Praise for Finney, Nicholson, Elkin, Southern, Spinal Tap

One of the many astute suggestions sent in by readers seeking to join that elite fellowship known as The Edgy Alliance1 was that I occasionally return to the original form of this column, which featured several loosely linked items.

So let’s try it this time, beginning with:

1. Give the Oscar to Albert

I hope Traffic wins Best Picture for symbolic reasons–as a way to crystallize growing sentiment for a reconsideration of the costs of indiscriminate prohibition. But when it comes to a role that’s both brilliant and daring, I want Albert Finney to win for Erin Brockovich .

I think the other Steven Soderbergh movie–and Mr. Finney’s role in particular–have been overlooked for their own iconoclastic stance.

Yes, Erin Brockovich is slick popular art, but it’s also slick populist art. It doesn’t have the hand-held effects that film-buff types swoon over in Traffic , but Erin Brockovich dares to make a case for the single most despised pariah group in America, a group that all right-thinking Americans are taught–by talking heads, late-night comics and the specious anecdotes served up by corporate propagandists–to sneer at: personal-injury lawyers.

The film doesn’t make the case that personal-injury lawyers take on corporate criminals for noble, idealistic reasons (the way, say, A Civil Action did). That’s what’s so great about Mr. Finney’s funny, nuanced, badly be-rugged portrayal: He embodies the paradox that one can do good even when acting out of self-interest. It’s a concept too complex for those who parrot the anti-trial-lawyer line peddled by the corporations who have the most to hide, the most to lose and the most to fear from the piranhas of the personal-injury bar–and the most to gain from making the piranhas pariahs.

I mean, do the people who unthinkingly mouth the anti-trial-lawyer platitudes actually believe they can depend on corporate-bought governments and bureaucrats to protect them from corporate power? Or that environmentally sensitive mutual funds will convince corporations to do the right thing? It’s sad the way even those on the left fall for the specious anecdotes that corporations promote to blacken the name of their most dangerous opponents. As the outspoken and much-feared medical-malpractice lawyer Harvey Wachsman once pointed out to me, many of those anti-lawyer anecdotes–like the woman who supposedly got $8 million from a fast-food chain simply because she spilled hot coffee on her thighs–completely misrepresent the situation (which, in that case, involved a policy of “super-heating” the coffee in order to discourage customers from taking advantage of their “free refill” policy, causing terrible burns to the woman’s flesh).

Say this for Ralph Nader: He’s been right on the money in identifying the demonization of trial lawyers as a key strategy of corporate power in America. Mr. Nader has consistently seen through the myths that have grown up around the phony “tort reform” crusade. Others on the left tend to insist that people must not only do the right thing, but they must also do it for the right reasons or else it’s not good enough. And conservatives–who worship the market, and who should favor private rather than governmental solutions to social evils–can’t see that Erin Brockovich -type lawsuits are , in fact, a “private-side” remedy, a market solution, a libertarian alternative to regulation.

And people in the media are reluctant to admit that, in fact, trial lawyers by default do some of the best investigative reporting around. That time after time, major prize-winning investigative coups result from a trial lawyer pursuing “discovery” in a lawsuit against a corporate wrongdoer. And that the much-disparaged practice of contingency fees can put a powerful weapon for redressing injustice in the hands of the poor, who otherwise would be shut out of the court system.

In some ways, it’s a class thing. Ivy-educated elites, both liberal and conservative, can chuckle together about brash money-grubbing trial lawyers who often dress too flashily for their oh-so-refined taste, or who wear gold chains or commit some other affront to their fashion sense, which allows them to feel superior despite their own ineffectuality.

That’s why Mr. Finney should win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. He plays that rare thing in films: a truly politically complex rather than politically correct character, one who challenges consensus myths on a key question of power in America. There’s far more to Mr. Finney’s performance than Benicio Del Toro’s narky smirks and sunglasses.

2. The Other ‘Respect Issue’

Despite being one of the lowest paid–in fact, least-often paid–members of my union, the Writers Guild (one screenplay and a couple of treatments to my credit; one project based on one of my books “in development”), I’m a big supporter of the “respect issues” in the current contract negotiations between the Guild and producers. Particularly on the “possessory credit” question, which could result in a head-banging smackdown between the Writers Guild and the Directors Guild.

Because if there’s one group that’s held in less esteem than the trial lawyers of Erin Brockovich or even the drug dealers of Traffic , it’s Hollywood screenwriters.2 And the possessory-credit issue is meant to address that.

You know the possessory-credit question, right? It started out with the understandable nod encapsulated in a credit like “A Martin Scorsese Film” or “A Brian de Palma Film,” but now it’s gotten to the point where some guy who’s making his second film–you know, an hommage to Ace Ventura: Pet Detective –can demand that it be called “An Arnie Fufkin Film.” (Arnie Fufkin, of course, is the inept record promoter in This Is Spinal Tap .)

One of the things I most admire about my distinguished colleague at The Observer , Andrew Sarris, is that, even though he’s the auteur of auteur theory, which focuses on directorial primacy, nonetheless he alone of all the film critics I know always lists the writer along with the director when he’s reviewing a film.

It’s because, as cinematically attuned as Mr. Sarris is, he’s also extremely literate and knows that, in reality, every film starts as words on paper.

In architecture, it’s the guy who draws up the blueprint, not the guy who lays the bricks, that gets the credit. The script is the blueprint, the writer the architect of the film. Not that the guy who lays the bricks (often in more ways than one), the director, doesn’t deserve credit. I’m just saying there’s an imbalance here, one that the director’s possessory credit exacerbates. Of course, the directors are up in arms about the idea of giving up the possessory. But maybe there’s a compromise: What I’d suggest is that, if the directors won’t agree to give up their possessory credit, they agree to share it. After all, when directors both write and direct a film, they have a double credit: “Written and Directed by.” So why not a Sarris solution to the question to avoid internal guild strife? If there’s to be a possessory credit, give it to both .

Meanwhile, I support my fellow, more productive and successful film writers in their struggle for respect. Despite their material success, Hollywood writers are also cultural pariahs, knee-jerk objects of ridicule like the trial lawyers.

Maybe it’s their internalized self-loathing that is responsible for what I’d call the other “Respect Issue” involving writers and Hollywood: the ridiculous way real writers are portrayed in Hollywood films.

I’m not just talking about Michael Douglas in Wonder Boys –although that film was bad enough in its travesty-like depiction of the creative process–writers are just so wacky–but also Tobey Maguire’s creepy vision of a sensitive young writer in the same film. (On the other hand, Robert Downey Jr.’s version of a wacked-out editor totally rocked and should have gotten him an Oscar nomination).

I’m not just talking about Sean Connery posing as J.D. Salinger in Finding Forrester . In fact, these are just the latest in a long history of travestying writers in Hollywood, particularly novelists. Poor Fitzgerald, reduced to solemn, stolid caricature in Beloved Infidel . Poor Hemingway, abused by Alan Rudolph in The Moderns and turned into a teen heartthrob by miscast Chris O’Donnell in In Love and War .

Maybe it’s the revenge of the screenwriters on the novelists: Hollywood writers love to depict non-Hollywood writers as suffering losers, so pitiful and ridiculous that they don’t have to feel bad about selling out their ideals to avoid a fate like that.

That said, I’d argue that there are at least two truthful portraits of writers in Hollywood movies, both of them by Jack Nicholson. One is his Eugene O’Neill in Reds . It’s just a glimpse, a portrait sketched in acid, but one with inner strength and dignity as well, a tragic sense of life that pretty-boy Beatty as John Reed utterly lacks.

Mr. Nicholson really got into doing O’Neill; not surprisingly, there’s a temperamental similarity. They’re both caustic black-Irish types, romantic obsessives. “One of the keys that unlocked O’Neill for me,” Mr. Nicholson once told me (in a Times Magazine interview), “was the fact that he couldn’t write with anything but a pencil. He couldn’t adapt to the typewriter. He couldn’t dictate.” And when O’Neill came down with a degenerative disease, “he literally couldn’t hold the pencil. I mean there’s something very sensual about lead coming off the pencil. It’s one of the purest things.” (The Nicholson interview is reprinted in my new nonfiction collection, The Secret Parts of Fortune . Hey, this is one of the things those of us who are not wealthy screenwriters have to do.)

But if you want to know the truth, the truly great Nicholson portrait of a writer–or, let’s say, of the dark side of the writing life–is the one to be found in The Shining . It’s a horror movie about the horror of writer’s block. Yes, it’s kind of an exaggeration for comic horror effect, but it does something unique: It captures the pain of it all beautifully, so much so that I get instant assent whenever I suggest to other writers that it’s a great writers’ movie. As one friend put it: “It captures the pain, which is what drives you nuts when you meet some dentist at a party and he says, ‘So, you’re a writer. You know, I’ve often thought about writing myself.’ Yeah, and I’ve often thought of drilling my own teeth.”

3. ShortTakes

The Pat Hobby Stories : The last stories Fitzgerald wrote, his brilliant, underrated kiss-off to the Hollywood that broke his heart, told in the form of linked comic-satiric stories about a Falstaffian hack screenwriter, Pat Hobby, who was “big in the silent days” but just can’t cut it in talkies. What pitches it above mere farce is the bleak, melancholy streak of self-portraiture and self-loathing that informs it: Fitzgerald’s displaced vision of what became of him when the kissing had to stop.

The Dick Gibson Show : A recent Edgy Enthusiast applicant asked me to mention this amazing Stanley Elkin tour de force about the odyssey of a radio host through the pre-TV era. You’ve got to pick this up: I’ve said before in these pages that the Dr. Behr Bleibtrau episode may be the single best-sustained piece of comic genius in all recent American literature.

King of Comedy : I have to throw this in because I caught it on cable recently and somehow it keeps getting better, perhaps because its acid satire of celebrity obsession grows more and more grimly prophetic. Sandra Bernhard and Robert De Niro and (yes!) Jerry Lewis are all astonishingly good. I don’t understand why it wasn’t a hit when it came out, but I think it will be remembered as one of Martin Scorsese’s very best, perhaps his most original work.

James Buchan’s Heart’s Journey in Winter : I should have included this in my column two weeks ago about Kim Philby and the F.B.I. mole. It’s simply the best post-Philbian mole novel, but it’s far more than that: It may be the best political novel of the entire Cold War period, equal to anything of John Le Carré’s.

The “Grand Inquisitor” episode in The Brothers Karamazov : Laura Bush recently said this was her favorite episode in all literature, because she found it “reassuring.” I guess it depends on what you mean by “reassuring.” If you think the single most vicious and profound satiric attack on organized religion is reassuring, then this is the book for you. I’m down with Laura on that.

Instant karma on Survivor : Tell me it’s an accident that Mike, the guy who was so pleased with himself for his psycho-killer-like multiple stabbing of that poor, slow-witted pig, got the very hands he used to kill and roast the unfortunate beast roasted themselves two episodes later. Who’s the real swine?

Resisting Hitler : A truly important book by Shareen Blair Brysac about (primarily) two brave women in Hitler’s Germany: Mildred Fish-Harnack, an American woman who became a spy for the so-called “Red Orchestra,” and Martha Dodd, the femme fatale daughter of the American ambassador to Germany, who put her reckless, romantic spirit into the anti-Hitler struggle.

Alan Greenspan, bungler: Can we finally put an end to the ridiculous cult of this pompous fool, who brought on a recession basically because he was terrified that low-pay hourly workers might get raises and thus cause “inflationary pressure,” even though there was no evidence this was actually happening? Look it up: That’s why he caused a recession, by racking up interest rates in the face of full-employment prosperity–the fear that the busboys might get a few cents more an hour to clean the crumbs from his table. And yet the media still treats him like an infallible pope, when in fact his bungling has now caused hundreds of thousands of lost jobs and blighted lives.

A Grand Guy by Lee Hill: another Hollywood-writer tragedy. A lovely, sad biography of Terry Southern, one of my early heroes, who caught a wave when he helped make Dr. Strangelove the unique, absurdist, visionary work that it was, and then was left floundering by the film world for the rest of his life when the tide went out.

Bonus Pick of the Week: The Official Spinal Tap Companion . The great reference work about the great satiric vision of American culture. Don’t dare miss it.