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    Unscripted Coincidences

    Posted by Mike Finnegan on

    As serendipity goes in the movie business, it just so happened that two prominent adaptation screenplays by now-90-year-old veteran scribe Alvin Sargent opened as major studio releases within days of each other 40 years ago: Bobby Deerfield (a Twilight Time title discussed last week) and Julia (1977), which premiered this day in New York. In a 2008 Writers Guild Foundation interview, Sargent recounted another incidence of full-circle serendipity. In 1952, after putting in a few years effort as a local stage actor in Los Angeles, he’d finally secured a steady job selling advertising for the show-business trade publication Variety when he got a call from a talent scout representing producer Buddy Adler. They’d seen his photo and resume and wanted him immediately to fly to Hawaii for a small role in a movie called From Here to Eternity (1953). Despite his reticence (steady work was steady work, after all), the 25-year-old immediately flew to the island location and put in two weeks work that resulted in him being in a couple of scenes in the finished film. “The director of the movie was Fred Zinnemann,” Sargent said. “Here’s the coincidence: I’m an actor who really wants to get back to his Variety ads for the Mother’s Day issue and isn’t thinking about being a writer, but 25 years later I wrote Julia for Fred Zinnemann. So if anybody had said, ‘Hey, kid. Just wait…things’ll happen.’” (Interjecting a sidebar coincidence here, the director originally attached to the project before Zinnemann came aboard was Bobby Deerfield’s Sydney Pollack.) A lot would happen with Sargent in that 25-year span, most notably the screenplays of The Stalking Moon (1968), The Sterile Cuckoo (1979) and Paper Moon (1973), among others. Adapted from a story by Lillian Hellman included in her 1973 anthology Pentimento: A Book of Portraits, the film of Julia was spearheaded by producer Richard Roth, who had interested Sargent in writing it and Jane Fonda in playing Lillian even before Zinnemann joined the project. As it turned out, this meticulously crafted “memory play” turning on the enduring friendship between a fledging playwright (Fonda as Hellman) and a patrician idealist and anti-Fascist activist (Vanessa Redgrave as Julia) in the years leading up to the outbreak of World War II proved an ideal match for Sargent, whom David Paul Kirkpatrick, former Paramount and Walt Disney Pictures executive and co-founder of the MIT Center for Future Storytelling, called “the Prince of Gentle Writing” for the acute sense of emotional truth throughout a body of work which would later include Straight Time (1978), Ordinary People (1980), Dominick and Eugene (1988), Unfaithful (2003) and no less than three Spider-Man movies in the new millennium. Sargent would win one of Julia’s three Academy Awards®; supporting players Redgrave and Jason Robards (as Hellman’s mentor/lover Dashiell Hammett) claimed the other two, with seven other Oscar® nominations accorded for Best Picture, Director, fellow supporting player Maximilian Schell, Cinematography (Douglas Slocombe), Costume Design (Anthea Sylbert), Film Editing (Walter Murch and Marcel Durham) and Original Score (Georges Delerue). 

    Forty years ago today, some of the suspense and anxiety experienced by the characters in Sargent’s script earmarked the movie’s first public unveiling. In Fred Zinnemann: An Autobiography – A Life in the Movies, the four-time Oscar® winner recalled: “It was decided to have the actual opening at 11 AM on a Sunday morning – a custom universally accepted by the New York public. The night before there had been a large party in Lillian Hellman’s honor, which I didn’t attend; there were no executives around when I arrived at the theater [Cinema 1] just before the first show. I was greeted by a delightful sight: a large Sold Out sign above the box office and a long line winding around the corner of the block. My elation didn’t last long: David Weitzner, the one and only executive on the spot, appeared out of the packed lobby, white as a sheet and looking as if he had seen a ghost. ‘What’s the matter?’ I asked. ‘There’s no sound,’ he said. ‘The sound equipment doesn’t work.’ All sense of reality faded in a sudden flash; I saw and heard the news but I couldn’t grasp it. The time was 11:05. The house was packed, people were waiting expectantly and beginning to look at their watches. The projectionist was unable to fix his machine and there were no mechanics to be found within miles; it was Sunday morning after all. The theater manager was absent and so was the owner. More phone calls were made and finally a mechanic was found somewhere on Long Island; he could arrive in an hour and a half. There was only one thing to do. I had to go up on stage, face the public, introduce myself and explain our predicament. In view of the fact that New Yorkers are notoriously impatient and had been waiting for a good half-hour, they were surprisingly friendly and good-natured. Given three choices – staying put and waiting for almost two hours, or leaving and returning, or getting their money back – a great many stayed, probably because there was a slight drizzle outside. Things went smoothly once the projector was fixed and the picture did well.” Sargent couldn’t have written it better. Julia continues to engage and move audiences on Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray.