Screen writing 

A videography of literary biography

Sylvia, reviewed in this issue, is hardly the first movie to take a real author as its subject. Author biography has long proven fertile ground for the movies. It helps that so many writers are suicidal, or junkies, or lose their minds, die broke and otherwise live strange and/or tragic lives. Iris (2001) Dame Judi Dench plays Dame Iris Murdoch, distinguished British philosopher and author of some 25 novels. Kate Winslet plays Murdoch as a brilliant young student at Oxford. Both actors give excellent performances, but you never really feel like one is the older version of the other, or vice versa—which might actually serve the purpose of depicting Alzheimer’s for what it really is: a neutron bomb of a disease that destroys minds and leaves bodies visibly untouched. Jim Broadbent, who won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor as Murdoch’s husband John Bayley, lost his own mother to Alzheimer’s in 1995.

Shadowlands (1993)

It’s 1952, and author and theologian C(live) S(taples) Lewis is in a pleasant rut. Voyage of the ‘Dawn Treader’, the third of the seven Chronicles of Narnia, has just been published. His routine consists mostly of listening to the BBC on his wireless and defending his witches and wardrobes against the good-natured jibes of his esteemed colleagues, who point out that children entering a magical land by squeezing through their mother’s furs smacks more of Freud than “magic.” Then an admiring American divorcée converted from Judaism to Christianity by Lewis’ books (Lewis himself was converted to Christianity by J.R.R. Tolkien) arrives in England to pay him a visit. At first he hides behind weak invitations and ritual British politeness, but soon he realizes he’s falling in love. Debra Winger co-stars. One of the most beautiful, tragic movies you’ll ever see.

Where the Buffalo Roam (1980)

The role of Hunter S. Thompson was custom-made for the random comic talents of Bill Murray, who hams and mumbles his way to the (Acapulco) gold in this peculiar but generally good comedy, which opens enticingly with a mournful Neil Young version of the title song. One suspects that Murray—and the rest of the film crew, too—did a good deal of empirical research into many of the substances abused in this film. Murray’s method approach certainly suggests a snootful of the devil’s dandruff, but hey, it was 1980. Drug movies are usually tedious, but this one is a few notches better than Terry Gilliam’s inexplicably boring Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998), with Johnny Depp as Thompson and Benicio del Toro reprising Peter Boyle’s role as Thompson’s equally deranged attorney.

British mystery writer Agatha Christie disliked crowds, oysters, marmalade, the feet of birds, the smell of hot milk, and the fact that her husband, war hero Colonel Archibald Christie, was planning to go away with his mistress on the weekend of December 3, 1926. So she staged an 11-day disappearance of her own, sparking headlines around the world and prompting a nationwide woman-hunt that enlisted as many as 15,000 volunteers. Agatha, directed by Michael Apted and starring Vanessa Redgrave as Christie, calls itself an “imaginary solution to an authentic mystery,” but it actually hews pretty closely to the known facts of the case, which the most widely-translated writer in the English language never satisfactorily explained herself. Dustin Hoffman co-stars (and smokes constantly—another fierce Christie dislike) as an American journalist who assigns himself to solve the mystery.

In Love and War (1996)

It takes more than a handsome face to play the role of America’s most full-scrotal, non-adjectival contributor to world literature, Ernest Hemingway, and Chris O’Donnell is simply not up to the task. Then again, how should an actor convey the apparent delight Hemingway took in having his leg opened like a tin of sardines during a mortar attack during World War I, when he served as a Red Cross volunteer in northern Italy? To be fair, this movie attempts to depict the writer when he was little more than a boy, albeit a boy who lied about his age to get into some action. As is generally expected of a Richard Attenborough film, In Love and War is handsomely drenched in period atmosphere. But Chris O’Donnell as Ernest Hemingway? And Sandra Bullock as Agnes von Kurowsky, the nurse with whom Hemingway fell in love while recuperating from his leg wound? Oh well. At least it wasn’t Tobey Maguire and someone from Dawson’s Creek.

The Basketball Diaries (1995)

Leonardo DiCaprio shoots hoops, shoots smack, shags twins and leaps off a rock into the Hudson River in director Scott Kalvert’s patchy screen adaptation of Jim Carroll’s book about his real-life spiral into drug addiction. It’s got all the usual junkie-movie crapola—the innocence, the despair, the redemption, blah blah blah—although the awful, sanctimonious “People Who Died” song that Carroll himself contributed to the soundtrack is enough to make you wish that maybe he would have...well, that would be a horrible thing to say. Still, if I never see a martyred junkie-writer movie again it might be too soon, and this might be the one that touched off a whole rash of them in the late ’90s. Oddly, nearly half of the Sopranos cast appears in this movie.

If you’re interested in author biographies, you might also find these editions worth browsing: Wilde (1997; Stephen Fry as Oscar Wilde), Kafka (1991; Jeremy Irons as Franz Kafka), The Whole Wide World (1996; Vincent D’Onofrio as Robert E. Howard), Quills (2000; Geoffrey Rush as the Marquis de Sade), Anna and the King (1999; Jodie Foster as Anna Leonowens; also Anna and the King of Siam, 1946), Cross Creek (1983; Mary Steenburgen as Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings), The Hours (2002; Nicole Kidman as Virginia Woolf), Henry and June (1990; Fred Ward as Henry Miller, Maria de Medeiros as Anaïs Nin), Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle (1994; Jennifer Jason Leigh as Dorothy Parker).

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