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 Renée 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.