The 59th Annual Writers Guild Awards, February 11, 2007
I am a playwright, and I also write for the musical theatre. The Color Purple is my latest Broadway outing, I teach at Juilliard and NYU, and am the VP of the Dramatists Guild. I have a Pulitzer for ‘Night, Mother, and a Tony for The Secret Garden. So given this record, people have assumed I’m who you go to for stuff that’s hopeless, noble, and tragic. But it wasn’t always that way.
My first play was called Getting Out. It premiered at Actors Theatre of Louisville, then ran for about a year in New York, getting very good reviews, thank you, Universe. It’s about a girl who was an abused adolescent who killed someone and went to prison but is finally released, having become passive and fearful. It has some serious swearing, a near rape, a hateful mother, a funny neighbor, sexy prison guards, and food throwing, all of which keep the play very popular in college drama departments.
By some wild circumstance, the play attracted the attention of Joseph E. Levine, the Hollywood legend who produced Godzilla, The Graduate, Carnal Knowledge, A Bridge Too Far, and a zillion other terrific movies. One day Joe simply called me up, and asked if I would like to write the screenplay for a Gay Talese novel about the building of the Verrazano Narrows Bridge. What my prison play had to do with the building of the Verazzano Narrows Bridge, I did not know. But Mr. Levine was offering me just enough money to buy myself a Mercedes-Benz, which I, just like Janis Joplin, had always really wanted, so I said yes, and started reading about suspension bridges.
When the Verrazano Bridge was built, Red Kelly was the handsome red-haired second in command. By the time I was writing, he was the head guy building the Newburgh-Beacon Bridge, so I went to see him. When I showed up at the trailer, he said, oh sure, he had time to talk to me now, but I had to follow him. I said, OK, and then just about fainted as he started up the side of one tower. 100 feet up a ladder, then another 300 stairs up, I counted, then across a steel bar, secured by a rope on either side, then another 100 feet up on nothing but wire framework. I was terrified. But I did it. I followed him. I was not, by God, going to be intimidated by some hunky hero type who thought he could scare me.
Finally at the top of the world, he stopped, turned and said, OK. What do you want to know? Now he probably knew what I wanted to know – who was nasty, who died, who did the hard part, and did he remember any great Native American workers we could use in the movie. But as soon as I asked my first question, he got a phone call. (from his secretary, right on time, I suspected) He said sorry, I have to go, urgent bridge business, and turned and left. And then. Oh then, I realized that getting down from an impossible height is way harder than going up. But I had no choice
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. I backed down the whole way, feeling like men were laughing at me for miles. By the time I got to my car, all I could do was go straight back to the motel and drink. When a bat flew into my head in the middle of the night, I woke up, screamed for about five minutes, packed my bag and left.
I did finish the screenplay, I am an honorable being, and Joseph E. Levine told me it was very dramatic, but he couldn’t possibly build a suspension bridge just to make a movie, so maybe I should write something else for him instead. About this time, I’m beginning to think I really don’t get Hollywood. But I say, well, what’s the idea, and he says it’s this other Gay Talese book he has the rights to, about wife swappers up at Lake Arrowhead, or Big Bear, I forget which. So I said I’d think about it, and called Gay Talese up to apologize for the bridge fiasco. Instead of refusing my call, he said he liked my screenplay and invited me to lunch. We talked about bridges, we talked about Red Kelly, we had a great time. Maybe I was the audience he always wanted. Anyway, at the end of dessert, he actually encouraged me to take on the other book, Thy Neighbor’s Wife. He said I’d have some fun. I think he thought it would loosen me up some. Then he wrapped up all the dinner rolls in a napkin and said to call him when I got back.
In California, I discovered Thy Neighbor’s Wife was going to be directed by Billy Friedkin. We made plans to go talk to the wife-swappers together, and had lots of conversations about what to ask them. But then Billy had had a heart attack, so I ended up going to see John and Judy Bullaro by myself, asking about their sexcapades, who did what to whom and how was it, and then coming back to Billy’s house and telling him what they said. Day after day, it was like some crazy version of the final scene of Cyrano – where I was Cyrano, relating the lives of the adulterers, to Billy’s version of Roxanne in a wheelchair with a plaid blanket over his lap, eating miniscule meals prepared by his nutritionist.
I finished that screenplay too, and Joseph E. Levine said he really liked it, it was very dramatic, but he couldn’t possibly do a movie about wife-swappers, who would want to see that?
So I took the money and bought a great Mercedes 300D which I drove for the next 17 years. To this day, I could tell you how to build a suspension bridge, just ask me, and I can also tell you that you are probably on your way to wife-swapping if you and your husband don’t pronounce your last name the same way. So all in all, it wasn’t so bad for a year’s work. And this year, Warren Leight has hired me to write for Law and Order: Criminal Intent, so who knows? Maybe the pendulum is swinging back the other way and I have finally escaped my tragic persona and will get only juicy offers from now on.