Real Movie Magic: The Ten Screenplays that Sparkle Beyond Mere Entertainment
There are hundreds of wonderful films in existence that feature screenplays that are literate, intelligent, and compelling in ways that elevate them beyond mere entertainment. Citizen Kane, The Godfather, The Lady Eve, Ordinary People, My Man Godfrey, and Moonstruck are all screenplays that reside within the upper echelons of the sublime writing of which cinema can aspire to. Beyond that, there is a special niche of cinema where screenwriters are not afraid to utilize prosody in writing screenplays, adding a special shimmer of poetry and majesty to the storytelling. These ingredients heighten emotion and theatricality through a carefully chosen rhetoric that may not come across in a way that is familiar speech for audiences, but may be far-more effective in conveying character and situation. These screenplays are an art unto themselves. Today’s column is a celebration of ten-films that demonstrate this style to great effect.
10. Shakespeare in Love
Screenplay by Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman
Tom Stoppard was half the writing team for Shakespeare in Love, so it is no surprise that the film has a confident voice of poetry that comes through strong. You see, Stoppard is a world-celebrate, English playwright of such cerebrally poetic stage pieces as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, The Real Thing, and The Real Inspector Hound. Pairing him with screenwriter Marc Norman resulted in perfection: a comedy about Shakespeare, theatre, and the writing of Romeo and Juliet. What better than a playwright, who is known for his carefully-crafted monologues and zippy banter, to write the story of a playwright. “My story starts at sea...a perilous voyage to an unknown land. A shipwreck. The wild waters roar and heave. The brave vessel is dashed all to pieces, and all the helpless souls within her ...drowned. All save one: a lady...whose soul is greater than the ocean and her spirit stronger than the sea's embrace. Not for her a watery end, but a new life beginning on a stranger shore. It will be a love story for she will be my heroine for all time. And her name will be...Viola...”
Screenplay by Julius Epstein, Philip G. Epstein, Howard E. Koch, and Casey Robinson
Casablanca is a classic film for a reason, and it is not just for its story (albeit a good one). The language of Casablanca, the articulate repartee and the silvery word choice that are carefully sewn into its screenplay make it a treat to listen to closely. People just didn’t speak like this, but you sure wish that they did. It’s an old Hollywood theatricality that heightens romance, ignites adventure, and emboldens heroism. “And you never will. But I’ve got a job to do, too. Where I’m going, you can’t follow. What I’ve got to do, you can’t be any part of. Ilsa, I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Someday you’ll understand that.”
8. The Lion in Winter
Screenplay by James Goldman
Dripping with venomous contempt and agile wordplay, James Goldman concocted The Lion in Winter for the stage where it failed to ignite with audiences. It was almost forgotten until it was turned into a gripping film, starring Peter O’Toole and Katherine Hepburn as King Henry II and Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, respectively. In an effort to decide who will be Henry’s successor, each of these royals prefers a different son for the job and they square off bitterly against each other to ensure their preference is the victor. Never has hatred sounded so delicious and articulate. Goldman infuses the characters with an ability to battle more violently with poetic barbs than any wielder of a sword or mace could hope to achieve. “My life, when it is written, will read better than it lived. Henry Fitz-Empress, first Plantagenet, a king at twenty-one, the ablest soldier of an able time. He led men well, he cared for justice when he could and ruled, for thirty years, a state as great as Charlemagne's. He married out of love, a woman out of legend. Not in Alexandria, or Rome, or Camelot has there been such a queen. She bore him many children. But no sons. King Henry had no sons. He had three whiskered things but he disowned them.”
Screenplay by Peter Shaffer
Playwright Peter Shaffer wrote a most eloquent play about jealousy and talent, and he adapted his script from the long-running Amadeus for the cinema without losing any of its power or poetry. Antonio Salieri, a mediocre court musician for the Austrian Emperor, is driven to madness when a young upstart named Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart appears on the scene and shows such brilliance, besting all of Salieri’s compositions. Shaffer gives Salieri monologues of palpable hate, confessions and challenges to God, his promise to destroy Mozart at whatever cost simply because Salieri was never given the talent to glorify God’s name. “From now, we are enemies... You and I. Because You choose for Your instrument a boastful, lustful, smutty, infantile boy and give me for reward only to recognize the incarnation. Because You are unjust, unfair, unkind, I will block You, I swear it. I will hinder and harm Your creature as far as I am able. I will ruin Your incarnation” No one will ever forget the final line of the film “Mediocrities of the world, I absolve you all”.
6. The Shawshank Redemption
Screenplay by Frank Darabont
Stephen King’s novella about the unlikely friendship that forms between two men in prison and the miraculous escape one of them makes was turned into the critically acclaimed The Shawshank Redemption. It is somewhat remarkable that screenwriter Frank Darabont (show runner for the first few seasons of The Walking Dead) was able to take a story set in one of the most unpoetic of places and convey it with lyricism and a quiet majesty. “I have to remind myself that some birds aren't meant to be caged. Their feathers are just too bright. And when they fly away, the part of you that knows it was a sin to lock them up does rejoice. Still, the place you live in is that much more drab and empty that they're gone. I guess I just miss my friend.”
5. Sunset Boulevard
Screenplay by Billy Wilder, D.M Marshman, Jr. and Charles Brackett
Billy Wilder was responsible for many great screenplays, including The Apartment, Some Like it Hot, and The Lost Weekend. It was his screenplay for Sunset Boulevard, however, that rose above all others in poetic writing and sublimely theatrical tragedy. Norma Desmond was a silent film star, driven into retirement and a hermit-like obscurity when she couldn’t make the transition to the “Talkies”. Enter: screenwriter Joe Gillis, the down-on-his-luck screenwriter who would be enticed into the eccentric, delusional world of her Hollywood mansion where he is forced to face his own crumbling talent and consent to write her comeback film. Joe, being a writer, used colorful descriptors in his voiceovers, relaying the almost hypnotic hold that this star and her descent into madness had on him. "Come think of it, the whole place seemed to have been stricken with the kind of creeping paralysis... out of beat with the rest of the world... crumbling apart in slow motion. There was a tennis court... or rather the ghost of a tennis court... with faded markings and a sagging net... And of course she had a pool. Who didn't then? Mabel Normand and John Gilbert must have swum in it ten-thousand midnights ago... It was empty now. Or was it?
4. Gosford Park
Screenplay by Julian Fellowes
Julian Fellowes is probably better known for his teleplays for the popular TV program Downton Abbey, but his intricate screenplay for the murder mystery film Gosford Park is a literate and witty preamble. Set in a proper British country manse, several guests gather for a weekend of hunting and meals. When the host suddenly dies, everyone from the chambermaids to hostess are questioned. The film also gives an accurate insider’s look at the world of the servant and how serving was handled in the 1930. “What gift do you think a good servant has that separates them from the others? Its the gift of anticipation. And I'm a good servant; I'm better than good, I'm the best; I'm the perfect servant. I know when they'll be hungry, and the food is ready. I know when they'll be tired, and the bed is turned down. I know it before they know it themselves.”
3. The Silence of the Lambs
Screenplay by Ted Tally
Films of horror and sense rely on silence and short phrasing in the writing in order to create suspense. It is a bit of a marvel that Ted Tally in his screenplay for The Silence of the Lambs manages to interpolate some poetry in this tale about a cannibalistic serial killer and the FBI agent who needs his help in capturing another killer. Hannibal Lecter, though he likes his liver and his fava beans served with a nice chianti, is a highly intellectual monster who speaks with poise and eloquence. “You know what you look like to me, with your good bag and your cheap shoes? You look like a rube. A well scrubbed, hustling rube with a little taste. Good nutrition's given you some length of bone, but you're not more than one generation from poor white trash, are you, Agent Starling? And that accent you've tried so desperately to shed: pure West Virginia. What is your father, dear? Is he a coal miner? Does he stink of the lamp? You know how quickly the boys found you... all those tedious sticky fumblings in the back seats of cars... while you could only dream of getting out... getting anywhere... getting all the way to the FBI.”
2. American Beauty
Screenplay by Alan Ball
American Beauty became renowned for its symbolic and expressionistic imagery, but it also has such glorious writing that sounds like the characters are painting with words and emotions. Writer Alan Ball took a handful of miserable people and found the poetry in their darkness and detachment. Each of them spoke with such honesty and authenticity it is hard to complain about the monologues that achieved this all with poetry, “I had always heard your entire life flashes in front of your eyes the second before you die. First of all, that one second isn't a second at all, it stretches on forever, like an ocean of time... For me, it was lying on my back at Boy Scout camp, watching falling stars... And yellow leaves, from the maple trees, that lined our street... Or my grandmother's hands, and the way her skin seemed like paper... And the first time I saw my cousin Tony's brand new Firebird... And Janie... And Janie... And... Carolyn. I guess I could be pretty pissed off about what happened to me... but it's hard to stay mad, when there's so much beauty in the world. Sometimes I feel like I'm seeing it all at once, and it's too much, my heart fills up like a balloon that's about to burst... And then I remember to relax, and stop trying to hold on to it, and then it flows through me like rain and I can't feel anything but gratitude for every single moment of my stupid little life... You have no idea what I'm talking about, I'm sure. But don't worry... you will someday.”
1. All About Eve
Screenplay by Joseph L. Mankiewicz
The quintessential screenplay of this ilk is Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s masterpiece for All About Eve. The story of an aging actress whose life is usurped by an aspiring younger actress who emulates her is witty, wise, bitchy and profound. Many of the characters speak in voiceovers that play as haunting monologues of perception and point-of-view. They flow with a natural beauty that borders on poetry, and the dialogue is brutally sharp in both its poignancy and honesty. A line like “Fasten your seatbelts it’s going to be a bumpy night” says so much with great economy and emotion. The screenplay is filled with gems like this. Never has the theatre and its world been captured so honestly on film, a world of drama captured so eloquently with language that draws from the premise’s inherent theatricality. Funny business, a woman's career - the things you drop on your way up the ladder so you can move faster. You forget you'll need them again when you get back to being a woman. That's one career all females have in common, whether we like it or not: being a woman. Sooner or later, we've got to work at it, no matter how many other careers we've had or wanted. And in the last analysis, nothing's any good unless you can look up just before dinner or turn around in bed, and there he is. Without that, you're not a woman. You're something with a French provincial office or a book full of clippings, but you're not a woman. Slow curtain, the end.