JOhn August, who wrote several Tim Burton films including Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, had some harsh words for anyone considering putting a screenwriter at the center of their screenplay: “It should come as no surprise that Hollywood doesn’t knock your door. to make this movie because he’s just a screenwriter. And who cares about a screenwriter?
Would it help if the character in question suffered from dementia while still being able to fire zingers like a Catskills pro? How about if he was played by Billy Crystal at his most sparkling eyes and spent most of the film riffing with Tiffany Haddish? There you have Here Today, in which Crystal is an aging comedian who takes Haddish to lunch after bidding $22 for the privilege of an auction. (In fact, her ex did the bidding — she has no idea who that old man is — and she swiped the price to spite him.) The new movie, which Crystal also directed and co-wrote, tells This Time – Honored Story: Man meets woman, woman has allergic reaction to shellfish, man pays medical bills, woman helps bring him and his family closer together.
You might call August cynical – but you have to admit that Crystal’s character is rare among many fictional screenwriters not to be openly tormented. John Turturro as Barton Fink in the Coen brothers’ 1991 film of the same name is slowly driven mad by a mosquito, a studio writing task, a murderous neighbor and his own pretensions. The screenwriters sold out in Le Mépris de Godard, lost in Adaptation and were murdered in The Player. If the message is still unclear, try Sunset Boulevard. Who is it face down in the pool at the start? “Nobody important, really,” a voiceover tells us. “Just a movie screenwriter with a few ‘B’ pictures under his belt. Poor dope. He always wanted a pool. He’s the writer, played by William Holden, speaking from beyond the grave.
After all, when was the last time you heard a screenwriter singing the praises of Hollywood? Stories of firings, rewrites, plagiarism, or struggling for credit are more common. Ian McEwan called screenwriting “an opportunity to fly first class, be treated like a celebrity, sit around the pool and be betrayed”. Even writers of masterpieces suffer: take Herman J Mankiewicz, co-writer of Citizen Kane, whose struggles with alcoholism, Hollywood, Orson Welles and William Randolph Hearst were documented in David Fincher’s Mank.
Where Crystal’s character differs is that her career as a screenwriter represents a glorious and lost pinnacle. He wrote a hit romantic comedy 30 years earlier and now he can’t even recognize his cast and crew (Sharon Stone, Kevin Kline and Rain Man director Barry Levinson all appeared). This is perhaps the lesson to be learned from Here Today: there are worse fates than being a screenwriter.