Screenwriters: 20/20 Vision

We asked 20 top screenwriters, from Robert Benton and William Goldman to Cameron Crowe and Daniel Waters, to name a favorite screenplay

The moguls who invented Hollywood may have been crass and megalomaniacal, but they were showmen who loved good yarns, and they knew that the most important element in any movie was the script. Today's executives lavish their attention on just about everything except the script--more thought is given to the special effects, the soundtrack album, and marketing tie-ins.

Perhaps because of the old moguls' reverence for the word, there was a time when Hollywood attracted great writers from every other field. As Anita Loos once observed, "When the writers were all moved into the Thalberg Building at MGM, a directory in the downstairs lobby listed, at one time or another, every important American, English, French, and Hungarian author in the world." These scribes often didn't enjoy their sojourn in Lotusland, but they brought rare qualities to the movies--literate dialogue, elegantly structured stories, memorable characters, and, sometimes, a vestige of their political passion and concern. Even routine, forgettable movies were brightened by ingenious plot twists and witty repartee. Most of those qualities have vanished today, partly because the bosses don't appreciate literacy, and also because the writers themselves don't have the wealth of experience in journalism, playwriting, or fiction that helped an earlier generation to hone their storytelling skills.

There are still, however, gifted writers working in Hollywood, and we thought it would be illuminating to ask 20 prominent screenwriters to name their favorite scripts. Many of them cited older movies and spoke wistfully of the very qualities that have virtually disappeared.

Some of the people I surveyed have themselves written scripts I would list among my own favorites. Robert Benton's Kramer vs. Kramer is one of the rare adaptations that improves on the novel that inspired it at absolutely every juncture. George Axelrod's The Manchurian Candidate is another deft adaptation, full of wit and ingenuity and astonishing narrative complexity. Frederic Raphael's Two for the Road is a dazzling original screenplay, the most inventive time travel adventure ever conceived, and also unexpectedly moving.

Kurt Luedtke created in Absence of Malice one of the smartest issue-oriented melodramas since the Warner Bros. movies of the '30s, and, in terms of ensemble characterization, Barry Levinson's Diner stands out for its novelistic texture and sense of detail.

Many of my own choices for best screenplay--Ben Hecht's script for Notorious and Robert Towne's script for Chinatown, for example--are not among the selections here. Among other glaring omissions, I note that there's no Woody Allen movie among our 20 selections. Two Preston Sturges movies appear, but only one Billy Wilder. If I had to pick my favorite writer, it would definitely be Wilder. I would be hard pressed to decide between Some Like It Hot, Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard, or Ace in the Hole (released as The Big Carnival), and that isn't even counting the scripts like Ninotchka and Midnight that Wilder wrote before he started directing.

Only one of the writers I reached refused to play the game. Richard Price (The Color of Money, Sea of Love) said, "I don't read screenplays. And from just seeing a film, I couldn't even begin to guess what the writer did and what's been added." When asked if there were screenwriters he admired, Price answered peevishly, "No. It's a craft." But most of the writers I spoke to were reluctant to limit themselves to singling out just one favorite screenwriter's best work.

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