‘Revolutionary’ puts Yates in spotlight

Kate Winslet, Sam Mendes heat up '61 novel

Most Hollywood lit pics are based on well-known novels. One reason to adapt a book in the first place is to capitalize on an established brand, be it an author or title. The studios are always more interested in a property that has proved successful in another medium.

That was never the case with Sam Mendes’ “Revolutionary Road,” based on the first novel by Richard Yates, published in 1961.

It’s safe to say that if Kate Winslet had not taken a fancy to the project — along with her husband Mendes, whom producer Scott Rudin urged Winslet to approach to direct — it would not have been made.

“Hollywood is a heat-seeking missile,” Mendes says. “But there was never any heat.”

This month, as Hollywood finally shines a spotlight on “Revolutionary Road,” the film will send many readers to find the book. While at first the movie appears to be a close adaptation, and much of the dialogue and scenes do adhere to the book, it differs in one crucial way: It offers some hope. The movie leaves out much of the characters’ ugly backstory, and the characters’ plan to move to Paris isn’t just a silly, ridiculous fantasy.

“Paris is a metaphor for escape — about the place you dream of where you can be yourself and find who you were again as a young person,” Mendes says. “If you never believe that is possible, there’s no tragedy.”

As embodied by Winslet and DiCaprio, the Wheelers are warmer and more sympathetic than Yates’ creations on the page.

“In the movie, you believe they love each other,” says Rudin, who came back to “Revolutionary Road” more than 30 years after he discovered the novel as a 17-year-old casting director for Jonathan Demme.

Many had tried to adapt Yates’ book before, but failed. Most notable was an effortby director John Frankenheimer and producer Al Ruddy, who acquired the rights for a flat $15,500, and then sold them to actor Patrick O’Neal, who generated a screenplay that Yates hated. He tried to buy back the rights, but O’Neal insisted on keeping them. After O’Neal’s death, the BBC finally sent Winslet their script by American novelist-screenwriter Justin Haythe.

Early on, Rudin tried to grab the movie rights from Ruddy, but didn’t have the money at the time. The producer tracked down Yates in the late 1970s and tried to commission him to write something, but he was not in good enough shape. Rudin had worked with Mendes in the London and New York theater (“Blue Room”) and had produced “Iris” with Winslet. When she brought him the script, he thought Mendes could bring out some of the same qualities he had in Brian Friel’s play “Translations,” in which the two leads share a love scene without speaking the same language.

Even many bibliophiles have not heard of Yates. Over the years, the author of seven novels and three collections of short stories has become a secret handshake among erudite literati. His prose “was like a blade, a cloud, a flame, a breath,” said his former student, the late Andre Dubus, after Yates’ death.

Not one of Yates’ books ever sold more than 12,000 copies. The author suffered a lifetime in near-poverty writing skillfully honest fiction that many magazines deemed too harsh and cruel to publish. He collected one rejection slip after another, and tortured himself over such critiques as his “mean-spirited view of things,” from the New Yorker, whose fiction editor Roger Angell finally told the writer to give up and stop submitting, because he’d never get in.

Yates’ first novel, “Revolutionary Road,” seemed poised to launch a promising career, but fell short of expectations, earning mixed reviews, and soon fell out of print. The writer was disappointed that it was considered an “anti-suburban novel,” he said in an interview. “I think of it more as an indictment … of a general lust for conformity all over this country, by no means in the suburbs — a kind of blind, desperate clinging to safety and security at any price.”

The hard-drinking, self-medicating, often despondent World War II veteran, who admired Salinger, Hemingway and Fitzgerald, couldn’t afford to go to college, supporting his family for years as a freelance copywriter for Remington Rand. Then followed many more years as a writing teacher at the New School, Columbia U. and the U. of Iowa.

His students, Richard Price and David Milch among them, revered him, and friends were always trying to land him employment. Yates had brief flings with speechwriting for Sen. Robert F. Kennedy and Hollywood screenwriting. He enjoyed adapting his friend William Styron’s “Lie Down in Darkness” for Frankenheimer, who was unable to get it made, and didn’t mind writing the unproduced “Iwo Jima” for producer Roger Corman. But Yates hated the movie that did get produced, John Guillerman’s 1969 war film “The Bridge at Remagen.” Nor was Yates amused, having met his daughter Monica’s ex-boyfriend Larry David, at being lampooned as Elaine’s father Alton Benes on “Seinfeld.”

Yates lived most of his life alone (two marriages ended in divorce) in squalid living quarters (his kitchen was usually stocked with cigarette cartons, a bottle of bourbon and instant coffee). He’d wake up coughing and hungover, but would write sober in the morning before reaching for his first drink. His daughter Monica never called him after 3 p.m., she says: “My father kept at it. When he was writing, he was alive. In his heart he also knew that he would transcend the times, that his work would live beyond him. That was all that he cared about.”

The long-suffering Yates endured chronic ill health, bipolar disorder, and multiple nervous breakdowns. He died alone and flat broke in a Birmingham, Ala., hospital in 1992.

Since his death, a line of writers has sought to rebuild his reputation, from Stewart O’Nan, Andre Dubus, Richard Ford and Susan Braudy to biographer Blake Bailey, who painstakingly revealed the writer in 2003’s “A Tragic Honesty: The Life and Work of Richard Yates.” His books have been reissued — and are selling. And the New Yorker, which finally published one of his stories eight years after his death, is set to publish a profile by James Wood.

Yates may be one of those writers who cut too close to the bone, who bares his characters’ delusion and lies without trying to forgive them. He also denies them hope: “Revolutionary Road’s” golden couple Frank and April Wheeler, who dream of Paris but can’t escape their American suburban nightmare, are doomed by their own upbringing. They don’t stand a chance against Yates’ own pessimism.

Almost completely forgotten toward the end of his life, Yates sat down and read the first chapter of “Revolutionary Road” out loud and “cried like a baby,” says Monica Yates. “That was because he knew that he had done something great, and his life was ending, and he had that.”

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