In a long and exhausting story conference at the dawn of my screenwriting career, as Brian De Palma and I wrestled with the Byzantine plot of Body Double (1984) I asked Brian what on earth was the motivation for our main character’s line of action.
“There are only two valid dramatic motivations for anything,” said Brian with a chuckle, “sex or money, and they usually go together.”
Of course, in Brian’s movies, this dramatic reductivism is usually at work.
Over the years, I’ve refined Brian’s cinematic philosophy to an even simpler and more stark formulation: Every great movie is, at the core, a love story.
The challenges to my reductivism come fast and furious.
Said one film lover: “What about a film like Zulu (1964) one of your favorites. There’s not a love story in sight.”
But Zulu is a love story; it’s about soldiers fighting a desperate last stand. These British soldiers are not fighting for any higher principal or even for some valuable piece of ground. Like all soldiers from time immemorial they are fighting for the guy who stands next to them.
I do have one friend, a screenwriter who scorns my formulation, considers it nonsense. But this friend is unmarried, has indulged in nothing but destructive relationships with women, and is not a particularly successful screenwriter.
The other day, I screened the powerful and haunting High Sierra, 1941. Based on a terrific book by the prolific novelist and screenwriter W.R. Burnett, this is typically labeled a gangster movie. But a closer reading of the film reveals that several poignant love stories drive the action of the central plot.
Mad Dog Roy Earle, Humphrey Bogart, loves Velma, the 15 year-old Joan Leslie, and pays for an operation to repair her clubfoot. But Velma jilts Earle. Earle turns for comfort to a dance hall girl (code for prostitute) Marie, Ida Lupino who sorrowfully loves Roy in spite of the fact that he still loves the lovely and chaste Velma.
As fate closes in on the doomed couple, Bogart and Lupino cling to each other, hoping somehow to escape to freedom. Director Raoul Walsh delivers the aching vulnerability that is at the heart of this relationship.
In 1974, Raoul Walsh published Each Man in His Time, a memoir whose relationship to the truth is, at best, tenuous. So fanciful is this book that Walsh deleted any mention of his first wife, actress Miriam Cooper. She was with him at the beginning of his career and starred in many of his early films.
Walsh’s memoir is a maddening read. The lies and obfuscations come fast and furious. But, thankfully, a new biography, Raoul Walsh: The True Adventures of Hollywood’s Legendary Director, by Marilyn Ann Moss, has just been published. Moss captures Walsh’s swashbuckling personality. She correctly points out that Walsh’s chronic money troubles were not, as he claimed, solely due to Miriam Cooper’s alimony demands, but because of massive losses at the race track. It’s a fine book that does not shrink from Walsh’s obvious failings. He was an indifferent husband and an absent father. Walsh could also be an inert Hollywood hack, churning out bad movies for a desperately needed paycheck.
Something of a schnorrer, Walsh penned notes, sprinkled with bad Yiddish, to studio chief Jack Warner, begging for loans in order to pay off his crushing gambling debts.
“They’re after my tuchus [butt] again, Jack,” he wrote, referring to Miriam Cooper’s attorneys when they came after him—just as she had been doing since the early 1930’s. “I have a chance to pick up a M’tseha [a great discovery] on a piece of property,” he wrote in 1947, asking for a loan. “I will either make a fortune out of this or go machoula [meshuga, crazy] again,” he wrote a few days later. “Dear Colonel,” he wrote in August 1945, “The Irish and the Jews are always in trouble—that is what makes the world go round.”
But back to love as the focus of all great movies. Moss eloquently summarizes Walsh’s narrative paradigm:
But he also puts Earle and Marie at the center of the most crucial Walshian narrative: the love between a man and a woman. This was, he insisted again and again, the fundamental motivation for his pictures, the hope that a man and a woman would come together—or at least die trying.
Today is Asarah B’Tevet. Karen and I wish all our friends and relatives a meaningful fast.