Alvin Sargent, “The Prince Of Gentle Writing”

August 23, 2011 — 5 Comments

I became involved in the movie business because of Alvin Sargent, “the prince of gentle writing”: but more importantly  for transmedia, so did  JJ Abrams, the ultimate fanboy , famous for LOST, a brilliant addictive mess and the reboots of Star Trek and Mission Impossible

In his wonderfully presented TED presentation on dramatic subtext, JJ Abrahams,  talks about being tremulous, yes tremulous, upon reading Ordinary People, a screenplay by Alvin Sargent, , based on the book by then first-time novelist and housewife, Judy Guest, from Minneapolis; a  kind and witty woman. The screenplay was about despair, guilt, suicide, a loveless marriage, and the hope found in familial love. Not exactly fanboy material.

Ordinary People won  the Oscar for best adapted screenplay. JJ explains that when he read Ordinary People, it contained so much beauty that it compelled him to want to write and conceive motion pictures. While I was at Paramount, we bought Regarding Henry, an original screenplay written by JJ Abrams, then only 23 years old. It was a beautiful, weird  story about a loveless marriage, a selfish  man shot in the head and the hope found in familial love. The script was great; the movie did not live up to the promise of the screenplay for some reason even with gifted people in every department.

“The Human Crystal”, JJ Abrams, in Regarding Henry. He played the Delivery Boy in a walk on.

I remember the star of the movie, Harrison Ford,  leaning into me,  on the  Paramount Jet and saying, “JJ Abrams is so sensitive, he is like a …a human crystal.” I knew what Harrison Ford meant. It was a very postmodern expression, and we were and are in the significant postmodern era. He meant that the Hollywood wunderkind had tapped into the very godhead. JJ had that boyish charisma that comes from exuberance and someone so in love with that you just want to be near him, to rub against his skin because he washed with ivory soap which at the time was 99 and 44/100% pure. JJ knew about suffering and transformation; why, he might just be able to lead the people out of Egypt  with a staff that could turn water into blood.

I too got involved in the movie business, in large part because of  Alvin Sargent and his screenplay, Sterile Cuckoo I remember seeing it as a teenager and being tremulous, largely due to a  “peel the tomato” scene that lasted for ten minutes between the two romantic leads, one of them being a young Liza Minnelli, who received an Oscar nomination for her performance. The story was about a college romance in New England. It was filled with sexual tension which finally burst in this funny, sad secular humanist scene of a first love-making experience. After a kinetic series of cuts in the first half of the movie, the  scene, almost ten minutes , plays in  one (almost) continuous master:

I was a young screenwriter who had sold original screenplays and written on a for-hire basis for Paramount, Fox and Warner Brothers before I was 27. I was standing in Ray Wagner’s office who was then Production Chief at MGM. For us old timers, I was there because the MGM story editor, Sherry Lansing, wanted my co-writing partner and director, Michael Pressman, and I to write Laundromat, a not-so-veiled “homage” to Car Wash  which had been an enormous hit.  I had written an original screenplay entitled Dynamite Women which Michael directed for pulp king, Roger Corman , about two girls who rob banks in hot pants with dynamite sticks. Yep. This was the time of Easy Riders and Raging Bulls, to coin  Peter Biskind, and anything was possible.

Oh to be young in Hollywood in the 70s and 80s! We were immortal! Ha, Ha….forgetting, I must admit, our Judeo Christian roots, at least for a while.  You could make anything, dream up anything. But I will never forget  Ray Wagner talking about the beauty of an original screenplay Bobby Deerfield he had just read by Alvin Sargent, Bobby Deerfield, that the studio was considering. He called Alvin Sargent “The prince of gentle writing”.

“It is just incredible moving, “he said.

“Do you think I could read it?” I asked.

Ray Wagner said he didn’t see why not and in the office with the high ceilings that had once housed the arbiter of  all good taste in the earthly world, Irving Thalberg, I was given a three holed punched, baby blue covered screenplay of Bobby Deerfield. It was given to me by a crisp, efficiently dressed secretary who seemed to have come, fully minted, with the office itself. Oh, I thought she  must come from the golden cities that men built.

The Prince Of Gentle Writing, Alvin Sargent

Alvin Sargent, The Prince Of Gentle Writing

I remember returning to my apartment that afternoon and reading in one sitting Bobby Deerfield as if it was the Holy Grail. I recall a scene in which Bobby, later played by Al Pacino, takes a picture of a family on vacation. It was such a simple gesture but I was left bawling my eyes out. It was the concluding moment in a long subtextual story about how Bobby learns to love again. And it was done with such…grace. Yes, Alvin knew how to reach foundational truths in very subtle ways.  Most of his filmed legacy reflect the ineffable including other movies such as Paper Moon, Julia for which we won another Oscar), and Love and Pain and The Whole Damn Thing. His work  reflects the need for sophisticated craftsmanship  in writing. In all of his work  that there is a true discipline to it that stretches to a “work of art” status. John Lasseter, the creative brilliance behind PIXAR said it succinctly, “True earned emotion is something that you really have to craft.”

I cannot help but believe that the success of the Spiderman series has much to do with the gentleness that exudes from Alvin Sargent’s keyboard.  Of all the things that Alvin Sargent has done; he may best be known one day for his work on the Spiderman series. It was a major brushstroke of genius on the part of  producer Laura Ziskin, the devoted producer of the series to get Alvin Sargent involved with it. Peter Parker and his relationships are all the better for it.  It was unusual that a talent of Sargent’s sensitive gifting would participate in a fanboy project such as Spiderman: it may have helped that Laura Ziskin, the producer, was his wife. But the collaboration was just right because he brought meaning and subtlety to the mythic Spiderman story. Laura  once mused that when you read a child a story before bedtime, it is a story, not a CGI effect. Laura, 20 years Alvin’s junior, recently passed away after a courageous battle with cancer. At 84, Alvin  Sargeant continues to fight the good fight in the war of subtlety and meaning in the fast culture and is the credited writer on the latest reboot of Spidey.

As I look as these stories at a different time, I see an excitement about people and a systems that treasured subtlety, and nuance: JJ Abrams  so tremulous about subtlety  in Ordinary People that he would read it again and again; or a  Hollywood studio chief proclaiming tenderness as a virtue and a prize. At facebook studios, I wonder how a new generation amidst the growing empires of Google and facebook will deal with storytelling that will predominantly takes place across the web. And who will be the new prince of gentle writing?

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5 responses to Alvin Sargent, “The Prince Of Gentle Writing”

  1. Thank you for the wonderful insight into Alvin Sargent’s talent and influence is some of our popular movies. I think we have to remind ourselves that the story and characters come first, then everything else follows.

  2. David, I’m trying to track you down. Please get in touch – would love to talk more about Sandy and CalArts. Thanks! Best, Paul Cronin pauljcronin@gmail.com

  3. Michael Pressman August 11, 2012 at 10:49 pm

    Just read this- almost a full year after you wrote it. It really hit me- you know Alvin was both our heroes, and spoke to us in ways that changed our lives and others. I continue to fight for gentle writing- and even gentle directing. And I experienced it recently with directing William Inge’s painful and gentle COME BACK LITTLE SHEBA on Broadway. Can we have it in the movies ?

    • Michael! I think the pendulum will swing again — when, I am less sure. At some point this current cycle will end, and a new day will have to come. Like you, I believe in the tenderness of people and it will have to be cultivated. “Culture” is a derivative of cultivate, to grow, to nurture…we need a better culture!

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  1. Star Wars: Why J.J. Abrams Is A Good Choice | David Kirkpatrick : Travels In Transmedia... - January 31, 2013

    […] the TED presentation, J. J. brings up his fervent admiration for the screenplay Ordinary People , written by Alvin Sargent from the best-selling book  of the same name by Judith Guest . I have […]

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