By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 11, 2020)
Mr. Braddock: Ben, what are you doing?
Benjamin: Well, I would say that I’m just drifting. Here in the pool.
Mr. Braddock: Why?
Benjamin: Well, it’s very comfortable just to drift here.
Mr. Braddock: Have you thought about graduate school?
Mr. Braddock: Would you mind telling me then what those four years of college were for? What was the point of all that hard work?
Benjamin: You got me.
– from The Graduate, screenplay by Buck Henry and Caldar Willingham
I was saddened to hear about the passing of Buck Henry a few days ago; screenwriter extraordinaire, droll character actor, occasional director and samurai deli enthusiast. He co-created the classic “Get Smart” TV series with Mel Brooks, and co-directed the well-received 1978 comedy-fantasy Heaven Can Wait (a remake of Here Comes Mr. Jordan) with the film’s producer/star/co-writer Warren Beatty (Henry also had an acting part).
Depending on your age, you may be thinking “Buck who?” or “Oh yeah…the bespectacled guy in all those SNL “Samurai Deli” sketches with Belushi back in the day.” Regardless of your Buck Henry touchstone, know that he brought a lot of laughter to a lot of people…and that’s a good thing.
For me, I’ll always remember him for his acting work in films like The Man Who Fell to Earth, Gloria, Eating Raoul, Taking Off, Short Cuts, the Real Blonde, Defending Your Life, and The Player…even if a lot of them were bit parts, he had a knack for understated hilarity. And of course, I’ll remember him for his writing. Here are the Henry-penned films you need to see (alphabetical order).
Candy – As far as barely decipherable yet weirdly entertaining films go, you could do worse than Christian Marquand’s 1968 curio. Henry adapted the script from the novel by Terry Southern and Mason Hoffenberg.
What I can say with certainty is that there is a protagonist, and her name is Candy Christian. (Ewa Aulin). However, disseminating what this film is “about” remains in the eye of the beholder. Semi-catatonic Candy whoopsie-daisies her way through vaguely connected vignettes awash in patchouli, bongs, beads and Nehru jackets, as a number of men philosophize, pontificate, and (mostly) paw at her.
Oddly compelling, largely thanks to the cast: Marlon Brando, Richard Burton, James Coburn, John Huston, Walter Matthau, Ringo Starr, John Astin, Anita Pallenberg, Sugar Ray Robinson (don’t ask), and a host of others. Henry has a cameo as a mental patient.
Interesting sidebar: Director Marquand (also an actor) appeared in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. His lengthy monologue in the “French plantation” scene originally ended up on the cutting room floor but was resurrected for the “Redux” and “Final Cut” versions that Coppola has assembled in recent years. He died in 2000.
Catch-22 – Yossarian: OK, let me see if I’ve got this straight. In order to be grounded, I’ve got to be crazy. And I must be crazy to keep flying. But if I ask to be grounded, that means I’m not crazy anymore, and I have to keep flying.
Dr. ‘Doc’ Daneeka: You got it, that’s Catch-22.
Yossarian: Whoo… That’s some catch, that Catch-22.
Dr. ‘Doc’ Daneeka: It’s the best there is.
Anyone who has read and appreciated the beautifully precise absurdity of Joseph Heller’s eponymous 1961 novel about the ugly and imprecise madness of war knows it is virtually “un-filmable”. And yet Mike Nichols knocked it out of the park with this 1970 film adaptation…and Buck Henry did a yeoman’s job of condensing the novel into a two-hour screenplay (although arguably some of the best exchanges in the film are those left virtually unchanged from the book).
Of course, it didn’t hurt to have such a great director and an outstanding cast: Alan Arkin, Martin Balsalm, Richard Benjamin, Art Gafunkel, Jack Gilford, Bob Newhart, Anthony Perkins, Paula Prentiss, Martin Sheen, Jon Voight, Orson Welles, Charles Grodin, Bob Balaban, et. al., with Henry playing the part of “Colonel Korn”. I think this 50+ year-old film has improved with age.
Day of the Dolphin – “Fa loves Pa!” This offbeat 1973 sci-fi film marked the third collaboration between Henry and director Mike Nichols. Henry adapted from Robert Merle’s novel. George C. Scott is excellent in the lead role as a marine biologist who has developed a method for training dolphins to communicate in human language. Naturally, there is a shadowy cabal of government spooks who take keen interest in this scientific breakthrough. Unique and involving. I like to call this one a conspira‘sea’ thriller (sorry).
The Graduate – “Aw gee, Mrs. Robinson.” It could be argued that those were the four words in this 1967 Mike Nichols film that made Dustin Hoffman a star. With hindsight being 20/20, it’s impossible to imagine any other actor in the role of hapless college grad Benjamin Braddock…even if Hoffman (30 at the time) was a bit long in the tooth to be playing a 21-year-old character.
Poor Benjamin just wants to take a nice summer breather before facing adult responsibilities, but his pushy parents would rather he focus on career advancement immediately, if not sooner. Little do his parents realize that in their enthusiasm, they’ve inadvertently pushed their son right into the sack with randy Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft), wife of his Dad’s business partner (the original cougar?). Things get complicated after Benjamin meets his lover’s daughter (Katharine Ross).
This is one of those “perfect storm” creative collaborations: Nichols’ skilled direction, Calder Willingham and Buck Henry’s witty screenplay, fantastic performances from the cast, and one of the best soundtracks ever (by Simon and Garfunkel). Some of the 60s trappings haven’t dated well, but the incisive social satire has retained all its sharp teeth. Look for Henry in a cameo as a room clerk.
The Owl and the Pussycat – George Segal plays a reclusive, egghead NYC writer and Barbra Streisand is a perfect foil in one of her best comedic turns as 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!”
To Die For – Gus van Sant’s 1995 mockumentary centers on an ambitious young woman (Nicole Kidman, in one of her best performances) who aspires to elevate herself from “weather girl” at a small market TV station in New England to star news anchor, posthaste. A calculating sociopath from the word go, she marries into a wealthy family, but decides to discard her husband (Matt Dillon) the nanosecond he asks her to consider putting her career on hold so they can start a family (discard…with extreme prejudice).
Buck Henry based his script on Joyce Maynard’s true crime book about the Pamela Smart case (the most obvious difference being that Smart was a teacher and not an aspiring media star, although it could be argued that during the course of her highly publicized trial, she did become one). A barbed and darkly funny meditation on the cult of celebrity.
What’s Up, Doc? – Peter Bogdanovich’s 1972 film is an entertaining love letter to classic screwball comedies of the 30s and 40s (the most obvious influence is Bringing Up Baby), with great use of San Francisco locations. Ryan O’Neal and Barbara Streisand have wonderful chemistry as the romantic leads, who meet cute and become involved in a hotel mix-up of four identical suitcases that rapidly snowballs into a series of increasingly preposterous situations for all concerned (as occurs in your typical screwball comedy). Henry gets top billing on the script, co-written with David Newman and Robert Benton. The cast includes Madeline Kahn, Kenneth Mars, Austin Pendleton and Michael Murphy.