John August, who has written several Tim Burton films including Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, had harsh words for anyone thinking of putting a screenwriter at the centre of their script: “It shouldn’t be a surprise that Hollywood is not knocking down your door to make that movie because it’s just about a screenwriter. And who cares about a screenwriter?”
Would it help if the character in question had dementia yet were still able to fire off zingers like a Catskills pro? How about if he were played by Billy Crystal at his most twinkly-eyed, and he spent most of the movie riffing with Tiffany Haddish? There you have Here Today, in which Crystal is an ageing comedy writer who takes Haddish to lunch after she bids $22 for the privilege in an auction. (In fact, her ex did the bidding – she doesn’t have a clue who this old guy is – and she swiped the prize to spite him.) The new film, which Crystal also directed and co-wrote, tells that time-honoured story: man meets woman, woman has allergic reaction to shellfish, man pays her medical bills, woman helps bring him and his family closer together.
You could call August cynical – but admittedly, Crystal’s character is rare among the plentiful fictional screenwriters for not being overtly tormented. John Turturro as Barton Fink in the Coen brothers’ 1991 film of the same name is driven slowly mad by a mosquito, a studio writing assignment, a murderous neighbour and his own pretensions. Screenwriters sell out in Godard’s Le Mépris, lose it in Adaptation and get murdered in The Player. If the message still isn’t clear, try Sunset Boulevard. Who’s that face down in the swimming pool at the start? “Nobody important, really,” a voiceover tells us. “Just a movie writer with a couple of ‘B’ pictures to his credit. The poor dope. He always wanted a pool.” That’s the writer, played by William Holden, speaking from beyond the grave.
After all, when did you last hear a screenwriter singing Hollywood’s praises? More common are tales of firings, rewrites, plagiarism or fighting for credit. Ian McEwan called screenwriting “an opportunity to fly first class, be treated like a celebrity, sit around the pool and be betrayed”. Even the writers of masterpieces suffer: take Herman J Mankiewicz, co-author of Citizen Kane, whose struggles with alcoholism, Hollywood, Orson Welles and William Randolph Hearst were documented in David Fincher’s Mank.
Where Crystal’s character differs is that his screenwriting career represents a glorious, lost peak. He wrote a hit romcom 30 years earlier and now he can’t even recognise his cast and crew (Sharon Stone, Kevin Kline and Rain Man director Barry Levinson all cameo). Perhaps that’s the lesson to take from Here Today: there are worse fates than being a screenwriter.