Character traditions survive in altered forms

Bette Davis once said that there were never more than two or three outstanding films in a single year. Yet in 1950, movies gave us Joseph Mankiewicz’s “All About Eve” (Davis’ greatest triumph), Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett’s “Sunset Boulevard,” Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin’s “Adam’s Rib,” John Huston’s “The Asphalt Jungle,” Albert Mannheimer’s “Born Yesterday” and Carl Foreman’s “The Men.”

“It’s very different now,” says Wilder, “to have something with 3,000 car chases or actors looking up at a dinosaur.”

The outspoken two-time Oscar-winning screenwriter William Goldman went a step further, commenting: “I think the ’90s are by far the worst decade in film history.”

Goldman’s statement seems excessive when considering such well-crafted 2000 scripts as “Gladiator,” “Traffic,” “Erin Brockovich,” “Chocolat,” “13 Days” and “You Can Count On Me.” There’s no question that the incisive, brilliant dialogue found in “Eve” and “Sunset Boulevard” has taken second place to f/x, and the emphasis on human relationships has diminished, but crucial 1950 character traditions survive in altered form.

Robert Nelson Jacobs, author of the character-driven piece “Chocolat” (which is set in the 1950s), claims: “Special effects are one thing — but the public is always interested in relationships. Our director Lasse Hallstrom was always focused on character — digging deeper, asking why characters behave as they do.”

A major difference between the past and today is 1950’s almost complete emphasis on women protagonists: Margo Channing and her fear of aging in “All About Eve”; Norma Desmond’s terror of being forgotten in “Sunset Boulevard”; Amanda’s feminism and desire to win a court battle against her husband in “Adam’s Rib”; Billie Dawn’s education in “Born Yesterday.” Kenneth Lonergan’s touching, female-centered drama “You Can Count on Me” is a strong step toward restoring that tradition.

“I think it’s a shame that there aren’t more strong roles for women,” Lonergan says. “The action movie tends toward male-dominated movieland. People still like stories with memorable heroines, and they’d go to see the old-style films if they were being made.”

“Brockovich,” written by Susannah Grant, is another vehicle with a strong, determined woman.

“Erin has indomitable strength but prominent weaknesses,” says the scribe. “She’s massively flawed, like the Margo Channings and Norma Desmonds, but she also has courage and a willingness to stand up for what she believes.”

Modern reality

David Franzoni, who wrote the gripping script for the blockbuster “Gladiator” feels that today’s cultural climate allows for much more reality and truth in film, while still preserving intimate human connection.

“In ‘Gladiator,’ the family aspect of the story was crucial,” he says. “The gladiator wasn’t a symbol, he was a Roman, but not a blond Adonis, simply a man of great inner strength and beauty. And we were honest. That was Ridley Scott’s first priority. Films cost so much that everyone’s concerned about having a happy ending. But we killed our hero, over a lot of objection. We combined tragedy and triumph at the same time and it worked.”

“Today’s climate is different than 1950 — it gives a writer the chance to show issues and governments as they are,” says David Self, writer of “13 Days.” “The production code is looser. You don’t have to worry about offending so many people.”

Realism did, however, surface even in the more repressive 1950s system.

Mankiewicz’s “No Way Out” presented Richard Widmark as the most vicious bigot the screen has ever seen. ‘”Born Yesterday,” though ostensibly a comedy, looked at government corruption. Carl Foreman’s “The Men,” which introduced Marlon Brando, highlighted the plight of paraplegics after World War II.

Fighting the system

The system — whether embodied by yesteryear’s moguls or today’s creativity-by-committee execs — has always posed obstacles for writers.

Mankiewicz was forced to fight Darryl F. Zanuck on most of “Eve’s” artistic decisions. Kanin battled Columbia’s Harry Cohn about “Born Yesterday,” and was replaced as a writer by Albert Mannheimer, then brought back to ghost the final draft.

Steve Gaghan, author of the brutally realistic “Traffic” thinks that “really fine pictures are being made today. It’s hard without hindsight and time to know which ones will become classics. We’ve had time to recognize the classic stature of ‘All About Eve’ and ‘Sunset Boulevard.'”

Gaghan’s point — that classics aren’t always apparent — becomes clearer when we recall that “Sunset Boulevard,” “The Men,” “No Way Out” and “Adam’s Rib” were not box office titans.

Wilder sums it up as a series of cycles.

“Popular pictures are a little heavier, a little more masculine. Everyone watches television now. They crave a bigger kind of entertainment,” he says. “It’s almost a sport, to have seen a big picture on the opening weekend. But it will change, of course. The smaller story will come back.”

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