By Richard Walter
Among my favorite movies is Sweet Smell of Success, screenplay by legendary playwright Clifford Odets collaborating with Oscar-winning screenwriter (North by Northwest among many splendid films) Ernest Lehman. Tony Curtis, in the most brilliant performance of his career, plays NYC publicist Sid Falco, who is always sucking up to the unethical publicity power broker, newspaper columnist J.J. Hunsecker (did these writers know how to name characters or what?) played by Burt Lancaster.
Falco’s posture is always hunched against the cold of the New York winter night; he never wears a coat because this enables him forever to avoid tipping the coat room girls in the nightclubs where he plies his trade.
There is a short and timeless scene wherein several figures including Falco and Hunsecker make their way down a dank, dark, drizzle-dampened street in the nightclub district, when suddenly a rowdy, drunken patron is tossed out of a below-ground night club up into the gutter, directly in their path. They all step over the guy. Hunsecker pauses to look at the fellow lying there unconscious in the street. He smiles broadly and joyously proclaims, “God, I love this dirty town!”
Right there you know all there is to know about Lancaster’s character. He simply adores the tawdry, shameful aspects of life in Gotham. The audience empathizes not so much with the exiled bar patron but instead with Hunsecker and Falco. There IS something seductive, something darkly reassuring, about being upright and comfortable in this urban jungle, which comfort is and brought into a kind of palpable relief by its contrast with the fallen stature of the fallen drinker. There is sympathy also for Falco, because we see the sort of coldhearted creatures to whom he is required to cater.
In a meaningful scene in the splendid Kramer Versus Kramer, a film I refer to repeatedly in my book Essentials of Screenwriting, a father prepares French toast for his young son’s breakfast.
The scene reveals how inept and disinterested a father Kramer is at this juncture in the narrative. His wife, played by Meryl Streep, has abandoned the boy and his father, moving out of the house the previous evening. She’s done this several times in the past, but by the following morning she has always returned. This morning, however, she is still gone. Hoffman’s character is saddled with the chore of actually preparing his kid’s breakfast. He decides that to do so is no big deal. Don’t women make such a federal case out of simple tasks? He is certainly capable of preparing breakfast for the kid. He chooses not simply to pour cornflakes into a bowl and spill some milk over it. No, he asks the kid what his dream breakfast would be. The son requests French toast.
No problem. Kramer starts looking for a proper bowl in the cabinets in order to fix the eggs and sugar and milk and bread, but he can’t find one. We realize that he is as lost in his own kitchen as I might be in the jungles of Borneo. Instead of a bowl he settles for a drinking glass. This necessitates, of course, folding and tearing the bread in order to get it into the goblet. The French toast emerges a wreck.
In a scene at the end of the movie, Kramer makes French toast again. This time, however, he has matured as a father and a man. He knows exactly where the proper bowl resides, and also the appropriate stainless steel whisk. He expertly wields a shaker containing powered sugar, which he delicately sifts onto the toast. He is by all measures in this scene the Wolfgang Puck of French toast. He knows exactly how to accomplish the task. He is quite a different character from the one we met at the beginning of the movie.
Screenwriter Robert Benton, adapting the Avery Corman novel, is able to utilize the mundane action of preparing French toast to create a metaphor representing the growth and maturation and fulfillment of the protagonist. This is so much more dramatic, so much more effective, than any car chase or shooting. A simple, common, everyday action is transformed into a transforming experience for the central character. It is far more eloquent than any amount of dialogue the sharpest screenwriter could have invented.
Writers are well advised, therefore, to search for similarly down-to-earth actions to elicit character development.
Finally, for now, let’s look at Terminator II. Arnold Schwarzenegger falls from the sky stark-naked onto the ground fronting a dark, dingy, and dangerous biker bar somewhere out on a lonely highway. The establishment pulses with grim and gritty bikers drinking, farting, growling, belching, and shooting pool. Suddenly the unclothed Austrian, Terminator, enters. The audience sees from his point of view that he is measuring all the various participants as they regard him in confusion and derision. Finally he spots one particularly large biker who fits him perfectly. Quietly and matter-of-factly Arnold instructs him, “Give me your clothes and your motorcycle.”
Instead of becoming angry, instead of threatening Terminator, the biker responds calmly, almost sweetly, but dripping with sarcasm, “You forgot to say please.”
This may not seem like a whole lot, but I regard it as a stunningly articulate example of subtext, of implication. Subtext and implication are always more effective than text and expression, the latter two tending to be “on-the-nose,” that is, too obvious, insufficiently subtle. One of the essential principles in my books holds that not video and computer games alone but all art is interactive. The biker’s line is so much more effective than his saying directly something like, “Are you crazy? You think I’m gonna give up my clothes and my bike to a naked lunatic stranger? Why, me and my buddies are gonna grind you into hamburger, you moron.”
It is, of course, not Terminator but the biker who is ground into hamburger.
These are but a handful of scenes that demonstrate essential aspects of dramaturgy in which by avoiding over-obvious constructions, screenwriters can draw audiences to them and their movies via subtlety and understatement.
Shout and scream and confront your audience? Drive them away. Withdraw from them instead and they will pursue you.
About the Author: Richard WalterRichard Walter is a celebrated storytelling guru, movie industry expert, and longtime chairman of UCLA’s legendary graduate program in screenwriting. A screenwriter and published novelist, his latest book, Essentials of Screenwriting, is available in stores July 2010. Professor Walter lectures throughout North America and the world and serves as a court authorized expert in intellectual property litigation. For more information and to order the new Essentials of Screenwriting, visit www.richardwalter.com.