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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Tuesday, August 23, 2005


Morning notes: From Eden to Exile, A History of Technology.

On Sunday I meant to talk about Paul's Rom-Com Festival. Screening 5 on Saturday night was Tootsie, released in 1982, starring Dustin Hoffman and Jessica Lange, directed by Sydney Pollack. (The first four--all in chronological order--were It Happened One Night, Born Yesterday, The Apartment, and Annie Hall.) The writing credit, as it appears in the film itself, is as follows: "story by Don McGuire and Larry Gelbart, screenplay by Larry Gelbart and Murray Schisgal". Tootsie, to me, is an example of something that is most disturbing about film (and also TV) production: excellent shows can result from chaotic and even conflict-ridden production processes.

As I recall the story from Larry Gelbart's book Laughing Matters: On Writing M*A*S*H, Tootsie, Oh, God!, and a Few Other Funny Things, the project began sometime in the early 1970s with actor Don McGuire, who had an idea about an actor posing as a woman. It was shopped around, optioned, with various people working on it by the time Larry Gelbart got to it, I believe in the late 70s. (Barry Levinson and Elaine May are often listed among its "uncredited" writers.) The director Sydney Pollack became attached, but the project picked up steam when Dustin Hoffman became interested in--nay, passionate about--doing the movie (the title "Tootsie" was Hoffman's mother's pet name for him). Gelbart had completely reworked the script, and had gone to a retreat in New England to work on it with Pollack and Hoffman. But at some point Hoffman wanted to bring in his own writer (Schisgal), and Gelbart was off. It hurt, since he had taken the show so far (and I'm sure I hear his zinging dialogue at various places in the script--compare early scripts of the TV series M*A*S*H). The script garnered Gelbart and Schisgal an Academy Award nomination for best original screenplay--and if they'd won, they would probably have met for the first time at the award podium.

This is not unusual for movie production. What is striking, to me, is that such a haphazard process can produce anything worthwhile. It's mysterious, ironic. I've had the experience firsthand, doing my own TV show under conditions that varied between surreal, tortuous, hostile, and bleak (sometimes fun).

It gets me wondering. Gelbart still flinches when he sees certain scenes from Tootsie, where there is a, to him, jarring discontinuity in the flow or dialogue. But to most audiences, the movie flows by smoothly and very enjoyably. It has much of value to say (largely due to Gelbart's efforts). In short, the audience was served by it.

What if something similar were done with fiction-writing? There are currently packagers of novel series, things of the Tom Clancy variety, where freelance writers are hired to write ideas by the book producers. Such projects could easily be rewritten or reassigned, as movie scripts are. What of the product? Does art need to be some one person's personal vision?

I don't know. I find it disquieting. Even the best have their weaknesses. Should we all be rewritten--for the benefit of the audience?


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