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Remembering Alvin Sargent, the Extraordinary Screenwriter Behind ‘Ordinary People’

How many screenwriters in Hollywood can claim to have written a popular film that connects with a new generation each decade for half a century? Alvin Sargentwho passed away on May 9 at the age of 92 — began writing for television in the mid-1950s; was off to the races from his first produced feature script, 1966’s “Gambit”; and went on to deliver so many movies that have stood and will continue to endure the test of time.

Consider these titles: “Ordinary People” … Actually, to have written “Ordinary People” alone would be enough to land any living writer on a very short list of masters. But in Sargent’s case, that devastating autopsy of the middle-class American dream — an adaptation of Judith Christ’s novel addressing how the façade of domestic perfection masks the difficult work of maintaining a family and marriage — followed such already impressive credits as “The Sterile Cuckoo,” “Paper Moon,” “Bobby Deerfield,” and “Julia.”

In the ’80s, Sargent fell in love with producer Laura Ziskin, and together, the power couple made a number of films, including “What About Bob?,” “Hero,” and Sony’s “Spider-Man” sequels — which won him fans for whom those accomplished earlier “classics” might never have appealed. That’s the power of a filmography that reaches as far as Sargent’s, and yet, he would be the first to admit that he had fallen into a difficult métier, and that with nearly every project, he had to fight, first to get the film made, and again during production for the scenes and ideas that mattered most to him.

At age 19, after a short time in the Navy — during which he learned to type (if not yet how to write) — Sargent came to Hollywood with dreams of being an actor. He got headshots made and sent them around, but nothing really panned out, so he found other work to get by. As it happens, he was selling advertising for Variety when he got an out-of-the-blue call saying that producer Buddy Adler had seen his photo and wanted him for a role in “From Here to Eternity,” which meant asking his (newish) boss whether he could take some a few days off to shoot a movie in Hawaii. (Nearly a quarter century later, he worked with that film’s director, Fred Zinnemann, again, this time as the screenwriter on “Julia,” and Zinnemann honored their earlier collaboration by having a frame of the film — the young actor being shot down by a Japanese zero — blown up into a portrait for Sargent to hang in his office.)

After that lone acting opportunity, Sargent stuck with his job at Variety for nearly a decade before leaving for a job as a story editor on a show called “Bus Stop.” At least, that’s how he tells it. Digging through the Variety archives, review surfaced of an earlier TV credit, called “A Man Named March” for the “Chevron Hall of Stars” anthology series that says, “this sensitive Alvin Sargent teleplay is essentially a gentle yarn about a likeable hobo.” In any case, after leaving the paper, Sargent spent several years working on shows such as “Route 66” and “Naked City,” during which he learned the trade of screenwriting — and where, according to a friend who knew him well, one can see early shoots of later themes.

What themes? Well, what has always impressed about Sargent’s work is the way he seemed to dedicate his entire career to unpacking the popular images so often propagated by film and television — of husbands and wives, fathers and sons, lovers and heroes (as in his underrated “Hero”) — showing the less-flattering reverse angle on roles that Hollywood so often misrepresents, and which leave us all with complexes about our own inadequacies. He not only allowed his characters to be, but actually seemed to prefer when they were, imperfect, insecure, uncertain, and to some degree neurotic. Consider the scene in “Ordinary People” where Conrad (Timothy Hutton) walks Jeannine (Elizabeth McGovern) to her bus, and she riddles him with “dumb questions.” She lets her guard down for a moment to ask, “Why is it so hard … the first time you talk to somebody?” and he, responding to sincerity with sincerity, replies, “You make it look easy.”

The act of writing was always a struggle for Sargent, or so he repeatedly said in interviews. He would begin with ideas for scenes, clearly imagined in his own head, or situations of “people talking to each other” (what he called dialogue), then force those elements onto the page. The way he described it, the process sounded like excavating his subconscious, getting the “goop” into written form somehow. Only then would he worry about structure, which might explain why his scripts don’t neatly conform to the three-act model, and never shy away from showing how much work it is to handle even the simple things.

I’m thinking now of the five-minute scene from “The Sterile Cuckoo,” in which the camera holds on Liza Minnelli’s side of the phone conversation as she desperately tries to bargain for a second chance from her boyfriend (Wendell Burton), while the silences grow ever-longer on his end. It’s one of the actress’ greatest moments, because the man on the other end can’t see any of what audiences do: He has only her words to go on, but her vulnerability is laid bare just for us, alone with Minnelli in this tiny room, desperately trying to salvage the love that has fueled the film until now.

Where other writers are expert manipulators, writing memorable zingers or orchestrating characters’ behavior toward some calculated payoff, Sargent wrote human beings, or the closest representation of them he could translate to the page. He could do the other thing, too, as the immensely satisfying interplay between a con man and the kid who could be his in “Paper Moon” proved, and his relatable, real-kid-wrestling-with-superpowers take on Spider-Man later reinforced. But his standard approach was to take situations that didn’t neatly reduce to formula and to wrestle them into a shape through which they could be conveyed onscreen.

The results are impressive and practically speak for themselves, but there are a few interesting projects of Sargent’s that were never made into films. After “Julia,” which was based on a segment of Lillian Hellman’s memoir “Pentimento,” Sargent dedicated himself to another longer-spanning script informed by the stories she had shared with him, and her decades-long relationship with Dashiell Hammett, called “Two Lives” — not the kind of story Hollywood’s desperate to make of late, but one that should find its way to the screen one day. And right after “Ordinary People,” Sargent turned a traumatic stick-up, in which a robber harassed him in his own home, into fodder for an outside-the-box comedy, “Madly in Love,” wherein the main character sets off in pursuit of the intruder. (That project was still floating around three decades later, but seems to have fizzled after Ziskin passed away in 2011.)

Movies make things look easy, but nothing goes as one might expect in Hollywood. For all his achievements, Sargent still found himself pushing projects uphill late in his career. There’s an anecdote of his that comes to mind about how Hollywood, with its idea of what’s hot or could hit at any given moment, responds when presented with a writer’s ideas — the old “We love it, but…” response, immediately followed by a note that serves to undermine everything they’ve just heard.

A dozen or so years ago — this was around the time that the movies “March of the Penguins” and “Happy Feet” had captured the public’s attention — Sargent went in for a meeting in which he pitched a script loosely inspired by the classic Italian heist comedy “Big Deal on Madonna Street.” As the story goes, those sitting on the other side of the table listened, nodded appreciatively, and gushed about how much they loved this idea from the two-time Oscar winner. “But…” they wanted to know, could he do it with penguins?

As filmographies go, Sargent’s shows precious little of the compromise writers are often forced to endure in this industry. He wrote grown-up scripts about real-life situations for a quarter of a century, and, after a gap of several years, followed up “Ordinary People” with a dozen more movies that are still remembered today. Sargent’s stories, told onscreen or about his craft, showed the universal struggle to navigate life’s hurdles, offering comfort that the only thing “ordinary” about anyone is the effort it takes to keep moving forward.

(pictured: Donald Sutherland and Mary Tyler Moore in “Ordinary People.”)

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