Biography on Film


Carl Rollyson

I’ve always wanted to turn one of my biographies into a film, but I’ve never tried to write a screenplay. The closest I’ve come to dramatizing my work is a play, That Woman: Rebecca West Remembers. Many summers ago in the mid-1990s, as I was finishing my biography of West, I decided to write her autobiography in the form of a one-woman show, drawing on both her fiction and her nonfiction. She had attempted her own autobiography, but she never got much beyond her childhood. I thought that I could write in her own voice, cobbling together passages from her essays, books, and novels to form a coherent story. I had in mind plays like William Luce’s Belle of Amherst and Lillian, the latter written in cooperation with Hellman. I had interviewed Luce for my biography of Hellman and figured I would send my script to him for his expert evaluation. He was highly complimentary, but he also noted that the play would never really live until I got an actress interested in it.  I later realized he was doing more than simply telling me how to get my work performed. My play needed work that only an experienced actress could fix by making it truly dramaturgical. My first draft was a documentary, but it did not quite live as a drama. But then actress Anne Bobby got hold of it and was assisted by Helen Macleod, Rebecca West’s grand niece, a journalist familiar with her aunt’s speech rhythms. I began to see how West’s personality could be made to dominate the obviously pasted together portions of my script.

Shortly after I began work on my biography of Dana Andrews, I conceived the idea of writing the script for a documentary about him. After all, I had access to his diaries and his letters, not to mention the film and photographs he shot of himself and his family, and film stills of his performances in Hollywood classics such as Laura and The Best Years of Our Lives. But shortly after I finished the biography and was mulling over how to begin writing a script, I got a call from a film producer. Usually such calls concern the purchase of an option to make a film of one of my biographies. In this scenario, someone else would write the script. My biography of Martha Gellhorn has been optioned many times, although no one has ever actually filmed it. This time, however, the producer wanted to know if I had a treatment (more about what a treatment is in a moment) or a screenplay to show him, something that might make a good film about Dana Andrews’s life. I mentioned that I had been thinking of doing a documentary. “Why do that?” he asked. “If you are going to that much trouble, why not write a feature film? You’ll attract a much bigger audience, especially if it has something for younger filmgoers.” The phone call got me thinking, and then I discovered that Joseph McBride, a film historian, writing professor, and screenwriter, was about to publish Writing in Pictures: Screenwriting Made (Mostly) Painless. McBride learned his craft with the best, working with Orson Welles.

McBride has produced a marvelous book, stimulating, thoughtful, and practical. He takes a Jack London short story, “To Build a Fire,” and goes through all the phases—from synopsis or treatment to step outline to finished screenplay using his London case study (and many other examples of screenplays, classic and contemporary) to make his points. But I also recommend this work as a book that is just plain helpful about the act of writing, whether you are interested in screenplays or not. McBride includes several sections on the role of dialogue not only in film, but in stories and in nonfiction. This is very much a how-to book, but one that incorporates the insights of an astute literary critic. McBride says he wrote the book because he could not find another that quite did the job. At first, that claim seemed preposterous to me. With so many books and courses about screenwriting, how could McBride’s assertion possibly be true? And maybe it isn’t. But I have to say that from time to time I have sampled books and talks about screenwriting (see regarded gold standards, and none of them has seemed as authoritative and useful as McBride’s new book.

With that producer’s words still ringing in my ears, and mindful of McBride’s exhortations to develop what he calls the “character biography,” I realized that, as with the Rebecca West play, I could not simply cut-and-paste. No matter how much evidence I had about Dana Andrews as man and actor, it would not yield a dramatically compelling story. I had to examine him and the set of characters in his life and understand each one’s background, manner of speaking, and placement in a particular place and time before I could even begin to write the treatment (a basic summary of what the film is about, broken down into individual scenes but without dialogue or the distracting descriptions of camera setups you’d find in a shooting script). The actors who appeared in Dana’s best work—performed between 1943 and 1956—were nearly all dead. Certainly a good documentary could be made with the aid of a voice-over narrator and using film clips, photographs, and Dana’s own words. But after that producer’s call, I got ambitious. I wanted a contemporary actor—John Hamm comes to mind—who could do justice to Dana’s magnificent understated style, and to that sense of brooding intelligence and repressed emotions that distinguished his greatest performances.

I want to write as crisply as McBride does in this example from his book:

The woman runs across a wide field, towards the mountains. She stops at the foot of the mountains and kneels to inspect a solitary bush. The woman plucks a flower, lifts it to her face, and smells it.

As McBride notes, the person who reads this kind of writing “will imagine that he is thinking up the shots herself.” Look again at the passage. What do you see in cinematic terms: long shot, medium shot, closeup. Also, notice how the language keeps you focused on the visual: “wide field, towards the mountains . . . foot of the mountains . . . kneels . . . plucks . . . lifts . . . smells.” Writing in pictures, Hitchcock (one of McBride’s touchstones) called it. There is even a slight redundancy in the repetition of mountains that is perfectly appropriate in a screenplay—which is, McBride emphasizes, not a work of art in itself, but a guide to the creation of a work of art. Thus you need to relate just enough in a treatment or screenplay—but also leave a good deal to the imagination of the director and the actors. To specify every shot, to nail down every character’s reaction, is the surest way to turn off the very people you want to make your picture (the very word, by the way, that Dana preferred: “Pictures,” he would say quite precisely, not films or movies).

What your character thinks, who your character is, is a function of the time, place, and dialogue specified your script—not, I would add, the result of the kind of narrative I’m used to writing in a biography. There are films that do function as narrative and voice-overs that work, McBride concedes. Think of Sunset Boulevard, and you can see why a genius like Billy Wilder can break the rules of screenwriting that he knows so well. But Wilder’s narrator, who happens to be a screenwriter, does not describe what is happening on screen, but instead presents a point of view, another way of seeing the action.

I will probably not use a voice-over narrator in my Dana Andrews feature film. I’m no Billy Wilder. But I may intercut some dramatic scenes with excerpts taken from Dana’s wonderful interview with Lillian Ross, an interview she turned into a first-person narrative, capturing his voice. This technique of having the subject reflect on his own life was used in a film about Cole Porter, and I thought it worked very well, especially since Porter is rather enigmatic, leaving you to project into what he says and how he acts.

So far I’ve jotted down about half a dozen scenes for my treatment, as well as a reminder to myself about the picture's through-line: “The story of a performer—even before he realizes that this is what it has been given him to do, and even after he loses his mind and yet remains compelled to perform.”

Early on in the picture I will have a scene of the young Dana (his first name was actually Carver) in a small Texas town movie theater where, mesmerized by a silent film, he produces his own sound effects to accompany the projection of the picture:

Inside the projection room, 1927

Carver, 18, is cuing up a record, watching a scene from Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Greatest Story Ever Told” featuring Jesus Christ. He watches the screen intently, waiting for the moment when he will synchronize the grooved record to the action he beholds. His eyes remain riveted on the screen, as his large hand, holding the arm of the phonograph, slowly descends towards the record. He begins to speak Christ’s words over the background music.

This scene will make more sense when it is shown after a sequence showing Dana’s  Baptist preacher father in the pulpit, fulminating against motion pictures.

And I think the film will end with this scene:

At the John Douglas French Alzheimer’s Center, 1990

A lounge-like room with an array of sofas and tables, a television, a radio, and so on. Their backs to the camera, two rows of mostly women, seated on folding chairs, focus on a handsome, blue-haired, woman, her hand poised to delicately place a phonograph needle on a record. From a side door Dana enters, still quite erect, immaculately dressed in a well-tailored suit, and with a full head of white hair. He nods to the woman at the phonograph who, in turn, nods to the phonograph, as she deftly drops the needle to the vinyl. The song is “Moon River,” and as Dana begins to sing, two middle-aged women, Kathy and Susan (his daughters), enter from the back of the room. A door is heard closing, and as the two seat themselves in the second row, Dana glares at them. They have arrived late for his performance.

Now all I have to do is write what happens in-between!

Books mentioned in this column:
Writing in Pictures: Screenwriting Made (Mostly) Painless by Joseph McBride (Vintage Books, 2012)


Carl Rollyson is Professor of Journalism at Baruch College, The City University of New York. He reviews biographies regularly for The Wall Street Journal, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and other newspapers and periodicals. Carl is the author of a dozen biographies, including Marilyn Monroe: A Life of the Actress, Rebecca West: A Modern Sibyl, and with his wife, Lisa Paddock, Susan Sontag: The Making of an Icon. His studies of biography include: A Higher Form of Cannibalism: Adventures in the Art and Politics of Biography and Biography: A User's Guide. More about Carl and his work can be found at his website. His Hollywood Enigma: Dana Andrews will appear this fall and American Isis: The Life and Death of Sylvia Plath in the spring of 2013. When not writing, he is playing with his two Scotties. Contact Carl.



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