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.