May 25, 2013
Written by Mark Schumann, Father of Three
Thursday, 02 August 2012 12:42
For all of us who love movies, the film work of screenwriter Frank Pierson is essential to the screen. This week, the Reel Dad remembers what will make his words so special.
Of the many talents it takes to make a movie, the screenwriter can be the easiest to overlook. While the director is lauded for the visual excitement, and the performers applauded for dramatic intensity, the screenwriter often only gets mentioned when the work is less than expected. But a movie cannot be great without great words. And the person who creates the words is the foundation.
Frank Pierson loved to write words for the screen, from his early work in television (starting with Route 66) in the 1950s to, most recently, co-writing an episode of Mad Men. He knew instinctively that, without words, no magic could happen and that authentic words only emerge from well developed characters. He perfected a special skill of telling challenging stories that many others might eagerly avoid. When he died last week, at age 87, this former president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences left behind a gallery of fine works. Let’s take a look.
Cool Hand Luke. Its signature line, “what we’ve got here is (a) failure to communicate,” captures the generational divide that rocked the late 1960s. This 1967 classic, starring Paul Newman, details a man who refuses to adjust to the realities of life in a rural prison. Within a standard genre, Pierson elevates the screenplay to a fascinating character study of the American rebel, disconnected from his country, in touch with himself, seeking some kind of resolution to everything that hurts. And the classic “communicate” line is rated number 11 on the American Film Institute list of memorable movie quotes.
Dog Day Afternoon. Who else but a writer as creative as Pierson who have taken a true story — of a severely bungled bank robbery in Brooklyn — and turned it into another memorable character study of what people will do for those they love. From the basic facts, of a man planning to steal enough money so his male lover can undergo a sex change operation, Pierson examines how the American social system of the time can so easily fail to support the very people who most need help. Without casting judgment, or overly portraying the dramatics, Pierson makes us believe that what we do for others can, at times, defy explanation. To no one’s surprise, Pierson won an Oscar for this superlative work.
Cat Ballou. Early in her career, before she pursued high dramatics or video aerobics, Jane Fonda was a hard-working comedienne in 1960s films. This delightful spoof is, for its time, what Blazing Saddles was several years later, a fun frolic through the Old West with just enough wise convention to ground the hysterical comedy. Fonda is a prim young woman who, in the Old West, is drawn to revenge after her father is murdered. Lee Marvin, in a dual role as the villain and a drunken gunslinger, is the perfect comic foil in his Oscar-winning performance.
On the small screen, Pierson’s work continued to grow through the years, with episodes for Mad Men and The Good Wife. The writer simply loved the play with words. And Frank Pierson always believed that, no matter what else may happen on the screen, the words must come first.
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