Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Helen Scott: Chère Amie de Truffaut

Though my kinfolk are good people, one and all, I can’t think of any who changed the course of history or contributed to any major artistic achievement. But my journalist-colleague Lisa Reswick has legitimate bragging rights about an aunt who helped nurture the French film industry of the Sixties. And it’s partly thanks to that aunt, Helen Scott, that the great Bonnie and Clyde got made.

Let’s start at the beginning. Helen Scott, though New York-born in 1915, was raised in Paris, where her father served as a correspondent for the Associated Press. To the end of her days, it was her flawless knowledge of the French language, along with her feisty personality, that made all the difference. Her 1987 obit in the New York Times fills in details of her early professional life as a political journalist: “During World War II, Mrs. Scott broadcast for the Free French from Brazzaville, the Congo. After the war, she served as press attaché for Chief Justice Robert Jackson at the Nuremberg Trials of German war criminals. Later, she became a senior editor at the United Nations.” Throughout these experiences she displayed the deep sympathy for the underdog that had once led her (back in the economically dismal 1930s) to work as a Communist organizer.

In the McCarthy era, her past political leanings threatened her livelihood. But a New York-based job at the French Film Office  proved her salvation. Through her position she became involved with many of the leading lights of the French New Wave. In 1959 she came to know young French filmmaker François Truffaut, who was visiting the U.S. in conjunction with the release of his first directorial feature, The 400 Blows. The two became close friends and colleagues, exchanging heartfelt letters for many years. When in 1966 he shot an English-language film adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, she served as an uncredited assistant. She was also the interpreter during the 1962 interviews between Truffaut and Alfred Hitchcock that were later turned into a classic film book.  

The relationship between Truffaut and the much older Scott was explored by Lisa Reswick’s daughter, Lillie Fleshler, who used their correspondence as a springboard for her senior thesis in Cinema Production at Ithaca College. Her short film (which was screened as part of a Truffaut retrospective at the  Cinémathèque Française in 2014) spotlights the letters, while also incorporating footage of an interview with Truffaut’s former wife, Madeleine Morgenstern. Morgenstern speaks with great affection of Helen and also of the man whom they both—in their way—deeply loved. The two women agreed that Truffaut was something of a brat, who “didn’t know what he wanted, wanted what he couldn’t have.” They both realized that he “needed love and acceptance from everybody, and especially women.” He was not, in other words, the ideal husband, and Helen felt the sadness of this realization, on Madeleine’s behalf.

Her own closeness to Truffaut led to an unexpected cinematic coup. Would-be screenwriter Robert Benton and his writing partner David Newman idolized Truffaut, and hoped to interest him in their original script, Bonnie and Clyde. It was Helen who helped them connect with Truffaut, who admired their work but had no time to pursue the project. Through Truffaut the screenplay made its way to Jean-Luc Godard, who was equally enthusiastic—and considered himself available. So Bonnie and Clyde could have been a French production.  Of course, it ultimately wasn’t, but Helen Scott remains part of the history behind the Arthur Penn masterwork that turned Benton and Newman from screenwriting newbies into Hollywood insiders..

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