Saturday, February 24, 2018

Movies about Writers—For the Oscars

On first thought it seems that movies about writers are a contradiction in terms. Writing is an introspective art that relies on intangible thoughts and feelings. The process of writing mainly involves sitting still for long periods of time. Movies, on the other hand, are all about action and motion. Films look at human behavior entirely from the outside, with the exception of a voiceover narration.

Jessica Brown Findlay in This Beautiful Fantastic

But in fact there have been quite a number of terrific films where the character of a writer plays an important part. I asked friends on Facebook to nominate movies they like about writers, and to my shock, twenty titles appeared within a day, an incredible variety from film noir to fantasy to contemporary realism. Thank you so much to for all the suggestions—I’m sorry I couldn’t include all of them in this blog. Here are the nominees for best films about writers:

The accomplished translator of Persian literature and opera libretto author Niloufar Talebi suggested a movie I’d never heard of, much less seen, This Beautiful Fantastic. When I watched it, I was entranced by the excellent performances of Jessica Brown Findlay, Tom Wilkinson, Andrew Scott, and Jeremy Irvine. It’s a fairy tale about a very OCD writer in the U.K. who is forced out of her interior world into a reality that can be harsh but is ultimately blessed. Niloufar also picked The Lives of Others, about writers in East Germany during the Cold War era, a deeply felt and brilliant movie.

Russian translator and publisher Jim Kates nominated Julia, which must be Jane Fonda’s best movie, and maybe Vanessa Redgrave’s as well. A story of Lillian Hellman’s childhood friend who ends up in the resistance against fascism right before World War II, Julia is taken from Hellman’s own writing in her wonderful memoir, Pentimento.

Jane Fonda as Lillian Hellman in Julia

Documentary filmmaker Andrea Simon, the painter Jessica Dunne, and poet George Higgins all picked a movie I greatly admire, Bright Star, about the romance of poet John Keats and Fanny Brawne, an elegant and intelligent period flick.

The writers Ernestine Hayes and Lisa Stice both selected Stranger Than Fiction, a moving comedy where Emma Thompson plays a frazzled novelist who begins to tamper with reality when she steps into her own literary world. Great cast, fun plot!

Poet and naturalist Elizabeth Bradfield nominated I Am Not Your Negro, a fascinating documentary that matches images to James Baldwin’s final, unpublished manuscript, a provocative mediation on race, the U.S.A., and the soul of a country.

Poet Vivian Faith Prescott picked The Business of Fancydancing, Sherman Alexie’s powerful film about identity, love, and the literary profession.

Historian Miranda Sachs voted for Shakespeare in Love, a captivating story based on the bard’s writing and bits of fact that the screenwriter extrapolated to create a fine plot with wonderful acting.

Creative nonfiction writer David Stevenson told me about Genius, a strong film on the unlikely subject of a literary editor, Maxwell Perkins. The movie depicts the relationship between Perkins, who edited such authors as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway at Scribner’s, and the novelist Thomas Wolfe. Excellent performances by Colin Firth, Jude Law, and Nicole Kidman.

I have a weakness for film noir, so I have to mention In A Lonely Place, a Nicholas Ray flick starring Humphrey Bogart as a Hollywood writer who has 24 hours to solve a murder and exonerate himself.

Gloria Grahame and Humphrey Bogart in In a Lonely Place
I also love Judy Davis’s intelligent and emotional portrayal of George Sand in Impromptu and her performance in My Brilliant Career, based on the novel by the Australian writer Miles Franklin.

And a recent addition: Their Finest, a 2016 sleeper about screenwriters working on propaganda films in the UK during World War II.  Bill Nighy has a wonderful supporting role as a washed-up actor recruited for a hokey picture, and Helen McCrory is marvelous as his Polish agent. Stay with this movie—it starts out corny but that’s just the set-up for a strong ending.

Speaking of Helen McCrory, she has a great cameo as the novelist Ann Radcliffe in Becoming Jane, a film about Jane Austen's early years. As overloaded as I feel by the Jane Austen craze, this film is a delight to watch, with a wonderful cast of Anne Hathaway, Maggie Smith, Ian Richardson, and Julie Walters.

Here’s another: Mistress America, starring the multitalented Greta Gerwig, who collaborated on the screenplay with director Noah Baumbach. The film follows an awkward and lovable college student trying to gain acceptance as a fledgling writer at Barnard College. The stepsister-to-be of the young writer, Gerwig plays a goofy and hilarious character who isn’t much good at anything but is all the more charismatic because of that.

More still: in 2018, the movie Mary Shelley took the life of the author of Frankenstein and turned it into a compelling story of a brilliant young woman succeeding in the man’s world of the English romantic writers. Terrific cast, excellent screenplay, fine direction by Saudi Arabia’s first woman filmmaker, Haifaa Al-Mansour.

The 2019 film Little Women, written and directed by Greta Gerwig, is also a terrific story about a struggling young woman writer, based on the book by Louisa May Alcott.

My Dog Stupid (Mon Chien Stupide) is a recent French movie based on a short story by U.S. author John Fante. Great performances by screenplay writer Yvan Attal and Charlotte Gainsbourg, who are also a couple in real life. 

Mothering Sunday is an unlikely title for a movie about an orphaned young maid whose path leads her to become a writer. It’s a worthwhile film, with a great supporting performance by Colin Firth as a man too preoccupied with his own family’s troubles to notice much else, but with good instincts. 

The list goes on!

Zack’s most recent book of poems, Irreverent Litanies
Zack’s most recent translation, Bérénice 1934–44: An Actress in Occupied Paris by Isabelle Stibbe

How to Get Published

Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe TankaThe Villanelle
Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer
Writers and Collaboration
Types of Closure in Poetry