Decades ago, Rosalind Russell gave this bit of wisdom to a young actor: “Do you know what makes a movie work? Moments. Give the audience half a dozen moments they can remember and they’ll leave the theater happy.”
Wisdom then, and still is, though few of today’s flicks have that many moments. And the word “moment” can mean a blink or a sequence. But something jumps off the screen into our hearts.
Remember the fake orgasm in “When Harry met Sally”? And Orson’s mouth saying “Rosebud”? And Clark carrying Vivien up that staircase? And Chaplin’s smile at the end of “City Lights”? And … and … no, enough. You understand.
My first screenwriting moment was a total shock to me. It was “Harper,” starring Paul Newman as private eye Lew Harper, which was shooting 39 years ago when I got a phone call to — quick — come up with a credit sequence. I panicked, natch, decided Newman had to wake up in the morning, wrote a credit sequence, sent it off.
Months and months later the movie opens and people like it well enough, but all anybody talks to me about is that moment with the coffee.
What moment with the coffee?
I remembered I had seen the movie more or less alone in a Warner Bros. screening room and I remembered Newman had awakened, gotten dressed, found he was out of coffee, had to be content heating up yesterday’s grounds, hated the taste of it, then went off on the case.
What was this coffee moment?
Off I went to my local cinema, sat through the previews of coming attractions, as trailers were called in my youth, and watched the movie start.
Full house sitting there along with me. Newman wakes up, starts to get dressed, starts to make coffee — oops, he’s fresh out. And there is a sound from the audience, not laughter, not yet, but anticipation.
Next he opens his garbage can, sees yesterday’s coffee grounds still there in their Chemex paper. He stares at them.
Audience getting louder now.
Next he pours hot water over the used grounds and I was stunned, watching all this, at the enjoyment going on around me.
Then climax — he takes a sip of coffee, makes one of the great awful faces in history — and the audience fell about, as the Brits say. Huge rolling laughter in the theater. I had clearly just witnessed the coffee moment.
And as I watched the rest of the movie with hot bodies all around me, I thought as I still think, that that moment, that instant when Paul Newman as Lew Harper made that horrible face, is the reason the movie was a hit.
Because from then on, the audience loved Lew Harper. And they wanted him to win. And when you have that going for you, treasure it, because it doesn’t happen all the time.
I think the kind of thing I’m talking about may well be unique to movies.
In the theater, what you tend to remember is the experience as a whole. Sure, it was great when Rex sang “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face,” but it’s the entire magical swirl of the piece that lingers.
Certainly in books, what you take with you, though individual scenes can stick out, is the novel itself, where you’re led on by the voice of the writer. The greatest book I ever read was “Don Quixote,” and I threw the book across the room when Cervantes brought the great man down. But what I remember is the sweep, the sun in Spain, the two guys wandering along on their ragged beasts, talking about the universe, occasionally battling it, bringing it to its knees.
What follows is about moments from 2003.
- Best opening: “Bend It Like Beckham,” when it turns out the heroine’s mother even invades her sweetest daydreams.
- Most endings — and this is a record, safe to say, that will never be broken: “Return of the King.”
And you know what? As one unnecessary appendage followed hard upon another (and another and etc.) I just sat there beaming. Peter Jackson and Mr. Tolkien had given me so much pleasure, I could begrudge them nothing. More endings, guys.
- Best action sequence (an all-timer, too): Orlando Bloom climbing up then battling then finally besting that gigantic whatever-it-was, several hours into “The Return of the King.”
- Best performances of the year (and this could be something special): Charlize Theron in “Monster” and Sean Penn in “Mystic River.”
Special because these two could go down, if they win, as the best double act in Academy history.
Brando was phenomenal in “On the Waterfront.” And Judy Garland was at her very best that same year for “A Star Is Born.” And Audrey Hepburn was magic every step of the way in “Sabrina.” And I will never forget fierce, beautiful Dorothy Dandridge in “Carmen Jones.” But the Academy, in its wisdom, bypassed those three to honor Grace Kelly for “The Country Girl.” An absolutely ordinary piece of work, made famous because glamorous Grace went light on the makeup. (They were soon to honor Elizabeth Taylor for pneumonia.)
If Penn and Theron don’t win, I suggest, before we go into mourning, that we all throw our popcorn at the screen.
Curtis was just so wonderful and I don’t think that worldwide pirate smash even works without Depp. His was easily the most valuable performance of the year.
I’ll just mention four. No 1: Keira Knightley watching the wedding tape, when she realizes her husband’s best friend who she thought didn’t like her is, in fact, hopelessly in love with her. No. 2: Colin Firth proposing marriage and mangling the language as he staggers along.
I want to talk about the other two in a bit more detail:
No. 3: Laura Linney’s silent shriek of pure joy when she realizes she is at long last going to sleep with the man of her dreams. And No. 4: the amazing reaction by Emma Thompson when she realizes her husband is not as faithful as he might be.
When I think of this movie in years to come, I will flash to these moments I think equally, and the point is that Linney’s is all of two seconds in length, Thompson’s 40 times that long. But that’s what they must be.
If Thompson’s tears were two seconds worth we would all have blinked and wondered “What was that?” And if Linney had gone on silently screaming for almost a minute and a half, I don’t know about you but I would have had her hatched up and shipped to Bellevue.
As those of us in the business go on sweating and straining to make moments for all those people sitting out there in the dark, I hope all those people realize this: It ain’t easy.
Not easy to give Sean Penn the moment when he realizes the dark sadness about his daughter, or Sean Astin carrying his buddy up that mountain, or the Biscuit, making that great run, or Eugene Levy giving Catherine O’Hara the flower or Mr. McNamara telling us why we didn’t all get blown to shit during the Cuban missile crisis or the little kid who can only sob, “I want my mommy” over and over in “To Be and to Have,” or — no, enough.
These were some of my moments. I’ll treasure them, you treasure yours.
No, not enough. One more.
And speaking as a screenwriter now — from “In America,” the line I most wish I had written:
“Say goodbye to Frankie, Dad …”