Tennessee Williams & Lillian Hellman

January 27, 2018

Tags: Tennessee Williams, Lillian Hellman, Streetcar Named Desire, Children's Hour, 1949, historical fiction, biography, biographical fiction

A few years ago I was browsing in the stacks of a school library outside of Great Barrington, MA. I should have been working. I probably told myself I was resting. I picked a volume of Tennessee Williams's letters off the shelf. I opened it at random.

There was a young man in 1949, fresh off a great Broadway hit, a play that was to become immortal. He was frightened that it was all about to be taken away from him. Tennessee Williams was living in Rome that summer. He'd received a letter from the producer of A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, Irene Selznick. They all anticipated a sale of the film rights of Williams's successful play to Hollywood. There were problems, however. The Hollywood censor was unhappy. Tennessee's play included a rape. Blanche Dubois's husband was gay. The censor wouldn't allow those things in a wholesome play for an American audience. Irene told Tennessee she'd discovered the solution. She was handing his play over to an ace screenwriter who'd fix things to please the censor. Lillian Hellman.

He was terrified. He was indignant. He fired off a letter to the play's director, Elia Kazan. He wanted to try and stop Hellman from touching his play.

In that moment was born my idea for a book about them.

Here were two giants of the American theatre facing off at the peak of their career. I'd always loved them both. I think I first wanted to be a writer after seeing the depiction of her writing life in "Julia," the Jane Fonda film made from Hellman's memoir, PENTIMENTO. I'd always admired his bravery as a writer. He was openly gay in an era when almost no one else was. He dared write about this not only in STREETCAR but also in CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF.

Her first hit, in the 1930s, was also a kind of gay play. A mischievous schoolgirl tells a lie about her two teachers, they're lesbians. This lie turns out to contain elements of the truth. The same could be said of the modern day controversy over Hellman's memoirs. Are they bald lies that contain elements of the truth? Or are they emotional truths? Are they fictions she longed to represent as faithful depictions of fact, for example, her difficult relationship with Hammett?

Those are some things I'm playing with, dear reader, as George Eliot liked to say. Comments welcome. They help me more than you know.

October 13, 2017

Tags: Hollywood, Sunset Boulevard, Los Angeles, Susannah Corwin, Kirk Corwin, happy couple


William Kuhn: There’s a dual quality in what I've read of your novel in progress. It’s aware of the abuses and the excesses of Hollywood, particularly about twenty or thirty years ago, yet it’s affectionate and sensitive to the geography, the architecture, the atmosphere of Los Angeles. This feels like a Sunset Boulevard for the Hollywood of the 1990s, at once clear-eyed about the place’s absurdities, but describing it using rich, evocative blacks and whites. This is also typical of the still photography on your website. Will you tell me about your loving Los Angeles? How did you first get there? Has your attitude to the city changed over time?

Susannah Corwin: When I finished university I had a choice, an entry-level position with an ad agency in Manhattan, where I would only be able to afford a studio that looked out into an airshaft, or to take my chances in the sunshine and sprawl of Los Angeles. I arrived at my mom’s Palm Springs place (90 minutes from L.A.) and was hanging around juicing oranges, swimming, and taking interviews, to, of all things, write for the sports section of the paper (I knew nothing, zip, zero, about bouncing balls, batting balls, or rushing balls). Even so, the editor took pity on me and turned me onto a gig at a magazine.

When I was just about to accept the magazine job, my mom telephoned, having bumped into the production manager of a movie that would be shooting in the resort during the off season. She said that he (Boris) was looking for a production assistant. I leapt at the chance.

My main duties were corralling actors onto set, running errands, shushing people, or lending a hand to all departments. I jumped away from a car heading toward a swimming pool in a pair of white Ray Bans and a pink frock when we were short of extras, I painted on fake tans, and I fanned movie stars behind the scenes so they wouldn’t sweat through their makeup.

Once I was directed to talk to the prop department because my mom had a house nearby and they were looking for something they needed in a big hurry. So, on set, in the men’s locker room of a trendy gym I met my future husband. He said he was looking for several impressively bound volumes of Shakespeare and I said, “That’s funny. There’s tons at home. My grandfather collected them.

He said, “That’s funny. My grandfather collected string.”

We’ve been together now for 33 years.

Perhaps my love of Los Angeles has to do with falling in love, that giddy heightened perception you get when you’ve “found the one.” I have to admit I’m no longer giddy. (Good god! That would be damn difficult at my age, what with my waning hormonal levels.) But I still love them both, the city and the mister.

October 12, 2017

Tags: screenplay, longform narrative, novel, Kevin Spacey, Hollywood, writer, work in progress

PART 10/11

William Kuhn: You’ve written optioned screenplays, some of which were bought by bold-faced names like Kevin Spacey. Now you’re writing novels. What’s the difference between the two different forms? Would you say you now prefer the longer-form narrative? Why?

Susannah Corwin: I love the longer-form narrative! When you write a screenplay you have to expect to be rewritten to the point where you no longer recognize your work. And what you have written is never a finished piece, meant to be read for its own enjoyment, it’s a template for the director, and a crew of hundreds of filmmakers to turn into a movie. A screenplay is the inception of a team effort. Whereas, a novel is written alone, for the entertainment of the reader, it’s a one on one experience, and the author is the sole creator. Okay, I take that back, there are invaluable contributions of first readers and editors, but the bulk of the experience is more like painting a portrait than making a movie. You write the story, all by yourself, and hope it touches or amuses someone else.

October 11, 2017

Tags: Alicia Vikander, Miriam Hopkins, heroine, vulnerability, studio boss, Hollywood

PART 9/11

William Kuhn: There’s a quality about your heroine, Billie, that is engaging. She seems to deserve her outrageous rise to power, because she’s smart, observant and knows when to play dumb. Yet, she’s vulnerable in a way that you don’t expect from someone who has power, money, influence, a career on the ascendant, connections to big players in Hollywood, all of which Billie acquires during the course of the novel. Can you talk about how you came up with her? Can we have that casting conversation, wink, wink?

Susannah Corwin: That’s the thing, power, money, and influence can do a lot of things, but they can’t shield you from the human experience. What accounts for Billie’s vulnerability is that she comes to Hollywood at nineteen, too young to have built up barriers, or having had the kind of life that made self-protection necessary. Of course that changes with time, but not as much as we think. When my mom was in her late eighties, ill and in an intensive care unit, she spent a lot of time being very voluble, sophisticated, and charming, telling stories and recounting memories I’d never heard before — at other times she wouldn’t wake for days, and in that deep sleep she would call to her mom, or talk with her, in the voice of a smart and chatty six year old. All I’m saying is we all get older — have advantages and disadvantages in our life — yet our essence remains the same.

How did I come up with Billie’s character? As a writer you will get what I’m saying, she kind of introduced herself to me. I wrote an opening sequence based on a memory I had of college and talking to a Border Collie while stoned, and then she started forming her own identity on the page.

Hm…who should play Billie? You know, I haven’t thought about that until just now. If I were casting her in the Golden Era of Hollywood it would be Miriam Hopkins. Now I think there’s a lot of young talent but, if I were choosing I’d say Alicia Vickander, and let me tell you, writers in Hollywood never get to choose.

October 10, 2017

Tags: Hollywood, misconception, Mutiny on the Bounty, Clark Gable, Margaret Booth

PART 8/11

William Kuhn: Your work in progress has precise knowledge of how Hollywood works: budgets, the prestige of stars’ wives, how a producer might talk to a studio executive. I learned a lot from it. As someone who’s worked in or near the film business for many years, what do you think are the biggest misconceptions about it?

Susannah Corwin: The biggest misconception about Hollywood is that it’s a life of glamour — if you work in the film industry it’s grueling hours and total commitment, often to the detriment of your personal life or your family. A very long time ago my husband’s uncle worked for a famous editor named Margaret Booth. They were cutting the Clark Gable version of MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY and she had an attack of appendicitis. Ms. Booth had to be dragged away from the editorial bench and carried out of the studio on a stretcher. As she went she hollered at her assistants to touch nothing, not a single frame was to be cut while she was gone. Of course the producer, when she was safely out of earshot, pulled my husband’s uncle aside and said, “Finish editing the scene.” When she returned to work she was furious, tore apart the assistants’ work and replaced every cut they had made with her own. She was nominated for an Academy Award for MUTINY, continued working through her eighties, and died (never married) at the age of 104.

October 9, 2017

Tags: Oscar Wilde, Dorian Gray, privacy, Penguin paperback, no names, over-sharing, social media

PART 7/11

William Kuhn: On p 184 Billie, the heroine of your work in progress, arrives at home after everyone is in bed. She has just experienced the first partial consummation of a romance that has been building for some time. She goes into her kitchen. She finds Oscar Wilde on the kitchen table:

A Penguin paperback, “The Picture of Dorian Gray” by Oscar Wilde was lying on top of a pile of New Yorkers on the kitchen table when Billie got home. She flipped through the first pages and read:

"… When I like people immensely, I never tell their names to any one. It is like surrendering a part of them. I have grown to love secrecy. It seems to be the one thing that can make modern life mysterious or marvelous to us. The commonest thing is delightful if one only hides it…”

That’s a lovely passage. Why did you choose it?

Susannah Corwin: Most likely I chose it because of my over 50 mentality. I get riled by the banality of over-sharing, and the blotting out of human interaction, evidenced by a generation glued to their smart phones. No secrets, no privacy, no cherished perceptions kept to oneself. The passage, in a certain way, is recommending quiet contemplation, a turning inward that is “mysterious or marvelous” — which sounds like the best kind of advice to me. In that particular scene Billie’s Merlin and majordomo, Mr. Booker, is asleep. So the passage in the book by Oscar Wilde — that he’s left on the kitchen table — stands in for the kind of guidance he would give, literate, succinct, insightful.

October 8, 2017

Tags: Adonis, dog walker, Hollywood, novel, success story, soul

PART 6/11

William Kuhn: One of the other things I love about your work in progress: it’s a lightly fictionalized version of real Hollywood events and personalities. I know it’s authentic and the writing communicates that too. One of my favorite passages is on p 150 where you talk about the unlikely Hollywood success of a dog walker and a muscled Adonis. Of course Billie is an unlikely Hollywood success story herself. Tell us about that.

Susannah Corwin: I will tell you in private who the dog walker and the Adonis are. I will say this — people like them (and of course Billie) succeed because they’ve fallen in love with Hollywood. They are wild about the movies — the process turns them on, they want to know everything there is to learn about putting a story up on the screen — the mechanics of cinema make their heart sing. A lawyer, or an MBA, doesn’t bring quite the same soul or desire to the project.

October 7, 2017

Tags: Double Indemnity, Raymond Chandler, Billy Wilder, writer, Hollywood, screenplay, blueprint, William Faulkner, Irving Thalberg, dream factory, William Inge, playwright

PART 5/11

William Kuhn: I’ve been reading an old interview with the playwright William Inge. Inge has some very cynical things to say about Los Angeles and disrespect for writers in the film business in 1968, though he himself chose to live there and accept a distinguished professorship at the University of California at Irvine. Inge sounds to me as if he has the typical writer-intellectual’s disdain for LA. Would you like to speak about that? And what about the film business’s sometime-disdain for writers? Is that alive and well?

Susannah Corwin: It was Irving Thalberg who modeled the film industry after a factory…the dream factory…but a factory nonetheless. He instituted a strong hierarchy, and even though many early screenwriters came from Broadway, he would allow them none of the clout, copyright, or contractual power they wielded in the theater (the same went for best selling authors). He assuaged their egos with boatloads of money, but still it rankled.

The great novelist, William Faulkner, referred to L.A. as the “plastic asshole of the world,” and yet he was a successful screenwriter, friends with Howard Hawks, and the love of his life (not his wife) made her career in Hollywood, where he spent much of his time.

Raymond Chandler famously feuded with Billy Wilder on “Double Indemnity,” quit, and never attempted writing for film again. His feelings for the city I think were best reflected in the words of his main character, Philip Marlowe:

“I used to like this town,” I said, just to be saying something and not to be thinking too hard. “A long time ago, there were trees along Wilshire Boulevard. Beverly Hills was a country town. Westwood was bare hills and lots offering at eleven hundred dollars and no takers. Hollywood was a bunch of frame houses on the interurban line. Los Angeles was just a big dry sunny place with ugly homes and no style, but goodhearted and peaceful. It had the climate they just yap about now. People used to sleep out on porches. Little groups who thought they were intellectual used to call it the Athens of America. It wasn’t that, but it wasn’t a neon-lighted slum either.”

“Real cities have something else, some individual bony structure under the muck. Los Angeles has Hollywood—and hates it. It ought to consider itself damn lucky. Without Hollywood it would be a mail-order city. Everything in the catalogue you could get better somewhere else.”

As for the disdain for modern screenwriters… I think it’s important to remember a screenplay is a blueprint for something else; it’s not a finished piece. Very few people read screenplays as a form of entertainment, whereas movies… It’s absolutely important to have a blueprint for a film, but ultimately it’s a director’s medium.

October 6, 2017

Tags: Susannah Corwin, Vickie Lester, Judy Garland, persona, personality, Hollywood novel, novelist, It's in His Kiss, A Star Is Born

PART 4/11

William Kuhn: Could you speak a little bit about taking the pen name Vickie Lester? Was it ironic, or a sincere tribute to A Star Is Born? Is it to protect your identity since your husband is in the film business and you yourself have authored screenplays? Is it okay for people to know your real name or do you see Vickie Lester as an identity you’d like to sustain?

Susannah Corwin: As far back as I can remember movies have enchanted me, and judging from my novels, they inspire me — so in that respect the pen name is a sincere tribute. And, you have to admit Vickie Lester is a whole lot better than Esther Blodgett. Seriously, the nom de plume is also a reflection of something I talk a lot about in my books and on the blog; it’s that precarious balance between persona and personality, and the mess that results when you can no longer tell one from the other.

In the beginning of my blogging days I didn’t want to be part of the digital playground, I was advised I had to “create an audience” (the corollary in my mind was that I had to perform and draw attention to myself — anathema!) and maintain at least a daily digital dose of Vickie to maintain that audience. I thought by hiding my identity I wouldn’t take anything to heart (wrong!) and I would be able to navigate through the Internet detached, unruffled, and unencumbered. What I later came to realize is that in the great wide world of social media you pick who you engage with just as you do in real life; people you have an affinity toward, people who make you laugh, people you respect, people who make you think, people who expose you to new ideas… I’ve made four close friends who I first met via the Internet. So the idea of an “audience” became the reality of a community — and when I was blogging regularly, it was a blast.

As for sustaining the identity, my name is Susannah Corwin. My first name was chosen by my oldest brother, who would have me saddled with neither Sonya or Natasha, which were the preferences of my “War and Peace” reading mother.

October 5, 2017

Tags: film, splicing, Hollywood, first sex, Susannah Corwin, novel, editing

PART 3/11

I love the scene where Susannah Corwin's heroine, Billie, has gone back to film school in her late twenties, having dropped out of Harvard some years earlier. She’s learning how to work for the first time with film. I know this is all done digitally now, but it gave me such a strong sense of the painstaking process in the pre-digital days of film.