Two columns ago, I wrote about my desire to turn one of my biographies into a film. I presented an excerpt from my rudimentary efforts, drawing on Hollywood Enigma: Dana Andrews, due out in September from the University Press of Mississippi. I sent my column to Susan and Kathy Andrews, Dana’s daughters. They have been wonderfully cooperative, supplying me with their father’s letters, diaries, photographs, and other documents, as well as with their reminiscences. They have cheerfully corrected my errors and have never tried to control—let alone censor—what I write.
Susan replied to the column with several corrections, which I will reveal in due course—after I ponder why I didn’t send her my column before it appeared on BiblioBuffet. The truth is that since I was no longer writing a biography, but rather a film script, I no longer felt bound by the same rules (although that is putting it more clearly than what I thought at the time I published the column and then sent it to Susan). The other truth is that I wasn’t thinking at all. I wasn’t really asking her, “Did I get it right?” I believe I just wanted a response from her because she cares so much about her father and always seems to supply new details that deepen my understanding of him. The same is true of Kathy, who concurred with Susan’s response to my column. Susan’s corrections did not disturb me, but they reminded me that what was now becoming a story, a script, was a life that Susan had experienced. And she saw that I was now furnishing that life with details that did not precisely correspond to reality.
So here are the excerpts from my script that appeared in the column, together with Susan’s responses. The excerpts are meant to follow what I call 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 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.
This last scene is what set Susan off. She has kindly allowed me to quote her:
My siblings and I aware of the fact that your story about Dana Andrews is yours to tell as you see it, and that artistic license is accepted to some degree to make a good story. However, when a vignette involves one or more of us, we are particularly sensitive to the feeling evoked by the scene. Sometimes that feeling can be brought out with facts altered, but sometimes the altered facts might change the core emotion of the scene, and why it is remembered.
The scene about the singing of Moon River was told to you because:
Dad remembered every word, even though he had sheet music in large type on his lap. The singers were seated in a half-circle; Dad was among them, near enough to the edge of the arc that Kathy and I could sit next to him. There was no audience.
There was no record player. I think a piano. The purpose of the “music time” gathering was to involve the patients in singing for pleasure.
At John Douglas French, Dad never wore a suit, nor his requisite sports jacket that in recent more cognizant years he had worn at home, even when just signing autographs from fans sent in the mail. At “The Home,” he wore washable cotton sweat suit type outfits, comfortable and extremely casual. He no longer knew the difference, nor was he capable of dressing up anymore. That was importantly odd for us. No one who knows anything about old people’s homes for dementia would think it realistic that Dad would be in a suit. Anyway, he only wore suits for business meetings or dress-up events; he preferred sports jackets.
Susan went on to correct my scene line by line, marking my errors in red type, her corrections in blue. Since red and blue fonts are not used in BiblioBuffet, I’ve converted errors to italics:
A lounge-like room with an array of sofas and tables, a television, a radio, and so on. (Susan comments: A room with a piano and chairs in a half-circle.) 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. (Susan: There was no phonograph–no audience, no blue hair, rather, seated singers, many of them male, at a regular recreation time with a male music therapist.) From a side door Dana enters (Susan: He was already seated with the group because he didn’t do much on his own.) still quite erect, immaculately dressed in a well-tailored suit, (Susan: No way would anyone be wearing a well-tailored suit in that place.) and with a full head of white hair. (Susan: That he DID have.) He nods to the woman at the phonograph who, in turn, nods to the phonograph, as she deftly drops the needle to the vinyl. (Susan: The story was about him singing with minimal accompaniment a song we had heard him sing a thousand times, as teens, with some embarrassment.) The song is “Moon River,” and as Dana begins to sing, two middle-aged women, (Susan: I was probably about forty-three here, about same age as Jennifer Anniston and Angelina Jolie, my sister, a youthful later forties. Middle aged? Strictly speaking maybe, but give us a break.) Kathy and Susan (his daughters), enter from the back of the room. A door is heard closing (Susan: The door stayed open; they tend not to close them; my mom watched from the hall.), and as the two seat themselves in the second row (Susan: Closely next to him), Dana glares at them. They have arrived late for his performance.
Susan goes on to say:
Kathy may have told you he glared at us and it is altogether possible that he did. But the memory is pertinent to us not so much because of the glare, which I would have seen as lack of recognition more than being perturbed, but because of the irony of this amazing voice and amazing man, who knew this rather cliché song like he once knew his daughters faces, singing it with a remaining piece of his famous memory, with gusto and pride in his performance.
Susan's response reminds me of a discussion I had with Sylvia Plath’s friend, Elizabeth Compton, who is an important figure in American Isis: The Life and Death of Sylvia Plath, which St. Martin's Press will publish on February 11, 2013, the fiftieth anniversary of the poet’s death. We were discussing how physically small Daniel Craig was compared to the hulking Ted Hughes, who he played in the 2003 movie, Sylvia. Maybe, though, we could give that choice a pass. But Sylvia’s mother! Blythe Danner did not behave anything like Aurelia Plath. Danner’s Aurelia was there mainly to serve certain plot points and, I guess, to create chemistry between Danner and Paltrow, who are mother and daughter off screen. The trouble is, in the movie Aurelia comes on the scene much too late. It makes all the difference in the world to know that Aurelia was present when Ted and Sylvia married in England and was not a wary, skeptical mother meeting Ted Hughes for the first time when he visited her home in Massachusetts.
And yet here I am writing a script—or at least the first draft of a script—taking all sorts of liberties with a life that I scrupulously tried to recount authentically and accurately in my biography! Honestly, screenwriters cannot be trusted! When I wrote the scene that Susan corrects, I did not consult what I had actually written in the biography—in part, I confess, because I thought I could be more “creative” imagining the scene for myself.
I have no idea if—or how—the biographer and the screenwriter will duke it out, as they are the same person. When I do have some idea, I will let you know. In the mean time, stay tuned.
Books mentioned in this column:
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.