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Icons 101: A Screenwriter's Path to Pop Culture History
June 20, 2012
Ann Arbor's historic Michigan Theater recently hosted Cinetopia, a marathon film festival screening some 30 pictures over a four-day period. Featured among the older works were three American classics with screenwriting credits by the late David Newman and his wife, Leslie Newman. Who could have anticipated that a couple of University of Michigan graduates who met in 1956 would transform modern cinema?
The Newmans' brilliant writing touched distinctly different genres: the gangster pic with Bonnie and Clyde; comic-book fantasy with Superman: The Movie; and screwball comedy with What's Up, Doc? Though widely divergent, the three films contain common elements: wit, irony, nuanced relationships, and overlapping narrative styles. The films also spanned a decade of creative risk-taking in Hollywood; each pushed cinematic art in bold, new directions—right down to the promotional trailers.
Bonnie and Clyde (1967) signaled a revolutionary breakthrough for the depiction of criminality and violence on the silver screen. In retelling the 1930s tale of bank robbers Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker, screenwriters David Newman and Robert Benton (the latter a Texan who was familiar with the Barrow gang's territory) broke precedent, developing a treatment that deviated from the two previous films about the Barrow gang: Gun Crazy (1949) and The Bonnie Parker Story (1958).
Newman and Benton met in New York while Newman was working at Esquire magazine. Together they researched the outlaws' epic crime spree, writing articles that ultimately evolved into a screenplay. They treated the characters' behavior as a reaction to perceived social injustices in Depression-era America. The script also drew psychological connections between criminal action and sexual impulses.
With director Arthur Penn at the helm, Bonnie and Clyde offered up a startling admixture of cinematic styling: Violent, blood-letting outbursts played out like farcical capers. Deadly car chases were accompanied by the rollicking banjos of Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. Soft warm colors and evocative filtering imbued the mise-en-scene with a nostalgic aura. Meanwhile, trend-setting costumes worn beautifully by the iconic Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty aided and abetted the entire undertaking.
Some film critics, most notably Bosley Crowther of The New York Times, questioned the thematic value of a film that seemed to blame society's failures for the Barrow gang's criminal ways. Crowther's position in the debate (he dubbed the film's message "dangerous") was argued amidst the political turbulence and youthful unrest of late-1960s America. Other critics and filmgoers, myself included, were enthralled by the film and vociferously defended it as an exciting, imaginative work of art. For certain, its spirited, folk-hero treatment of wayward criminals and its frolicking, poetic rendering of violence vividly captured the upheaval in American filmmaking.
Bonnie and Clyde paved the way for subsequent interpretations of bandit life and violence in Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch (1969), for the rogue-cop heroics of Don Siegel's Dirty Harry (1971), and for the greatest gangster film of them all, Francis Ford Coppola's enduring classic, The Godfather (1972).
Bonnie and Clyde ranks number 27 in the American Film Institute's list of 100 greatest movies and has been chosen for preservation in the Library of Congress' National Film Registry.
What's Up, Doc?
Five years later, David Newman claimed another box-office hit with What's Up, Doc? (1972), directed by Peter Bogdanovich and starring two more pop icons, Ryan O'Neal and Barbra Streisand.
This time, Newman and co-writers Buck Henry and Robert Benton took inspiration from Howard Hawks' zany, fast-paced screwball comedy Bringing Up Baby (1938), co-authored by another U-M alum, Dudley Nichols, '17 (The Talkies' First Great Screenwriter, Michigan Today, April 2008). In Nichols' script, Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn are a mismatched couple—he a nervous, bumbling paleontologist and she a madcap socialite who travels with her pet leopard, Baby.
In 1972 it's O'Neal's absent-minded musicologist Howard Bannister sparring with Streisand's fast-talking and accident-prone Judy Maxwell. The plot is anchored by a classic MacGuffin ("something missing is being sought") in which four identical suitcases are in play on the 17th floor of a San Francisco hotel. Howard and his shrill, domineering fiancee Eunice (played by Madeline Kahn) are in town for the Congress of American Musicology where Howard hopes to secure a research grant to prove that igneous rocks played a role in early music composition.
Howard, Judy, and two other hotel guests are traveling with the same plaid overnight bag. In a clever plotting ruse leading to total confusion, Howard collects the wrong case and discovers it contains not his rocks but someone else's "secret documents." As thugs seek to recover their missing case, Streisand's Judy capitalizes on the baggage switch to get closer to her new friend Howard. The developing menage a trois with Eunice creates endless slapstick mayhem. The action peaks when Judy and Howard (desperate to reclaim his rock-filled case) grab all four bags and flee the hotel on a delivery bike. There is no funnier chase on film, as O'Neal and Streisand careen wildly through the rolling streets of San Francisco.
The screwball comedy's enduring appeal is the verbally barbed, witty repartee between the male and female protagonists. This quality is on full display in What's Up, Doc? Judy is as bright and wise as she is sharp-tongued and scheming. She's the perfect foil for the forgetful, uptight, and bumbling Howard.
In the end, all differences are reconciled with Howard apologizing to Judy for "all the things I did and said back there." We then are treated to a delicious inside joke as Judy replies, "Love means never having to say you're sorry" (O'Neal's oft-quoted line from the 1970 romantic tearjerker Love Story). In this film, O'Neal's Howard retorts, "That's the dumbest thing I ever heard." Appropriately, the closing credits also are preceded by the classic "Looney Tunes" sign-off, "That's all folks," a wink to the inspiration for the comedy's title.
While What's Up, Doc? has been universally praised for its tribute to classic screwball comedy, the screenwriters did tamper cleverly with the genre. There's a saucy scene played out with O'Neal and Streisand, pretty much undressed except for boxer shorts, ripped pajama bottoms, and a bath towel. In another convention-busting scene, Streisand is hiding under a blanket on the hotel rooftop before emerging to sing a lovely rendition of Cole Porter's "As Time Goes By" to an enraptured O'Neal. What's Up, Doc? has been listed in the American Film Institute's 100 funniest movies of all time.
Screwball Man of Steel
In reviewing this trio of Newman scripts, I found it fascinating that Superman: The Movie (1978) carried forward the screwball-comedy approach in developing the classic characters of Clark Kent (Christopher Reeve) and Lois Lane (Margot Kidder). As reporters at the Daily Planet Clark is depicted as an awkward, self-effacing novice (dressed in a nerdy double-breasted suit and dark-rimmed glasses) while Lois is smart and self-assured, both bemused and frustrated by her colleague's professional and personal naivete. The romantic arc of the film begins when Lois interviews a mysterious, flying super hero at her fashionable apartment. The dialogue here is a flirty tete-a-tete laden with sexual innuendo. Superman and Lois ultimately soar through the city's night skies in an iconic scene echoed decades later on the bow of James Cameron's Titanic.
This time the screenwriting team included Leslie Newman, Robert Benton, and Mario Puzo, along with David Newman. Their collective interpretation of Jerome Siegel's and Joseph Shuster's original comic-book characters dared to mix narrative styles: action-adventure, satire, and screwball comedy with mythic and religious themes. The movie begins with a fantastic special-effects sequence just before the destruction of the planet Krypton. We see Jor-El (Marlon Brando) preparing to "send us his only son," charging the newborn to aid the weak and seek justice for the wronged.
"You will be invulnerable," Jor-El tells the Earthbound infant. This mythic religious theme continues when the adult Clark leaves his human family on a mission to fulfill his father's business. His nemesis is the demonic Lex Luthor, played with evil glee by Gene Hackman. Throughout their battle of good versus evil, we see ethereal, God-like close-ups of Brando urging his son to stay the course. Much of the final third of the film comprises action-adventure sequences exploding with last-minute rescues and wild, fiery chases.
Richard Donner directed Superman: The Movie in New York and at Britain's Pinewood Studios. He collaborated with a team of incomparable special-effects technicians, many of whom worked with Stanley Kubrick on 2001: A Space Odyssey a decade earlier. Superman: The Movie emerged as one of the most commercially successful motion pictures of the 1970s, followed by three sequels. Its success inspired other producers to turn comic-book characters into cinematic super heroes. The Amazing Spider-Man, Men In Black 3, and The Dark Knight Rises (Batman) are in theaters this summer, just a few of the many comic franchises in play since the Newmans breathed life into mild-mannered Clark Kent.
Leslie and David Newman wrote more than a dozen motion pictures, including two of the Superman sequels. Leslie also became a best-selling cookbook author. David Newman died in 2003 at the age of 66.
is a film historian and critic, and Arthur F. Thurnau Professor Emeritus of Screen Arts and Cultures at the University of Michigan.