Maybe it’s the romantic in me, but I’ve always been a sucker for films that offer glimpses, no matter how superficial, into the working life of a writer. When it’s a real literary figure, say Truman Capote as embodied by Philip Seymour Hoffman, I marvel at how the actor, faced with the impossibly daunting task of portraying a known figure, pushes the role beyond imitation to suggest something deeper, all the while mindful of the expectations that a celebrity-savvy audience will have.
When the protagonist is a fictional creation, the actor, I imagine, is freer to characterize from the get-go, without the anchor of audience expectation weighing him down.
It’s an interesting genre of film – writer as film protagonist. In Barton Fink, John Turturro paid back the Coen brothers for their creative brilliance by handing them a singular performance, taking his character – a writer struggling for words – down a wonderfully, sometimes nightmarishly, surreal path.
It’s a long list, and please feel free to offer your own examples, but off the top of my head there’s Michael Douglas as Grady Tripp, a professor tackling his own demons as he struggles to finish his novel in the film of Michael Chabon’s The Wonder Boys.
Then there’s Nicolas Cage in Adaptation, written by Charlie Kaufman, in which Cage explores some sort of human duality as both the critically successful but blocked Charlie Kaufman, and his “brother,” the gregarious, open and popular Donald.
And then there’s Woody Allen’s Harry Block in Deconstructing Harry. Harry tries to conquer his writer’s block, while we see excerpts from Harry’s earlier thinly veiled autobiographical stories depicted, back-to-back, with related moments from Harry’s personal life. So Woody, as Harry, fights with his ex, played by Judy Davis, and later we see a chapter from Harry’s last novel, with Richard Benjamin as Harry’s fictional alter ego, having the affair that would lead to the break-up.
It’s a curious film. A seventy-ish New York author, who was part of that mid-century New York literary crowd, Leonard Schiller’s first two published novels, both somewhat youthful and confessional, had critical success, while his next two novels, which, for a number of reasons, looked out rather than in, were seen as disappointments by those who wanted him to effectively keep writing his early novels over and over again. All his novels are now out of print, his name barely registers in modern publishing circles, and he’s in failing health. Yet he is quietly determined to complete his decade-long work-in-progress. Dignified and disciplined, Leonard seals himself off and plugs away.
His routine is interrupted by Heather Wolfe, played by Lauren Ambrose (Claire on “Six Feet Under”). A grad student doing her thesis on Leonard Schiller, she’s hell-bent on resurrecting his name and bringing his books back into print. Trouble is she suffers from the same myopia as his early fans. She only “gets” his first couple of novels, dismissing his subsequent work. Personal events may indeed have altered the tone of his later works, but her arrogant conclusions show a reader somewhat lacking in flexibility. She’s also, to be frank, a bit of a head-case – at times insufferably fawning, at other times shrill in her certainty. But she’s vibrant and articulate and forces Leonard into some psychological corners that he’s been avoiding for decades.
A sub-plot involving Leonard’s daughter Ariel – approaching 40 and determined to have a baby – is interesting and strongly acted by Lili Taylor. (Bit of a Six Feet Under reunion here. I half-expected to see Nathaniel Sr. pop up in a dream). But as compelling as Taylor and Ambrose are, I must admit I often found myself simply wanting to see more of Leonard’s quiet work at his typewriter, and a little less of the surrounding melodrama. It might not have been conventionally cinematic, and certainly human interaction sparks his character, but a bit more character, and a bit less plot might have struck a better balance. After all, Leonard is a hell of a central character.
In a season of big, flashy performances, Frank Langella’s Leonard Schiller is a quiet masterpiece. In a few, carefully chosen words, in his deportment and manner, Langella suggests doubt, uncertainty, longing and dogged determination. His Leonard is a human being with the whole mess of frailties that come with it.
Who says there’s no drama in an empty page in a lonely typewriter? Or, I suppose, in a blinking cursor on a back-lit screen. Put an actor of Langella’s caliber in front of it, and you’ll have a film character for the ages.