Wednesday, July 2, 2014

"Pitch Imperfect"

Over a rather extended career, it is noteworthy how very few “Giants of the Industry” I ran into along the way.  It could be because I almost never went to parties (unless they related to shows I was working on) and because I worked in television, where, before cable and Netflix, the “Giants of the Film Industry” rarely showed their proud faces unless their options had diminished to “It’s this or go home.”

A notable exception to this dearth of “Encounters With Greatness” was:

I was once pitched a movie idea by Stanley Donen.

If director Stanley Donen were known for only one movie – and he wasn’t; he made many wonderful films including two of my favorites, Charade, (1963), and perhaps the only romantic movie I ever liked, Two For The Road (1967) – it would be more than enough to enshrine him in the pantheon of moviemaking immortals. 

If that movie was – and in fact is

Singin’ In the Rain.

I am on record as being an enthusiastic fan of, if not all musicals, then of the “musical genre” itself.  I am, however, considerably less enthusiastic about movie musicals.  Why?  For two reasons:

Stage musicals are, by their nature and the audience’s acceptance, theatrically artificial.  Transferred to the more realistic medium of the Big Screen, these stage adaptations often appear, what’s the word?...


Most especially West Side Story (1959), where the “gangs” were required to dance in actual streets, risking “switchblades-versus-pirouettes” confrontations with real gangs, and looking ridiculously out of place.  (While winning 10 Oscars, so the Academy voters – in contrast to myself – bought it!)

The other reason movie musicals do not make it for me is that, at the end of the songs and most especially the production numbers, there is a deflating hole where the theater audiences’ applause would be, causing the counterpart “movie moments” to fall thuddingly flat, ignominiously “lying there” like a failed joke garnering what they call in the comedy business, “crickets.” 

The single and glorious exception to this generalization being,

The magnificent and multiply exhilarating,

Singin’ In The Rain.


You can imagine my excitement when my agent informed me that Singin’ In the Rain’s director Stanley Donen was inquiring if he could take me to lunch and pitch me a movie idea he was interested in my writing for him.

(One of the perks for writers who are {momentarily} “hot in television” is the occasional nibble from “features.”  To date, however, the only film offers that had come my way were for sequels – action pictures Romancing The Stone II, and Cannonball Run IV.  In both cases I said no, explaining that my character-driven proclivities would only slow down the mayhem.)

We met at The Lobster, a landmark seafood emporium bordering the Santa Monica Pier.  Mr. Donen immediately sent chills down my spine by informing me that he had once taken Judy Garland to that very eatery.

The years have robbed me of a precise recollection of his appearance, though “casually elegant” comes not inappropriately to mind.  I also recall an endearing humility, a relaxed presentation and an unerring politeness.  (Not bad for an encounter three decades in the past I did not know I would someday be writing about.)

I recall thinking – while it was occurring 

“I am lunching with a Cinematic Icon.”  (So do not slide your vegetables onto your fork with your finger.)

And then, after some preliminary chitchat, the legendary Stanley Donen pitched me the movie idea that he wanted me to write.

And it was terrible.

(To my subjective sensibilities.  I will forthwith describe it, and you can decide that for yourselves.)

This was his idea:

A neophyte comedian is meeting with a frosty reception.  He is unable to get his “stand-up” career off the ground.  In one of those casual “throwaway” moments that often propel movie plots into action, the failing comedian complains about how well the black comedians (Think:  Richard Pryor and Bill Cosby) are doing and – Lightbulb! – he determines to (somehow) pass himself as African American, this daring but necessary subterfuge, guaranteeing his deserving success.  (Because he’s funny, he’s just not – the only obstacle in his way and the assured “ticket to the top” – black.)

That’s the movie idea I was pitched by Stanley Donen.

We finished our lunch, we returned to my house (for some reason), where Mr. Donen graciously signed an autograph for my then young stepdaughter Rachel (who adored Singin’ In the Rain), we shook hands, and he left.

I then called my agent and told him to pass on the offer.

I can always be wrong.  You tell me.  Was that a terrible idea, or, perhaps fearing that with my limited abilities would render me incapable of doing the opportunity justice, did I defensively convince myself it was a terrible idea? 

As I recall at the time, Donen’s pitch felt generically racist to me, the product, it seemed, of an out-of-touch filmmaker isolated in rarefying socio-cultural confines of Beverly Hills. 

I never saw Stanley Donen again.  And as I recall, I never again met a “Cinematic Giant” even close to his stature.

Perhaps he had spread the word amongst the “Film Legends” that I was unworthy of their valuable time.

Postscript:  As far as I know, Donen’s “failing white comedian passing as black” movie was never made.


Wendy M. Grossman said...

I don't know of a movie with that plot, but I think there *was* a movie - wasn't there? - where someone passed himself off as black (somehow) for a scholarship or something? Yes: SOUL MAN (1986).

I don't think it's a plot *I* would have wanted to write because one of the things that makes me cringe when I'm watching something is that sort of identity fraud. You know at some point they'll have to be found out, and while I can look on the blood in horror movies with aplomb (but don't, because it seems stupid) I do not enjoy the nervous tension through the inevitable will-this-will-this-not-be-the moments.

(Although at least if you're the one writing it you know they're coming.)

I never saw SOUL MAN, but I'm going to guess that a comedian who is failing at his craft is not going to have his problem solved by changing his apparent race. I did see - and loved - VICTOR/VICTORIA, in which Julie Andrews plays a woman who so desperately needs work that she poses as a female impersonator (under the guidance of ROBERT PRESTON's gay queen), and TOOTSIE, where Dustin Hoffman poses as a woman to get work. But they were much more plausible scenarios, for a variety of reasons. And you could root for the characters who were doing it. Whereas, SOUL MAN (which, granted, I didn't see), sounds like it was about an entitled white kid who essentially stole a limited resource from a much less advantaged kid.

Could you have found a way to make Donen's character sympathetic? It's not like there's a limited number of spots for successful comedians the way there is for Harvard scholarships. But I think you'd have had a hard time dealing with the race relations aspect of it. You don't say what year this meeting was. If it was any time in the 1990s, one word kills the project: Seinfeld?


Patti Cake Davis said...

Was trying to recall the name of that movie without any success, so thanks Wendy, you nailed it. I did not see it but did read about it this a.m. C. Thomas Howell needs a scholarship to attend Harvard and apparently, being black would give him an advantage. I believe he took some kind of pills that gradually turned his skin dark. Ironically, the flick was written by Carol Black. And one more note of little interest and no consequence, way down on the cast list is Ron Reagan, yes, the son of...

That flick of course is nothing like that proposed by Donen. I wouldn't want to see it, either.