Friday, May 17, 2013

New York Literati Go Hollywood: Parker, Kerouac, Mailer

It’s a fact of American life: every major literary figure ends up writing for the movies. Or at least fantasizes about making movies. For a conference sponsored by BIO (the Biographers International Organization), I’ve been exploring the lives of three very different American writers: Dorothy Parker, Jack Kerouac, and Norman Mailer. All three were New York City writers who went Hollywood, either literally or emotionally. So, at any rate, it seems to me.

 Dorothy Parker, known for her acerbic stories and light verse (“Men seldom make passes/
At girls who wear glasses”) was a mainstay of the Algonquin Round Table, that collection of Manhattan wits who lunched together in the 1920s, hoisting many a glass before lurching off to their desks to pen magazine pieces, novels, and plays we still remember. When I survey the list of Parker’s cronies, I realize how many of them made their mark on the movie industry. Edna Ferber’s big western novel, Cimarron, became a film that won a best picture Oscar in 1931. Other Ferber sagas, like Showboat, So Big, and Giant, also got the Hollywood treatment. Humorist Robert Benchley, who stumbled onto a new career while performing a goofy original monologue called “The Treasurer’s Report,” ended up writing more than fifty films (mostly comic shorts) and acting in almost twice that many. Playwright Charles MacArthur, who had a romantic fling with Parker before marrying theatrical grande dame Helen Hayes, wrote such brilliant film scripts as His Girl Friday. George S. Kaufman partnered with other playwrights to write enduring Broadway comedies, including You Can’t Take It With You, but he also collaborated on the screenplay for the Marx Brothers’ A Night at the Opera. And Parker herself was nominated for an Oscar for the 1938 screenplay of A Star is Born.

By age five, Jack Kerouac was calling his childhood fantasies “movies,” and he never stopped thinking of his life as a movie with himself as the hero. His biographer, Joyce Johnson, explains how during high school he’d head for 42nd Street, “to gorge himself on movies, going straight from a French classic like The Lower Depths with Jean Gabin at the Apollo Theater to an Alice Faye film at the Paramount.” An older Kerouac deeply admired Citizen Kane, but never lost his fondness for B-movies and melodrama. Before he became well known he did some scriptreading for the east coast offices of Columbia Pictures, and at one point pounded out a rather grim script called Christmas in New York.  Though he found no success as a screenwriter, out of his “mind movies” came On the Road, which sealed his literary reputation. (The 2012 film version didn’t have nearly the impact of the Kerouac novel, which galvanized young America in 1957.)

The multifaceted Norman Mailer found success as a novelist (The Naked and the Dead), a journalist (The Armies of the Night), and a biographer (Marilyn). That didn’t stop him from wanting to make movies too. He shot several experimental films, including Maidstone, in which he also played the central figure. (Because he urged his cast to immerse themselves fully in their roles, on the last day of filming he was brutally attacked by actor Rip Torn, who—playing an ominous character—struck him in the head with a hammer.) Mailer’s screenplay for Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America was ultimately rejected, but he credibly played architect Stanford White in Miloš Forman’s Ragtime. For a man of letters, he was a pretty good Hollywood actor. But an attempt to play King Lear under the direction of Jean-Luc Godard was an understandable flop.  


  1. Dorothy Parker and her pals were really responsible for a lot of interesting cinema - I love Robert Benchley's short subjects (often shown on Turner Classic Movies) and his appearances in features like Road to Utopia with Hope and Crosby.

    Kerouac has not sung me to his work yet - I think that has to do with my eldest brother's worship of the author and On the Road - and I try to be as unlike my eldest brother as possible - if that costs me a little good reading, so be it.

    Ah, Norman Mailer - I've enjoyed a lot of his film work - did you ever see his last directorial effort - the feature Tough Guys Don't Dance from 1987? A dense and murky mystery, based on Mailer's own novel - and peopled with an ecelectic and credible cast including Ryan O'Neal, Isabella Rosselini, Wings Hauser, Frances Fisher, and Lawrence Tierney. It usually gets lambasted in reviews - but it's definitely something different for people tired of the same ol' in their movie viewing.

    By the way, speaking of talented writers who penned some screenplays in their time - I was delighted to run across a VHS tape of Full Contact in my video vault the other day! I may have to social network a picture with it!


  2. Ommigod, Full Contact! Aside from the writing credit, I'm actually in the film. I play a nurse (yet again), and as I recall I deliver some key dialogue. But I honestly believe I've never seen it from start to finish. Could you spare a copy, Mr. C?

  3. Let me see what I can do to get it copied - I'll watch it soon, and if it's copy guarded I'll send you my copy.