McGrath Does Dickens

“Ed Koch is out of Dickens, and so is Giuliani, in his way,” said screenwriter and director Douglas McGrath. “Bloomberg isn’t, because he is far too colorless. In Dickens, only the heroes are colorless.” It seemed that Mr. McGrath did not consider Mr. Bloomberg a hero. “Joseph Papp would have been Crummles,” he said of the late founder of New York’s Public Theater.

Mr. McGrath was ensconced in a leather couch in the lobby of the Essex House Hotel, cheerfully discussing Charles Dickens, whose 1838-39 book Nicholas Nickleby he has adapted and directed for the screen. Before him, a downright Dickensian gas fire roared below a mantelpiece strewn with pine needles and soft red bows.

“A friend of mine asked me whether or not I’d thought about modernizing [ Nickleby ],” said Mr. McGrath, in between sips from a cup of Earl Grey tea. “And it would work very well in modern New York. You could have the boarding school and the theater troupe, and you have Wall Street.” But, he said, part of his joy in bringing Dickens to a modern audience was allowing them to be “surprised by how utterly relevant it is in its period.”

At 44, with a neatly receding colorless hairline, Mr. McGrath looked like a droopy-eyed Dick Cavett and sounded like a man who might well have the theme from Masterpiece Theatre accompanying his sandwich orders.

But no matter how well he played the part of the WASPy filmmaker who could seamlessly interpret Dickens, Mr. McGrath’s path has been more circuitous. A native of Midland, Texas, his oil-business parents were “not close friends” with George and Barbara Bush, but knew them “enough to say hello.” Mr. McGrath came to New York via Choate, Princeton and Saturday Night Live , where he landed a writing berth during its famous low point, the Jean Doumanian–produced 1980 season.

“It has always been a kind of poisonous, near-mutinous brew of terror out of which, somehow, jokes come,” said Mr. McGrath of SNL , adding that “our year was the most hatchet-throwing, bomb-sniffing, panic-stricken, back-stabbing, front-stabbing mess you could have imagined.”

After being fired by the show’s executive producer, Dick Ebersol, Mr. McGrath wrote a series of films that went unproduced and, with SNL colleague, Patty Marx, penned Blockbuster , a satirical novel about an imagined attempt to adapt The Pilgrim’s Progress for Hollywood. Mr. McGrath also began to write political-humor columns for The Nation and The New Republic.

In 1992, he wrote the screenplay for a remake of Garson Kanin’s 1950 comedy Born Yesterday , which starred Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson. It was around then that, through his then girlfriend (and now wife) Jane Martin, he met the filmmaker Woody Allen, and the two men collaborated on the script for Bullets Over Broadway .

Mr. McGrath’s directorial debut was his well-received 1996 adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma , which starred Gwyneth Paltrow. A disappointment came in 2000 with his project Company Man , which featured a performance by Mr. Allen.

And now there’s Nicholas Nickleby , a drastically liposuctioned version of Dickens’ tale of a boy who loses his father. The film clocks in at a cool two hours and 10 minutes, and features performances from Queer as Folk ‘s Charlie Hunnam as the earnest Nicholas; Billy Elliot ‘s Jamie Bell as the crippled Smike; Christopher Plummer as Nicholas’ harsh Uncle Ralph; a one-eyed Jim Broadbent as the evil headmaster of the Dotheboys boarding school, Wackford Squeers; Nathan Lane as the theater owner, Vincent Crummles; and Barry Humphries/ Dame Edna Everage as Mrs. Crummles. Alan Cumming also appears in the theater troupe.

But at the Essex House, Mr. McGrath was getting into the spirit of recasting the story with real-life figures. He balanced his teacup on his knee and eagerly thumbed through a copy of the New York Post , stopping at a photo of actor Nick Nolte emerging from his D.U.I. trial in Malibu. “Well, there you go-look at him! He could be Brooker,” Mr. McGrath said with modulated enthusiasm, referring to a boozy character who haunts Nicholas Nickleby .

Mr. McGrath touched Mr. Nolte’s photo lightly and added a Tiny Tim–style “Bless his soul” before turning the page.

“Who would be Ralph?” Mr. McGrath asked, in reference to Nicholas’ hard-hearted financier uncle. “I know there’s someone in this city who is Ralph. Who could it be? We need a kind of Wall Street ice machine.”

The Transom threw out names of businessmen including Universal head Barry Diller and real-estate tycoon Donald Trump.

Mr. McGrath objected mightily to Mr. Trump. “Ralph wouldn’t go for that hair, that carrot-colored hair,” he said. “And Trump with the wives? No way is he Ralph. Trump is very out of Dickens, but he might have been one of the characters that Dickens didn’t actually write.”

And as for the noxious, violent Squeers, Mr. McGrath said, “Oh, there are always Squeers …. You know who looks like him? Not like Jim Broadbent [who plays him in Mr. McGrath’s film], but like Squeers in the book?”

Mr. McGrath stopped meaningfully. “[ Hustler publisher] Larry Flynt. He is very Squeers.”

The idea of the Dickensian villain-craggy, eccentric and power-wielding-had set Mr. McGrath off. The tea cup was forgotten, and so was the Post .

“Strom Thurmond!” Mr. McGrath said, in reference to the recently retired 100-year-old Senator from South Carolina. “He is an appalling person-a perfectly appalling person. But the details of his life would work perfectly in a Dickens novel: the charm with which he disguises his wickedness, the ‘You’re such a pretty girl’ charm, even though there’s Tang in his hair. He reminds me, somehow, of Bleak House . And the fact that he’s been in the Senate for so long is surely out of Dickens. And it surely couldn’t be true!”

Now we were on to Great Expectations . “Miss Havisham-oooh, she’s a nut ! And she’s not exactly like, but, well-Jocelyne Wildenstein?” Mr. McGrath considered it for a moment. “Miss Havishtein,” he chuckled.

“Mostly, I don’t know about the women. Except for Mrs. Squeers. Marilyn Quayle-she’s my Mrs. Squeers. And even Nancy Reagan. They have that tight, super-wound-up thing.” Mr. McGrath straightened his back primly and squinted. “They’re watching always with the eyes … Marilyn Quayle particularly.

“Smikes you see every place,” Mr. McGrath continued. “One of the things about this city that makes it very similar to Dickens is that the lame, the crippled and the deformed are often very much on display and very much in need of help, and yet very wary of it. It is a city full of kindness and full of cruelty.”

-Rebecca Traister

The Stages of Fear

Having tackled infidelity numerous times on film, Unfaithful director Adrian Lyne is about to try it onstage. On Dec. 11, Mr. Lyne and A Walk on the Moon director Tony Goldwyn played host at a dinner at the Four Seasons in honor of actress Diane Lane, who starred in both men’s movies and was about to be fêted the following evening with a retrospective by the Film Society of Lincoln Center. There, Mr. Lyne told The Transom that he was hoping to direct, probably for the New York stage, a Harold Pinter played called Landscape .

“I’ve never done a play before,” Mr. Lyne said. “I thought it would be good to be scared stiff again.”

Mr. Lyne, who got to know Mr. Pinter when the playwright wrote a draft of his adaptation of Lolita , said he saw the production that Mr. Pinter directed in Dublin and thought it was “wonderful” and “heartbreaking.” He said he has since talked with Mr. Pinter about directing his own version.

The drama is about “noncommunication,” Mr. Lyne said, and takes place “downstairs” in a country house in England. The two characters are a cellarman and his housekeeper wife. When the play begins, the two characters sit at opposite ends of the stage and take turns speaking. “At first, you think there’s absolutely no connection between what they’re saying. And then it comes together,” the director said. “And you realize she’s having an affair with the landowner.”

Because of the brevity of the play, Mr. Lyne said he’d probably pair Landscape with another work. He also said he’s thinking about Ray Winstone from Sexy Beast for the starring role, though he has yet to talk with the actor about it. Otherwise, Mr. Lyne said, his plans for the play were pretty preliminary. “This is in my head still.”

Still, The Transom couldn’t resist asking Mr. Lyne why he seems to be so transfixed with the subject of affairs and such.

“I haven’t the slightest idea why,” he said with a little laugh. “Especially since I’ve been married now for 28 years.” But then, movies about affairs are perfect fodder for a guy who sees himself as the kind of director who “makes European movies in Hollywood.”

-Frank DiGiacomo

Christy’s Appetizer

That rough-boy filmmaker Ed Burns and yogawear mogul Christy Turlington are definitely back together. On the evening of Dec. 17, the pair dropped into the new Spring Street Italian restaurant Giorgione for dinner. Mr. Burns, sporting a very short crew cut, and Ms. Turlington, in a light blue yogawear jacket, shared pizza and red wine at the bar while waiting for a table, with the cigarette smoke from nearby diners wafting in their faces. (Ms. Turlington didn’t flinch.) Then they moved to a table in the front room of the restaurant, but not before giving each other a quick peck on the lips.

Although the food tasted pretty good to The Transom that night, it seemed that Ms. Turlington-who removed her sportswear jacket to reveal a tiny turquoise number once she sat down-caused most of the drooling at the nearby tables.

– Elisabeth Franck

The Transom Also Hears…

Toilet Humor of the Stars-Episode 243 , The Plop : “Just ask Hugh about the ice dropping into a glass … it made a sound!” actress Sandra Bullock said as she walked down the red carpet with her co-star, Hugh Grant, at the Dec. 12 premiere of Two Weeks Notice at the Ziegfeld Theater. Noting The Transom’s puzzled expression, Ms. Bullock elaborated: “It made a sound like something dropping into a toilet!”

-Noelle Hancock and Alexandra Wolfe McGrath Does Dickens