Love the author? Rereading something pithy? Here are films – fiction and documentary – about the person.
Members of The Algonquin Round Table
The Ten Year Lunch 1987 Produced and Directed by Aviva Slesin. Terrific! If you have any interest at all, watch this one. Narrated by Heywood Hale Broun whose father, Heywood Broun, was a member, with talking heads Helen Hayes, Ruth Gordon, Mark Connelly and Margolo Gilmore, who calls these her “laughing years.” (Only working women were allowed.) Marvelous quotes, period cartoons, photos and film footage. There were 19 newspapers in New York and six in Brooklyn. The written word was influential.
At the top of the decade after WWI, Alexander Wolcott, who became the drama critic of The New York Times, boasted of his war escapades with such pomposity, friends grew weary. Press agent Murdoch Pemberton lured Wolcott to a table peopled by his young peers intending a full out roast. It backfired. Everyone had a great time with daily lunches following. Some of those who became illustrious were Robert Benchley, Dorothy Parker, George S. Kaufman, Edna Ferber, Harpo Marx, Harold Ross (Founder of The New Yorker), and Marc Connelly who said, “We all admired each other, shared an irreverent view of life and an appreciation of malice.”
Many in the group segued from the Times or Vanity Fair to Life (then a humor magazine) and/or The New Yorker. (Afterwards, there was a partial migration to Hollywood.) When challenged to use the word horticulture in a sentence, Parker retorted “You can lead a whore to culture, but you can’t make her think.” Benchley failed a Harvard Law exam about fishing rights by answering from the point of view of the fish. Ringleader Wolcott once sent a telegram to the leading man of one of his plays that said: “Watching your performance from the back of the house. Wish you were here.”
The film follows members at and outside the iconic hotel over ten years of personal and social change. Fun! YouTube or OpenCulture.com (free)
Dorothy Parker and Members of The Algonquin Round Table
Mrs. Parker and The Vicious Circle 1994 Directed by Alan Rudolph. Despite Jennifer Jason Leigh’s apparently copious research on Dorothy Parker, her clenched teeth, elongated, nasal delivery and consistently heavy eyelids are something you have to get past/ignore. Caricature is stretched much too far. (I double checked on YouTube). Most other actors (a large cast all took pay cuts to make the film) are fine, however, many resembling their characters. Campbell Scott is terrific as Robert Benchley, Parker’s platonic, unspoken love and dearest friend (she slept around) until his death from cirrhosis.
The writer’s first husband returned from war an addict, her second husband (the Hollywood days) was gay. She made multiple suicide attempts (we see one), drank considerable liquor, and inspired unconditional friendships. Between scenes, close-ups of Leigh rendering Parker’s poetry seem excessive as the character recites throughout narrative. We see the lively, ever expanding group, watch Parker rise to notoriety, observe debauched parties, and part of the revue the “members” put on to raise money. (Everything looks great.) Parker outlived most of her friends. “I write doodads because it’s a doodad kind of town.” Rent on Amazon Prime and Netflix.
Heartbeat 1980 Based on the autobiography by Carolyn Cassidy, wife of Neal Cassidy, Jack Kerouac’s model for the character Moriarty in On the Road. Written and Directed by John Byrum. “Like Boswell and Johnson our friendship created art.” Intermittently narrated by Sissy Spacek as Carolyn Cassidy, the film traces the long, deep friendship between Kerouac (John Heard), first seen writing in his mother’s kitchen, and Cassidy (Nick Nolte), as he exits prison for car theft and promptly steals another vehicle.
Having driven across country together, both men fall in love with Carolyn, a sophisticated, upper class art student who would appear an unlikely match. They compete for her. Playing dirty and seemingly catnip to women despite the way he treats them, Neal wins. Meanwhile, Kerouac writes a Benzedrine-fueled On the Road on a roll of teletype paper. In New York, the book ricochets from publisher to publisher with the help of friend, Ira (Ray Sharkey) a stand-in for Allen Ginsberg.
Kerouac leaves the west coast. He hoboes, writes, picks crops, and works as a merchant marine, eventually landing again in San Francisco by ship. Carolyn and Neal now have children. It’s obvious that Cassidy hates his regular job and perceived-as-restrictive home life and that Carolyn is suffering. They become a ménage a trois.
When Kerouac gets his book published, he returns to New York, disappearing into a world of public adulation. On the Road becomes synonymous with the burgeoning “Beat Generation.” Cassidy leaves home, joins Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters, and gets arrested for marijuana. “Neal went to prison, Jack was sentenced to posterity.” Everyone seems authentic. Rent on Amazon Prime.
What Happened to Kerouac? 1986 Directed by Richard Lerner. From the horses’ mouths. This documentary focuses largely on interviews with those who knew Kerouac well. We hear from many of the important writers of what we, not they, call the beat movement: Gregory Corso, Michael McClure, Gary Snyder, William Burroughs, John Clellon Holmes, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Allen Ginsberg as well as Kerouac’s daughter, his last ex-wife Edie (who regrets their parting), and his love, Carolyn Cassidy.
There’s a glimpse of Neal Cassidy himself (Moriarty in On the Road), Kerouac’s appearance on The Steve Allen Show which treats us to the author’s own reading aloud (he’s wonderful!) while Allen plays quiet jazz, and snippets from a William Buckley Firing Line interview showing the author bloated and boozy at 46. Impression of the working class kid who evolved into an unwitting avatar with 12 novels under his belt paints him as sensitive, self-conscious, and shy. He’s several times referred to as a mama’s boy.
McClure cites every novel as an act of desperation. Ferlinghetti compares Kerouac to Thomas Wolfe. Gary Snyder wistfully recalls often inebriated conversations about Buddhism. He’s repeatedly described as physically clean cut and beautiful; dedicated to writing above all else and any person. When Fran Landesman approached him about alcohol, Kerouac responded, “I’m a Catholic so I can’t commit suicide, but I plan to drink myself to death.” Rent Amazon through Pluto Free Live TV and Movies (has commercials).
Let It Come Down: The Life of Paul Bowles 1998 Directed by Jennifer Baichwal. Paul Bowles was raised by a cold, domineering father and a mother who read him Edgar Allan Poe at night. He began his creative life as a composer admired by Ned Rorem. When Prokofiev unusually accepted Bowles as a student, the young man didn’t show up. Travel called. He became a part of Gertrude Stein’s circle in Paris – “Everyone was humiliated in that house” – then took a villa with Aaron Copeland in Morocco resolving to return. In Germany, Bowles met Christopher Isherwood who named Sally Bowles after him. For a decade his life was music and poetry.
In 1938, he married Jane Auer, also a writer. They settled in Tangier where rent, servants, drugs, and sex were cheap. (Though devoted to each other, each preferred his/her own gender.) Jane’s husband was often gone. “I wrote in bed in hotels in the desert.” His stories strike at one’s emotions without ever expressing them. They’re visceral, dark, and hugely evocative. “It’s absurd to me to believe there’s some kind of super consciousness…” describes absence of religion. Except for a few talking heads, and an actor reading excerpts, the subject, an old man, talks throughout.
William Burroughs, Alan Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky arrived in Tangier. (Also Tennessee Williams and Cecil Beaton.) Bernardo Bertolucci decided to make a film of The Sheltering Sky. Its author thought it a poor idea as all the action takes place in the couple’s minds. Before Moroccan independence, living was easy. Afterwards, things radically changed. Bowles says (late 1990s) he doesn’t know why he’s living there. “I probably want to escape, but the cost of comfort would be too great.” A glimpse of the author and geography that painted his books, but no candid look at his decadent life. Free with Fandor Trial on Amazon Prime.
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