Cinderella Scribe

Cinderella Scribe

Posted by Mike Finnegan on Dec 12th 2018

Forty-five years ago this week, former high school English teacher and Navy veteran Darryl Ponicsan enjoyed the rare and exciting experience of having a pair of movies open in theaters based on two of the four novels he had published to date, both dealing with the romantic and ribald, decidedly R-rated exploits of Navy lifers. He even wrote the screenplay adaptation for one of them, and each garnered three Academy Award® nominations. Last year, Ponicsan, still actively writing at age 80 with 13 novels and 12 screenplays now under his belt, told We Are Cult interviewer Nick Clement: “For two weeks I was the hottest writer in town. The Los Angeles Times said that it was my weekend at the box office. I could never have imagined that both of those films would come out on the same weekend, as one took so long to get going, with The Last Detail [1973]. And Cinderella Liberty [1973] happened so fast.”

With Hal Ashby in the director's chair, Robert Towne wrote The Last Detail’s salty screenplay, detailing the coarse yet caring interplay between two shore patrolmen (played by Jack Nicholson and Otis Young) escorting a callow sailor (Randy Quaid) on a multi-state Eastern seaboard journey to the naval prison where the young swabbie would serve his sentence for petty theft. Why didn’t Ponicsan land the screenwriting gig? Ponicsan told blogger Paul Rowlands about the advice his agent offered: “He said, ‘You know, if you don’t get on a second novel like right now, the odds are good that you never will.’ He had seen this before, where somebody had sold a novel to be filmed and got involved with the movie and never went back to writing novels. So he advised against it and I said ‘That's probably a good idea,’ and got going on a second novel. But during the course of trying to get The Last Detail made they hit a snag and they asked me to work on the script for two weeks. That was the first time I even saw a script. I worked on it but I don’t think I added much to it. I thought at the time the ending was abrupt, which was kind of the style in those days. More importantly, I felt the two chasers had to pay the price for completing a detail they knew was wrong. They had to deal with the conflict between duty and morality. But they were dealing with that throughout the movie, I came to realize. In terms of story structure, the movie was over when they delivered the kid. I came to accept that, but I didn’t at the time. Robert Towne, the screenwriter, made the argument that they would never be off the hook for what they did. They would have to carry it their whole lives. He was right, and thanks to that, Last Flag Flying [a 2005 semi-sequel novel, followed by a 2017 screen adaptation that Ponicsan co-wrote with director Richard Linklater] became possible. We see in the three characters that they have been carrying this moral burden for 34 years. They see an opportunity to shake it off finally during this, their final mission.” 

Set on the opposite coast in Seattle, Cinderella Liberty chronicles the unlikely romance between a veteran loner sailor on shore leave (James Caan) and a prostitute (Marsha Mason) struggling to make a living and raise her rebellious, biracial son (Kirk Calloway). Ponicsan recalled: “It wasn’t until I was hired [by producer/director Mark Rydell] to adapt my own book Cinderella Liberty that I really began to learn the grammar of filmmaking. Even though the movies came out the same weekend, I had written three books (including Cinderella Liberty) since writing the Last Detail novel, which put me in a good position.” And it was the moviemaker who ironically instilled a sense of cinematic discipline in the ex-serviceman. He found Rydell “a very engaging and amusing guy, but he has a dark side. We had a lot of disagreements. I remember at the time he thought I didn’t take film seriously, which really kind of struck me. We would watch a film together and I would say ‘This film is too good to be successful. The story is so good,’ and he thought I had contempt for the medium. It made me seriously think about whether it was true, but it wasn't true, although I did have contempt for some of the people involved in films. It’s a tough business. It’s always a miracle when something good comes out. Mark and I had a long relationship. It was sometimes contentious, but all is forgiven now!” Ponicsan’s credits over the years have been varied and intriguing, including Taps (1980), Vision Quest (1985), The Boost (1988), School Ties (1992) and Random Hearts (1999). But Twilight Time’s superb hi-def Blu-rays of the boisterous and brooding The Last Detail (now 50% off original list for a limited time, exclusively offered here: and the bluesy and sensitive Cinderella Liberty (now 25% off original list in the same year-end promotion) offer a superb two-panel snapshot of a gifted writer whose prose generated characters and stories that moved and mattered.