Watching movies about writers and writing with the non-writers in your household (i.e., non-supportive spouses) might teach them that yes, you really are working.
The five below are part of a longer list we’ve compiled. Some of them involve writers peripherally, while others center on playwrights, journalists, or screenwriters. Many of these films are obscure art house films. Others are not.
The list of movies is long, but here I wanted to focus on five I’ve seen and enjoyed.
Charlie Kaufman’s films always bend the rules. This one is no exception. Hired to write the screenplay for Susan Orleans’ “The Orchid Thief,” Kaufman found himself unable to do the job, so he turned in this screenplay about a blocked writer trying to write a screenplay for “The Orchid Thief.” Turns out this is what director Spike Jonze wanted, and for that we get to see Meryl Streep having sex on a couch.
Part of the fun of “Adaptation” is in finding out where the story goes, so if you’re at all interested in seeing it, go no further.
Writers in particular will enjoy Nicholas Cage, as Charlie Kaufman trying to talk himself into writing the screenplay. He also plays Kaufman’s twin brother, Donald, a schlub who sells his first work after attending a screenwriting seminar taught by guru Robert McKee.
Part of the film’s fun is in watching Kaufman and Jonze play with the real-life connections. Outside the film, Orleans is a respected New Yorker-published writer and bestselling author. Inside, she’s the lover of the orchid thief and attempted murderer. While the film borrows Charlie Kaufman’s struggles writing The Orchid Thief script, it uses the fictional Donald Kaufman to make points how easy some writers find it to write rote screenplays with the usual cliches. Then there’s McKee, who rakes in the bucks with his seminar and book, despite a thin resume (his sole sale was a movie featuring Barbie).
Alex and Emma (2003)
I confess: This is a guilty pleasure. The movie received a “rotten” rating at Rotten Tomatos, and it has some flaws and absurdities. But the story of a writer racing to write a novel in a month to pay off a gambling debt (Luke Wilson) and his transcriber / muse (Kate Hudson) has some charming moments. Any author who’s had to debate his plot points with a significant other will sympathize with Wilson’s character. It’s a romantic comedy that doesn’t leave enough room for the romance, and the non-writing audience probably didn’t buy into seeing just how the literary sausage is being made.
Funny Farm (1988)
Really? A Chevy Chase comedy? Bear with me for a moment while I tell you the plot: A sportswriter hungering to write a novel moves with his wife to a bucolic New England small town. In between dealing with the house and his laconic, occasionally larcenous locals, he struggles with his literary effort, while his bored wife discovers she has a flair for writing children’s books. The best moment comes when at long, lost last, his wife finally gets a chance to read the first chapters of his heist novel, the moment she had been waiting for since they moved to Vermont:
Andy: Okay. I’m ready. What’d you think?
Elizabeth: [hides her face in her hands, begins to sob.]
Andy: I guess that means you don’t like it.
Elizabeth: [Nodding, sobbing.]
Andy: You think it’s lousy?
Elizabeth: [More nodding, more sobbing.]
Andy: The whole thing?
Elizabeth: It’s all those flashbacks. You never know when anything’s taking place. In the first 20 pages alone, I counted three flashbacks, one flash-forward, and I think a page in, you have a flash-sideways.
Andy: What about the story?
Elizabeth: The story?
Andy: Yeah, four poker buddies knocking over a casino? The perfect crime?
Andy: What are you saying I should do? Take out the flashbacks, rewrite the opening? I can do that.
Elizabeth: [Shaking head.]
Andy: Then what?
Elizabeth: Burn it.
Andy: You don’t know what the hell you’re talking about. You don’t know a damn thing about writing. You’re a goddamn school teacher, you’re not an editor.
Elizabeth: [still crying] It’s obvious. I read the whole thing. An editor would have stopped reading after the first paragraph.
How to Murder Your Wife (1965)
Jack Lemmon plays a playboy cartoonist who writes and draws an secret-agent thriller strip whose work is affected when he wakes up with a beautiful Italian woman whom he married after a drunken party. While he’s trying to figure out a way to divorce her (no-fault divorce wasn’t a thing in the mid-60s), she turns his household upside down in her quest to become the perfect wife.
Is this a problamatic story today? Oh, hell, yes, especially when Lemmon’s character is tried for murdering his wife (he didn’t; she just left him) and he argues that it was justifiable homicide. I’m not going to apologize for that, because there’s nothing to apologize for. Remember that material like this, popular material, reflect the thinking and attitudes of its time. Men and women locked in marriage have had to deal with each other ever since Adam hitched up with Eve. We struggle with wanting to live our own lives, and giving up some of that freedom in the hopes of getting something better with a partner.
Sexual politics aside, “How to Murder Your Wife” is fun to watch just to see how art and life intertwine in the funny pages.
Stranger Than Fiction (2006)
Emma Thompson, Will Farrell, in a non-Farrell movie. He plays an IRS worker who slowly discovers that he doesn’t exist. He’s a fictional character being created by Thompson, and worse, he’s going to die. The story alternates from Farrell and Thompson, so this is probably the most writing-centered of all the movies. Fun, thoughtful, intelligent, and dramatic. You’ll probably wonder why Farrell doesn’t make more movies like this.
Five More Movies Featuring Women Writers
I’ll write about some of these later, but I wanted to get these out now:
* My Brilliant Career (1979)
* The Hours (2002)
* Heartburn (1986)
* Romancing the Stone (1984)
* The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)