Keeping Up with the Addamses
Paul Rudnick, the openly gay writer who penned the script of Addams Family Values, lives in John Barrymore's Greenwich flat. He's one of the funniest gay men we've got, as he demonstrates in a conversation that ranges from whether he's glad he took his name off Sister Act to homophobia in Hollywood.
Four years at Yale University followed by a stint on Manhattan's off-Broadway theater circuit left Paul Rudnick bereft of at least one skill that every neophyte screenwriter requires: the ability to read upside down.
"Few highly placed executives will have read your book or play or even your screenplay," says Rudnick, who recently scripted Addams Family Values and doctored its predecessor. "They will have read two paragraphs of coverage that were written by some underling, who has also written a list of points to be discussed at the meeting. These are usually typed up on little blue pads, and the executive will have them laid out on his desk as if he is playing solitaire. If you learn to read upside down, you know the comments that will be coming to you during the next 10 minutes--because nothing he says will have anything to do with what he thinks of your work."
After a beat of hesitation, Rudnick adds, "Hollywood is beyond satire. Some of the people there make $800,000 per year, but you would not trust them to fold a shopping bag."
One of the film industry's few openly gay screenwriters, Paul Rudnick whips off biting observations with the consistency and efficiency of curves being fired from one of those machines that send baseballs sizzling into batting cages. But he does it with a screechy, knuckleball of a vocal pattern which seems somehow out of place here, in his decidedly baronial Greenwich Village apartment. Once inhabited by John Barrymore, it is now crammed to the skylight with baroque furnishings that might have been purchased at the Prince of Liechtenstein's liquidation sale. It's the sort of heirloomed environment that would be best complemented by a tenant who turns out in a dramatic smoking jacket and exudes an air of contrived bloodlines.
But that's not Rudnick. Dressed in blue jeans and a red sport shirt, the man of this manor carries an Ivy League undergrad's air of brainy impishness. Sitting across from me, he stretches out on a well-worn, oxblood colored chesterfield chair and props his feet on a matching settee. Rudnick leads with the kind of Roman nose that gives one a truly memorable look, and his wide eyes follow me as I slowly take in the elegantly cluttered digs: regal busts, sofas covered in old velvet, a scale model of a castle that had been built as a humidor but is now used for storing magazines.
Smiling, Rudnick acknowledges that owners of antique shops greet him as if he were a messiah. "Most stores will have one piece that I like--huge and carved and ugly--that nobody else would want," he explains, as I admire double-headed eagles embossed on the backs of chairs. "So, when I come in and buy it they are very happy to see it go." After acknowledging that a prominently displayed, Germanic-looking coat of arms is decidedly not a family heirloom--"My coat of arms would be two Twinkies and a Bic pen"--Rudnick sums up the look of his apartment: "The place is like Gomez Addams's bachelor pad."
I tell the screenwriter that it sounds like an unabashed bid to plug his new movie, then comply by asking how Addams Family Values will differ from its predecessor. "That film," I say of The Addams Family, "sort of worked around a plot, didn't it?"
"You might say that," he acknowledges, gamely. "In fact, it's wildly plotless, almost a model of plotlessness. The Addams Family was mostly about disguising the fact that there was no plot. Addams Family Values has an enormous amount of plot. And it's all my work. No other writer touched it, which is extremely rare." He hesitates for comic effect, then adds, "It's the Hope diamond of film writing."
Like the Addamses, Rudnick leads what seems to be a blithely eccentric existence that lacks any visible degree of self-consciousness or stomach-bleeding stress. And for a screenwriter, whose work usually gets tampered with by people less talented than himself, that's saying something. Rudnick tells me that it simply comes down to keeping Hollywood "in perspective." Sitting here with a view that encompasses both church steps and crack dealers near Washington Square Park, banging away on a Liquid Paper-spattered Selectric--Rudnick maintains that operating a computer, like driving, is beyond him--he has devised a wordsmith's balance. He writes plays for pauper's wages (I Hate Hamlet, which was set in this very Barrymore apartment, enjoyed a respectable run on Broadway two years ago, and his latest play Jeffrey currently ranks as an off-Broadway hit), but wins princely sums for his scripts.
Unlike most of his contemporaries, Rudnick has never written a word on spec for Hollywood--"The East is the spec coast," he says, "while the West Coast is the bank"--and maintains sight of the fact that studios can operate with the corporate ruthlessness of conglomerates dismantling unprofitable steel companies.
"You have to be very careful about the emotional investment that you put into a screenplay," cautions Rudnick. "Hollywood will not only break your heart, it will also transplant it into a baboon. So if you go in, allowing your life and your imagination to hinge on a studio film project, you will be destroyed. I try to do the best work that I can, but I don't allow that kind of work to define me or be a personal source of happiness. If I did, it would kill me."
"I take it that you're alluding to Sister Act," I venture, recalling the Whoopi Goldberg smash that Rudnick had originally scripted and subsequently removed his name from.
"Hey!" Rudnick replies with an air of put-on perkiness, "let's get into movie business torment."
Warming to the subject, but saving Sister Act for now, he opens with a tale of his still-unproduced script The Gossip Columnist, a screwball comedy about a down-and-out sportswriter who finds himself penning a Liz Smith-style column (naturally, with the assistance of a suddenly broke socialite/love interest).
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