Writer’s block: Top 10 films about writers

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 29, 2017)

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With the possibility of a Writer’s Guild strike looming over the entertainment industry this week, I’ve been pondering myriad films I have seen that are about screenwriters, novelists, journalists, poets, and playwrights. Here are 10 cinematic page-turners for you:

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American SplendorFrom the streets of Cleveland! Paul Giamatti was born to play underground comic writer Harvey Pekar, the misanthropic file clerk/armchair philosopher who became a cult figure after collaborating with legendary comic illustrator R. Crumb on some classic strips. Co-directors Shari Berman and Robert Pulcini keep their film fresh and engaging using imaginative visual devices and by breaking down the “fourth wall”. A virtually unrecognizable Hope Davis gives a great turn as Pekar’s deadpan wife.

Written by: Harvey Pekar, Joyce Brabner, Shari Springer Berman, and Robert Pulcini

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An Angel at My Table-Jane Campion directed this incredibly moving story of successful New Zealand novelist Janet Frame (beautifully played at various stages of her life by three actresses, most notably Kerry Fox). When she was a young woman, her social phobia and generalized anxiety was misdiagnosed as a serious mental illness and she ended up spending nearly a decade in and out of institutions. Not for the faint of heart.

Written by: Janet Frame and Laura Jones.

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Barfly-It’s the battle of the quirky method actors as Mickey Rourke and Faye Dunaway guzzle rye and wax wry in this booze-soaked dark comedy, based on the experiences of writer/poet Charles Bukowski. The film is quite richly drawn, right down to the smallest bit parts. Look for Sylvester Stallone’s brother Frank as a bartender who repeatedly beats the crap out of Rourke (I’d bet Rourke could take him in a real-life scrap!). If you’re up for a double feature, I’d suggest the compelling documentary Bukowski: Born into This.

Written by: Charles Bukowski.

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The Front-Directed by Martin Ritt, this downbeat yet politically rousing tale uses the entertainment industry’s spurious McCarthy era blacklist as a backdrop. Woody Allen is very effective as a semi-literate bookie who ends up “fronting” for several blacklisted TV writers. Zero Mostel is brilliant in a tragicomic performance (Mostel, screenwriter Walter Bernstein and several other participants in the film actually were blacklisted in real life).

Written by: Walter Bernstein.

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Henry and June– Fred Ward delivers his best performance to date as the gruff, libidinous literary icon Henry Miller. The story takes place during the time period that Miller was living in Paris and working on his infamous novel Tropic of Cancer. The film concentrates on the complicated love triangle between Miller, his wife June (Uma Thurman) and erotic novelist Anais Nin (Maria de Medeiros). Despite the frequent nudity and focus on eroticism, the film is curiously un-sexy, but still a well-acted, fascinating character study. Richard E. Grant portrays Nin’s husband. Directed by Philip Kaufman.

Written by: Anais Nin, Philip Kaufman, and Rose Kaufman.

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In a Lonely Place – “I was born when she kissed me. I died when she left me. I lived a few weeks while she loved me.” Those words are uttered by Dixon Steele (Humphrey Bogart), a Hollywood screenwriter with a volatile temperament. He also has quirky working habits, which leads to a fateful encounter with a hatcheck girl, who he hires for the evening to read aloud from a pulpy novel that he’s been assigned by the studio to adapt into a screenplay. At the end of the night, he gives her cab fare and sends her on her way. Unfortunately, the young woman turns up murdered, and Dix becomes a prime suspect. An attractive neighbor (Gloria Grahame) steps in to give him an unsolicited alibi. A marvelous film noir, directed by Nicholas Ray, with an intelligent screenplay full of twists and turns that keep you guessing until the end. It’s a precursor to Basic Instinct.

Written by: Andrew Solt and Edmund H. North (from a story by Dorothy B. Hughes).

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The Owl and the Pussycat-George Segal is a reclusive, egghead NYC writer and Barbra Streisand is a profane, boisterous hooker in this classic “oil and water” farce, directed by Herbert Ross. Serendipity throws the two odd bedfellows together one fateful evening, and the resulting mayhem is crude, lewd, and funny as hell. Buck Henry adapted his screenplay from Bill Manhoff’s original stage version. Robert Klein is wonderfully droll in a small but memorable role. My favorite line: “Doris…you’re a sexual Disneyland!”

Written by: Bill Manhoff and Buck Henry.

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Prick Up Your Ears-Gary Oldman chews major scenery in this biopic about British playwright Joe Orton, who lived fast and died young. Alfred Molina nearly steals the film as Orton’s lover, Kenneth Halliwell. Halliwell was a middling writer who had a complex, love-hate obsession with his partner’s effortless artistic gifts (you might say he played Salieri to Orton’s Mozart). This obsession led to a shocking and heartbreaking tragedy. Director Stephen Frears captures the exuberance of “swinging” 1960s London to a tee.

Written by: Alan Bennett and John Lahr.

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Reuben, Reuben-Director Robert Ellis Miller’s underrated gem (from 1983) features Tom Conti as a boozing, womanizing Scottish poet (reminiscent of Sean Connery’s character in the 1966 satire A Fine Madness). Conti’s character (he’s not “Reuben”, incidentally) spends more time getting himself in trouble than writing poetry, and is always on the prowl for wealthy patrons. The inspiration for the enigmatic title isn’t revealed until the final moments of the film. Also with Kelly McGillis (in her film debut).

Written by: Peter De Vries, Herman Shumlin, and Julius J. Epstein.

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