Thursday, June 28, 2007

Quiet desperation, onscreen

Bailey wrote a recent bio of Yates that I now want to read. The backstory behind the film of Revolutionary Road is pretty interesting, likely more so than the eventual movie will be; with Sam Mendes behind the wheel and Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet in the main roles, there is the danger of it being one of those airless, cold "prestige" movies that are overstuffed with talent and stinking to high heaven with awards lust. (The Hours, anyone?)

Don't get me wrong: Yates is an amazing writer and Revolutionary Road is a damn good book. But it doesn't have all that much to say about domestic ennui that hasn't become obvious; back in '61 it was probably pretty cutting stuff but these days, its sexual politics are a bit prehistoric and by its end it teeters on the edge of melodramatic moralizing. Yates' style, however, is what really makes the book sing. He's got one of those ruthlessly precise prose styles that's straight and clear and practically surgical, like Carver when he's really rolling but without the gently empathetic undertone.

If they really wanted to tackle something in the same subject area that's challenging and disturbing, they'd go after Joseph Heller's Something Happened. But I'm not really sure how you'd make a film of that book that wouldn't drive people straight out of their minds.
When the novel was first published in 1961, a few people in Hollywood came to the same conclusion, including director John Frankenheimer, who realized it was just the sort of arty, uncompromising vision he wanted to bring to the screen as the industry's foremost wunderkind. Cooler heads prevailed, and he proceeded to make "The Manchurian Candidate" instead. But meanwhile he'd bought rights to Lie Down in Darkness, by William Styron, who recommended none other than his friend Dick Yates to write the screenplay. Yates was then living in a ghastly basement apartment in Greenwich Village, and he could hardly believe his luck. Before he knew it, he was sucking down bullshots in Malibu with Frankenheimer, who told him, by God, that he wanted a rigorously faithful adaptation of Styron's novel and damn the censors!

Yates took him at his word and wrote an adaptation that would have amounted to a great movie adapted from a semigreat novel. Natalie Wood and Henry Fonda were ready to star as Peyton and Milton Loftis, whereupon Yates would receive (as he put it) "an avalanche of money." Then poof! Wood's agent decided it would tarnish her image to appear as the quasi-incestuous daughter of Henry Fonda, and United Artists pulled the plug. Yates went back to his vermin-infested apartment. "God, it's good," Frankenheimer said 40 years later of Yates' screenplay. "I'd still like to make that movie."

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