I was a solitary child. I did a lot of reading. The books that kindled my ambition to be a writer were by W. Somerset Maugham. He not only wrote with here’s-how readability, he was also generous with advice. The way to succeed in the theater, for instance, was to write good parts for women. Give an actress of quality words she wants to say, and she will find a way to get your work produced. Even in today’s movies, where testosterone rules, get a ranking female to love your work, and you’re liable to have the best agent in town.
I started to write movies to buy time to write novels. In 1950s England, serious actors and serious writers despised the cinema. The first movie I wrote was in collaboration with Leslie Bricusse, who later won Oscars for his songs. We drove out to Pinewood Studios to meet our very English star, Sylvia Syms. Leslie was quick to embrace Miss Syms. I was more modest and held out my hand. Over 30 years later, I wrote a play, From the Greek, a version of the Oedipus myth set in Taos, New Mexico. The director, Jonathan Lynn, suggested the mature Miss Syms to play my modern Jocasta. She seemed interested, so we went to see her. When I approached her, with more showbizzy confidence than I had had before, she held out her hand. “I remember you,” she said, “very well. The last time we met you wouldn’t even kiss me.” And she didn’t do the play.
Stars are a special breed of actress. Some are so special that Emma Thompson declared recently that Audrey Hepburn “couldn’t act.” Perhaps that was her art. As a young girl in Nazi-occupied Holland, Audrey pedalled several times from her village to the woods where Resistance men were hiding, with provisions in her bicycle-basket. When stopped by a German patrol, she convinced them that she was the guileless pixie she decidedly was not. After they waved her on, I can imagine that she gave them enough of a smile to keep them foolish. If that wasn’t acting, that wasn’t acting. It was certainly some kind of training for the sweet duplicity that kept her young and made her seem forever artless.
My chance to work with Audrey, which came in the mid-1960s, was due to the director Stanley Donen. He had already made Funny Face, with her and Fred Astaire, and also, very recently, Charade, in which she starred with Cary Grant. I owe the contact with Stanley to Norman Panama, an old Hollywood hand who was resident in 1964 London. After I finished writing a movie called Darling, my agent made a deal for 17 weeks and good money for me to collaborate with Panama on a comedy for Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster called What Makes Tommy Run? I lasted one very long day and then I ran. I told Panama that I knew that I would never work again in the movies, but I couldn’t write with other people. He took it well and told me that he’d heard Stanley Donen raving about a movie I had just done, Nothing but the Best. “I don’t know him,” I said. Norman picked up the phone.
A few hours later, I was telling Stanley about an idea that occurred to me while driving down to the South of France. I asked my wife, Beetle, to imagine us overtaking ourselves as we had been quite a few years earlier, when we had hitchhiked the same road. How about I intercut several (in the end, five) such trips and tell the story of a couple’s marriage in a way that no one ever had before?
Stanley said, “Great! How do we do it?”
“We don’t,” I said. “I do. You give me some money, and I go away and write the script.”
“The last time I did that, I never saw the guy again.”
“You will me,” I said. “That’s the way it has to be or I won’t do it. Up to you.”
Stanley asked only that I do some kind of a treatment so that he could show the idea to Audrey. Why not? I wrote a synopsis of each of the couple’s trips and Stanley mailed the yellow pages to a Swiss village called Bürgenstock, where Audrey was living with her husband, Mel Ferrer. She wrote back to say she liked my idea, but she had just done a movie “a little too like it.” Paris When It Sizzles had flopped. And no flop ever left a good taste.
Stanley told Audrey that we were going ahead anyway. Beetle and I and our two children drove to Rome, where I drafted the movie on a deck of index cards. When the script was done, I mailed it to him and waited. He called, quicker than I even hoped. He was thrilled; it was going to be the best thing he ever did. Not bad from the man who directed Singin’ in the Rain. Audrey would probably still say no, but he figured on sending it to her anyway. We’d see what she said.
She said yes, please. A week or two later, I flew to Geneva to meet Stanley and we drove up to Bürgenstock. I imagined Audrey would want changes. People usually do. It empowers them. When we got to her snow-browed chalet, she said, “I don’t really want to talk about the script because it’s perfect and I don’t want Frederic to get too pleased with himself.”
When Mel Ferrer came into the house, Audrey said, “Here comes Melchior.” She had seemed very natural until that moment. Now I thought she was acting. Mel showed us a bunch of pictures he had taken for his forthcoming movie about El Greco. I don’t think he ever wondered why we were there.
Not even Audrey and the recent success of Charade (Stanley claims it was his only real hit) meant that Two for the Road was a shoo-in for immediate production. Several studios passed before Dick Zanuck and David Brown gave us the thumbs-up. Albert Finney, having almost won the Oscar for his naughty-boy performance in Tom Jones, was hot and willing to make a Hollywood movie. When we all had dinner in Nice, the day before we started shooting, Audrey looked at Beetle and me and said, “Now I get it.” She called Beetle “Legs.”
A few weeks later, I reread a scene Audrey and Albert were due to shoot the next afternoon. I took it upon myself to rewrite what I decided was “illogical” in Audrey’s dialogue. While we were having the early lunch that allowed crews in France to shoot uninterruptedly throughout the afternoon, I gave Audrey my revised version of the text. She read it and then she said: “Frederic, I never ever before questioned a thing you wrote. I hope you won’t mind, but I liked the old scene better.”
I was young and I knew it all. I said, “Audrey, I’m sorry, but you’re wrong, this one makes much more sense.”
She said, “Would you come and read them both with me?”
That was how I got to go into Miss Hepburn’s caravan and do a scene with her.
She said, “Which shall we do first?”
I said, “Oh, it really doesn’t matter, because—”
Audrey said, “How about we do the old one first?”
We sat down on her narrow bed and she had the first words, something as banal as “Good morning, darling!”
She said the line and then she looked at me and I looked at her and I said, “You know what? The old scene’s fine; it’s fine.”
Audrey brought my heroine to life in a truer way than she ever did any other character. (Did you really love Sabrina?) I kept hoping to do another movie with her. Ten years later, I wrote a novel called Richard’s Things, about a woman who, after her husband’s sudden death, discovers that he had a mistress. In pain and fury, she seeks the girl out and the two of them eventually fall in love. Audrey wrote me a four-page handwritten letter saying that she loved it and she couldn’t possibly do it. Her public would never forgive her. She had done something similar, in The Children’s Hour, in which her character was accused of being in a lesbian relationship, but—wouldn’t you know it?—it was just a malicious rumor. She wished me luck.
My luck then took the elegant form of Deborah Kerr. She loved the script, and she’d be happy for me to direct the movie. Even in From Here to Eternity when rolling on the Hawaiian beach with Burt Lancaster as the waves broke over them, Deborah could combine passion with being a lady. I was all set to become an auteur, but it never happened, despite Deborah’s loyalty to the project. Is it disloyal to say that Deborah had the bearing of a duchess and, when she chose to use it, the vocabulary of a fishwife? I am promised that there was nothing to equal the riffs of obscenity between her and her husband Peter
Viertel. I still regret not making my movie with her, and I will never forget the generosity of the handwritten note she sent me when, after five years of trying, I had to tell her that my producer wanted to “go elsewhere.”
My producer had sent the script to Tony Harvey (Stanley Kubrick’s editor on Doctor Strangelove and later the director of The Lion in Winter). He was a close, chaste friend of the other Hepburn, Katie. She loved the idea (and was not, it is said, exactly foreign to the practice) of a love story between two women, but she was too old, and knew it. So Tony showed it to Liv Ullman, who had left Sweden and was living in New York. I had admired her in Cries and Whispers and thought we had gotten lucky when she agreed to do the piece, with Tony as director.
Liv was now in her early 50s, which suited the part better than it suited her. She came to London with the fancy hairdresser she absolutely had to have and insisted on being lodged in style. We found a very pretty 18-year-old actress called Amanda Redman to play Richard’s mistress. I took them and who all else to dinner at the fashionable showbizzy White Elephant restaurant in Curzon Street, London. We had a big round table, not far from the entrance. Conscious that Liv might be bugged by people coming in and knowing who she was, I suggested that she might prefer to sit with her back to the door. “Why?” she said.
Liv was a world star. Mandy Redman was 18. Liv was jealous on sight and, more important, on set. To put it mildly, she did not make things easy for the debutante. Mandy was young, but she was also tough and came from an acting family. She stirred Liv’s hostility into the plot and held her own. Liv became increasingly querulous. Having agreed to the script, which remained unchanged, she refused to do bedroom scenes with Mandy. The movie ceased to be scandalous and became coy.
Liv’s hairdresser had a cute habit of calling her Miss Piggy. In my eyes, the resemblance grew. She is the only actress I have ever worked with who did not do her best for the piece. She may not have meant to sabotage it, but, in my opinion, she did not honor her professional obligation to do her best. Tony Harvey was her poodle and never dared to yap. Mandy Redman went on to a long, unfinished, and very successful career in English TV. Liv devoted herself to good causes.
I had been fortunate enough to be there at the creation of commercial television in England. Before 1960, TV was a BBC monopoly. The new channel had such an urgent need for scripts that I wrote three or four “plays” a year. I went to rehearsal and learnt through experience. It was an education at the deep end, which can’t be gained at film school. One day, during a coffee break, a young actress came up to me and said, “May I ask you something?”
“The H-bomb. Do you think it’s going to mean the end of the human race?”
I was happy to be a working writer, but I was nothing if not a closet intellectual. I met solemnity with solemnity. I balanced one thing against another and concluded that, while nothing was certain, mankind would survive. She thanked me and backed away. An older actress, Carmen Silveira (later a sitcom star) came up to me and said, “Darling, do you mind if I tell you something?”
“Of course not.”
“When anyone in the profession comes up to you in rehearsal and asks you a serious philosophical question, whatever it is, there is only one answer.”
“Really, Carmen? What’s that?”
“You say, ‘Darling, before I say anything else, allow me to say that you’re giving an absolutely marvelous performance!’”
In the mid-1960s, the director John Schlesinger and his producer, Jo Janni, asked me to work with them. They had just made two movies—A Kind of Loving and Billy Liar—in the all-too-realistic North of England. Jo now wanted to make the British equivalent of Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita. Although Julie Christie had had very few lines in Billy Liar, John had the camera follow her, as a discontented local girl, on a long, long walk through the charmless streets of Bradford. Her beautiful pout promised that she was dreaming of the lights of London. By the end of that walk, and without saying a word, Miss Christie was a rising star.
I was hired to make her shine. It took over two years to get the right polish on the script. John and Jo and I had more conferences than there are leaves in Vallombrosa. We laughed a lot and we shouted a lot and I loved it and I hated it. We never wondered what the audience wanted and we never showed a word to any executive. Jo had an instinct for film, but he did not do “notes.” We pleased ourselves and hoped what we did, if we got to do it, would please other people. Those certainly were the days.
I met Julie for the first time when we were already in production. Movie stars are always shorter than you expect. She was wearing flat shoes and a sack dress. Her hair was disorderly and she bit her nails. She was a star, not an actress. You could put words in her mouth, but they didn’t always fit. If she could give a line a wrong emphasis, she did. She seemed to fear fame as much as she craved it. The camera loved her, but she did not love the camera. John treated her like his child and his sister. Patient and impatient, he pampered her, and when she was lazy or sulky, he scolded her. He also kept her away from me. Directors are often wary of actors having access to writers and planning changes behind their backs. “Paranoia,” Stanley Kubrick said, “means knowing what’s going on.” After I had written the screenplay of Eyes Wide Shut, I never got to meet Nicole Kidman or Tom Cruise. I’m not sure I missed anything.
I rarely spoke directly to Julie. I cannot recall being alone with her. But she did once send me a telegram. It said that when my name was read out as the winner of the 1966 Oscar for original screenplay “i jumped out of my seat.” A cynic might say that he was not surprised that she did. My success—announced in the early stages of the ceremony—promised that hers was on the way. And so it was.
John and Jo and I were immediately commissioned, for big bucks, to turn Julie into the heroine of Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd. Julie was not spoiled by success, nor was she markedly thrilled by it. She gave a pretty good performance in our costume piece, but she never thanked anyone for putting her in it. There was something resentful in the way she greeted success. The Greta Garbo of “Swinging London,” of which Darling became the emblematic movie portrait, Julie wanted to be alone, almost. She went to live with Warren Beatty in a secluded suite at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel in L.A. The character of Dotty Lampard in my novel California Time is, I hope, some kind of a tribute to the star who got away.
I owe my longevity as a screenwriter above all to having won that Oscar for Darling. It lasted me through many of the never-again years of Development Heaven. Producers with the right deal had cash to splash for scripts that, in many cases, never got made. (It used to be said that Alvin Sargent was the sole A-list scribe who never wrote anything that didn’t get made.) I had my share of near misses, not least with actresses who loved my scripts but lacked Audrey’s clout. I never saw her again after we finished Two for the Road, but we did speak on the telephone when we coincided in the same hotel in Sydney, Australia, in 1989. We talked warmly, as people do in the biz, about “doing something else” together. A few years later she died. Billy Wilder, not the kindest man in the world, found the perfect epitaph: “God kissed her on the cheek, and there she was!”
In 1967, no one was hotter than Faye Dunaway. She came to London when Bonnie and Clyde was, as they used to say, “tearing up trees” worldwide. We met at some party and she begged me with serious eyes to do something with her. Dick Zanuck and David Brown, who were running 20th Century Fox, commissioned a script entitled Guilt, which they were happy for me to direct. I sent Faye the script and waited, and waited. Then I got a message: Would I call her? We were living in rural France. Just to get through to New York needed a lot of sweet talking to the opératrice, but I managed it. Faye started, pretty slowly, to tell me how she liked the script, but…She stopped and said, “OK with you if I just go and find a cigarette?”
“Of course.” I stood in the tight little kiosk in the village post office and waited, and waited.
Twenty expensive minutes went by and then she said, “Are you still there?”
“Pretty well,” I said.
She said, “I couldn’t find my cigarettes. I had to go down to the corner to get some.”
In 1969 I made my first trip to Hollywood. Faye was happy with the script. I assumed that we were going to get the green light. My William Morris agent said not a single movie had started production in the previous six months. I wouldn’t have guessed it from the way Dick and David greeted me. Then they sent me to see the guy in charge of budgeting. He told me a movie that was set, in good part, in Africa was going to be expensive unless I could use 30 Japanese Zero fighter planes that he had left over from Tora! Tora! Tora!, the first of the flops about Pearl Harbor. I flew back to England, still supposedly an imminent director, and then I heard that Dick Zanuck had been fired by his father, Darryl, and all production cancelled. I went back to writing novels, which don’t need green lights and have small use for Zero fighters. I never heard another word from Faye, known later among insiders as “Fadin’ Away.”
I have had meetings with a lot more stars than ever appeared in a movie of mine. Diane
Keaton, hot from Annie Hall, had only one problem with the character in a 1979 script entitled A New Wife: “Couldn’t you have written her with bigger breasts?” Diane was slated to star with Al Pacino, but the pair demanded the contractual right to choose the director. Unfortunately, and not at all surprisingly, no director they wanted was willing to be grateful to them for his selection. Did I ever suggest myself? I may be Chicago-born, but I am a little too Briddish for my own good.
Or maybe, as William Goldman said to me, it was better to be a free man, at least some of the time, and write books.
In the 1980s, I was asked to go and see Jane Fonda to discuss an idea she had for a film about politics, with Bob Redford. Jane was still married, just, to Tom Hayden. The idea was that she would be a left-wing activist and Redford would be a Republican with a stiff shirt. By the time I almost got to work, Jane had left Hayden and swung to Ted Turner.
A year or two later, Ray Stark told me that Barbra Streisand wanted to do a sequel to The Way We Were. A few days later, the metal gates to her Chevy Chase pad slid open for me. I sat with Barbra and her stern manager lady for an hour and then I got up to go. She said I should stay for ice cream. I was there for another three hours. She was who she was, and she was also nothing if not needy, very. I told Ray that I didn’t feel very inspired about the script, but I did have a title.
“That’s great,” he said. “That’s the toughest part. What is it?”
“The Way We Wore.”
Natalie Wood was another star who almost shone in my small firmament. In 1980, I talked to her at a pre-Christmas party on Zuma Beach in California. While the rest of us played frisbee, she lay full-length on the sand, looking at herself in the mirror from her compact. When someone asked her what she wanted for Christmas, she said, “Yesterday.” The following May, she and husband R.J. Wagner telephoned me from Cannes. She wanted to make a movie about Zelda Fitzgerald. Could they come up and talk about it? I said they were welcome, but our French house was at least an eight hours’ drive from the Hotel du Cap. So the idea was put on hold. That November, I saw Natalie’s name in the headlines of the French TV news and knew it meant nothing good. Not unlike Zelda, she had died in an accident that seemed just a little like suicide.
David Brown remained a friend. Twenty years after we struck out with Guilt, he let me direct a half-hour piece for a TV series called Tales of Seduction. My stars, in my free adaptation of Mary McCarthy’s short story “The Man in the Brooks Brothers Shirt,” were Elizabeth McGovern and Beau Bridges. Elizabeth is the smartest actress I ever worked with. Unlike Julie Christie, she relished my dialogue and made every consonant count. The action took place on a 1930s train. Elizabeth’s character has way too much to drink and tries, not very hard, to escape from her seducer’s sleeper by rising unsteadily to her feet and saying, “I think I’ll just go and bury myself in a good book. Which way is the library on this boat?” It’s not a great line, but the way she said “boat” put it way up there. We won an Ace award for the Best Picture on Cable TV. But then, in a line I attributed to Billy Wilder, and he to me, “Awards are like hemorrhoids: In the end every asshole gets one.”
Elizabeth made one great movie, Once Upon a Time in America, but she didn’t have a great time doing it. Her Hollywood career did not take off. She came to England and married a TV director and was happy instead. Then she got cast, as a British aristocrat’s American wife, in a series called Downton Abbey, and now she is some kind of a worldwide name. I’d like to think she never gets lines to say as good as the ones I gave her, but she still says them just fine.
Do I still hope to make movies with big stars? Do I not? Although not at liberty to disclose who she is, I have a movie about to go into production with one of today’s greatest beauties. I’ll believe it when I see it.