! he says his line about the attack having “awakened the sleeping giant” after he learns the last message from Japan was delivered after the attack and not before. In Pearl we are given to think Yamamoto is just thinking about the attack. Lieutenant Commander Genda, who made the plan of attack, hardly appears in either movie, although in Tora! we get another officer going on about how brilliant his plan is.

Among the Americans, we get a lot less detail about the major real-life figures. The senior military men are just conventional military guys. Wallace does not even give us Kimmel’s “It would have been merciful” line. General Short, the head of the Army at Pearl, is given only one scene in comparison to several in the earlier film. We get Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall in both movies, but in neither film do we get a sense of the command presence Marshall had.

Tora! does not have President Roosevelt on camera, but he has several not-bad scenes in Pearl. He is the only historical character who comes alive in Pearl.

So, by now you are beginning to wonder if you can write a big historical epic and make the real people come alive. Well, Leo Tolstoy did in War and Peace, with Napoleon and General Kutuzov. If you are looking for a film that does it, try A Bridge Too Far (1977). William Goldman wrote the screenplay and makes every character, American, English, German, and Dutch distinctive and alive. Look at any scene in that picture and you will see what I mean.

Now, if you will excuse me I have to go off and start reading the next book on my stack: a six hundred-page plus biography of George C. Marshall.

More articles by Tom Stempel

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