My Favorite Movies About Writers

James Scott Bell

1. Sunset Boulevard (1950, dir. Billy Wilder)

One of the best American films of any kind. You know the story. Down on his luck screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden) avoids the repo men by pulling into the driveway of a decaying mansion, wherein resides the aging silent screen star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson). Gillis hatches a plan to make a little money off her, but who is actually controlling whom? Great support from Eric Von Stroheim as Max the butler, and Fred Clark as the producer who holds a pitch meeting from hell (not all that much has changed in Hollywood).

In any other year Swanson would have walked away with an Oscar. She was up against Bette Davis in All About Eve (another iconic performance) but they both lost to newcomer Judy Holliday in Born Yesterday.

2. The Whole Wide World (1996, dir. Dan Ireland)
A moving biopic of pulp writer Robert E. Howard (creator of Conan the Barbarian). Vincent D’Onofrio and Renรฉe Zellweger deliver powerhouse performances as the doomed writer and the teacher who befriended him. Based on the memoir of Novalyne Price Ellis, played by Zellweger in the film.

Howard was one of the most prolific writers of the Depression era. He died by his own hand at the age of 30.

3. Old Acquaintance (1943, dir. Vincent Sherman)
A tale of art vs. commerce, of the real literary talent ignored by the public and the hack scribe who lucks into all the fame and money. Bette Davis plays the former and Miriam Hopkins the latter. It’s worth it just to watch these two divas (who intensely disliked each other) vie for attention (there’s a scene where Davis shakes Hopkins a bit too energetically). For my money, Davis steals it because she does not attempt to chew the scenery, the way Hopkins tends to. Makes you appreciate what a great actress Davis was.

BTW, Bette Davis was the greatest smoker in film history. If you watch her carefully, she never puffs the same way in any scene. She always works her cigarette in keeping with the mood of the moment.  

4. Teacher’s Pet (1958, dir. George Seaton)
This one’s about old school journalism vs. trendy classroom theory. Clark Gable is the crusty newspaper editor trying to get the best of college journalism teacher Doris Day. Gig Young is hilarious in support (he picked up an Oscar nod). The best scene is in a night club where Gable tries to drink Young under the table while Gable’s too-young-for-him squeeze, Mamie Van Doren, bumps and grinds a song that embarrasses everybody. Day is a monster talent: she could sing, dance and act in both comedy and drama.

BTW, did you know Doris Day was offered the role of Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate? She turned it down because she thought it too much against her image, but she would have killed that role, just like Anne Bancroft did.

5. Bullets Over Broadway (1994, dir. Woody Allen)
What do you do when a cheap thug is a literary genius, and you, the writer who wants to be great at all costs, don’t have that touch? 

It’s a movie full of great moments (Woody Allen is never funnier than when puncturing pretensions) and solid performances, most prominently Chazz Palminteri as the thug-genius and Jennifer Tilley as a mobster’s gal who, naturally, wants to be an actress (Oscar nods for both). Dianne Wiest won the Supporting Actress statuette as an over-dramatic Broadway star.

6. Midnight in Paris (2011, dir. Woody Allen)
Owen Wilson is perfectly cast as the Hollywood screenwriter who is transported back in time to meet some of his writing heroes. He’s hilarious as he relates to everyone in 1920s Paris in his laid-back, Southern California style (like when he offers a Valium to a wigged out Zelda Fitzgerald).

Corey Stoll as Ernest Hemingway (above) gives my favorite performance. He manages to capture both the bluster and genius of Hemingway, and neither he nor the script make him out to be a buffoon, which in our politically correct days would have been the easy choice. I also cracked up at Adrian Brody’s rendition of Salvador Dali.
So what about you? Any favorite films about writers or the artist’s life you’d like to put on the list? I’ve got plenty of microwave popcorn and am ready for some recommendations.   

33 thoughts on “My Favorite Movies About Writers

  1. FINDING FORRESTER with Sean Connery is not only a great film, but it’s packed with good writing advice, like this: “No thinking—that comes later. You must write your first draft with your heart. You rewrite with your head. The first key to writing is to write, not to think!”

  2. Hrm…

    The Adventures of Baron Munchausen.
    While not about a writer per se, it is about a guy that makes stuff up and everyone begins to see his stories as real.

    And of course, Braveheart.

    Of course it was about art and writing. Didn’t you see that part where he scribes that poetic love drawing on a piece of bark just before his girl gets killed. And all the face paint? Now that’s art.

  3. Fun post, Jim.

    MISERY, James Caan & Kathy Bates
    THE HOURS, Nicole Kidman’s portrayal of Virginia Woolf
    ADAPTATION, Nicolas Cage & Meryl Streep

  4. MISERY based on Stephen King’s book, and THE GHOST WRITER from the amazing thriller THE GHOST by Robert Harris (2008 winner of ITW Thriller Award for Best Novel).

  5. On the lighter side…

    While I’m not a huge fan of Will Ferrel’s slapstick, his co-cast members Emma Thompson (the writer), Dustin Hoffman, and Queen Latifa pulled him into more of a dramatic role in this one.

    Is the story really about Kevin Spacey’s character and his losses, or the screenplay written about a tortured girl who loves movies?
    Ah, Hollywood.

  6. Great list & great suggestions by commenters. But don’t forget OUT OF AFRICA with Meryl Streep & Robert Redford. She’s the Danish writer, Isak Dinesen (Baroness Blixen) & the film is based on her book about her life in Kenya; he’s a great white hunter. Also starring Michael Kitchen & Klaus Maria Brandauer.

    Gorgeous setting & period costuming, larger-than-life characters, romance on the grandest scale.

  7. i loved stingo, styron’s aspiring writer in SOPHIE’S CHOICE. need anyone say more of meryl streep and kevin kline?

  8. Death Trap!
    Dead Poets Society
    Becoming Jane
    Miss Potter

    Now I want to go watch movies and I must get my word count and more done today. ๐Ÿ™‚

  9. CROSS CREEK….steenbergen’s portrayal of marjorie rawlings autobiography [pulitzer prize winner for THE YEARLING.]

  10. Definitely vote for Misery. All the President’s Men gets a nod from me as well. For pure mindless entertainment, Pelican Brief, for showing how being too inquisitive and persuasive in your writing can just ruin your day.

    The Bell Jar about Sylvia Plath’s descent into madness and while only peripherally about writing, Dangerous Minds, with its message of using poetry and classics to connect with kids.


  11. I was hoping someone else would ask this question so I could keep my ignorance a secret (fat chance) but what do you mean when you said Bette Davis doesn’t attempt to *chew the scenry* as Hopkins did?
    And I LOVE Out of Africa. And All About Eve. (Screen writer in that one, right?)

  12. Susan, “chewing the scenery” is an old theatrical term for “overacting.” Trying too hard. It can make the performance seem less than natural.

    I think Hopkins knew how good Davis was, and tried to compensate by being a bit too “large.” Davis, a wily one, knew that underplaying when that happens actually draws all the attention. It’s a fun study in contrasts.

  13. Jim, I’d agree with FINDING FORRESTER, but I’d also like to add PURPLE VIOLETS (2007) with Edward Burns, Selma Blair, and Patrick Wilson.

    This little film scores big in my book. Unlike a lot of “writer movies”, this one doesn’t use writing as a backdrop for standard Hollywood drama. Instead, it is actually about writers and writing, the struggles they face with their readers, their lawyer/agents, their significant others, and most importantly, themselves, as they face the realities of their own shortcomings.

  14. Here are my favorites:

    AMERICAN DREAMER with JoBeth Williams and Tom Conti.
    One of my all-time favorites. A romance novelist wins a contest and a trip to Paris. En route to the awards luncheon, she’s in an accident and suffers a head injury. She wakes up believing herself to be the heroine in her favorite books. A spy caper follows that’s all too real, as she teams up with the author’s handsome son who thinks she’s a nutcase. That is, until someone tries to kill them.

    HER ALIBI with Tom Selleck and Paulina Portzkova
    A hilarious escapade wherein mystery novelist Phillip Blackwood falls for a suspected murderess while searching for inspiration to unlock his writer’s block. Did the mysterious and beautiful foreigner have a hand in the victim’s death? If so, is he foolish to vouch for her alibi and bring her home? And are the accidents that ensue truly accidents, or is he next in line for her lethal high jinks?

    MURDER 101 with Pierce Brosnan
    English professor Charles Lattimore assigns his class to plan the perfect murder as a literary exercise, but when he’s framed for a woman’s death, he has to find the killer before the detective on the case finds him. Will his students help him solve a real murder, or is one of them guilty?

    MURDER BY THE BOOK with Robert Hays
    A mystery novelist thinks he’s hallucinating when his hero appears in front of him and talks back. He’s been thinking of changing to a new series and scrapping the sleuth, but now he needs the fellow’s help solve a real murder.

    THE BOY NEXT DOOR with Dina Meyer and Christopher Russell (2008) on Lifetime Movie Network. A romance writer goes on a retreat to a small town to seek inspiration for her next story. When her next door neighbor is found dead, the chief of police suspects her. Even when her place is ransacked and someone tries to run her off the road, he discounts her theories and refuses to look into the incidents. It’s up to our heroine to prove her innocence and uncover the killer before his next attack turns fatal.

  15. Great movies listed here! How about “Secret Window”. Pretty recent movie (less than a decade). Another born of a King story. Good cast too! One of my favorite contemporary films.


    I enjoyed BECOMING JANE, but I think it’s almost complete fantasy, so I’m not putting it on my faves list.

    Also, there were a couple of great Doctor Who adventures featuring Charles Dickens and Agatha Christie.

  17. Not the greatest movie ever for sure.

    But Funny Farm with Chevy Chase.

    His character is trying to write the great novel on location in Vermont and his wife finds success with a squirrel story.

  18. Here’s another Woody Allen film for you about a writer: Anything Else.
    LOVE that film – well, I love pretty much anything Woody Allen does artistically. ๐Ÿ™‚

  19. As Good as it Gets is my favorite writer movie. When he goes ballistic over getting interrupted, I had to show that clip to my kids. THIS is why you leave Mom alone. LOL

  20. Don’t forget FINDING NEVERLAND. The movie as a whole maybe isn’t that great, but it’s worth watching for one brief scene that shows exactly what it’s like to be a writer. Johnny Depp plays a pre-Peter Pan JM Barrie. As he stands in a doorway and watches several kids jump on their beds, his imagination suddenly takes over and, well, one by one they fly out of the window. Okay movie, fantastic scene.

  21. Here’s one I’ve not seen on the board; Romancing the Stone. Remember that one? Kathleen Turner is a romance writer who sets off to Colombia to ransom her kidnapped sister, and finds herself in the middle of a dangerous adventure. Absolute classic!

  22. I loved Diane Keaton in “Something’s Gotta Give.” The scenes where she’s writing her script like she’s on fire and bawling the whole time makes me laugh over and over. It’s true that some of the greatest fiction is born from real life pain.

    Thanks for the suggestions. I have a lot of movie watching to do.

  23. I’m suprised nobody’s mentioned it but one of my favorites is Skin Deep starring John Ritter. It’s a hilarious movie that still holds up. I have a sneaking suspicion that Ritter’s character was the inspiration at least in part for Hank Moody in Californication.

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